Regatta victim thanks University Hospital staff - News, Weather & Sports

Regatta victim thanks University Hospital staff

By Lori Lyle

LOUISVILLE (WAVE) -- Michael Bowen was sentenced to four years Thursday for plowing his car into the crowd during the 2006 Madison Regatta. The most critically injured of his victims, 29-year-old Jennifer Willette, spent seven months in the hospital, and ended up losing an arm and a leg. She returned to University Hospital one day before Bowen was sentenced to thank the people who saved her life. WAVE 3's Lori Lyle was there for the reunion.

Jennifer's amazing story of survival begins at University Hospital's trauma center -- one of the best in the nation. She was certainly in capable hands, but doctors who first examined her admit that they were hoping for a miracle.

"Miracles do happen," said trauma surgeon Dr. Eric Davis.

This time the miracle is Jennifer (affectionately known as Jenn). She says "their hands -- and their prayers and everybody else's prayers -- kept me here, 'cause there's no logical excuse."

After initially saving her life, doctors, nurses and therapists worked with Jenn for two months and 26 surgeries -- including two amputations.

Each day was filled with round-the-clock care and concern, and on July 18th, 2007, just over a year after Jenn came to them critically injured, she returned to say thank you.

For the staff at University Hospital, it was a chance to finally see the impact of their teamwork, but for Jenn it was the fulfillment of a promise.

"That's what she said when she left," said Nurse Jodie Wojcic, "that she was going to come back someday and walk through the doors to see us."

And she did just that Wednesday, with the help of a prosthetic leg. Trauma surgeon and then Chief Resident Dr. Eric Davis was touched by Jenn's gratitude. " I just can't imagine how it could get any better than this," he said after the two embraced.

"He's definitely my hero," Jenn said.

Jennifer's family calls Dr. Davis something else. "He fulfilled our dreams with Jennifer," said her mother, Sarah Willette. "He's our Doctor McDreamy."

Although Jenn was too sick to remember most of the time she spent at University Hospital, her family will never forget.

"They're our angels," Sarah said. "Angels of mercy."

They even remembered the person who cleaned their space in the waiting room. For weeks on end, the family literally lived in hospital waiting rooms, sleeping on the floor.

But on her return visit, the tension and worry was gone, and everyone who played a part in her recovery shared stories of their brush with a woman who has touched their lives forever.

"I've never had anyone say thank you," said one of the many doctors who took part in Jenn's care. "You touched me sweetie."

Room six on the 9th floor is where Jenn lived for several months, and that's perhaps where her fate was decided.

Jenn is the focus of July Grand Rounds, a program that highlights a patient's medical care. Dr. Davis described her condition when she arrived at the ER. "She had multiple open extremity fractures, pelvic fractures, spine fractures."

Sarah was first told by doctors that her daughter likely had only hours to live. She says when they called her on the phone, "they said you probably won't get here in time."

But hours turned into days, then weeks. Dr. Davis says saving Jennifer's life was truly a team effort. "The number of people with a hand in her survival likely approaches 200."

Nurse Wojcic says "taking care of her has reminded me of all the reasons why I wanted to be a nurse."

Jennifer transferred to a hospital closer to her Michigan home in late August of 2006. It would be February 2007 before she'd leave.

But with a new arm, new leg, and -- typical for Jenn -- a new goal: "I'd like to stand up at my sister's wedding," she said. "I'd like to walk down the aisle, be there for her. Because she's been there for me."

Now in a room full of people focused on her continued recovery, Jenn addressed the crowd from a podium -- on her feet. "I would just like to start off by saying thank you," she said.

She is now walking 20 to 50 feet at a time, and simple tasks like cooking and cleaning are getting easier."I wouldn't say I'm handicapped," she said. "I would just say, right now, I'm at a disadvantage."

Despite her positive attitude, Jenn's life is changed forever.

"She has to get up in the morning and somebody has to be there to help her -- to help her get up and put her leg on," said her father, Rory.

But she's determined to conquer the challenges that lie ahead. And just being back in the place where doctors saved her life "just makes me want to strive even higher."

And Rory and others are there to support Jenn as her recovery continues. "Never plateau," Rory says, "because if you plateau, that means you gave up."

"Never give up," Jenn said. "You can always achieve your dreams, just one step at a time."

For Jenn, her first recovery milestone was thanking the people who never gave up on her.

"How do you say thank you for a life?" asked Sarah.

In Jenn's case, it may be simply surviving. "They gave me my life back. They do make miracles," she said.

Jennifer had one more surgery remaining to remove the graft from her stomach and close her stomach scheduled to be performed at University Hospital.

On Thursday, she spoke at Bowen's sentencing, saying she wanted the man responsible for changing her life to see her. "I wanted him to see me the way I am now."

Bowen will spend three years behind bars, followed by one year of supervised home incarceration. During that time, he'll undergo substance abuse counseling and random drug testing. His driver's license will also remain suspended for five years after his release.

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Online Reporter: Lori Lyle

Online Producer: Michael Dever

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