The afternoon of June 21 did not go the way that Linda Cottam had planned. But her change of plans that fateful day had a life-changing effect on Eric Swanson.
“My sister had been after me about taking care of myself, so I was going to go to Twin Falls and get a massage,” said Cottam, an obstetrics nurse in labor and delivery at St. Luke’s Magic Valley in Twin Falls.
But first, Cottam needed to pick up a prescription in Jerome.
“When I was leaving the pharmacy in Jerome I felt strongly that I needed to go home,” she said. “So, instead of going to Twin Falls I started heading back to Hagerman, and when I got off the highway I saw a ton of smoke.“I thought it was a house fire because of all the smoke, but when I got closer I saw it was a car accident. I was able to see some police lights going, though, so my first thought was that first responders were there, so everything’s OK and I can just drive by.”
But as she assessed the scene, she saw an officer – Gooding County Sheriff Deputy Eric Swanson – who had clearly been in a serious accident, and in need of assistance. Swanson’s patrol vehicle was on fire, as was a semi that was also involved in the collision.
Cottam knew at that moment that she needed to stop and help in any way she could.
Another deputy had been following Swanson, and he wasn’t involved in the accident. Cottam told him she was a nurse and offered her help, which he readily accepted.
“So, I said, ‘OK, you go direct traffic, and I will perform first aid,’” Cottam said. “I did a quick head-to-toe assessment … while there were bullets flying all over the place (Swanson’s ammunition in the back of the patrol car was catching fire).
“He had applied a tourniquet, and I have no idea how he managed to climb out … It took superhuman strength to get out, and there were glass shards stuck to his scalp, and his beard was burned to him.”
Swanson said he immediately sensed he was in good hands.“I was thinking, ‘I’m not doing good,’ and then she showed up,” Swanson said. “It was perfect timing. … She was literally the one who stabilized my neck, stabilized everything while talking to me and keeping me nice and calm.
“We have people who will stop when we have a crash on the interstate or something … and usually they’re more in the way than anything. But she was one person I would take along with me to any crash. I think she did a fantastic job.”
Cottam works in labor and delivery now, but she also has a background in medical surgery. She leaned on all of her experience as she helped Swanson. When a fire engine arrived, she asked for a C-collar for his neck and poured saline on his face to help clear the diesel fuel that was burning his eyes.
“I’m just so thankful that I had the education and experience to give him the help that he needed,” Cottam said.
Cottam continued to stay by Swanson’s side as they waited for an Air St. Luke’s helicopter to arrive. She told Swanson jokes and tried to keep the mood light, hoping to keep Swanson awake and alert.
“I think one of Linda’s biggest assets is she is really a relationship builder … She’s very patient-centered,” said Andrea Blackburn, St. Luke’s Magic Valley director of nursing and patient care for women and children. “I could see myself in that situation going, ‘Oh my God, I’m not used to dealing with burns. I deal with babies.’”
At one point, an officer handed Swanson a phone and told him his wife was on the other end.
“I heard him tell his wife: ‘I’m OK. I just got in a little fender-bender, and I’m a little scratched up, but I’m OK,’” Cottam said. “I want people to know that while he was going through all this he had his family first and foremost in his mind. He talked about his wife and kids. … He wasn’t worried about himself at all.”
Swanson said at first he didn’t think the helicopter was necessary.
“I didn’t realize how banged up I was,” Swanson said.
But Cottam quickly assured him that he would, indeed, be going for a helicopter ride that day.
“She just looked at me and said, ‘No, Eric, you’re going in that helicopter,’” Swanson said.
Swanson was originally airlifted to St. Luke’s Magic Valley before being transferred to Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center in Idaho Falls.
He is more than appreciative for all the care he received.
“I’m doing a lot better now,” Swanson said. “I ended up not needing skin grafts on my arms, and I’m healing. The neck is broken, the C2 (vertebrae) is broken, but it’s just one of those things where I’m going to have to wear a neck brace for the next three months. … The burns on my face are pretty much gone. The top chunk of my ear was rubbed off, and that will be permanent.
“All the fingers and toes move, no numbness or paralysis whatsoever. I’m very, very blessed. … They said as long as I do everything that I’m supposed to do – which I’m doing – that I will make a full recovery. I plan on getting right back to work when I can.”
And when he does go back to work, he knows he’ll have Cottam to partially thank.“I don’t know what kind of St. Luke’s awards there are or anything like that,” Swanson said. “But she should be put in for one this year. She made a huge difference in my life that day.”
Chris Langrill is a writer and copy editor for the St. Luke’s Communications and Marketing department.