Trauma survivor: “I just know my mom is with me right now”

Patient Stories |

04/16/2024

Chancecweb1

He lost his mother in an accident that left him critically injured, but 9-year-old Chance Charters is recovering, thanks to the love of family and the support of many hospital specialists.

By Maureen Gilmer, Riley Children’s Health senior writer, mgilmer1@iuhealth.org

The accident happened without warning. A screech of brakes, the crunch of metal. Lives changed forever.

It was a Monday morning in early February.

8:05 a.m., John Charters remembers. He was at work when he got the first call from a friend.

Chance Charters trauma surgery

His wife, Amanda, was driving their son, Chance, to school when a truck collided head-on with her minivan. Amanda was killed; Chance was badly injured, though his seatbelt undoubtedly saved his life.

The 9-year-old boy was LifeLined to Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health from the accident scene – a county road south of Roachdale, Indiana, where Chance lived with his mom, dad and two sisters.

He was in critical condition with life-threatening injuries that included a broken pelvis, severe fractures in both arms and legs, collapsed lung, ruptured bladder and a brain injury.

But he was alive.

It took a team of doctors, surgeons, advanced-practice providers and therapists to put Chance back together again, starting with an 11-hour surgery that first day at Riley.

Chance Charters trauma surgery

As the general surgeon, Dr. Robert Burns was the captain in the operating room on that day, which stretched into night. He opened up Chance’s abdomen to check for internal organ damage. That’s when he found the bladder rupture, so urology surgeon Dr. Benjamin Whittam was called in to repair that damage.

Meanwhile, vascular surgeon Dr. Ashley Gutwein focused on an artery in Chance’s left thigh, where blood flow was compromised. In addition, orthopedic surgeon Dr. Aki Puryear joined the effort to stabilize the boy’s broken pelvis with an external fixator and stabilized the bones in his extremities.

Later, Dr. Luke Lopas from IU Health Methodist Hospital’s orthopedic trauma service came to Riley to repair Chance’s pelvis.

In all, Chance spent 10 days in the pediatric intensive care unit and another 10 days on the ninth floor recovering from surgery. He was discharged from the hospital still in the grip of the fixator, so his dad had to carry him around the house.

A “LITTLE HERO”

Riley orthopedic physician assistant Todd Osterbur first met Chance, his father and his grandfather, Jim Charters, on Feb. 29 during Chance’s first orthopedic follow-up appointment.

The young man has had a profound impact on Osterbur, who calls him his “little hero.”

“He is such a bright little guy, a bundle of joy,” Osterbur said, all the more surprising because of the challenges he has had to face.

Chance Charters trauma surgery

The orthopedics specialist recalls a moment in the office when he and his team were removing a leg cast and some pins that had been holding Chance’s bones together.

“He said, ‘I just know my mom is with me right now,’” Osterbur remembered.

There was not a dry eye in the room.

“He gives us all hope,” Osterbur said. “I look up to him for his strength.”

That strength is what has carried John Charters through these tortuous months since the accident.

“I just keep focused on him,” Charters said as he watched his son play a game in the inpatient rehab unit at Riley, where he was admitted earlier this month after the fixator was removed. “He’s been in good spirits. I have no idea how.”

A DATE WITH THE ECLIPSE

Chance has come a long way since those early days in the PICU, where he was intubated for a week and could only communicate by squeezing a hand. Charters remembers a trio of nurses who took excellent care of his son.

“I don’t think I could have asked for a better set of nurses while we were there,” he said.

Chance Charters trauma surgery

By the time Chance graduated from the PICU to the ninth floor, child life specialist Sarah Donlan became one of his favorite people. The two recently reconnected during the April 8 eclipse, which Chance watched from the Child Life Zone outdoor play area.

Donlan remembers how weak Chance was when he first was transferred to 9E, but he made sure to tell her a joke about his dad. Even then, his sense of humor was intact.

“Each day I walked into his room, he had progressed and was excited to share what he could do today that he couldn’t do yesterday,” Donlan said. “His dad is such an amazing support and has always been dedicated to doing whatever is best for Chance.”

When Chance was discharged from 9E in late February, he had casts on both legs and one arm, Donlan recalled, and could not bear any weight on his legs. So, to hear him shout her name and see him maneuver across the room with the aid of a walker during the eclipse party at Riley last week was special indeed.

Chance Charters trauma surgery

The hug that followed was extra special, as was the eclipse itself.

“Getting to experience a once-in-a-lifetime event with a kid who has been through so much, physically and mentally, was so special,” she said. “Chance is the picture of resiliency and continues to find and spread joy wherever possible.”

“A JOY ON THE UNIT”

Over the past 10 days or so, Chance has been working on physical, occupational and speech therapy in Riley’s rehab unit, where he made fast friends with the staff and other patients before being discharged over the weekend.

“I think all the staff was really helpful and helped ease your mind,” said Jim Charters, who has been by his son and grandson’s side throughout the ordeal. Even in rehab, Chance’s dad would sleep in the recliner next to his son, while Jim took the small rollaway bed near the window.

“Chance was a joy to have on the unit,” said recreation therapist Lauren Faith. “He was funny and kind to everyone he encountered, making friends with other kids and drawing people in with ease.”

That is his son’s nature, John Charters said, always positive and energetic – and interested in his injuries.

If you ask him, the fourth-grader can tell you the precise number of stitches and staples he got in his left leg – 34 on the outside and 18 on the inside, he said. And another 17 in his belly. His left arm has some nerve damage, so he can’t hold it out straight.

TICKLING HIS FUNNY BONE

“I’m a dinosaur,” he says with a grin as he curls his fingers in. “I broke my humerus,” he adds, pointing to his upper arm, then bursts out laughing when someone jokes that breaking your humerus isn’t very funny.

Chance is exceptionally bright, so nothing gets past him.

He has moments when all that has happened catches up with him though, and the joyful boy goes quiet. He wants to go to the cemetery to visit his mom, his dad said. He was still in intensive care during her funeral.

Chance Charters trauma surgery

He wants to be home with his sisters again. He wants to go fishing with his grandpa and play baseball with his friends.

He probably won’t need his walker too much longer, his dad says.

“I didn’t know if he would walk with a limp or a hitch,” Charters said. “I just want to make sure he can play sports. He loves baseball and basketball. They think he should be good to play.”

He’s a “bounce-back kid” for sure, says Osterbur. “His is a story of courage and positivity. He’s such an inspiration; that’s what I took away from this.”

And it highlights the number of specialties that supported him, the orthopedics specialist said.

“It’s why we all come together to do what we do here,” Osterbur said. “He suffered these potentially lifechanging injuries – it’s really a miracle – but he should be a normal functioning adult without a lot of long-term problems.”

Before bouncing off the bed for another therapy session last week, Chance leaned in to give his dad a hug, quietly whispering, “I love you.”

John Charters responded in kind and watched his son leave the room, steadied by his walker.

“It’s a lot for one little man,” he said. “I don’t know how he’s doing it, but he’s keeping me going.”

Photos submitted and by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, mdickbernd@iuhealth.org