On Feb. 15, 2007, Joan Abrams, of Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, and her daughter, Robyn Shapiro, were watching an episode of "Grey's Anatomy" in which Meredith nearly drowns at the site of a ferryboat accident.
Hours later, Abrams and her husband, Michael Shapiro, received a phone call from a nurse at the Yale New Haven Trauma Center, telling them that their 23-year-old son, Ben, a senior at Quinnipiac University, had been in a terrible car accident. Like Meredith Grey, Shapiro had been submerged under water after the car he was driving veered off the slick, wintry road through a chain-link fence, causing his car to roll down an embankment and plummet upside down into the icy Mill River.
"There was no question in my mind when I spoke with the surgical resident at Yale New Haven that Ben suffered an unsurvivable injury," said Michael Shapiro, MD, who is chief of organ transplantation at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. When Ben's family arrived at Yale New Haven, Ben's chance of recovery looked bleak. After more than 20 minutes under water, Ben was severely hypothermic and in critical condition. He had sustained significant pulmonary and head injuries as well as multiple facial fractures.
"When we arrived at the ICU [intensive care unit] at 4:30 in the morning, the doctors had very little hope for us," said Joan Abrams, Ben's stepmother, a registered nurse and administrative director of organ transplantation at Hackensack University Medical Center. "They told us he had likely succumbed to drowning, and that even if they could revive him, he would probably suffer massive brain damage. We were incredulous and devastated. We had no idea what to do or think. As medical folks, we knew that Ben had very little chance of surviving this tragedy but we had to hope."
Over the next 12 hours, the heroic feats of Shapiro's care team, led by Kevin Schuster, MD, attending trauma surgeon and assistant professor of trauma surgery at Yale School of Medicine, helped their patient overcome death.
"In the six to 12 hours after Ben was admitted, the trauma team had done a beautiful job of reversing most of the damage caused by the drowning," said Kimberly A. Davis, MD, chief of the section of trauma, surgical critical care and surgical emergencies at Yale School of Medicine and trauma medical director for YNHH. "He was re-warmed, his blood volume was restored and his lung damage began to reverse." Over the next nine days, Ben remained in a coma on life support.
"We had no idea if he would have any brain function," said Joan Abrams. "When Ben woke up and started talking and making sense, we were ecstatic! Dr. Felix Lui (assistant professor of surgery at Yale School of Medicine), one of the trauma surgeons, deserves special recognition. But everyone from the trauma service and in the surgical intensive care unit was amazingly skilled and comforting. As someone involved in trauma for over 20 years, I know how easy it is to forget the importance of being nice."
While he has no memory of his accident, Shapiro says the event was more painful for his family and friends "who watched and waited."
"I don't remember any details of the accident," said Shapiro, who said his last recollection, though somewhat foggy, was taking his girlfriend, Diana, for an expensive Valentine's dinner on Feb. 14. "It wasn't until I received the American Express bill that triggered my memory leading up to that evening," Shapiro said.
Four weeks after his accident, Shapiro returned to Quinnipiac University to resume his studies and graduated on May 4, 2007, with a degree in communications. He juggles numerous jobs as a production assistant for Yonkers Raceway and as a freelance audio technician at major sporting events including the U.S. Open and Red Sox games. On Oct. 24, Shapiro landed a gig at Fenway Park, where he was able to see his beloved Red Sox play in the World Series.
"To be able to work while watching the Red Sox play in the series was a dream come true," said Shapiro.
Dr. Davis and Dr. Shapiro, Ben's father, agreed that Ben was lucky his accident took place in winter, noting that the icy water was protective as it lowered his body temperature and decreased his body's metabolic needs.
"Ben made a miraculous recovery," said Dr. Shapiro. "I've been a surgeon for 30 years. I don't give compliments lightly. None of this would have been possible without the stellar care provided by the surgical critical care team members at Yale New Haven."