Utah mother turning tragedy into triumph after near-death experience

Mar 14, 2022, 11:31 PM | Updated: Jun 14, 2022, 11:43 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — A terrifying and horrific accident that left a mother of five just minutes away from death and forever changed her physical appearance is not changing her heart and will to press on.

It was five days before Christmas when Heather Vanboerum, 51, was shopping at a Costco in Murray. She was walking across the parking lot and hit by an out of control car that was racing at about 30 miles an hour. An elderly man is believed to have hit the gas rather than the brake. She was on the phone with her husband, when it happened.

“I heard a scream, a startled scream. Then I heard metal colliding and crunching,” Don Vanboerum said to KSL. “I heard Heather say, ‘I’m going to die!’”

Heather’s right leg was immediately severed. Her left leg was crushed.

“I looked down at my legs and I just saw a lot of blood, a lot of blood,” Heather said. “Extreme pain, extreme pain, and a lady was just trying to keep me [alive].”

Heather, who never lost consciousness, says she thought her life was over.

“It was really scary to me because I didn’t want to leave my family. I wasn’t ready to leave my family. I really wanted to try and stay and fight through it,” she said.

Heather’s husband, Don, was still on the phone, which was thrown to the pavement. He happens to be a trauma surgeon at Intermountain Medical Center, just across the parking lot from the Costco, and was up on the 11th floor, with no idea what had just happened.

“Eventually, a voice picked up the phone, and that turned out to be the manager of Costco,” Don said. “Talk about, you know, anxiety and fear, fear of the unknown.”

Don ran to the Costco parking lot and met the ambulance.

“I said, ‘Heather, I’m here. It’s gonna be okay.’”

Don helped paramedics wheel his own wife into the surgery room — the same place he performs similar trauma surgeries on other people.

“Part of me is like, oh my gosh, this is my wife,” said Don, adding that it was very different being on the other side of the trauma.  “Different, quite a bit different, you know wanting to be a husband, but also wanting to, you know, try and fix it, because that’s what I do.”

Amazingly, Heather survived, but spent the next month recovering in the hospital.

Sadly, on Christmas Eve, doctors had to amputate her left leg, just below the knee, because it was too badly damaged. She had suddenly become a double amputee.

“I don’t think I was really able to process it at that moment because I was so grateful to be alive,” Heather said.

Don says Heather lost about half her body’s blood and was just minutes, if not seconds, away from dying.

“There was a whole lot of things that had to line up just the way they did in order for her to be alive,” he said.

Those include the quick actions of a Costco manager and a stranger to make tourniquets for each leg. Good Samaritans who stood by Heather’s side, keeping her alive. A full trauma hospital just across the parking lot. A husband who was also a trauma surgeon and knew exactly what steps to quickly take. And Don says most importantly, a healthy, active and strong-willed woman who wasn’t about to give up.

“She’s an amazing woman. Everyone that knows her knows that,” he said.

One precious arrival that kept Heather going through her pain and recovery at the hospital was the birth of her first grandbaby, Greta. She was born just eight days after the accident on Dec. 28.

With the help of hospital staff, Heather was wheeled into the birthing room right before Greta was born.

“We put her on a regular gurney and made the trek from one end of the hospital to other,” Don said.

“Oh, it was the best,” Heather said. “All of that even gave me more motivation.”

On Jan. 21, one month after the accident, Heather came home to ribbons and messages of love and hope from neighbors, family and friends.

“It just cheers you up,” Heather said.

Her house is now renovated to accommodate a wheel chair.

This active mother and grandmother’s life will never be the same. The simple task of fixing a meal takes on a whole new challenge. But there is something about Heather that has brought new light and direction to the Vanboerum home.

She says she’s motivated to now take on this new challenge in her life. The family calls it Flower Power — a name now on her social media pages.

“My parents always called me flower — that was my nickname — and so when I was in the hospital, my kids came up with flower power,” Heather said. “The power to press on and persevering and hope is a big part of that.”

“She’s amazing. I mean, the thing is, I’d love to say we’re all carrying her, but she has been sustaining us from the beginning,” said Anika Vanboerum, Heather’s daughter.

Yes, some days are harder than others and yes, there are struggles, but Heather says she had to change.

“I just decided I didn’t have time in my life to be angry or to not forgive. I needed to heal, and to heal, I needed to just move on,” she said. “I think because this is my life, and my life is good. My life’s good and I’m good. I’m really okay, if not better, just, like, deeper. I feel things deeper. I am experiencing time with my family. It’s more meaningful.”

Because of the huge loss of blood Heather had and the need to replace that blood, the Vanboerum family was inspired to organize multiple blood drives to help other people in need.

Heather is now looking at the possibility of prosthetic legs. Her first fitting for her right leg will be later in March. Her goal is to again play tennis, something she loved to do several times a week before the accident.

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Utah mother turning tragedy into triumph after near-death experience