Road to recovery

Altoona doctor, a hit-and-run victim, cites physical condition for survival

Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec / Michael Kline walks with Occupational Therapist Kim Lovetro at the HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital. The local doctor is recovering from a hit-and-run accident.

A local doctor survived a recent accident that probably would have killed him had he not been following the kind of healthy-living advice that he’s long provided to patients.

Michael Kline, an internist with MedExpress Urgent Care on Plank Road, was knocked down from behind by a hit-and-run vehicle, then driven over and dragged along 39th Street near Burgoon Road on the morning of March 26, while walking to Mansion Park, where he planned to run three miles on the track.

Kline, 59, runs, lifts weights and exercises regularly, and his resulting excellent body condition is probably responsible for his being alive today, according to doctors who took care of him at UPMC Altoona after the accident, said Kline and his wife, Betsy.

The vehicle, whose driver remains at large, cracked Kline’s ribs in 20 places; shattered his shoulder blade, broke his jaw, dislocated an orbital bone, tore the interior of both carotid arteries; damaged ligaments that hold his pelvis together and caused fluid in one lung and abrasions to his lower leg, requiring skin grafts.

“I am amazed that I survived,” Kline said last week, sitting in a chair in his room at HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital. “I never knew anybody that survived anything like that.”

Kline is expected to make a complete recovery in six to 12 months, but after the accident, he spent time in the UPMC Altoona trauma center, its intensive care unit, its step-down unit, then HealthSouth, from which he was discharged Saturday.

If Kline had been a smoker, he wouldn’t have lived, said Betsy, a nurse practitioner. If his heart, lungs and kidneys weren’t in good condition as a result of his lifestyle, his body couldn’t have taken the stress, Kline said.

If he’d been debilitated to start, he would have lacked the “resilience (to) bounce back,” he said.

The stress of the accident included being run over by at least one wheel of the vehicle at about hip level and spun around.

He hasn’t yet seen the tire tread marks on his coat that the police have taken as evidence, he said.

The stress also included the dragging, which caused the calf damage, which doctors repaired with grafts of skin from his hip.

And it includes a fractured jaw that required wires to keep his mouth shut, wires that were eventually replaced with rubber bands that still require him to take all his nutrition through a straw.

To deal with that stress, it helped that Michael “is a driven person,” Betsy said.

Despite his resilience, the accident took plenty out of him: He lost as much as 20 pounds of muscle during the 2.5 weeks in the hospital, as his body cannibalized the available protein to begin to repairing damage, Kline said.

He was totally “deconditioned” when he reached HealthSouth, he said.

At the rehab hospital, however, he “flourished,” he said.

He still can’t put all his weight on his left leg, because of the stretching of the ligaments that tie the pelvis together, and his shoulder is not healed completely, while the fingers of one hand remain “a little uncoordinated,” he said.

But he’s prepared to take the necessary time for healing to occur — and there are no mental deficits.

The accident

After being hit that March morning, Kline found himself face down on one side of 39th Street.

A man came up and told him that he’d been hurt and that he was calling 911.

Kline noticed his shoe on the other side of the street, the side where he’d been walking, and asked the man to get it for him, so he could get up and go about his business.

The man told him no, he needed to stay down, because he was seriously hurt.

Betsy was at work in Johnstown when she got the call. On the other end was the chaplain from the UPMC Altoona trauma unit, who told her that Mike had been in an accident.

She asked whether he was OK, and the chaplain said he wasn’t “medical,” so he couldn’t say.

But he told Betsy, “They’re wheeling him in to get a CT scan,” which Betsy took to be “code for get your butt down here,” she said.

The chaplain also told her to park in the trauma lot, a highly restricted space — which was further indication of the seriousness of her husband’s condition, Betsy said.

When she arrived at the hospital, Mike was conscious, but bloody.

She’s not squeamish, but “he was quite a sight,” she said.

The initial problem was to keep him breathing, they both said.

The ambulance crew had fitted him with a neck brace, which was not only uncomfortable but inhibited respiration, he said.

More importantly, his right lung was filling with fluid because of the rib fractures.

For a time, he remained on oxygen.

Then there was the pain.

When the accident happened and for a considerable time after, his adrenaline had kept it away.

“You don’t feel anything,” Kline said.

But that wore off, and eventually the pain became almost all-consuming.

Doctors had to ramp up the pain medicine slowly, so for a time, he bore the brunt of it.

The ICU became for him like a place of eternal night — illuminated only by electricity around the clock — and no sleep, he said.

“Like Dante’s Inferno,” he said.

“I’d look up and a minute had passed,” he said. “It seemed like an hour.”

It was especially problematic when he had to shift in bed, because of the ribs.

He would cry out, Betsy said.

It made her feel helpless and afraid.

“I know enough to be afraid,” she said.

For the first few days, he didn’t know whether he’d die.

That bothered him chiefly in that he feared he would leave lots of “unfinished business.”

That included seeing his children’s lives play out successfully, continuing his “social relationships” and performing whatever “good that I could do, in my work and outside of my work,” he said. Mostly, though, he didn’t want to forfeit the time he still expected to spend with his family, he said.

Mike and Betsy have two children Asher, 26, who is in the doctorate program for clinical psychology at LaSalle University, and Ava, 17, an Altoona Area High School senior.

Accidental benefits

While the accident showed him he’d been doing all right with his personal lifestyle, it also showed him where he could improve as a doctor.

Except for an appendectomy at age 10, he’d never been a patient, he said.

Now, as a long-term, needy one, he experienced the importance of medical workers making personal connections with the people they care for, he said.

He felt how important it is for doctors to touch — literally touch — patients when they interact with them, he said.

“Touch builds a bond,” Kline said, “a physical bond.”

And it’s important for doctors to make eye contact, to introduce themselves and to explain what they’re doing as they do it, he said.

Doctors should behave like they’re dealing with a person, not like they’re interacting with a set of lab data or X-rays, he said.

In any line of work, it’s always good to be learning, he added.

Kline was touched — metaphorically — during his recent experience when someone who came to transport him back from radiology introduced herself, he said.

“I felt more comfortable with her right away,” he said. “I knew who she was.”

Likewise, Betsy was touched when a nurse she knew, who was caring for Mike, hugged her, early in the crisis.

“I felt safe,” she said. “I knew we were in good hands.”

Similarly, Betsy was touched when a clerk in the step-down unit asked whether she wanted to be included in a pizza order.

“It was so sweet,” she said.

The reaction of family and friends has also moved both of them.

Mike has been on their synagogue’s sick list, Betsy said.

His two brothers and his sister have taken time off from their jobs and visited from out of town, he said.

“It’s nice to see people care,” Kline said.

“It almost makes you cry,” Betsy said.

Have a Plan B

The accident has also taught Kline to prepare for the unexpected.

“You should always have a Plan B,” he said.

Actually, they did, in the form of insurance, savings and investments — the fruit of long effort, Betsy said.

It might have been different if the same thing had happened when he was 35, Kline said.

The family has offered a reward for the arrest and conviction of the hit-and-run motorist. But Kline isn’t angry at that person. There’s currently nothing and no one to be angry with, he said.

Betsy isn’t angry, either.

“I’m (just) grateful he’s recovering,” she said.

The reward is not an attempt to obtain revenge or even justice, according to Kline.

Rather, it’s about getting “closure” — about finding out what really happened, he said.

“I don’t know why someone would do that,” he said. “Why wouldn’t they stop to help?”

The motorist probably had something to hide, Betsy said.

“(That’s) all speculation,” Kline said. Speculation doesn’t suffice for him.

“Just to let it go and not have any answers would be wrong,” he said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

REWARD OFFERED

The Michael and Betsy Kline family is offering a $2,500 reward to anyone who provides information to Altoona police that leads to the arrest and conviction of the hit-and-run driver whose vehicle struck, ran over and dragged Michael as he was walking on 39th Street near Burgoon Road about 7:35 a.m. March 26.

Half the money would be paid upon the arrest, half upon conviction.

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