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Athlete who almost died returns to thank team that helped save him, and gets thanked right back

Helen Adams | | November 18, 2016

Cornell Stanley (patient)
Photos by Sarah Pack
Cornell Stanley gets a hug from intensive care unit nurse Shana Cagney. His father, left, brought him to the hospital to thank the team that took care of him.

They spent weeks together, but never met - until now.

“This is wonderful,” a nurse says to Cornell Stanley, a compact 21-year-old whose strength and speed made him a standout football player at James Island Charter High School and a state weightlifting champ. 

Today he needs help just walking, and his speech is soft and careful. 

“You remember this place at all?” the nurse asks him.

“No,” he answers.

Stanley’s connection to the women and men who have gathered for this unusual reunion started one terrible night back in March, when a ride in a friend’s car led to a crash and a coma.

Dr. Crookes 
Dr. Bruce Crookes 

Bruce Crookes, M.D., a trauma specialist at MUSC Health, said Stanley was so badly hurt that it was touch and go when he arrived here. “If he hadn’t had his injury close to a Level 1 trauma center, there’s no way he would have survived.” Level 1 trauma centers specialize in treating life-threatening injuries.

Stanley’s blood pressure and oxygen level were about as low as they could be. “He had a severe traumatic brain injury,” Crookes said. “And both of his lungs were punctured.”

After emergency surgery, Stanley’s parents took turns staying with him as the Intensive Care Unit team watched over him, 24 hours a day, for 45 days. He never opened his eyes. The nurses talked to him about subjects his parents told them he’d like – sports, TV shows and music. Sometimes he was able to squeeze a hand in response to a question, but that was the only way he was able to communicate.

Patient Cornell Stanley and ICU nurses 
Patient care technician Tanya McPherson, nurse Shana Cagney, respiratory therapist Sheryl Weathers and nurse Terri Bartlett get to know former patient Cornell Stanley, who was unconscious when their team took care of him. 

Then he was transferred to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta for the next phase of his recovery. It was a painfully slow process for a young man whose life until the crash had been focused on friends, sports and work as a houseman at The Sanctuary on Kiawah Island. 

Stanley had already enjoyed some independence during his time attending South Carolina State University. Now, he was completely dependent on his family and rehabilitation team. He focused on small steps: opening his eyes, learning how to speak again and eventually, walking.

Six months later he was able to walk back into the ICU at MUSC Health. Stanley’s father says his son insisted on doing this. “I feel good, and I know he does too. They took really good care of him,” Maurice Stanley says. “You can’t question why it happened. You have to stay faithful and don’t give up. You can’t challenge God. He has the last say-so.”

Cornell Stanley calls it “miraculous” to be back in the ICU. “It means a lot,” he says. “I thank you all for everything.”

Cornell Stanley on FaceTime with Dr. Sakran 
Cornell Stanley gets ready to talk with Dr. Joseph Sakran, a trauma surgeon who operated on him. 

A nurse tells him, “Thank you for allowing us to take care of you.”

Respiratory therapist Sheryl Weathers nods. “We both win,” she says. “You’re an inspiration, you know.”

Crookes says it’s wonderful for the team to get to see a former patient. As a doctor, he usually gets to follow up with the patients during office visits and see how they’re doing long after they leave the hospital, but the ICU team stays put, taking care of new patients. “They get used to taking care of people when they’re really, really sick.”

Crookes says it’s important to recognize the work that goes into taking care of trauma patients, from the rescuers at the crash scene to the surgeons to the dozens of other people involved in the daily care of seriously injured people.

On this day, many of those people have come together to celebrate this patient’s recovery. They watch, smiling, as Stanley has a videophone conversation with one of the trauma surgeons who operated on him who’s now at Johns Hopkins Medicine. 

“How you doing, buddy?” Joseph Sakran, M.D., asks.

“Good, how are you doing?” Stanley answers.

“I’m doing great! You look fabulous,” Sakran tells him.

Stanley smiles. Later, a nurse sums up the visit, saying simply, “It’s why we do what we do.”

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