Josh McQuillan was 20 years old, intoxicated and distraught about breaking up with his girlfriend when he made the fateful decision to leave his friend’s party and climb a building—something he had done before, but never while intoxicated. “I fell 25 feet and hit my head on a concrete sidewalk,” the now 30-year-old says. “Two people saw me and called an ambulance.”
Later that night Josh was airlifted from Cobourg, Ont., to St. Michael’s Hospital, where neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Cusimano was waiting to save his life. Josh had a severe brain injury, as well as a hip injury. He was in a coma for four weeks, then spent another couple of months at St. Michael’s and seven more months at a long-term care facility. Today, he still lives at home, walks with a limp and has considerable cognitive issues, but he’s grateful to be alive. And so is his father, David.
“I went from hearing a policeman tell me I should get to Cobourg to identify him and start thinking about organ donation, because he wasn’t going to make it, to being told they were flying him to St. Mike’s,” David recalls. “So I headed there and met with Dr. Cusimano, who said, ‘I’m going to do my best, I’ve got my team ready.’ And I just think Josh was extremely lucky to have the pieces fall into place: to get to the amazing hospital that is St. Mike’s, and to have the skills of Dr. Cusimano to bring him back.”
Josh and David pay that debt forward by regularly visiting St. Michael’s to participate in the TIPSY (Think First Injury Prevention Strategy for Youth) program, which helps local high school students see the harsh realities of trauma injuries and the catastrophic consequences of unfortunate decisions like Josh’s.
The students learn about “can’t be fixed” injuries to the brain and spine, they have a tour of the Trauma Bay and the Trauma & Neurosurgery Intensive Care Unit, they hear from trauma survivors like Josh as well as from a traffic services police constable and Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and participate in interactive sessions with a high-tech mannequin at St. Mike’s Allan Waters Family Simulation Centre. The program is offered every other Friday during the school year, and it’s popular with students, as well as parents and teachers.
“Every parent wants their kid to come to this program, but we don’t have it enough,” says Elizabeth Butorac, interim program director of Trauma/Neurosurgery and creator of TIPSY along with her late colleague, Julie Mauceri. “The teachers all want to bring their classes back, but it takes a lot of resources to do it.”
Josh does his presentation with his dad, since David has his own trauma story to tell. ”I was in a car accident with a drunk driver when I was 20,” he says. “I was partying after being up since six a.m. I actually went out to the car early because I was tired and crashed in the back seat. I went from being passed out in the car to waking up in an intensive care unit and not having a clue what happened. My injuries weren’t nearly as serious as Josh’s, but I still lost a full year of university.”
Josh has lost a lot more. “Because of his frontal lobe injury, the ability to process information quickly just isn’t there,” David explains. ”That’s challenging when it comes to trying to hold down a job and experiencing other parts of life.
“So we work on the presentation together. We try to make an impression, to bring it home that this is reality,” David adds. “It’s good to have something that might raise a flag to kids. They might think about that and prevent an injury.”
In 2018, St. Michael’s handled 1,157 trauma patients—a quarter of them between the ages of 18 and 27. The largest cause is motor vehicle crashes, with texting and driving now responsible for more crashes than alcohol. There are a larger number of traumas over the summer months. “From May till about October, we are in ‘trauma season,’ and the number of traumas is much higher,” Butorac says. “Everybody’s outside, and you’ve got boating, motorcycles, jet-skiing, partying and pedestrians out and about on the streets.”
By including graphic videos, frank discussions about disability and death and personal stories like Josh’s, Butorac and her team hope to shake young people’s assumptions of invincibility and ultimately see fewer of them in the trauma bay.
“We really want them to understand that there are consequences to everything they do and every decision they make,” she says. “We talk about alcohol and driving, drugs, texting and driving, distracted driving, helmets, seatbelts, water safety and much more. We give them tangible information so they can make better choices, and not end up here.”
“It’s amazing how a little bit of thinking can have life-saving results,” says David. “I’m sure everybody can look back and know where they made their mistakes. I know I can, and I know Josh can. But that’s after the fact. You have to try and get them to think first.”