Whether you call it karma, fate, God, coincidence or perfect timing, it was present for Kainan Rejtharek one winter day. His story is a testament to this, and REACH is grateful to be a part of the story.
On December 29, 2012, Jill and Dan Rejtharek were driving the hundred plus miles from their home in Laguna Hills, a beautiful coastal suburb in Southern California, to inland Palm Springs. This trip normally takes about two hours, but it was raining that day—pouring, in fact—and the going was slow. Jill’s cell phone rang. On the other end was a heart surgeon who had been summoned to Desert Regional Medical Center. He asked, “Where are you? We don’t want to start without you.”
Jill responded quickly. “Please don’t wait for us. Please, go ahead and do whatever you need to do for Kainan.”
Before hanging up, the doctor explained why he had been reluctant to start the emergency open-heart surgery before their arrival: he wanted to make sure the Rejthareks have a chance to say goodbye to their 17-year old son.
Kainan Rejtharek, an experienced dirt bike rider in a family of experienced dirt bike riders, had taken a weekend trip to Ocotillo Wells, a popular Southern California destination among off-road vehicle enthusiasts. Such trips were usually a family affair, but this time Kainan went with friends.
During that morning’s ride, the boys had an opportunity to climb a big hill. Kainan successfully made it to the top. The other two boys decided to go on a little ride of their own. They had no idea what happened while they were exploring. It never crossed their minds that Kainan might ride off a cliff.
“He thought it was a flat,” his mom explains, “but it was a 60 foot drop.” At the end of that five and a half story fall, Kainan landed on his head—and the dirt bike landed on Kainan.
Cindy Olsen and her family were also at Ocotillo for the weekend. That day, something caught Cindy’s eye. At the top of a hill some distance away, she saw “the most perfect, beautiful yellow bike, with a rider wearing yellow gear”. She thought he looked like someone worth watching, so she did…just in time to witness the accident.
The Olsens set out across the desert of Ocotillo in search of assistance for the rider in yellow. The first person they came across was an off-duty medic. He joined them. Next, they crossed paths with a man who just happened to be a coordinates specialist. He called in the location. Further along, they saw an EMT vehicle. Turns out paramedics were working on someone with a broken femur, and a helicopter was already on its way. That helicopter was coming from the REACH base in Thermal, and it was reassigned to Kainan when Cindy reported what she had seen.
Although he was alone on that hill, and despite the fact that the Olsens were without phones or GPS, Kainan was on his way to help within 25 minutes of the accident.
Knowing that the REACH crew (Pilot Mike Tanner, Flight Paramedic Greg Lattimore and Flight Nurse Theresa Terry) would arrive soon and that time was of the essence, on-site caregivers carefully moved Kainan onto a backboard.
When the helicopter landed, Greg and Theresa went directly to Kainan. Theresa remembers, “It was one of those calls where you immediately know what to do; nothing needs to be said. With critically injured people like Kainan, you just go to work, and our job is to keep people alive. I think of us as a bridge between the patients and the hospital.”
Greg adds, “One of the main reasons I got into this business was to help and comfort people on one of the worst days of their lives. From the outside, a transport might look like chaos, but from the inside, it is like a ballet. I can anticipate my partner’s next move, she can anticipate mine. This lets us do whatever needs to be done to get our patients to the most appropriate facility as quickly as possible.”
Kainan was completely unresponsive, but when Greg and Theresa hooked him up to a monitor, they found a blood pressure and a pulse. They quickly loaded up and flew to Desert Regional Medical Center, an acute care hospital in Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley’s only designated trauma center. “We were able to maintain his blood pressure all the way there,” Theresa says. “He was lucky.” This rings especially true in retrospect. A lot of Kainan’s injuries were obvious. His torso was smashed and twisted. He had a broken femur and a dislocated elbow. Greg says, “He was pretty badly broken. He was kind of slowly slipping away from the moment we got him. I remember receiving his helmet. The face guard was completely shattered.” Theresa adds, “We knew that he probably had a brain injury.” But it’s what Greg and Theresa didn’t know that makes Kainan’s story all the more miraculous; they didn’t know that his aorta had been severed.
Jill and Dan Rejtharek made it to the trauma center. Their son’s emergency open heart surgery, which started at noon, took 11 hours. Earlier, he had been scheduled for emergency brain surgery at midnight, but that was canceled when doctors determined he had a Grade 3 brain injury. (The Glasgow Coma Scale is used to grade traumatic brain injury patients on a scale of 3 to 15. 13 or higher is considered minor; 8-12 is interpreted as moderate; anything below 8 indicates a severe brain injury.) Although Kainan’s many serious injuries dictated a range of surgical procedures, only his aorta was repaired that day. Everything else was put on hold while doctors waited to see if Kainan would make it through the night.
The next morning, Kainan was still very much alive. Ten days later, surgeons attended to his face and leg. But the prognosis remained dismal. “He was in a coma.” Jill says, “He was so damaged they didn’t think he’d ever wake up.”
Kainan remained in a coma for seven weeks, during which time his parents and sisters (Kassey, Karina, and Karli) never gave up hope. Their faith in Kainan’s ability to recover was unwavering. In fact, a lot of people showed up to support Kainan. “There are 42 of us in my immediate family,” Jill reveals. “The ICU was packed! Kainan’s friends were great, too” Jill says, adding “and these are high school junior boys. There were like five of them that just did not leave. I brought a camper to the hospital, and they stayed in the camper with me. There were other kids that would come after school on Friday and not leave until Sunday night.”
We believe in our mission to
‘Do what is right for the patient.’
It may sound like a cliché,
but REACH truly does go ‘above and beyond’.
Greg Lattimore, REACH Flight Paramedic
Jill researched potential rehabilitation facilities for Kainan, ultimately selecting Health Bridge Medical Hospital in Tustin. Just a few days after Kainan moved to Health Bridge, he “woke up”. He didn’t talk, but he was awake. He couldn’t really do anything, but he was awake. Jill says, “One day he could speak, the next day he couldn’t. For a while, he could move his arms but not his fingers.”
One very memorable day, Kainan’s hands indicated another leap of progress—they were able to squeeze. “We got him a little football,” his mother says, “and he started playing with it.” And then came the day he could say “Mom” again. And the day he could successfully sit on the edge of the bed. And use a wheelchair, then a walker, then a cane, and then…walk—hands free.
These days, Kainan is doing a lot of things. “He really does everything,” Jill reports, “just at a slower pace right now. He’s doing things this year that he couldn’t do last year. He improves every day. They told him he would never ride a bicycle again. Well, he started riding a tricycle, and then he told his dad, ‘I want to ride a real bicycle!’ I thought there was no way he was going to be able to balance on a bike, but he did it. Now, he’s back on his motorcycle.”
When asked to share his favorite moment since waking up, Kainan says, “Probably seeing my mom on the bed next to me.” He is sincere, and he is also chuckling. Jill elaborates. “In the hospital, I slept on a cot right next to him. Well, the cot would collapse, sometimes two or three times a night. Every time I rolled over, it would go down. He thought it was so funny, but he couldn’t laugh yet.” This relates directly to Jill’s favorite moment. After he woke up, she often told Kainan, “All I want is to hear you laugh. I just want to hear your laugh again so badly!” One day he responded. Jill says, “He looked at me and said—slowly, deadpan—just, ‘Ha. (pause) Ha. (pause) Ha.” It was so funny! It was so mechanical. Shortly after that he started really laughing again. That was a huge boost for me.”
The Rejthareks are deeply grateful to everyone who has helped Kainan along the way. Their appreciation for the REACH crew’s dedication and diligence is profound. It speaks to something Theresa shared about the unique opportunity all REACH employees have when she said, “I get to work next to people who are not there for the money, but because they want to be there.” Greg concurs, saying that it was like “a breath of fresh air” coming to work at REACH. “We continue to raise the bar,” he says, “and that’s why I’m here. We believe in our mission to ‘Do what is right for the patient.’ It may sound like a cliché but REACH truly does go ‘above and beyond’.”
And how does Kainan feel? “I feel special,” he says, “and I’m very grateful.”