For more than half her life, Sue Bothun has been a motorcycle rider. To the Mayo Clinic nurse, motorcycling is a way of life and a means to experience the grace and fellowship encountered on the open road.
Sue believes the art and act of motorcycling is essential to her psyche. So much so that despite a serious accident in June 2016, in which she fractured her foot, leg, wrist and thumb, today she is back in the rider's seat.
"People don't understand what motorcycles are about," says Sue, who was born and raised in Rochester, Minnesota, and has worked at Mayo Clinic for 10 years. "It's about getting out in God's country and seeing his splendor and meeting people, because the camaraderie between bikers is profound."
Sue's orthopedic surgeon, Brandon Yuan, M.D., says there's no question Sue's attitude and determination played an important role in her recovery. "Patients with severe injuries to their arms and legs, who have a high level of self-motivation and family support, have much better outcomes than those who lack those factors," Dr. Yuan says.
He adds that the fact Sue has resumed riding motorcycle doesn't raise any red flags. In fact, it's just the opposite. "I tell my patients my goal is to get them healed and back doing the things they enjoy doing," he explains.
The level of recovery Sue has achieved wasn't a given, however.
"She had a very severe injury to her leg and her foot, if a couple of other things had gone wrong instead of right, she might have even ended up with an amputation," he says. "It was that severe."
The accident occurred when Sue was on the tail end of a solo bike trip. It was a journey she'd always wanted to take. It brought her to Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. She was in a rural area of Missouri, just south of the Iowa border, at about 10:30 in the morning when she was hit in an intersection.
Sue was wearing her helmet, and when she landed after the impact, she sat up and saw her left leg was at an impossible angle. It was damaged so badly that when an ambulance appeared on scene, emergency medical technicians couldn't splint it for the 30-minute ride to the nearest hospital.
When she arrived at the hospital, Sue was immediately taken for X-rays. Doctors informed her that everything checked out OK except for her leg and right thumb. Both of the bones in her lower left leg — the tibia and fibula — were shattered. Sue informed the hospital staff that she worked for Mayo Clinic and, as part of her insurance benefits, she was eligible for a medical flight back home.
"They all thought I was crazy," Sue says. "Then I started talking to my surgeon about how I could be stabilized to get me on a flight back home."
The surgeon decided that surgery to repair her shattered leg couldn't be delayed. By noon Sue was in the operating room, where she underwent an eight-hour procedure to repair her leg and place a pin in her thumb. But first thing the next morning, Sue called the Mayo Clinic nurse line phone number printed on her insurance card.
"I started to cry the first time I called the nurse line," Sue says. "I said to her, 'I am so grateful that I'm talking to you. Can you please just get me home?' When you're used to the care of Mayo Clinic, and you're somewhere else and you're scared, it's just something to get back home again with people you trust."
By 3 p.m. that afternoon, Sue was on a plane to Rochester.
"I just felt like I was going to get taken care of," Sue says of returning to Mayo Clinic. "I don't know if I felt more comfortable or that they were doing a better job managing my pain, but I felt so much better being here."
Back at Mayo Clinic, Sue received additional imaging of her injured limbs. CT scans revealed injuries that earlier imaging missed, including a shattered left foot and a fractured right wrist.
"Some initial treatment had already been performed, but there were a number of other injuries that needed to be addressed and more surgery was needed to correct those injuries," Dr. Yuan says. "My main concerns were that the wounds she had from the first surgery might not heal, that the bones they had fixed might not heal, and I was worried that there were other injuries that needed surgery that hadn't been addressed yet."
First, the swelling of the tissues on Sue's leg wounds needed to decrease, so her doctors could monitor the skin for proper healing. The next step was to correct Sue's broken foot — a serious injury that had not been identified in Missouri.
"I was astounded that they never looked at my foot, and they said my wrist was OK," Sue says. "It's a testament to the advancements in medical imaging that Mayo has. They can just see more and have better trained radiologists."
Sue was released from the hospital after a week. Over the course of the next year, Sue had four additional surgeries to correct her foot, modify her leg bones and remove hardware. The surgeries included a bone graft operation during which Dr. Yuan removed bone from Sue's pelvis and grafted it to her tibia, which wasn't healing correctly. Four weeks following the bone graft, Sue was outfitted with a walking boot.
"Dr. Yuan said I could walk with the boot. Two weeks after that, I was off the opioid medications, so I could drive," Sue says. "I was trying to get back to do some kind of nursing and use my mind."
With the help of her return-to-work consultant, Sue was offered a position in the Department of Family Medicine at Mayo Family Clinic Southeast in Rochester. She was provided a parking spot close to the door, an electric scooter to get around the office, and a device that enabled her to elevate her leg.
"I can't say enough about the return-to-work program," Sue says. "When you're still healing and don't know what your future is, just having that little bit of normalcy in your life is huge. I became a nurse so I could help other people, and when you have others care for you, it's very humbling."
At the clinic, Sue worked four-hour shifts, three days a week with patients who use Mayo Clinic's Patient Online Services.
"It wasn't hands-on patient care, but it was patient care, so I was able to talk to patients and really get a sense of being a nurse again," Sue says. "Having the ability to help other people when I myself needed help helped my psyche."
Before the accident, Sue worked as a postoperative nurse. There was a time when she didn't know if she was going to be able to return to that role. But Dr. Yuan urged her to look into acquiring a specialized energy-storing leg brace. That brace now enables Sue to move around with minimized pain and has helped her get back to providing face-to-face patient care.
"I have to give a shout out to Dr. Yuan," Sue says. "He did such a good job reconstructing my leg. He gave me the resources so I could walk again. And he does it with a smile. Every time he walks in I feel like he's happy to see me."
Sue also gives credit to her return-to-work consultant, Eric Batterson.
"The fact that he could find something to accommodate my restrictions and help me continue progressing back to being a floor nurse, or wherever my future leads, I know Eric's got my back," Sue says. "He coordinated it all so seamlessly and was instrumental in getting me back to being a nurse again."
Although the surgeries are done, Sue continues to receive physical therapy to strengthen her leg and core, which are essential to walking with her new leg brace. But her life, including motorcycling, is back on track.
"This kind of thing could've defined me, but I'm not going to let it," she says. "Of course, I'm going to have bad days along with good days. But I'm not going to let it define who I am for the rest of my life."
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