The University of Kentucky surgeon who is coordinating medical care for the lone survivor from the crash of Comair Flight 5191 always warns the severely injured.
“You never are normal after trauma,” Dr. Andrew C. Bernard said in an interview yesterday. “I tell patients, ‘You’ll never be the same again.’”
This is tough love from a compassionate man who has “choreographed,” in his phrase, a large team of doctors, nurses and other medical personnel who treat Comair First Officer James Polehinke, 44, at the UK Chandler Medical Center.
“I can’t tell you how much I grieve for the families,” Bernard said. “Taking care of him has not been the difficult part -- it’s the people who died and their families.”
Late yesterday afternoon, after Polehinke’s third planned surgery since Sunday’s crash, the hospital upgraded his condition from critical to serious.
Earlier yesterday, Bernard said he was optimistic about Polehinke’s chances. Once his condition stabilizes, he will be moved to rehabilitation for physical therapy that could last a year, and eventually will return home to Florida, the surgeon said.
This may be cautious hope, but it is hope. And it reflects Bernard’s deep feeling for his patients that inspires the young doctors who are working with him on Polehinke’s treatment.
“The residents saved him,” Bernard said.
Value of communication
Dr. Nicolas Ajkay, a fourth-year resident in surgery from Bogot‡, Colombia, said: “Dr. Bernard is a role model. I learn a lot from his bedside manner. He has a very respectful, insightful way of relating to the patients.
“He always explains very clearly their condition,” Ajkay said. “He always has time to listen to the patient’s concerns and questions.”
Dr. Cortney Lee, a UK resident from Atlanta, Texas, and the Texas Tech medical school, said Bernard’s example has been an important influence on her work in UK’s intensive care unit.
“He encourages us to speak to the families daily,” Lee said.
Bernard has conferred regularly with Polehinke’s family, and he was proud that the pilot’s wife told him this morning: “I notice how well the doctors and nurses communicate here. I haven’t always been used to that.”
Communication with Polehinke himself has been limited because he has been on life support and “has not been completely lucid,” Bernard said. So, the patient and the medical team have communicated by squeezing hands.
Polehinke was at the controls of Flight 5191 when the jet crashed during takeoff at Blue Grass Airport on Sunday, killing 49 of 50 people on board. He was rushed to UK, where he arrived in “severe shock from bleeding,” Bernard said.
The Comair pilot had broken bones throughout his body -- face, left leg, right foot, right thumb, pelvis, breastbone, ribs and two places in the spine, and a collapsed lung.
“The first thing we did was ABC -- make sure that he had a clear airway, that he was breathing and had circulation,” Bernard said.
Polehinke’s loss of blood was so great that replacing it required using blood donations of 96 people, Bernard said.
“That’s a massive transfusion,” he said. “I called the blood bank Monday morning and said they saved his life.”
UK is home
Bernard, who has intent eyes and speaks in a deliberate, soft voice, minimizes his own role, which has thrust him into public when he briefs the news media.
“I’m only one small part of a massive trauma care system,” he said.
He has been a public spokesman at the UK medical center before: In 2002 when actor and race car driver Jason Priestley (Beverly Hills 90210) was brought there with injuries from a crash at the Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, and in 2004 when he led UK’s study as part of a clinical trial for a new blood substitute, PolyHeme.
Bernard, who celebrated his 38th birthday Aug. 8, is a native of Frankfort, where he graduated from Western Hills High School.
From then on, he has been a UK product through and through -- a bachelor’s degree in human studies; a medical degree supported by a fellowship in anatomic and clinical pathology; a residency in general surgery and a fellowship in surgical critical care. He is board-certified in general surgery and surgical critical care, and since 2004 he has been an assistant professor of surgery in the UK College of Medicine.
His wife, Trisha Bernard, is a speech pathologist. They have two children, Ellie, 8, and Matthew, 5.
The UK surgeon said his life has been shaped by the influences of his parents, Harold Bernard of Frankfort and Nancy Prather of Georgetown; his UK mentors, especially Dr. Paul Carney; and his religious commitment, nurtured today at Hunter Presbyterian Church.
And UK is clearly home.
“I feel called to be here,” Bernard said. “I love teaching. I have the best trauma job in the country. This is a good place.”