On July 20, 2013, after a day of crabbing with friends, Emilee Ballinghoff of Mays Landing, New Jersey, then just 19 years old, was involved in a one-car accident in Monroe Township that ejected her from the vehicle.
“I don’t remember the accident, but I do remember waking up to the doctor,” Emilee recalls. “He said, ‘Emilee, you were in a car accident and you lost your leg.’ I thought it was a nightmare, so I ended up closing my eyes and then I was in a sedated coma for about a week. When I woke up, it was the reality.”
Emilee’s list of injuries was extensive. She lost her right leg below the knee at the scene, suffered a compound fracture of her left tibia, fractured her spine and several ribs, and sustained a traumatic brain injury. Emilee was airlifted to Cooper, where the team at the Level 1 Trauma Center saved her life.
“Emilee came in with catastrophic injuries,” says Kenneth W. Graf, MD, Director, Orthopaedic Trauma and Fracture Program. “In a regular community hospital, an injury like Emilee’s wouldn’t be dealt with. It would be sent here, because this is what we do.”
“It starts with the first person to see a trauma patient. They will then call in consultations to any number of specialties because we are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There’s a surgeon right at the door,” says Dr. Graf.
Situated within the only Level 1 Trauma Center in southern New Jersey, the Cooper Orthopaedic Trauma team is uniquely equipped to care for patients who suffer from traumatic orthopaedic injuries. At Cooper, a team of experts – such as surgeons, traumatologists, and other trauma professionals – follow protocols to ensure that patients receive state-of-the-art surgical care as quickly as possible.
Cooper is the only area regional trauma center with fellowship-trained orthopaedic traumatologists. Although all orthopaedic surgeons are trained to treat muscle, bone, and joint injuries, the traumatologist brings a new level of expertise to the handling of complex and multiple injuries.
Once Emilee’s vital signs were stabilized, the Orthopaedic Trauma surgeons and team had to work quickly. The main goal with a traumatic amputation is to save the knee joint. Dr. Graf explains why: “There is a prosthesis now that can be attached to even the smallest piece of tibia that is still attached to the knee. So our number one goal was to save as much tibia as we could.”
Emilee spent five months recovering as an inpatient at Cooper. She feels that the nurses and doctors were there for her each step of the way, providing their medical expertise, encouragement, and moral support. “The nurses impacted my life in those months,” recalls Emilee. “They really helped me.”
During her recovery, Emilee had dozens of surgeries, a number of which Dr. Graf performed. “Emilee’s attitude remained spotless during the whole process,” says Dr. Graf. “If you wanted to hold up someone as a beacon of hope, I think Emilee is your patient. When you see her, you can’t help but smile.”
In addition to the surgeries, Emilee was undergoing physical and occupational therapy daily while at Cooper. She had to relearn how to walk, stretch her arms above her head, and talk. The therapy team worked directly with Emilee’s surgeons and physicians to ensure seamless care. Every day, Emilee worked on getting stronger. Recalling the therapy, Emilee says, “I’m not going to sugarcoat it; every day was a struggle. But you cannot change the past – you can only control your future.”
Emilee’s injuries were so devastating that at one point immediately following the accident, her family was initially told that she might not make it. “But I made it,” says Emilee, “and that can give hope to others.”
Emilee continues to recover from her accident and is moving on with her life. She recently graduated from a rehabilitation program in Mays Landing and is living independently for the first time since the accident. In 2014, she received her high school diploma, an important goal in her healing process. This goal is one step in the process to her ultimate career goal – to be a physical therapist herself.
Emilee thrives on being an inspiration to others. Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres heard about Emilee’s story and invited her to be on the “Ellen” show in the fall of 2015. As a longtime fan of Ellen, Emilee jumped at the chance to tell her story to millions, hoping she would be able to reach those who might be having a tough time.
“Every day is a struggle, but it’s worth it when I know my struggle can inspire others,” Emilee recalls. “This has changed me for the better. I know my story can help someone struggling to look at things differently, in a more positive light.” In July 2016, Emilee gave birth to a baby girl, Abigail, at Cooper.
The experience of having her daughter at the same hospital where she recovered is very inspiring to Emilee. “When I walk into Cooper, I feel very emotional,” says Emilee. “It’s where they saved me and where I gave life.”
Emilee acknowledges that chasing after her daughter is very eventful. But she believes that even if she had two legs, it would be hard. Emilee is proud to be an inspiration to her daughter and continues to work on her recovery for Abigail.
“Early in my recovery, I decided to stop using the word ‘handicap’,” says Emilee. “Instead, I chose every day to live my life as someone who is handicapable.”
“Emilee came from a really devastating injury to a spot in her life where she’s going to function pretty well for the rest of her life. That’s huge for us,” says Dr. Graf. “There’s nothing that gives us more satisfaction – in this job – than that.”
Emilee is working hard each day to live her life to the fullest. “The accident made me a better Emilee,” she says. “And Cooper was right there beside me, making it all possible.”
Emilee’s story was featured on the cover of the Winter 2018 issue of Health Connection. To view and download this issue, click here.
For more information about the Cooper Bone and Joint Institute, visit CooperHealth.org/Ortho, or to make an appointment with Dr. Graf, call 1.800.8.COOPER (1.800.826.6737).