Sharon Smith: Working to Improve the Odds

Survivors Must Include More than the Lucky

Sharon Smith, the executive director of NTI, has avoided the site of her traumatic injury for nearly 40 years.

Although she drives past the La Grange County Fairgrounds every so often, she cannot bring herself to pull in and peer over the 60-foot high, boulder-strewn cliff she tumbled down as a teenager in 1970.

The scars from the deep lacerations all over her body are barely visible now. Years of dental work have repaired and replaced the 18 broken teeth. She knows she’s lucky to have escaped the fall with so few long-term repercussions—she might have broken her neck and been paralyzed, she might have suffered lasting brain damage from a head injury, she might have died.

“I think it would be safe to say that was the most afraid I had ever been, and possibly ever have been!” recalled Mark Probst, then a 16-year-old Eagle Scout who witnessed Sharon’s accident.

Mark and another scout were the first to reach Sharon at the bottom of the ravine. After rolling down the steep bank and then free-falling 15 feet over a shallow draw, she lay there bloody and unresponsive.

Recalling their scout training, the boys carefully rolled Sharon over, mindful that bones could be broken, checked that she was still breathing, and pressed a t-shirt against her forehead to stanch the bleeding. It wasn’t until she began responding to their questions that they felt it was safe to move her. They took turns carrying her on their backs up the embankment.

While Sharon says this brush with death did not affect her career choices to pursue hospital administration or found the National Trauma Institute, the experience certainly has informed her thinking about trauma and deepened the sympathy she feels for other survivors.

“I understand how it happens,” she said. “No one ever thinks it’s going to happen to them.”

She also thinks about how many things have changed in 40 years, yet how so much remains the same. After her fall, Sharon was lucky that two Eagle Scouts with emergency training happened to be there and that there were people around to drive her to the La Grange Community Hospital.

Without cell phones or answering machines, her parents did not learn what had happened until hours later. CT scans did not exist, so there was no way to determine the extent of her head injury. Nurses simply wadded her blood-soaked hair on top of her head with adhesive bandages to keep it out of the four-inch gash on her forehead and washed her wounds in Mercurochrome in preparation for stitching.

Today, the La Grange County Fairgrounds probably has an extensive first-aid kit and supplies at the ready, and someone suffering a similar fall might be transported up the bank secured on a back board. Cell phones would be used to summon an ambulance or even a helicopter that would take the victim to the nearest trauma center if her wounds warranted it.

A CT scan would take some of the guesswork out of treatment, the bleeding would be stopped as soon as possible, wounds cleaned thoroughly with saline and wrapped in sterile gauze. The victim would begin physical therapy soon afterward to ensure that she recovered her range of motion fully.

For all of these advances, however, Sharon is more cognizant than most people that there is still much room for improvement. Many challenges remain related to trauma sustained in rural settings, first responder training, wound care, head injury care and much more. And, unfortunately, happenstance still plays an outsize role in whether a victim of a severe traumatic injury makes it or suffers lifelong disabilities.

Sharon was lucky. Every year, 180,000 other Americans are not. NTI is working to increase the odds of survival for everyone.

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