Get updates on Michele Dunklin’s condition at www.micheledunklin.blogspot.com.
Steamboat Springs Michele Dunklin walked outside the Doak Walker Care Center on Friday, closed her eyes, looked at the sun overhead and took in a deep breath.
“It feels very nice,” she said.
Before Friday, the last time the 47-year-old Steamboat Springs woman got to take in the mountain air was briefly on Jan. 10 when she was being transferred from an ambulance to the Doak, where she would continue her recovery from a near-fatal Dec. 8 head-on car crash.
Those who have cared for her have been astonished by her recovery. They call it “Michele’s miracle.” Dunklin has trouble grasping the generosity shown by her friends, family and the community as she recovers from the horrific wreck that has brought her family closer and affirmed her strong Christian beliefs. Rehab has been a daily battle. On Thursday, she climbed a flight of stairs for the first time since the crash. She hopes to return home in two weeks, where there are 22 steps, one for each of the ribs she broke.
Heroes at work
Dunklin credits two people for saving her life. The first is West Routt Fire Protection District Chief Bryan Rickman, the first emergency responder on scene after Dunklin tried to pass a semitrailer on U.S. Highway 40 outside Hayden and hit a pickup head-on. Rickman on Friday described it as the worst wreck he had seen where everyone survived.
Dunklin was the only one injured in the crash, the force of which broke all but two of her ribs. A piece of her vehicle also had stabbed Dunklin in the side and hit several organs.
Dunklin’s condition was critical, and she needed a trauma surgeon. Instead of tediously extricating her from the car, Rickman lifted her off the piece of metal stabbing her and pulled her out the passenger door.
“She was talking like there was nothing wrong with her,” Rickman said.
Dunklin was answering questions and said her back hurt and she couldn’t breathe.
“We made one very quick trip to Steamboat, to say the least,” Rickman said.
After traveling the 30 miles to Yampa Valley Medical Center, Dunklin was rushed to the operating room, where she met her other hero, Dr. Alan Belshaw.
Assisted by Dr. Mark Hermacinski, Belshaw removed Dunklin’s spleen to stop the bleeding, closed a hole in her stomach, and repaired the lung and diaphragm.
“At one point in the operation, she bled so much that her heart was almost empty,” Belshaw said. “In just a few
minutes, we replaced her blood volume.”
The metal object had missed Dunklin’s heart by an inch.
“Everyone stepped up,” Belshaw said. “There wasn’t a lot of panic. It went very smoothly.”
The surgeons had repaired her life-threatening injuries, and Dunklin was flown to Denver Health medical center. Doctors there had planned to take her straight to the operating room, but no surgery was necessary, and Dunklin instead was taken to the intensive care unit.
Dunklin’s husband, Steve, manager at Cook Chevrolet and Subaru, arrived in Denver along with close friends and family. Michele occasionally would wake for a few seconds, and Steve would rattle off the names of the people who were there.
She remained in the ICU for most of three weeks and underwent numerous procedures.
Michelle Diehl, a close friend of the Dunklins’, set up a blog and updated it regularly to let friends and family know how Michele was doing. It included benchmarks such as when Michele took her first post-crash steps Dec. 23 and when Michele got to eat a burger and fries Jan. 2.
“The best part is that Michele is completely off the ventilator, trach and no more worry zone,” Diehl wrote. “We are going to be headed home soon!”
The blog provided some relief for Steve, who had been getting more than 100 text messages a day.
“It’s been really good because we have friends everywhere and family everywhere, so they were able to stay in touch,” Steve said.
Home in sight
Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, has special meaning for the Dunklins, who have been married 16 years. It is the day the two met and the day Michele might get to return home to Steve and their 14-year-old son, Zach. The family has only grown closer since the wreck.
“Ever since the accident, I realize how much I really enjoy hanging with you and dad,” Zach recently told his mother.
The couple’s love for each other was apparent as they exchanged words with tears and laughs Friday in a sunroom at the Doak.
“You have been a rock,” Michele said to Steve. “You’re my right hand. You’re my strength. You’re my other half. Without me I don’t know what you would do without me.”
The Dunklins are hoping for a full recovery. Michele said she looks forward to returning home and being around people, because she loves people. She wants to be home with her family and live a normal life again, which includes doing the laundry, a chore she loves and her husband appreciates.
“I was the one who suffered … but it was more of a test for you to see if you could do all the jobs I did,” Michele said to Steve.
Michele also said she looks forward to rejoining her congregation at Euzoa Bible Church.
“Once I get out of here, that’s the first place I’m going,” Michele said. “I’ll be wheeling in there. No, I’ll be walking.”
The Dunklins’ faith remains strong.
“We call it Michele’s miracle, but we know whose miracle it really was,” Steve said.
The support from the close-knit Steamboat community also has played a major role in helping the Dunklins through the tragedy.
“Anytime there was something missing in the puzzle, someone was just like, here it is,” Steve said.
The support has been overwhelming at times. It is something Michele greatly appreciates and is thankful for but does not quite understand.
“What’s so special about me that people reach out to me?” Michele said. “I’m not a pastor. I’m not like Bryan (Rickman), who saves people’s lives. I just hope one day I can give back.”
Steve tries to help Michele understand.
“I think your strength has been an inspiration for us,” he said. “You’re an inspiration to a lot of people.”
— To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247 or e-mail mstensland@SteamboatToday.com