It rained on Thursday, March 10, 2011. It rained hard. So hard that track practice at Saucon Valley High School was cancelled, leaving sophomore Amanda Illingworth a bit stranded and looking for a ride home.
Eventually, she found a friend who was willing to help, but little did she know, that ride home would change the course of the rest of her life.
“It’s a little fuzzy now, but I was thrown forward, into the dashboard; glass was everywhere – in my face, and in my body,” Amanda said, describing what little she can remember about the moments after the car, hydroplaning on the rain-slicked roads, crashed head-on into a tree. “I just remember seeing rain, and glass, and blood.”
The driver had received a text message. The chain of events that followed would leave Amanda in the hospital for weeks, in pain for years, and changed forever.
The driver suffered minor injuries, but Amanda suffered three broken ribs, a punctured lung, and broken nose, and worst of all, a severed aorta.
Branching directly from the heart, the aorta is the body’s largest artery and is responsible for the blood supply to the entire the body. So, when it’s severed, the massive amount of blood it carries is lost, usually resulting in instant death. But for Amanda, the blood loss was contained until she could receive medical care.
Originally taken to nearby St. Luke’s Hospital, doctors there quickly realized that the extent of Amanda’s injuries would require another level of care. She would need to be transported to Penn’s trauma center, then located at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, but the rain wasn’t done causing problems for Amanda that day. The weather conditions prevented helicopters from flying, which meant Amanda would need to be transported to Penn in an ambulance, a two-hour drive in the best conditions.
"I couldn't think straight, I just kept praying she'd be OK," Amanda’s mother Judy Illingworth said in an article from Lehigh Valley Live. "It sounds silly, but I kept praying heaven wouldn't let her in and would send her back."
Local media covering the accident at the time reported that a doctor told Amanda’s father – who had to make the long drive alone behind the ambulance - it was unlikely she would survive the ride.
"I did a lot of praying," her father John Illingworth told The Morning Call.
Amanda was alive when her ambulance arrived at HUP, where it took her team of trauma and cardiac surgery specialists six hours to repair the tears in her heart.
“Amanda’s injuries were catastrophic. It’s very unusual for someone to survive those conditions and even get to the hospital alive,” said Nimesh Desai, MD, an assistant professor of Cardiovascular Surgery, who repaired Amanda’s heart that night. “But, when Amanda’s aorta tore from the motor vehicle collision, only the outer lining of her lung, called the pleura, was holding the artery together. The strength of that tissue could be what saved her.”
Following that first of what would eventually become seven surgeries related to her injuries, Amanda was moved to the Heart and Vascular Intensive Care Unit, and eventually the Cardiac Surgery Intermediate Unit, where she would stay for three weeks while she recovered.
Once a trumpet player and a singer in her school’s chorus, Amanda’s care team told her that because of her punctured lung, it was unlikely she’d ever return to those activities, or her basketball or track teams.
“She had her life stripped away in an instant, but she was always very determined,” said Angela Shevrin, BSN, RN, PCCN, one of Amanda’s nurses on the Cardiac Surgery Intermediate Unit. “She struggled to breathe. She struggled to move. She struggled to do everything. But, I remember she just wanted to be a normal teenager, and I knew we could get her back to that.”
After three weeks of exercises and recovery, Amanda’s care team decided she was well enough to go home, but she would still need help from visiting nurses and physical therapists. Unable to walk very well or navigate stairs, Amanda used a walker, and her family converted a play room on the first floor of their home into a temporary bedroom.
“I had to relearn a lot of things,” Amanda said. “I had a lot of trouble walking, and couldn’t breathe very well. I was in a lot of pain, too, for a long time – I actually still feel the pain in my ribs and in my nose; some of it’s minor and I feel it every day, and some of it’s more sporadic, but also more intense.”
The severity of her injuries kept Amanda out of school for the rest of that year, but pain wasn’t the only lasting impression her injuries left. Amanda and her mom now make appearances are area high schools, telling their story and talking with teens about the dangers of texting and driving. The year after her accident, Amanda returned to school and it didn’t take her long to figure out what she would do with her education.
“Before the accident, I really wanted to work with animals. But, when I was in the hospital, the nurses became family to us,” Amanda said. “They were always there for me and my family, and that really inspired me.”
Now 21, Amanda is in nursing school at Gwynedd Mercy University, and later this month, she’ll join Bryn Mawr Hospital as a patient care tech on a telemetry floor. Beyond her passion for the profession, Amanda says she often finds her own experiences help her relate to her patients.
“If my patients are frustrated or scared, I know what that’s like. And sometimes they’ll say ‘you don’t understand,’ and I can tell them what I went through. It helps them to know that I really do understand how scary it is,” she said. “Nursing is where I know I’m meant to be.”