Published on January 07, 2015

Celebrating A Miracle

Eric Poirier battles back from near-death experience

By Scott Campbell
NSP Editor

While Christmas is a time to celebrate the birth of the Christ child, it’s also a time for families to reconnect, make memories and enjoy each other’s company.

For friends and family members of Eric Poirier, this was a year to celebrate a miracle.

It’s been four months since the 2010 North Scott High School graduate, and current volunteer coach of the school’s sophomore boys’ basketball team, cheated death with a miraculous recovery from a traumatic, fall-induced brain injury.

With God’s help, a fortuitous set of circumstances that included a chance meeting with a neurosurgeon, and tremendous support from family and friends, Eric, his parents, Al and Diane of Park View, and older brothers Matt and A.J., all can reflect on 2014 as a year they’ll never forget.

“I have a different perspective on life,” said Eric, who graduated from Western Illinois University just a few days before Christmas. “I feel very blessed, and very thankful.

“As a family, we all came to realize how quickly things can change in a heartbeat. We were close before, but we’re even closer now. In the past, if I’d miss a birthday or something, it didn’t seem like a big deal. Now I realize that was stupid. I need to be at family functions.”

A near-death experience helped Eric take stock of his life, and the same is true of his parents.

“Obviously, we are very thankful,” said Diane, “and the other thing that came out of this is that you real-ize that you have to enjoy every minute of what you’ve got.  Family time has always been very special, but even more so now.

“We’re thankful to God as well. I’m not super religious, but I really honestly believe that He was there looking out for Eric and our family that week. That’s definitely high in our thoughts this Christmas.”

The accident
Tuesday, Aug. 26, was just another day in Eric’s life. He had started his final semester of college the day before, and was working his usual shift in the produce department at the Hy-Vee store on 53rd Street and Utica Ridge Road that morning, before heading off to class.

The day may have started off as ordinary, but what transpired in the ensuing hours and days was nothing short of extraordinary.

Eric had been a Hy-Vee employee for six years, starting while he was in high school and continuing through his years at Western Illinois.

That morning he was doing a task he’d done countless times before, and something he could probably do in his sleep.

“I was in the cooler in the back room of the store,” said Eric, “and I was climbing a ladder to store some produce on the top shelf of a storage rack. I got to the top of the ladder and was going to have the guy be-low throw me up some boxes of salad. It’s something I’ve done multiple times a day for the past six years.”

Eric isn’t totally sure how the accident unfolded, as his memory of the incident is still a bit foggy, if non-existent. He remembers trying to step off the ladder and onto the rack, and then his foot slipped.    “When my foot slipped I kicked the ladder out,” he said. “When I went to grab it there was nothing there. I remember trying to reach for the ladder and the rack, and then fell over backwards.”

The drop was 15 feet onto a cold cement floor. Although there was another employee, plus the produce manager there, the accident happened so quickly that no one saw the actual fall.

“On my way down, they think maybe I hit the rack with the left side of my head because it was split open over my eyebrow,” said Eric. “When I hit the ground I landed on the right side of my head, and also broke my wrist in two places.”

Workers immediately called 911, and Eric was unconscious for four and a half minutes.

“The first thing I remember is that the floor was wet and cold, and I remember complaining about that,” said Eric. “I remember waking up and talking to the medics, and I remember being wheeled out of the store and being placed in the ambulance.

“I didn’t have any pain, and I remember talking to the medics all the way to the hospital. I specifically remember talking to them about having the siren on.”

Fortunately, he also remembered the security code to his cell phone, and was able to give it to a store employee who was trying to contact family members.

News travels fast
Eric’s brother Matt, who is a Scott County Conservation Officer at West Lake Park, was the first to be notified.

“I had the day off and was getting ready to head into town,” said Matt, “when I received a frantic call from Matt Pacha, an assistant manager at Hy-Vee (and also a North Scott graduate). He said, ‘Hey, I can’t get ahold of anybody else, but Eric took a nasty fall.’

“I could tell from his voice that something was pretty seriously wrong, and he told me they were taking Eric to Trinity Hospital, and that we should have someone head over there.”

Matt immediately called his dad, and then tried to reach his mom, to no avail. He also received a phone call from Patrick Swanson, also a North Scott grad and Hy-Vee employee.

“Patrick told me they were now taking Eric to Genesis East, and that it was pretty bad,” said Matt. “I could tell from both his and Matt’s voices that they were pretty freaked out.

“I called my dad back and told him to go to Genesis East. I told him that they didn’t say how bad it was, but that it sounded pretty bad.”

Soon, Matt received a second call from Pacha.

“This time Matt was a little more calm and gave me more details,” said Matt. “He told me that Eric had fallen about 15 feet, that he’d been unconscious, but that he was talking when he left the store. He also said there had been a lot of bleeding.”

Matt called his dad, who by that time was just arriving at the hospital.

Al Poirier is a lieutenant with the Bettendorf Police Department. He was in his car when he received Matt’s initial call – at the intersection of Spruce Hill Drive and Utica Ridge Road — and immediately headed toward Hy-Vee. However, by the time he got there the ambulance had already left for the hospital.

He also tried to call Diane, a registered nurse, and then headed for Genesis East.

“Matt sounded pretty shook up when he called, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I got to the hospital,” said Al.

As for Diane, she feels fortunate that she learned of her son’s accident so quickly.

“It was a fluke that I actually saw my phone,” she said. “I was heading downtown to a conference and already had my phone in my purse, and I wasn’t planning on turning it on during the conference.

“As I was getting out of the car I just happened to notice that the phone was lit up, and that I had missed calls from Matt, Al and my boss. I headed up to the hospital right after that.

“I had no idea how bad it was. All I knew driving was that Eric had fallen, he was conscious, and they had taken him to the hospital.”

Initially, the sight that greeted Al, Diane and Matt at the hospital was very encouraging. Eric was awake, alert, and mad at himself for falling.

“He remembered everything except for actually falling,” said Al, “and he told us how stupid he felt. His clothes were all wet from rolling around on the floor of the cooler, and he was wearing a neck brace.”

By the time Matt arrived at the hospital, his parents were already there, and he’d already contacted his older brother, A.J. You’re only allowed to have two visitors in the ER room, so Diane came out to allow Matt to go in.

“By that time he was on the bed and his feet were squirming a lot,” said Matt. “My dad was having a good conversation with him, and Eric was real calm and just kept saying how stupid he felt.

“He said ‘hi’ to me, and I went back outside to the waiting room so my mom could go back in.”

Suddenly, things went downhill in a hurry.
    
Turn for the worse
While Eric was talking to his parents, ER personnel came in and said they were going to take him down the hall for a routine CT scan.

“It’s when I was back getting the scan that I started getting sick and began vomiting,” said Eric. “I re-member them trying to keep me still for the scan, and I remember kind of fighting them over that.”

The vomiting was a classic sign of a brain injury, but while Eric’s condition had suddenly taken a turn for the worse, good fortune was on his side.

At the time, Dr. Todd Ridenour was the only neurosurgeon on the Iowa side of the Quad Cities. He’s been practicing at Genesis since 1992, and almost all of his surgeries are done at Genesis West.

Ridenour is on trauma call 10 days a month, and does on average between 180 and 300 surgeries a year. Eighty percent of those are spinal surgeries, and very few are inner cranial.

When he’s not on call, patients with head traumas are airlifted to University of Iowa Hospitals in Iowa City.

On this day, however, Ridenour had scheduled a rare surgery at Genesis East — because that’s where his patient was — and before starting the operation he was called to the ER to see another patient.

That patient didn’t need his services, but Eric did.

While Eric was being wheeled back to his room in the ER, Ridenour and his assistant were standing in the hallway. The assistant noticed Eric’s neck brace, the bruising on his head, and that nurses were helping him throw up.

Ridenour turned and asked to look at the CT scan, and what he saw shifted things into high gear.

“I went by on the gurney and was visibly sick from vomiting,” said Eric. “The doctor asked what was going on with me, and after he saw the CT scan, he told his assistant to postpone the other surgery and that I was going in right away.”

Inside Eric’s room, Al and Diane heard the commotion outside the door.

“We could hear people talking about a patient who was throwing up, and Diane said she thought they were talking about Eric,” said Al.

“When Eric left the room to go for his scan he looked fine other than the cut above his eye,” said Diane, “and we had no idea how bad it was.  The minute I heard them say he was throwing up, I knew he’d be heading for surgery. That’s a classic sign.”

Seemingly within seconds, Ridenour was facing Al and Diane.

“Dr. Ridenour came in and introduced himself,” said Al. “He pulled up Eric’s scan on the screen and showed us the bleeding on the brain. It was like, ‘We’re taking him to surgery now,’ and ‘whatever you have to say to him, say it.’”

While it was tough to hear, Al appreciated Ridenour’s open and honest assessment of Eric’s situation.

“I’ve been around a lot of people who have had traumatic brain injuries,” said Al. “Some have been pretty lucky, but I’ve also seen some terrible outcomes. There are a lot of bad things people can tell you about your child, but one of the worst is when someone tells you your son has a traumatic brain injury.

“I give Dr. Ridenour a lot of credit. He pretty much laid it out there that this was very serious and not something to play around with. Later, he told us it could have been a fatal injury, and that Eric wouldn’t have made it to Iowa City.”

Mom or nurse
As for Diane, she knew exactly what her son was up against.

“My roles as a nurse and mom got pretty complicated,” she said. “I was trying to be strong for every-body else because I kind of knew what we were heading into, and I was very optimistic because I have a lot of faith in the medical profession, and knew Dr. Ridenour was excellent.

“I had a lot of optimism, but I also could see down the road. If it didn’t go well, I knew what Eric was in for. That was super hard.

“Dr. Ridenour came in and told us that the swelling was growing fast,” she continued. “He showed us the midline shift, and what that meant, and that we needed to get him into surgery right away. He said we didn’t have time to airlift him to Iowa City or anything, and I knew exactly what he was talking about.”

Matt, still outside in the waiting room, was shocked with what had transpired in such a short time frame.

“I was sitting in the waiting room and hadn’t heard a word,” he said. “Finally, my dad came out, and he couldn’t even get any words out of his mouth. We went outside, and I actually had to ask him, ‘Dad, is Eric alive? Is he OK?’

“He told me that Eric wasn’t dead, but that they were going to go in and do this major surgery. He told me I needed to go in and say whatever I needed to say to him. That’s pretty much where he left it.”

Al went to call A.J., and Matt went in to see Eric, who was surrounded by doctors and nurses.

“My mom was holding Eric,” said Matt, “and they were both crying.”

Within minutes Eric was on his way to surgery, and the scene was much like made-for-TV drama as he was rushed down the corridor with his parents and brother racing alongside trying to offer encouragement.

“They were rolling him down the hallway and had him lying on his side because he was vomiting,” said Al. “Diane was crying and I was crying. I just looked at him and said, ‘You’re going to be fine.’ What else could I say? It was really setting in how serious this was. He was scared, and so were we.”

The accident happened at 11 a.m. Two hours later Eric was lying on the operating table with half of his skull removed.

The surgery
Ridenour downplays his role in the whole set of circumstances, regardless of what the Poiriers might say.

“It’s not an unusual thing for me to be called to the emergency room,” said Ridenour, “and if I’m there seeing someone else, and there’s something else going on, I’ll wait and make sure there’s nothing on the scan before I leave to go home or back to my office.

“In this case, there was something on the scan, and it was worth waiting for. It was fortunate that we were able to delay my scheduled surgery and operate on Eric.”

At the time of Eric’s original scan the blood spot on his brain was the size of a quarter. By the time he got into surgery it covered the whole side of his brain.

“It had grown substantially,” said Eric. “I wouldn’t have made it if they had transported me to Iowa City.”

Eric was bleeding on the outside of the membrane that covers the brain, and the surgery lasted three hours. After draining the blood, Ridenour inserted four metal micro plates to hold Eric’s skull together.

“I fractured my skull vertically,” said Eric, “so they cut half my skull off and removed the blood. I was lucky. If the bleeding had been on the inside of the membrane they might’ve had to remove part of the brain.”

“When Dr. Ridenour came out to talk to us, he said it was worse than he thought,” said Al.

“The doctor came out and said it was pretty much life-or-death,” said Matt. “He said it was a pretty major surgery. He told us things were looking good, but that he had no idea how Eric was going to react.”

Eric was in recovery for two hours, and the family got a huge lift when they walked into ICU and Eric recognized them.

 “All he could say was, ‘Hey,’” said Matt, “but it was a pretty huge deal that he knew who we were.”

“The night of the surgery everything was great,” said Eric. “Everybody was so surprised that I was with it, and that I knew exactly what was going on. There were a lot of people who showed up to support me and my family, and I could talk to every single one.”

Things looked good for the first few hours, but then Eric’s recovery stalled. For the next two days he had no energy, couldn’t even keep water down, and slept most of the time.

He was so dehydrated that he lost 17 pounds in three days.

“The day after the surgery I started having problems,” said Eric. “Basically, I started getting pain, and I didn’t react well to the medication they gave me. I remember sleeping a lot, and three days after the surgery my parents were my advocates and decided we needed to try something else.”

“The worst day for us was Friday, because we could see him going downhill instead of up,” said Diane, who along with Al, spent every minute at the hospital. “He was still throwing up a lot, most likely from pain meds, and it was like, ‘You have to do something different,’ because what was happening here wasn’t working, and that was kind of a turning point.”

‘Miracle’ turnaround
Dr. Ridenour decided to put Eric on a large dose of steroids.

“Dr. Ridenour said he didn’t know if the steroids would work,” said Al, “but that with some people it was like flipping a switch and they were immediately 100 times better. That’s the way it was with Eric.”

“They gave me the steroid and within an hour it was like I was back to normal,” said Eric. “I looked around and didn’t see anybody. I remember asking the nurse, ‘Don’t I have anybody here?’”

“We had walked down to have some lunch with friends,” said Al. “All of a sudden we got a call from the nurse, and she told us we needed to get back to Eric’s room. I asked what was wrong, and she said we needed to see him.

“We came back and he was sitting up in bed eating Jell-O. He looked at us and said, ‘Where have you guys been?’ It’s like he was back to normal. The next thing you know they said they were going to be send-ing him over to Genesis West later that day. He was there a few more days, and then went home a week after the accident. It was amazing.”

“I really would like the whole community to know how awesome Dr. Ridenour is,” said Diane. “He gave us back our son, and how do you every put a price on that? He is just amazing.”

But Eric still faced an uphill battle, and he was determined to return to school and earn his degree.

Al and Diane had contacted Eric’s advisor to tell him what happened, and he in turn contacted Eric’s teachers. Eric met with his advisor on Friday, Sept. 5, and returned to classes the next Monday.

Since Eric couldn’t drive, Al, Diane and Matt all took turns shuttling him to Western’s Moline campus.

“Once Eric got home, things went well for about three weeks,” said Matt, “but then we noticed he was still having painful headaches, which was normal. He struggled with his homework a little bit, and what most people could do in three hours, it took him five.”

“Eric has worked so hard with school,” said Diane, “and for him to be able to finish this semester was just amazing. When he first went back it was very confusing, and he struggled. But he did it, and we’re very proud of him.”

Eric graduated just before Christmas with a degree in business management, and a minor in criminal justice. He finished the semester with three As and a B. He was also ready for the first day of basketball practice in November, and is glad to be back on the Lancer bench next to Matt.

“I’m getting stronger every day,” he said. “I’m trying to build up my stamina. I’ll be going back to Hy-Vee in January, and I hope to return as a seasonal park ranger at Scott County Park in the spring. Of course, I’ll do that until I find a full-time job as a police officer.”

With the ordeal behind him and his college degree secure, Eric has plenty of thoughts on his mind.

“There were a lot of people who reached out, not only to me, but my entire family,” he said. “The entire North Scott basketball family, police officers from all over the Quad Cities, and people from our community that I hadn’t seen in five years.

“It was unbelievable to see all that support. It took me a long time to get through the list of people who reached out to us, either with a visit, card or phone call, and now I need to reach out to them. If our family was important to them, then they should be important to me.”

“I’m extremely thankful for the support I’ve received from Genesis, Dr. Ridenour, Hy-Vee and Western,” he continued. “We are very blessed, and the way I’m interpreting it that someone was definitely looking out for me.”

Al agrees.

“Everybody has bent over backwards,” he said, “and it’s going to be a great Christmas. We don’t know everything yet, and Eric still has a ways to go, but everything seems to be coming along better than you could hope.

“This could very easily have gone the other direction. Dr. Ridenour not only saved our son’s life, but as far as we’re concerned he saved his brain. If he hadn’t been in the ER when they wheeled Eric past, who knows what the outcome would’ve been?

“What happened was phenomenal. It’s crazy. It’s a miracle.”

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