Stephanie Mortensen believes that when it comes to accidents and other disasters, you cannot be prepared enough.
And that’s coming from a trained medical professional.
In May of this year, Mortensen, then a nurse at Aurora Medical Center, Kenosha, came across a catastrophic car accident while traveling to Wisconsin from Nebraska. Relying on her training and the quick thinking of others, she helped saved the life of one of the drivers.
Mortensen, 52, of Kenosha, currently works at Aurora’s Lake Geneva Dermatology Clinic. A former Nebraska resident, in early May she and her husband, Lance, were returning from Nebraska after a weekend celebrating the graduation of her daughter and future daughter-in-law from nursing school.
Halfway between Grand Island and Lincoln, Lance slammed on the brakes for a car accident just ahead of them.
A truck driver who had seen the event said a car traveling west had lost control, flipped and careened across the median, striking an eastbound vehicle on the driver’s side.
Three young children riding in the car that caused the accident were not wearing seat belts, and were ejected on impact and died. The passenger also perished. The driver was helicoptered to a medical facility.
The car that was hit catapulted into a ravine with the driver still inside.
Mortensen jumped out of her car and, after assessing who could be helped and who could not, ran toward the sound of the other car’s horn, finding a single occupant, a woman, trapped by her steering wheel, her crushed seat, the door and the console.
A truck driver stopped and, using a pocket knife, cut the seat belt and punctured the air bag.
Using what she knew about first aid, Mortensen tried to lift the woman’s chest away from the steering wheel to facilitate her ability to breathe. Although the woman was conscious, she was not able to say her name clearly, so Mortensen found her driver’s license and asked if she had any medical issues.
“I took my body and pressed up against hers as best I could to get pressure off of her chest,” she said. She and Lance also jumped into the back seat to try to pull the seat back, but it wouldn’t budge.
Aided driver for 45 minutes
By this time 911 had been alerted but it would be another 45 minutes until emergency services arrived.
In the meantime, Mortensen discovered the woman’s feet had been crushed and were pinned under the gas and brake pedals. She and her husband again struggled unsuccessfully to dislodge the seat as the victim drifted in and out of consciousness.
When help arrived, the Jaws of Life were used to extract the woman and Mortensen assisted as she was boarded onto a Flight for Life helicopter.
The woman, Anna, who has asked that her last name not be published, 74, of Seward, Neb., survived, sustaining multiple severe injuries.
In the ensuing days, the woman’s family reached out to Mortensen, updating her on the status of her recovery, and the two began corresponding. On Sept. 30, the two met in person when Mortensen made another trip to Nebraska.
“It was very good to meet her,” Mortensen said.
The techniques Mortensen used to assist Anna were basic first aid precepts, she said. “It was ‘ABC’: Airway, breathing and circulation, that’s number one.” In other words, she checked to see that the victim’s airway was clear, tried to help her keep breathing and stem her excessive bleeding.
From what Mortensen could see, the woman only had a few scratches, so she assumed bleeding was not an issue, and attended to breathing and airway concerns. She later learned that contorted car parts had obscured damage to the woman’s feet and ankles, meaning that while profuse, bleeding was hidden from Mortensen’s view at the time.
Although she used the best of her training at the time, Mortensen says she was frustrated by her inability to have access to the same medical equipment available at her job.
“I didn’t have a stethoscope; I didn’t have anything. I could only tell she had a thready pulse, but I couldn’t assess anything deeper,” she said.
Even with her lifesaving skills, looking back, Mortensen knew she could have been even more prepared.
“As soon as I got home I went on Amazon and got a first aid kit, which I put in a book bag and threw in my car.”
The accident was a life-changer in other ways as well, she said.
“Until the accident I never wore a helmet when driving my motorcycle, but I plan to do so in the future,” she said. “Also I never wore a seat belt in the car, but I now do.”
The impact has also been felt on Mortensen’s career path.
As soon as she returned from that trip she looked for a job in Aurora’s emergency room. “I knew I wanted to do this kind of nursing,” she said. While there wasn’t a position in the ER, she found the position at the dermatology clinic.
“I was looking for an opportunity that got me out from behind a desk and gave me an opportunity to care for patients,” she said.
She says she would still love to get into the ER some day. “That would be the frosting on the cake.”
Advice: Be ready to help
Mortensen’s advice to others who may find themselves first on the scene of an accident is to just be ready to step in to help.
“We need to be on our toes rather than on our heels,” she said. “Stepping in and stepping out — you can do it.”
She also recommends that non-medical people take basic first aid and life support courses and carry first-aid kits in their cars. “First aid/CPR is a must for everyone.”
“Some people (involved in accidents) are going to be close to medical care; but this was a long ways and a long time to wait. As a nurse I should have been more prepared. We all need to be prepared.”