Gracie Butchart is lucky to be alive.
She’s always been active, but she never thought her dedication to weight lifting and exercise would be credited as the reason she's here today.
A year ago, a horrifying accident nearly killed her, causing a traumatic brain injury, severe liver damage, a skull fracture, facial paralysis and other severe injuries. After extensive medical treatment — including nine days in the intensive care unit; 20 days in the hospital; and speech, respiratory, physical and occupational therapy — and a year of hard work, 21-year-old Butchart is able to go back to work and school.
“In some patients that have that degree of injury, they don’t even make it to the hospital alive because they’ve lost so much blood,” said Joshua Larson, a general trauma surgeon at St. Luke’s who treated Butchart.
Butchart doesn’t remember exactly what happened the night of the accident, and she doesn’t want to. According to stories pieced together, she and her friends were on the roof of a house watching for the comet NEOWISE around 3 a.m. July 20, 2020, when Butchart somehow lost her balance and fell two stories onto concrete.
“I don’t remember anything from the fall,” Butchart said. “I don’t want to see the house. I get nervous when I drive in that neighborhood that I’m going to see it and remember it. I have no recollection of it and I don’t want to.”
She was immediately taken to the emergency room at St. Luke’s, where Larson observed that she wasn’t moving the left side of her body at all. He was concerned that she had blood in her head, and she was intubated and a drain was inserted in her skull.
“Amazingly, you didn’t have any blood in your head, but you were so severely concussed that we were worried that you maybe would have brain swelling,” Larson said while talking to Butchart at the end of June.
One of her most severe injuries was a Grade 5 liver laceration, which equated to at least 75% injury to the right lobe of her liver. She also lost two-thirds of the blood flow to her right kidney due to an injured artery. Larson was relieved to see Butchart stabilize after receiving four units of blood, two units of plasma and a unit of platelets, because it meant she didn’t need to go to the operating room.
“If I would’ve had to take you to the operating room in those first 36 hours, your risk of mortality would’ve been pretty decent — maybe up to 25%,” Larson said.
Butchart’s mother, Emily Nothacker, said before the accident, Butchart never missed a day at the gym.
Larson credits Butchart’s young age and athleticism for saving her. He said her muscles around her ribs were able to spring back and forth to protect her ribs from breaking, which in turn protected most of her organs.
“I got really unlucky to get lucky,” she said.
Butchart doesn’t remember much at all from her time in the ICU, but after she regained consciousness, it was nearly impossible for the dedicated CrossFit athlete to even move her legs to the side of her bed.
“It was pretty much learning how to try and walk again,” Butchart said. “It was really hard to move my own body at first.”
After working her way from sitting and standing, to taking steps with a walker, to gradually making her way around the block, Butchart was able to start rebuilding the muscles she lost while her body repaired itself. Butchart said she gained nearly 20 pounds from swelling and water weight while in the ICU, then dropped 65 pounds when she got out of the hospital as she lost that water weight and her muscle density.
She also had to regain her oxygen capacity because her lung was bruised and her liver pain made it difficult to to take deep breaths.
If you see her now, you probably wouldn’t guess she’d suffered such traumatic injuries. She’s able to walk and exercise again, but even though she’s come a long way, she knows she’s nowhere near where she used to be. She’s used to pushing herself in high-intensity workouts, but says: “My body just does not want to adapt back to that.”
Becky Plackner, Butchart's occupational therapist at St. Luke’s, said Butchart was one of the most severe cases she’d worked with, and they knew she couldn’t push herself too hard, too soon.
“Just knowing you’re 21, you have your whole life ahead of you,” Plackner said. “You’ve come so far. It’s really awesome to see.”
Butchart still has some lingering abdominal pain, and she’s hoping to regain full movement in her face. She has been experiencing synkinesis, where the nerves in her face have connected two muscles together because of the fractures in her skull and lumbar spine. She’s now able to close her eye, but she hopes to regain full control of her smile, eyes and eyebrows. Specialists have told her she has about six more months for the nerves to try to naturally find their way back.
“That probably was one of the hardest things from this accident because you never think that will happen,” Butchart said. “I thought I would’ve broken every bone in my body before I had facial nerve paralysis.”
Nothacker said the knock at the door at 4 a.m. the day of the accident was the most horrifying thing that could’ve happened, and she and her daughter know how lucky Butchart was.
“I don't know anybody else that could’ve handled it with the strength and courage that she has,” Nothacker said.
Butchart is currently able to work as a server, and after spending a year recovering at home in Duluth taking some online classes, she’ll be heading back to Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Arizona, this fall, where she’s studying exercise science with an emphasis in sports performance. She’s considering becoming a physician assistant.
She said the treatment and care she received from the St. Luke's staff showed her the impact health care workers can have on a person's life in so many ways.
“I feel like with this entire thing, I’ve just learned so much about your body and what it does for you,” Butchart said. “I mean, I loved the medical field before, but now I just want to be in it. I love it.”