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Walking Across the Stage & Beyond

  • Date Submitted: Sep 28, 2020

“ With love, care and support, a severely injured teen graduates with her class.”

Libby Otten

When Libby Otten walked across the Liberty High School stage and collected her diploma June 2, she put an exclamation point on Bakersfield’s feel-good story of the summer.

Yes, she is still using crutches and, yes, she has months of rehabilitation ahead. But she is back and walking, thanks to a skilled surgical team at Kern Medical and the support of family, friends and complete strangers who responded to the messages behind the Facebook hashtag #LibbyStrong.

It wasn’t that long ago there was doubt Libby would survive, much less walk.

On April 24, a day after serving as maid of honor at her sister’s wedding, Libby was thrown from a Jeep, which then rolled back over her, crushing her legs and shattering her pelvis.

It took an agonizing two hours before a rescue helicopter arrived at the rural scene. Libby’s mom, Beth, recalled she kept walking away from the scene to avoid further upsetting her injured child. Dad Alex worked off his nervous energy by shooting photos.

After a 10-minute trip by air to Kern Medical’s Level II Trauma Center, a team led by Dr. Ruby Skinner, chief of the trauma center, stabilized Libby while orthopedic surgeon Dr. Andrea Snow implanted steel rods in her legs. The pelvis injuries were so severe they’d have to wait for separate surgical repair.

For years, a patient with injuries as severe as Libby’s would have been taken to surgeons in Los Angeles. That’s no longer necessary, said Dr. Arturo Gomez, chief of orthopedic surgery at Kern Medical. The Kern Medical team of orthopedic surgeons can handle the toughest cases right here in Bakersfield.

For Dr. Gomez, Libby’s high-profile case also puts the spotlight on an unsung part of Kern Medical’s portfolio. The hospital is well known for its trauma center, but its specialty practices – such areas as pediatrics, urology and orthopedics – also have brought to Kern doctors who are at the top of their fields.

Meanwhile, Libby’s case turned even tougher when internal bleeding forced Dr. Gomez to abort his first effort to repair her shattered pelvis.

“I guess I was naïve,” recalled Libby’s mom. Beth said she thought that Libby’s injuries were just to the bones – and bones heal. News of Libby’s complications hit her hard. There was Dr. Gomez, telling her that the survival rate in such cases was at best 50 percent.

“The room was spinning and the floor was falling away,” Beth recalled. “Then Dr. Gomez gave me a hug.”

His compassion made all the difference to Beth.

And the Kern Medical team’s expertise made all the difference for Libby. Dr. Skinner’s team repaired the blood vessels and Dr. Gomez used an elaborate ring of steel to put the pelvis back into shape and start Libby on the path to recovery.

Meanwhile, something special was happening in and around Kern Medical’s surgical intensive care unit. While Bakersfield is California’s ninth-largest city, it’s still a small town at heart.

A friend of the Ottens who’d been through a health crisis urged the family to use Facebook to keep family and friends updated.

A school counselor who had worked with three of Libby’s siblings is married to a graphic artist. They swung into action and produced a box of #LibbyStrong T-shirts.

Soon, #LibbyStrong T-shirts were everywhere, including on-staff nurses. Facebook rallied support from around town and across the nation. Long-lost friends and complete strangers were praying for Libby. Get well cards covered a wall.

The outpouring of support was both touching and surprising, said Beth, who credited her faith for getting her through the roughest days. “People were amazing,” said Libby. “I’m so appreciative.”

Facebook updates were the unifying force and Libby gave her dad “an A+” for learning the technology.

The signs of support also touched the hospital staff. Dr. Gomez said it didn’t take long to realize Libby wasn’t going to be the average patient. Nurses and doctors felt they were part of something special.

For Libby, the hardest part of the experience was her loss of independence, she recalled. Suddenly she was dependent on nurses and family 24 hours a day.

It didn’t get easier once she left the hospital for a rehab facility. The wait for bones to heal was long and learning to walk again was not easy. She walked in the family swimming pool. A walker and then crutches became her allies.

A teacher from Liberty High came by once a week to bring assignments and go over work. The school was gracious in not requiring Libby to make up missed time, Beth said, so Libby could graduate on time with her class.

Still, independence seemed a long way off. Before the accident, she had been deep into planning for her freshman year at California Baptist University in Riverside, where she wanted to study to become a speech pathologist. Then, that became uncertain.

For Beth, the summer was one of mixed emotions. As she cheered on her daughter’s recovery, she knew every step moved Libby closer to leaving home.

The bones have healed and the only limitations are based on how quickly Libby is able to regain her strength, said Dr. Gomez. For every day in the hospital, a patient needs two days of rehab just to stay even. In Libby’s case, learning to walk again increases the time needed.

There was no need to rush a decision on college. Officials at California Baptist were understanding, Libby said. She could start a semester later if she had not been physically ready to go in time for fall classes.

But she was. She went to CBU early in September for her first year of college after a summer of continual improvement.

“Praise the Lord,” said her father, “for an answered prayer."