The co-pilot and sole survivor in the Comair crash will undergo surgery today to stabilize a spinal fracture and could leave the hospital next week for rehab, according to his doctor, who said he "wants very much to get better."
James Polehinke, 44, is partially paralyzed, has mild brain damage and might never completely recover from injuries suffered in the Aug. 27 crash that killed 49, said Dr. Andrew Bernard of University of Kentucky Hospital.
"But, at the same time, he knows that, as the only survivor, the best thing he can do is to continue to get better," Bernard said. "And he's just working hard toward getting better and getting to rehab so he can, as soon as possible, get up."
Polehinke, who was piloting the jet when it crashed during takeoff from the wrong runway at Blue Grass Airport, was pulled from the burning wreckage by rescuers. He suffered no burns, but had multiple fractures. On Sept. 14 doctors amputated his mangled left leg, and they have surgically repaired his broken right foot.
"We worked for a long time to try to get to a point where we thought we could save" his leg, Bernard said. However, in the end, Polehinke, his family and the orthopedist together decided it was best not to continue efforts to salvage the leg.
During surgery today, doctors will implant hardware in Polehinke's spine to stabilize a lower back fracture involving the first lumbar vertebrae so he can sit up, the doctor said.
"At some point, I know he wants to talk to the media and the public ... so he looks forward to that," Bernard said in a telephone interview yesterday. "He doesn't remember anything, but he's been told the circumstances."
Dr. Bernard said he does not know whether Polehinke knows he was piloting the plane at the time of the crash, although his family has told him about the crash.
"He's very grief-stricken about the loss of the crew, the pilot, the passengers, so that's been very, very difficult for him and (he's) very tearful in that regard," Bernard said.
Bernard said he does not know of any conversations yet between Polehinke and investigators. The National Transportation Safety Board is heading the inquiry and has not yet issued any reports on the cause of the crash.
On Monday, the NTSB said toxicology tests showed no alcohol or illicit drugs in the pilots' systems. There was a low level of decongestant in Polehinke's blood.
Polehinke's family, which includes his mother, Honey Jackson, and wife, Ida Askew, are also "deeply grief-stricken" but also joyful at his survival. "It's a difficult time, balancing between grief and joy at the same time," Bernard said.
It will be largely up to the family to decide where Polehinke will go when he leaves UK hospital for a rehabilitation hospital. "I think the family is quite interested in staying locally," Bernard said.
"The family is very, very grateful for the support of the community," he said. "We haven't talked about a lot of the personal issues, but both he and the family have expressed their gratitude to the community."
It will be weeks or months before Polehinke can go home to Florida, the doctor said. At the rehab hospital he will increase his mobility. "He will learn to live within the limitations of his disability," Bernard said, including the loss of his left leg and any remaining paralysis. He can't bear weight on his right foot yet because of the severe fractures.
Recovery from brain injury is impossible to predict, particularly because Polehinke's body went into shock, Bernard said.
"I bet that he will never have good recollection of details of the crash," he said. "That is speculation based upon my experience. ... The thing about brain injury is that you just can't predict how patients are going to improve. That's the frustrating thing about brain injury for the patients, for the family, for the caregivers."