The last thing Desoto County Deputy Sheriff Austin Eldridge recalls after he was hit by a drunk driver is the terrifying sensation of going from upright to on the ground in an instant.
It’s the kind of moment when one’s life flashes before their eyes. For Austin, that meant work, church, and, most of all, his wife and a baby on the way.
“I remember realizing I was standing up one minute and the next I was on my back, staring up at the sky,” he said. “There was a moment when I was laying in the road that I felt like I was dying, and I was really afraid I was never going to see my wife again or meet my son.”
It’s tough to look back on, but it by no means defines Austin’s life.
Austin credits Dr. Ram Velamuri with saving his leg. “My life isn’t going to be the same as it was, but I get to be a dad, I get to go back to work,” he said. “I’m grateful to God for giving me the strength to get through this, and I’m grateful to the burn center for helping me get where I am today.”
Today, he is creating a different memory with the help of Regional One Health’s Firefighters Burn Center: walking under his own power into the hospital that saved his life, looking straight ahead at a future defined by fatherhood, a return to work, and enjoying the things he loves.
Austin was on duty the night of February 5 when he was called to assist several motorists who had flat tires after hitting road debris on I-269. One of the drivers didn’t have a working jack, so Austin headed back to his truck to get his.
In an instant, a routine call turned life-threatening. A drunk driver careened into the 27-year-old deputy, pinning him between her car and his own.
He was airlifted to the Elvis Presley Trauma Center in critical condition. Austin is told that just before he went into surgery, he asked one of the doctors, “Please don’t cut anything off tonight.”
It’s exactly the sort of plea that drives the team at the Firefighters Burn Center. Medical Director Ram Velamuri, MD, FACS uses his expertise as a board certified plastic surgeon to oversee a limb salvage program that helps patients like Austin avoid amputation via specialized techniques including muscle flaps, skin grafts and reconstructive surgery.
While surgeons did have to amputate Austin’s left leg just above the knee, Dr. Velamuri saw a chance to save the right. “We felt we had maybe a 20 percent chance of saving his leg, but we also realized that if he lost it, he’d be dependent on a wheelchair or two prostheses for the rest of his life,” Dr. Velamuri said. “It’s very important to us not just help patients heal, but to return them to the life they had before. We’re not just here to save lives, but to protect quality of life.”
Dr. Velamuri and his team performed a series of complex surgeries, always keeping Austin and his family informed about the next steps in his care.
Dr. Velamuri said stories like Austin’s motivate the Burn Center team. “It’s very important to us not just help patients heal, but to return them to the life they had before,” he said.
“There was a moment I looked down and noticed on my left side, the foot didn’t go all the way down,” Austin said. “It was very emotional at first, but after a while I knew I was alive and I knew I could get better. I started to focus on what I needed to do to get better.”
It wasn’t easy. COVID-19 visitor restrictions meant at times he could only talk to his wife by phone. An active, hardworking person by nature, Austin felt trapped by the constraints of a five-week hospital stay.
But as the days passed, he saw signs of progress – the pain starting to subside, doctors removing a nerve block, talk of moving him to the Regional One Health Rehabilitation Hospital. “When I got to rehab for the first time it really hit me: the pain I’m feeling is a good pain; it’s getting me better,” Austin said.
For the past six months, Burn Rehabilitation Manager Sandy Fletchall, OTR/L, CHT, MPA, FAOTA has led Austin through a rigorous program that includes strengthening, stretching, and adapting to his prosthesis. “She is incredible. She knows what she’s doing, and the way she keeps you motivated is unbelievable,” Austin said. “As I got stronger, I realized just how much she has done for me.”
Austin continues outpatient rehab, but unlike those days when he felt trapped inside the hospital, his visits to Regional One Health are just one part of a busy life.
He’s returning to work, driven by an even deeper bond than ever to law enforcement colleagues who stood by his family throughout their ordeal. This fall he’s serving as the play-by-play voice for radio broadcasts of Desoto County high school football games, and he’s back to playing electric and acoustic guitar in his church band.
Austin is grateful for Burn Rehabilitation Manager Sandy Fletchall’s unmatched experience and knowledge. “She is incredible. She knows what she’s doing, and the way she keeps you motivated is unbelievable,” Austin said.
Austin sees it all as a chance to give back to people who supported him after his injury. “It made me realize how many families you have outside your own family – your work family, your church family, your community,” he said. “The amount of support we got is overwhelming. This is why I want to stay in law enforcement – to help these people; to serve these people.”
Of course, talk of family is a reminder of where Austin always found his deepest motivation.
“My wife was an absolute rock through all of this,” he said. “I can’t tell you how blessed I am to have a wife like her.”
When their baby was born in June, it brought Austin full circle. “To see him born, hold him and be a dad…it’s the most amazing thing ever,” he said. “I’ve gone from wondering if I’d ever meet him to telling him I love him.”
It’s precisely the outcome Dr. Velamuri envisions when he talks about saving both lives and quality of life. “Not only were we able to save his leg, he can go back to work and take care of his family,” he said. “Austin is very dedicated to getting stronger and helping himself heal, and it’s an overwhelming feeling to give him that opportunity.”
For Austin, it’s an opportunity he plans to embrace to the fullest.
“There are going to be difficult days and my life isn’t going to be the same as it was, but I get to be a dad, I get to go back to work,” he said. “I’m grateful to God for giving me the strength to get through this, and I’m grateful to the burn center for helping me get where I am today.”
Bright futures like Austin’s are why Regional One Health is why we’re Specializing in Tomorrows. To support lifesaving care for more patients throughout the Mid-South, visit https://www.regionalonehealth.org/foundation/giving-tuesday-2021/