Summer football practice swelters in Pike County, Missouri. North of St. Louis on the eastern border of the state, the county is subject to the stifling humidity of the Mississippi River Valley, making the grueling work on the gridiron a true test for the young high school players and setting the tone for the season to come. For sixteen-year-old Angel Ulloa, it was a labor of love.
After one such practice, where you don’t so much run as swim through the August air, Ulloa was driving home, tired and happy, the first game of the season only a few weeks away. But practice, the team and football itself became secondary concerns when Ulloa’s car was broadsided by a speeding semi-truck. Now, severely injured, he would have to depend on another team to get him the urgent care he needed.
On the Scene
Air Evac Lifeteam (AEL) 146 is stationed in Pike County. When they received the motor-vehicle-crash call, a medical crew immediately took flight and was only minutes away. Arriving on the scene, they went to Ulloa who was unconscious and needed to be intubated to allow him to breathe. But the crisis had not passed. The young patient coded and went into cardiopulmonary arrest. The AEL medical team began resuscitation efforts even as they put Angel aboard their air ambulance.
Quickly arriving at the local hospital, the team worked with the clinical staff to stabilize Ulloa. Severe swelling of his face, neck and chest made this difficult, but the team prevailed and achieved a return of spontaneous circulation (ROSC). A chest tube was inserted due to a flail chest, but Ulloa needed specialists to get him out of the woods. The AEL team took off with their patient once again, this time to St. Louis Children’s Hospital.
Beating the Odds
There, the extent of Ulloa’s injuries became shockingly clear. He had more than ten rib fractures that had resulted in severe lung lacerations, a pneumothorax (collapsed lung) and hemothorax (internal bleeding in the chest), bilateral lung contusions and a Grade-3 liver laceration. He also had spinal cord damage with left-leg paralysis and a traumatic brain injury.
Maybe it was the toughness born on those sweltering practice fields that helped Ulloa pull through. More likely, it was an inner strength that had always been there coupled with the indomitable spirit of the young. After undergoing multiple surgeries he beat the odds. He went home to begin rehab.
Fast forward a mere six weeks to another homecoming. The grass of the football field bends to the pulsing air flow of powerful rotors as a helicopter descends and lands. As the crew exits, a young man walks towards them wearing his team’s jersey. The crowd cheers. It is Angel Ulloa, back at school fulltime already, on the field again, though this time in a ceremonial role.
The AEL crew of Flight Paramedic Eric Schowe and Flight Nurse Stephanie McMillan know well this ambassador sent to greet them. They last saw him in much worse circumstances as they rushed him to get the care he needed at a moment’s notice.
They come bearing a gift: the game ball for Ulloa’s Homecoming game. He accepts it on behalf of his team and to the rapturous roar of the fans. All know he has received a far greater gift. Perhaps, one day, he will be on this field again, ball in hand, accepting the cheers of the crowd, as he scores the game winning touchdown of a future Homecoming game.