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Air Force veteran honors medical team that saved his life after wreck

Robert Ayers' doctors, nurses to be recognized at 'A Night for Heroes'

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – You hear about crashes all the time through traffic alerts on the radio during your daily commute, but you don't typically hear about how the minor delays can affect families in a major way.

On Jan. 24, 2016, Claudia Ayer was working from home when she received the call that no wife ever wants to get. The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office told her that her husband, Robert, had been in an accident.

"Not much later, the doctor called me, (saying) that he's in the emergency room and I need to come fast," Claudia said.

She rushed to be by her husband's side, fully expecting to see the worst. 

"I walked into the ER and he was just sitting there, talking like nothing ever happened," Claudia said. 

"I remember very little of the accident itself," Robert said. "I don't remember the point of impact. It was all just a blur to me."

Externally, he looked fine. But internally, his body was under attack -- compromised in key areas needed for survival. 

It turns out, the accident itself was the result of a stroke. Fortunately for Robert, he was rushed to TraumaOne at UF Health Jacksonville, the region's only Level I trauma center prepared to handle cases like his. Robert had multiple life-threatening injuries at the same time. 

But when he first arrived, even doctors didn't realize how serious things were. 

"The initial imaging, happily, he was, hemodynamically ... stable. So his blood pressure, his heart rate, all of those things were good," said trauma surgeon Dr. Marie Crandall. "We didn’t need to put in a breathing tube because he was confused, but he was definitely cooperative and working with us."

Fortunately for Robert, the TraumaOne team at UF Health Jacksonville is trained to see beyond the surface. They wisely sent him for more testing. 

"We, unfortunately, found a lot of things that could be life-threatening," Crandall said. 

"The nurse said, 'At first, we thought he was OK. But now we are finding all these problems,'" Claudia said.

Robert had a tear in his colon, a break in the lumbar spine and a blood clot in one of the large vessels in his brain. 

Fortunately, at UF Health Jacksonville, specialists are onsite, around the clock, and ready to save lives when seconds count.

"One of the benefits of being at a level one trauma center is that you have immediate availability of a trauma surgeon, of a emergency department, of trauma nursing," Crandall said. "All of those things that work together to save people’s lives."

In Robert's case, many of those different specialties came together all at once to keep him alive. 

"Our first priority was to treat the most life-threatening," Crandall said. "The first and most life-threatening was the injury to the bowel."

While Crandall was tackling that threat, another surgeon was focused on another -- eliminating the blood clot that led to Robert's accident in the first place. 

The two difficult procedures to save his life were back to back, just minutes apart. The ability to do that is what makes UF Health different, and special. 

WATCH: Kent Justice's full story on Robert Ayer's recovery

Even with that expertise, Robert wasn't out of the woods yet. For Claudia, that meant many anxious moments. 

"I went home late Friday night, hoping he was going to make it ... Doctors told me I need to call his family to possibly say goodbye," Claudia said. "I don't think anyone can help you prepare for something that bad."

Claudia didn't sleep that night.

"There is no definition how you feel when your husband is almost dying," she said.

The team committed to Robert's recovery didn't sleep, either. Robert's team kept a steadfast watch over him through the weekend. 

"The brain swelling got progressively worse. And as it gets worse, it becomes a life-threatening problem," neurosurgeon Dr. Carlos Arce said. "As the brain becomes swollen, the pressure increases inside the head. The brain gets damaged and you can die from that."

In Robert's case, every minute counted. Arce skillfully performed a decompressive craniotomy, removing a part of the skull, relieving the pressure and giving the brain much-needed room for healing.

The procedure was a success, but Robert still had one more mountain to climb. 

"After that eventful weekend, his condition stabilized," neurosurgeon Dr. Dunbar Alcindor said. "We felt it was safe enough to stabilize his spine."

Through the long, stressful, and physically and emotionally tough time, the staff continued to be a blessing inside and outside the operating room. 

"I don't think anyone can prepare you for something that traumatic," Claudia said. "All the doctors gave me updates all the time."

"We, as a group, try to treat each of our patients like they were a family member -- what we can do to manage it and treat it," Alcindor said.

That information can be over overwhelming if you're not in the medical field. But Claudia said everyone made sure she understood exactly what was happening.

"All of the doctors were keeping me informed ... I was always completely in the loop," she said. "They made me part of their team. I had a voice. I was always part of the team."

The only one who didn't have a voice was Robert. He had a tear in his trachea, the windpipe connecting his nose and mouth to his lungs. So he deferred to another way, the old way he once communicated with the woman he loves. 

In the early 1990s, Robert and Claudia's love story started with the written word. 

"I was in the U.S. Air Force, active duty at the time, based up at Andrews Air Force Base," Robert said. "I met her out at the club. She was a stewardess with the German Air Force. And I thought, 'Wow, this girl is beautiful.'"

For the next several years, they met when their schedules overlapped. And in between, he penned her love letters. 

"I never wrote to anyone in my life before," Robert said. "We pen-palled and wrote back and forth for years."

Now, 18 years after they promised "until death do us part," he signaled for her to bring him a pen. A white board and marker became his temporary vocal chords.

"I used a white board for communication purposes," Robert said. "(I) just wrote stuff down."

What felt like a lifetime of silence finally ended a few weeks later when Claudia picked up the phone to a familiar voice.

"(I said), 'Hey babe. It's me. Just thought I'd give you a call,'" Robert recounted.

"He said, 'Hey babe. I love you,'" Claudia said. "And so I started crying. 'Oh my God. He's going to be OK.'"

"She hadn't heard my voice in weeks. It was pretty powerful. It was a very emotional moment for both of us," Robert said. "Little things like that helped me carry through this."

Robert powered through his recovery with the same determination he used to tackle every challenge in his life. 

"I tried to maintain my positivity throughout the whole thing. I was always moving forward," he said. "There was never any doubt in my mind that I was going to get better."

He still endures some short-term memory loss, but he is walking, driving and doing things most people might see as mundane -- but not Robert.

"Every moment we've got on this Earth is precious," he said. "Don't take it for granted."

Robert continues his fight to fully recover. He works out three times a week in hopes of passing a physical exam that would allow him to rejoin his Air Force unit. He also wants to raise awareness and become an advocate for men's health -- as Robert's stoke, the catalyst for everything that followed in that accident, could have been prevented. 

"I tried to stay fit," Robert said. "I didn't realize (what) would be the end result by not following their (doctors') directions."

During his recovery, Robert was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation and, just like before his accident, looked fine on the outside. But inside, he was a potential tragedy waiting to happen.

"He was a healthy guy, very active," Alcindor said. "He felt invincible, but he had this ticking time bomb that we are well aware of."

Robert hopes by telling his story, he can help someone else, maybe encourage even one person to take the necessary steps to avoid a similar fate.

"Listen to your doctors is all I can say," Robert said. "Pay attention to what they tell you. Take it serious."

By telling his story, the Ayers also want to acknowledge and express their gratitude to the medical team that saved Robert's life.

"To all the doctors and nurses, thank you very much," Robert said. "You are all an amazing bunch."

"Thank you very much for saving my husband's life," Claudia added. "We cannot thank you enough, Robert and I, for helping us through this very difficult time."

The Ayers will also be honoring the medical staff at the 11th annual "A Night for Heroes" gala Saturday evening.

About the Author:

Kent Justice co-anchors News4Jax's 5 p.m., 10 and 11 p.m. newscasts weeknights and reports on government and politics. He also hosts "This Week in Jacksonville," Channel 4's hot topics and politics public affairs show each Sunday morning at 9 a.m.