Aaron Hannigan, Trauma Survivor

Aaron Hannigan never imagined his goal for 2013 would be to simply walk through his backyard, hand-in-hand with his children.

Before the fateful morning of August 15, Aaron considered himself an average 31-year-old husband and father. He was an avid outdoorsman who enjoyed teaching his young son and daughter how to fish and camp. Aaron and his wife, Tina, were working long hours to save for a new home and spend as much time as possible on the lake. Tina was wrapping up her medical assistant training and Aaron was working on the loading docks of a cleaning supply company.

However, everything changed on that day in August. While working on the loading dock one day, a 10,000-pound forklift malfunctioned. It rolled backward off the loading dock and fell approximately four feet directly on Aaron. The impact severed Aaron’s right leg below his knee and his right arm above the elbow, fractured his neck and flattened his left foot. He was pinned for almost 45 minutes while the fire department arranged the hydraulic rescue tool to free him. In spite of his injuries, Aaron remained conscious, including the 23-mile ambulance ride to North Memorial.

Although there were closer medical facilities available, Aaron was transported to North Memorial due to the severity of his injuries and its status as a Level I Trauma Center.

Aaron was placed into a medically induced coma and immediately went into a 10-hour surgery to reattach his arm and repair other injuries. At that point, Aaron’s fate was unknown. He was kept in the coma for approximately a week and kept in ICU for approximately two weeks while undergoing a total of nine surgeries.

“If I hadn’t gone to North Memorial, I probably would have passed away and I definitely would not have my arm today.” The care team made every accommodation to make his family feel welcome for both daytime and overnight visits. “The nurses were inspirational. They were happy all the time and made sure I had everything I needed. They made me feel like I was the only one in the hospital. My entire care team was so full of life…reassuring me that I was going to make it and that I would not be stuck in a wheelchair the rest of my life. They made it sound like my accident was just a bump in the road.”

While Aaron was the patient, Tina and the kids were going through it with him every single day. On some nights, Tina needed her own little spot, and she slept by the fireplace in the first floor atrium when needing a quiet, cozy place to relax and regroup.

On September 24, Aaron was moved to the Rehabilitation Center. “It was more like I was staying at a hotel with the care and attention catered to me. It was the best care I could have received.” Aaron also enjoyed the company of Ray, a longtime nursing assistant at North Memorial, who drank a cup of coffee with him most every morning.

During his two weeks in the Rehabilitation Center, Aaron received physical therapy and occupational therapy every day, and did not have time to feel bad about his situation. “Rehabilitation was intense. Everyone was so motivating and positive – they made sure I wasn’t going to leave without accomplishing my goals. My physical therapist Jen was the biggest inspiration to me for the simple fact that we worked our butts off everyday in physical therapy, making sure that I was able to leave North Memorial with the confidence, strength and ability to move around by myself in everyday situations.

I am going to have prosthetics for my foot and I am going to walk around with my kids and my wife”.  

New accomplishments every day led to bigger goals as Aaron became stronger and felt less pain. “I was given the ability to experience real world situations [kitchen, bathroom, car, street curb, stairs, etc] in a safe atmosphere that made transitioning out of the hospital possible.”

Life at North Memorial never felt stagnant for Aaron. With his son and daughter in his lap in the wheelchair, they explored the hospital. They made frequent visits to the “café-Tina” (as his daughter called the cafeteria), the fish tanks and the waterfall in the lobby. It was hard to underestimate the impact that a simple fish tank and waterfall meant to the family.

The family’s love for the outdoors was reawakened by trips to the healing garden, which became their favorite place. “My kids had so much fun going to the healing garden. To me, I felt a little closer to normal to be with my kids outside in the fresh air as there was quite a bit of time that I wasn’t able to go outside at all.”

Aaron’s kids visited almost every day, sometimes not understanding why their father couldn’t come home and also afraid they might hurt him. One day, to help his three-year-old daughter understand that it’s okay that daddy lost his leg and that he’d be getting a new one, Aaron lowered his bed and hung his legs over the bed, swinging them back and forth, and explained, “Look, daddy just has a small leg and big leg!” Fully comprehending, she squealed “Oh, just a little leg, just a little leg!” “It was extremely cute and a way for me to explain to my daughter that everything would still be okay.”

Now back at home, Aaron continues to accomplish new things each day, bolstered by the confidence instilled by his physical therapist, Jen, and the rest of his care team. Tina has proven to be the perfect at-home nurse. Knowing that he will continue physical therapy and his recovery for the rest of his life, Aaron continues to look forward to camping, hiking and fishing again. Kids are now asking for their own pet fish as they still remember their “fishing expeditions” at North Memorial.

With an inspiring outlook on life and uplifting attitude, Aaron’s new personal goal is to get his prosthetic and walk around the hospital. “I want to come back and walk down the sixth and seventh floor, walk into my physical therapists’ rooms and show them that I can walk, hopefully just after the new year.” He is also looking forward to getting a synthetic glove over his hand to help with things like tying his shoes. “My goal with my family is to just get back to normal so that when summer comes I can be in my prosthetic leg and hike with my family, just like last summer.”