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Stuck for 14 hours in crash, nurse relies on experience to save her broken legs

One moment Stacie Reis was enjoying an ice cream cone, nearing the end of a long drive home for a last visit with her dying grandpa and the next, she awoke to a broken body and a shattered windshield.

One moment Stacie Reis was enjoying an ice cream cone, nearing the end of a long drive home for a last visit with her dying grandpa and the next, she awoke to a broken body and a shattered windshield.

Her phone had been charging, so Reis used the cord to pull it closer. No service. The time? Around 6:30 p.m.

She'd lost half an hour since her pit stop at the Kitwanga store en route to Kitimat from Prince George.

"That's the last memory I have before the accident, is finishing eating the ice cream cone and thinking 'Hmm that was delicious," says Reis, 27, who works as a nurse in the neo-natal intensive care unit at the University Hospital of Northern B.C.

When she opened her eyes, the cup holder was above her and so was her seat.

She stayed like this for 14 hours, pressed against the driver's door of her upside down car, which had crashed 40 feet down a steep embankment, hidden from the highway.

"I don't remember what happened," said Reis from Vancouver General Hospital, six weeks after the July 4 accident that left her with two broken legs, a broken pelvis, a broken sternum, multiple rib and spine fractures and feet that bore mostly broken bones.

In the minutes after she became conscious, she knew it was bad. Both legs twisted awkwardly to the left at the knee.

"The way they were pinned, it wasn't natural," she said. "The nurse in me was like, 'You need to straighten these out otherwise you're going to cut off your blood supply, you'll lose your legs."

So she did.

First Reis, a Christian, prayed for 15 minutes, asking for strength and then she lifted her legs and physically straightened the broken bones.

"It was quite painful to do," she said, but doctors later told her it likely saved them from amputation.

Outside, she couldn't see much, just the sky and tall trees. But she wasn't afraid.

"I was pretty calm the whole night. I remember praying and just feeling secure and safe. I remember feeling confident they were going to find me in the morning," said Reis, knowing her family was expecting her.

She was reported missing around 9 p.m. and her grandfather died at 1 a.m. that night, while Reis was moving in and out of prayer and sleep.

Sometimes she wishes she knew what happened on that road.

"I was trying really hard to be responsible. I remember thinking getting in a car accident won't help anyone," Reis said. "I wasn't rushing.

"Was it an animal? Was it a distraction inside the car? Was it the sun in (my) eyes? Did I fall asleep?"

But part of her doesn't need to know.

"Part of me wonders maybe if it's a little bit of a blessing not having to deal with that."

Stacie Reis speaks of her night and getting saved in the audio below:

Found after 14 hours

Friends had been scouring the stretch of Highway 16 around Terrace all night, but early on the morning of July 5, they started peering over the edges blocked from the view of the road.

"I didn't realize then I was so far down," said Reis, who had been flashing her phone skyward half the night in hopes of being seen.

But just after 8 a.m. that morning, she heard a voice call her name.

"I started yelling back "You found me,'" remembered Reis, prompting the five friends who started screaming her name in chorus.

Better than that sound, was the news that her kitten was safe, despite last seeing her hours earlier, right after the accident.

"She was covered in blood. I was just heartbroken," said Reis, but finding her, "it was the icing on the cake."

Her rescuers broke and then peeled back the windshield, so she could see clearly for the first time in 14 hours. They held her hand as she waited for the rescue crews, and a friends put a sweater next to her face.

"It was blue and it was warm and it smelt like her and it was amazing."

Firefighters used the jaws of life to pull her from the car. But the scary part was the trip up the embankment, strapped safely to the stretcher.

"It was really scary because I felt I was going to slide out," she said.

At the Terrace hospital, two of the attending nurses had graduated with Reis in May 2014 from the University of Northern B.C.'s program.

"Half of your brain is like 'I wonder if I'm dying' and the other half is like 'Hey this is so cool, these are my buddies and they're in trauma nursing now and good for them.'"

As they prepared her to be flown to Vancouver, Reis remembered hearing her legs would need to be amputated. Six weeks later, Reis is waiting for a skin graft to take on her right ankle, and living with the promise that she will eventually use her legs.

Road to recovery

It will be up to a year before Reis can walk again.

She's had surgery on her pelvis, her legs and her feet, which needed to be cleaned of dirt and watched for infection.

Just over a week ago, she had the skin graft surgery to help save that foot.

She doesn't remember the first few days in the intensive care unit or the first weeks where she was kept sedated. She has another minor surgery to take pins out of one foot, and hopes she can be moved to Kitimat hospital soon to be closer to home.

She has dark moments, sad that she's missing out on the job she loves and living in her newly-bought house that also happens to have an abundance of stairs. A combination of prayer and support from friends has kept her spirits up.

"It just blows me away the support. It blows me out of the water," she said. "I had no idea I was so loved."

Despite being hundreds of kilometres from home, Reis said she's had few days without company. Her co-worker Colleen Rea was one of those many visitors.

"She's really positive and that's the way she is in life," said Rea of a recent visit last week.

Rea also set up an online fundraiser through GoFundme to help Reis with the many costs she faces.

"(It) raised over $10,000 in 24 hours," Rea said. It now sits at more than $16,000 and friends have also planned a fundraiser tonight at Westwood Pub.

"I just think the city's really giving," she said, adding she can see the names of anonymous donors, many who are Reis' patients, co-workers and friends from both Kitimat and Prince George.

Reis was part-time casual, so she doesn't have the same benefits - one of the reasons Rea set up the online fundraiser. That, and she's young and just bought her first house in Prince George, Rea said.

A maternity nurse, Rea works closely with Reis in the neo-natal intensive care unit.

"To get hired in the (neo-natal unit) it's really difficult because it's a speciality area and highly-trained so they don't hire a lot of new grads," said Rea, who always hears positive reviews of Reis's work.

"She's just happy and smiley all the time. You never hear anybody complain about her," Rea said.

It's the little things, like seeing the sun for the first time after three weeks that keep Reis smiling.

"Smelling fresh air, even eating food after the accident. It's like I'm a baby, it's like eating it for the first time," Reis said. "You sure gain perspective when you've been in a life threatening accident."

Rea marvelled at that attitude.

"It's just amazing. It's unbelievable how broken she is physically that she's just so positive and outgoing still," Rea said. "She's got a long road ahead of her."


A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Stacie Reis' age. Reis is 27