In God’s Hands: Sabetha boy defies odds after breaking neck in family pool
A normal Sunday afternoon dip in the family pool for an 11-year old Sabetha boy quickly turned into an afternoon of terror and uncertainty for the youngster. Aaron Hertzel, son of Eric and Shelly Hertzel, headed out to the pool on Sunday, July 8, with his younger brother Austin and younger sister Elena upon their return from church services in Sabetha.
“We got home from church and about an hour later the three of us headed out to the pool,” Aaron said. “We were just doing the things we always do in the pool!”
The pool, which has a depth of four feet, is located about 35 yards from the house.
“My mom and dad always tell us we are not supposed to dive in this pool, but we always do anyway,” Aaron said.
The pool does not have a diving board, but has a ladder dropping into the pool.
“We just stand on the top of the ladder and then dive in,” he continued. “We never dove straight down but we did what we call ‘shallow diving.’ My little sister went to the house after a while but Austin and I kept swimming and diving.”
According to Aaron, Austin climbed up on the ladder and prepared to dive in while holding his arms over his head and pointing backwards, a dive referred to as a “headfirst cannonball.” Austin completed his dive and then beckoned his older brother to follow suit.
“Austin told me to do the same dive that he did so I put my arms over my head and tucked my head downward and dove in,” Aaron said. “I remember hitting the bottom of the pool with my head and hearing the bones breaking!”
What Aaron heard and felt was his C4 vertebrae literally splitting in two and all of the surrounding ligaments tearing apart. His C5 vertebrae also was damaged as a fragment of bone chipped off.
“The pain was incredible and I blacked out on the bottom of the pool,” Aaron said. “The next thing I remembered was that I was holding onto the side of the pool. I have no idea how I got there but I definitely know that God saved me from drowning!”
Aaron moved over to the ladder and somehow managed to crawl out of the pool.
“I took off for the house running screaming my head off because the pain was horrible,” Aaron said. “I knew that I had broken my neck!”
E. and S. Hertzel were sitting in the house entertaining some guests from Lincoln, Neb., that had dropped by to purchase some rabbits.
“We were sitting in the house talking when Aaron came through the back door screaming over and over again he had broken his neck,” S. Hertzel said. “He was hysterical and would not quit screaming and I was trying to calm him down. In my mind I knew he could not have broken his neck and been able to run up to the house.”
At that time, it was unknown to the Hertzel family that their guests from Lincoln were both medical personnel.
“The husband was a general surgeon and his wife was a registered nurse who worked in spinal fusion recovery,” S. Herztel. “As we look back, we can just see the hand of God at work in all of this. The surgeon asked permission to look at Aaron and quickly determined after calming him down that he should be taken to a hospital and be examined, and his wife confirmed it as well.”
“They both said that he should be taken to a hospital immediately because of the symptoms that they were seeing,” S. Hertzel continued. “The surgeon said he should be placed in a C-collar [cervical collar for neck injury] immediately.”
After the visitors from Lincoln left, E. Hertzel called his father Gary— a former EMT — to come down and assist the family. Aaron was now beginning to chill and lose all feeling in his arms.
“I am sure he was going into shock,” S. Hertzel said.
Gary arrived and quickly confirmed that the EMTs should be called and that this should be treated as if Aaron’s neck was indeed broken. The EMTs soon arrived and after placing Aaron in a collar and placing him on a board to immobilize him headed to Sabetha Community Hospital to be examined further.
“By the time we arrived at the hospital, Aaron was looking much better and was actually feeling a little better,” S. Hertzel said.
All of the good feelings were short-lived, though. The X-rays confirmed that Aaron did indeed have a broken neck and that it was a very serious break.
“I started to get scared when I heard it was definitely broken,” Aaron said. “I did not want to be paralyzed.”
LifeStar from Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City was notified and the helicopter with two trauma nurses on board soon arrived at the hospital.
“I was being taken back to Children’s Mercy but my parents could not ride with me and that is when I really got scared,” Aaron said.
The helicopter ride to Children’s Mercy was a quick 20-minute ride to the awaiting trauma team. E. and S. Hertzel headed to the hospital in their vehicle.
“That was the longest two-hour ride I have ever had,” S. Hertzel said.
“When I got to the hospital they were asking me a lot of questions, and it kind of scared me,” Aaron said. “They did let me talk to my Dad on the phone while he was driving down and that made me feel better. One really neat thing they did for me was that they gave me some two prism glasses, so I could look down and see things while lying flat on my back and instead of just being able to see the ceiling!”
The trauma team continued more testing upon Aaron’s arrival, and he was then placed in the ICU unit and given pain medication.
“When we arrived at the hospital, we discovered that the top surgeon for this type of injury was on call,” S. Hertzel said. “He had 25 years of experience and is considered to be the best in the field. Once again, we could see the hand of God at work.”
The surgeon informed the family that the main concern at this stage of the game was the swelling of the remaining ligaments at the point of the injury. If the swelling worsened, Aaron would have to be taken to surgery immediately.
“The surgeon told us that in his 25 years he had never seen an injury as bad as this that did not end in paralysis,” S. Hertzel said. “He could not believe that Aaron still had mobility and strength in his limbs.”
Aaron’s surgery — as long as the swelling stayed down, and his mobility and strength did not lessen — was set for Tuesday, July 10.
“The hospital was so busy with surgeries like Aaron’s that we had to wait until Tuesday unless his condition worsened,” S. Hertzel said.
On Tuesday, Aaron went into surgery, which lasted close to four hours. According to the Hertzels, the surgeon used two steel rods and six screws to fuse the C3, C4 and C5 vertebrae together and did some bone grafting as well.
“The surgery went very well, and once again the surgeon told us that he could not believe that Aaron was not paralyzed,” S. Hertzel said.
Two days later, fitted in a C-collar neck brace, Aaron was sent home from the hospital.
“I really did not have much pain,” Aaron said. “I have to wear this brace for two to three months. I had my first checkup on July 31 and everything looks really good! I have to wear this brace all the time, I cannot take it off at all.”
As Aaron looks back and reflects upon the events that took place on that Sunday afternoon, he has a message that he feels he needs to share.
“You should never dive into a pool unless it is very deep like the Sabetha City Pool,” he said. “Don’t think it cannot happen to you because it can. I am very thankful, and I believe that God saved my life that day and kept me from being paralyzed.”
“Eric and I are so very thankful for all of the people that were there that day to help Aaron,” S. Hertzel said. “As we look back and we see how God placed all those people at just the right spot at just the right time, we are amazed at the grace of God. The surgeon commented that, with all of the movement that Aaron had after the injury, that the damage was not worse was a miracle. He especially was impressed at the job the Sabetha EMTs did in their treating the injury and the professional job they did to keep the injury from being worse.”
Aaron, with a big smile on his face, offered this last piece of advice.
“There is no such thing as a shallow dive!” he said.