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For girl, walking’s a gift

Orem paramedics helped save the 4-year-old’s leg

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OREM — At 10 p.m. on July 22, 1999, 4-year-old Brooke Nielsen was thrown through the side window of a rolling minivan on I-15.

She landed on her stomach in the median, her right leg nearly severed. Immediately, passersby began attempting to help the little girl, who was celebrating her birthday. Minutes later, Orem police Lt. Phil Murphy arrived, followed closely by paramedics Marc Sanderson, Dave Powell and Keith Harrison.

"Initially, we were most concerned about her neck and spine," Powell recalled Thursday, nearly one year after the incident.

It turned out that Nielsen had a dislocated hip and a punctured stomach, but the most serious injury was to her leg, where the bone, muscle and nearly all the tissue had been severed at the femur. The only link remaining — and the only one that would have given Brooke hope of ever walking normally again — was the femoral artery. At first, paramedics didn't even realize the artery was still intact inside mangled tissue.

"Looking at it, I never would have thought the leg would be saved," Sanderson said.

Brooke Nielsen and the paramedics who helped save her exchanged gifts Thursday at Orem's fire station No. 3, just a few blocks from where the accident took place nearly one year ago. Orem public safety officers threw a party to celebrate Brooke's upcoming birthday and her miraculous recovery.

A bond has developed between Brooke and the paramedics, partially due to the fact that the rescuers each have a child of their own about Brooke's age.

At the party, Brooke walked with a brace on her right leg, which has undergone 10 operations in the last year and likely will need several more. But even after spending months in the hospital and not walking until March, Brooke Nielsen remains as upbeat as any happy child.

"She's always had a positive attitude," said Brooke's mother, JeLynn Nielsen.

Brooke's parents had allowed her to stop using her car seat — and begin using a lap belt instead — only the day of the accident because she had turned 4. But when the Nielsens' vehicle rolled multiple times after swerving to miss a stalled truck in the left-hand lane, Brooke's lap belt did her no good.

Luckily, if anything can be lucky about such events, the accident took place near Orem's 1600 North interchange, just minutes from station No. 3 and Timpanogos Regional Hospital. Powell, Sanderson and Harrison managed to roll Brooke onto a carrier and get her in an ambulance. She was at the hospital soon after and in a rescue helicopter on her way to Primary Children's Medical Center just minutes later.

"Because of the location, the police and paramedics were there in just a few minutes," said JeLynn Nielsen. "If it had to happen, that was a good location."

The Nielsens, who live in St. George, were on their way to a family reunion in Salt Lake City coinciding with Utah's Pioneer Day holiday last July. Brooke's father, Howard Nielsen, had started a new job as a fifth-grade teacher at St. George's Sunset Elementary only days before. He had to return to work after the accident, but JeLynn Nielsen, who was six months pregnant, remained close to Primary Children's until her daughter was released three months later.

Howard Nielsen feels fortunate — fortunate that his little girl survived, fortunate that Brooke has her leg and fortunate that his wife and unborn child experienced no complications because of the accident. On Thursday, the Nielsen expressed their gratitude to the Orem paramedics with a doll Brooke had made and a plaque that said, "You never know when you will change a life forever."

When Brooke rode to Orem from St. George this week, she did it in a car seat.

E-MAIL: carter@desnews.com