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trauma

Thanks to his care team and the support of YNHH’s Trauma Survivors Network (TSN), Justin Vanderharten is working, enjoying his favorite hobbies and keeping up with his son, Jackson. Vanderharten is now a TSN volunteer. 


A look at YNHH’s Trauma Survivors Network: Trauma patients offer hope, path to a “new normal” 

Justin Vanderharten never used to be superstitious – until Sept. 13, 2019, a Friday. 

That day, the East Haven native, then age 26, was riding his motorcycle when he took a corner too fast and crossed the yellow line. He was struck by a car and subsequently transported to Yale New Haven Hospital. He had suffered elbow, forearm, wrist and leg fractures, along with a severed artery in his right leg. Trauma physicians attempted to save his right foot, but quickly determined it would need to be amputated above the ankle. 

It would not be the first amputation. Over the next year, Vanderharten battled infections and underwent multiple surgeries for bone grafts, the insertion of plates and screws and additional incremental amputations. 

Finally, surgeons presented him with a stark choice: If Vanderharten tried to keep the right knee, he would face years of intermittent surgeries and pain. But if he wanted to get back to doing the things he did before the accident, they would amputate up to mid-thigh, conquer all the infections and fit him with a prosthesis. 

Vanderharten had an above-the-knee amputation on Sept. 23, 2020, his 28th birthday. 

It’s been a long recovery, physically, mentally and emotionally. Vanderharten credits YNHH’s Trauma Survivors Network (TSN) program for helping him gain the mental strength he needed to move forward. 

“When I was going through it, it was hard for me to relate to anyone else. Whenever I thought I was already at the end of my rope, things would get even worse,” he said. “It was difficult to envision a decent future.” 

Every year, approximately 4,000 patients are treated at YNHH after experiencing a traumatic injury that will permanently affect their lives. Like Vanderharten, many wonder what the future will hold.

trauma

Kimberly Rivera, Trauma Survivors Network coordinator (center), with Network volunteers Dylan Lindhahl (left) and John Redfield. 

The TSN, a program of the American Trauma Society, is a national network that connects survivors and their families with others who have sustained similar injuries. The network offers resources such as a patient/family handbook, peer support groups, multiple online programs and a Peer Visitation Program that connects trauma patients with volunteers who are trauma survivors. 

“Hospitalization following a traumatic injury can be filled with uncertainty, pain, anxiety and frustration. A traumatic injury can alter life in an instant, and recovery can be long and challenging,” said Kimberly Rivera, YNHH TSN coordinator. “Our goal is to provide programs and resources for patients and families as they work to rebuild their lives.” 

YNHH, one of only a few Level 1 trauma centers in the state, was the first TSN-affiliated facility in Connecticut.  

“In order to provide substantial improvements to the way we deliver trauma recovery care, we joined the Trauma Survivor Network,”. said Jeannette Bronsord, RN, YNHH’s executive director of Nursing Surgical Services. “It’s part of an effort to deliver additional psychological support and improve outcomes that are not solely related to trauma-related injury.” 

YNHH’s Peer Visitation Program is staffed by volunteers who answer questions and provide information, support – and hope – to recent trauma survivors as they chart a path to a new normal.  

“Although our practitioners are very experienced, I don’t think we can fully appreciate and anticipate what some of our patients are going through. They can better relate to someone who has been through a similar ordeal, someone who can serve as an example that there is a future for them,” said Adrian Maung, MD, adult trauma medical director and surgical director of Perioperative Services at YNHH, and associate professor of surgery at Yale School of Medicine. 

“Since they have all lived through the trauma recovery experience, including the rescue scene, hospitalization, rehabilitation and return home, TSN peer visitors understand new trauma patients’ concerns on a deeply personal level,” Rivera said. “There is no handbook on how to handle trauma, but there is some commonality.” 

TSN volunteer John Redfield of Manchester visits with trauma patients as part of YNHH’s amputee support group. Redfield lost his leg in a motorcycle accident in 1991. 

“I talk to new amputees about what will be possible in six months, in a year and for the long term,” he said. “It takes away the unknown. Seeing me helps them visualize what their life can and will be like.” 

Today Vanderharten has a prosthesis that enables him to do everything he used to do – and more. A member of the Iron Workers Union, he returned to his physically demanding job in February 2021. 

“I can go up and down a ladder. I can ride jet skis, go fishing and hiking in the woods. Sometimes I feel like I do more now than I did with my real leg!” he said. 

He has also become a TSN volunteer – helping other survivors take their own steps forward and chart their own paths. 

If you or someone you know is a trauma survivor and would like more information about becoming a volunteer at YNHH, contact Rivera at 203-688-3261 or [email protected].