Two years after she survived a life-threatening car accident, 17-year-old Kathryn Dotas stepped into the pediatric intensive care unit where her life was saved.

Tears flowed. Her mother, Julie Starnes, wrapped her in a warm hug.

Memories good and bad flooded back, as the mother-daughter team relived moments of fear and feelings of gratitude.

“I’m overwhelmed,” Kathryn said.

Her visit on Friday, Aug. 25, 2017, to Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital came just one day before the second anniversary of the car accident.

Kathryn and her mother and stepfather, Daniel Starnes, met with staff in a vacant patient room in the pediatric ICU. It was a healing moment, as well as a chance to express their gratitude to the medical team.

“It’s a time we will never forget, and we couldn’t be more thankful,” Starnes said. “We really appreciate this opportunity to thank the people here.”

The gratitude goes both ways, said the doctors and nurses who stopped to visit Kathryn.

“It’s just absolutely wonderful for the staff to see you here,” said  Marcus Haw, MD, a pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon and the co-director of the Congenital Heart Center at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. “We don’t get a chance very often to see patients (after they leave.)”

“This is the best that it gets for us―to see you walking. That’s amazing,” said Surender Rajasekaran, MD, a pediatric critical care specialist. “It energizes us to go back to doing this.”

Life changing in an instant

Looking back at her accident, Kathryn said, “I was very blessed that day. God was watching out for me.”

The accident occurred the evening of Aug. 26, 2015, at Myers Lake Avenue NE and 13 Mile Road. Kathryn, then 15, looked forward to starting her sophomore year at Sparta High School.

“I loved my life. I didn’t want anything to change,” she said. “I was a really, really good competitive cheerleader. In school, I wasn’t an all-A student, but I was an A and B student.”

A passenger in a car that was T-boned, Kathryn bore the brunt of the impact. She suffered 17 fractured ribs, a traumatic brain injury, a collapsed lung and a lacerated liver. She endured a fractured hip bone, wrist and finger.

And her aorta, the major artery that carries blood from the heart to the body, was severed.

Kathryn remembers being pulled from the car.

“I felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest,” she said. “I could not breathe. All my bones were caved in.”

And she recalls seeing herself lying on the ground, in what her therapist describes as an out-of-body experience.

“I could see everything that was going on,” she said. “It was weird, that I was next to somebody, and they were talking to me and telling me to wake up and that I had to keep fighting.”

An ambulance transported her to Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital.

Dr. Haw performed the emergency heart surgery, placing a graft in the aorta to repair the tear.

I definitely grew from this accident. I got more mature. I became smarter about life.

Kathryn Dotas, 17

As Kathryn recovered in the ICU, she faced another life-threatening crisis. Dr. Rajasekaran detected a life-threatening blood clot in her femoral artery. A filter was placed in a vein to prevent the clot from reaching her lungs.

“I say she was saved twice by doctors here at Helen DeVos,” Kathryn’s mother said. “We will never forget that.”

Kathryn underwent eight medical procedures in the month she spent in Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.

Much of that time remains a blur for Kathryn, because she was sedated for the first couple of weeks. But she remembers the ritual she went through before each operation. She held out her hand and wrapped pinky fingers with the physician.

“I made every doctor pinkie-promise that I wasn’t going to die,” she said.

Even once she left the hospital, she spent months recovering and missed most of her sophomore and junior years of high school. She underwent physical, occupational, cognitive and speech therapy.

She also has dealt with depression and anxiety, and she receives psychotherapy for post-traumatic stress disorder.

“My life has changed drastically since my accident, in good ways and in bad ways, but more good than bad,” she said. “I definitely grew from this accident. I got more mature. I became smarter about life. I sadly had to grow up faster than I wanted to grow up.”

Giving back

She volunteers as a speaker with ThinkFirst, an injury prevention program run by the pediatric neurosurgery and injury prevention departments at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. In visits to schools, she talks about how her injuries have affected her life.

“Teenagers especially need to realize they are not invincible,” she said. “I realized that when I got into the accident.”

She brings an invaluable perspective to the class, says Kim Hernden, an injury prevention specialist and ThinkFirst instructor.

“She’s very courageous to go out and talk to her peers about the incident and how she’s healing,” Hernden said. “She’s been a great asset to our program.”

She doesn’t compete as a cheerleader any more. But she exercises and works two part-time jobs, as a babysitter and in a clothing store.

And she has set her sights on a career path―in medicine.

“I used to hate doctors. I did not want to be around them,” she said. “Now, I want to be a doctor. I want to be a trauma surgeon, because I can connect with the patients who have gone through trauma. I want to be there for their families.”

Starnes speaks with pride of all her daughter has overcome and her plans for the future.

“We really do believe that God wasn’t finished telling her story,” she said.

When she looks back at those terrifying days in the ICU, when her daughter’s life hung in the balance, she remembers with gratitude the support―clinical and emotional―shown by the nurses and doctors. The medical team became family.

“You really feel like it’s beyond caring,” she said. “It’s beyond their call of duty. They are showing a very human side of themselves and that is something that we don’t always see and experience.”