It was in the early morning hours of Tuesday, July 8. Eldridge resident Christina Brenner was sitting in the ICU at Genesis East, holding the hand of her son, Peyton.
The 13-year-old, seventh-grader-to-be at North Scott Junior High was just beginning to wake up from a nearly five-hour surgery to repair a life-threatening injury to his right leg.
With eyes beginning to focus, he looked up at the woman sitting at his bedside.
“You know, Mom,” he said, “everybody’s talking about all these healthcare heroes, but you are a real hero. You’re my hero, and I’m so lucky that you’re my mom.”
Christina, after having just lived what can only be described as a mother’s worst nightmare, had tears in her eyes.
“Baby,” she said, “I don’t want to be a hero. All I wanted was to continue to be your mom, and I’m just so glad that I get to do that.”
Eight hours earlier, that future was indeed questionable as Peyton lay on the ground of his grandmother’s rural Blue Grass acreage, with bright red blood spraying out of his leg.
An ATV accident was the cause, and it was Christina’s quick thinking, and the use of her swimsuit top, that ultimately saved her son’s life.
“It was the grace of God,” said Christina. “Honest to goodness. I can’t take the credit. I have to be honest. If it weren’t for the people that I was surrounded by, and doing what I asked them to do, I don’t know that I could have done it by myself.
“It was a true team effort. I had a wonderful support team that I’m forever grateful for.”
Christina can deflect the credit, but there’s no denying that her training and experience is the reason that Peyton is doing so well today.
After more than 20 years in the healthcare business, she graduated from Scott Community College in December, and in January began her career as a registered nurse at Genesis East in Davenport.
There’s no telling how many lives she has had a hand in saving during her nearly seven months on the job, but to her, none was more important than the one she saved on the evening of Monday, July 7.
That hasn’t gone unnoticed by Peyton.
“My mom has always worked hard for me and done everything for me,” he said. “She really is my hero. Now she just showed me that even more. She went through all this training, and it finally paid off.
“I know she’s helped save other people’s lives, and now she saved mine. She’s everything to me. She’s amazing.”
“Amazing” doesn’t come close to describing the drama that unfolded on that hot summer night, nor the obstacles that Christina had to overcome to save her son’s life.
A summer night turns tragic
Christina had just gotten off work from her job at Genesis East and headed to her mother’s acreage in rural Blue Grass. Peyton and his dad, Brian, were already there, along with other extended family members and friends.
“It’s kind of our little home away from home,” said Christina. “It’s what we call our paradise. We have horses, there’s a pond and a pool. It’s where everybody likes to go in the summertime. They like to go to Grandma’s house.
“When I got there, Peyton was riding around on a little four-wheeler, and I decided it was hot, I’d worked all day, and I was going to jump in the pool for a bit.”
It was 7:20 p.m. Christina had been in the water for maybe 25 minutes when the summer night fun turned to near tragedy.
“All of a sudden I heard Peyton yell, ‘Mom! Mom!’ recalled Christina. “There was a bush blocking my view, and when I finally was able to see around it, he said, ‘Mom, I really messed up. I’m so sorry.”
Christina asked him what happened, and she immediately shifted into nurse mode.
“He lifted his hand off his right leg, and immediately he was covered in bright red blood that was profusely shooting out of him,” said Christina.
Even now, three weeks later, no one is really sure what happened. Peyton is an experienced driver when it comes to four-wheelers, and has been around motocross motorcycles all his life.
“Peyton doesn’t really remember the accident,” said Christina, “and no one saw it happen. He was just riding circles around the yard. He wasn’t out of control or anything. He said that he went to apply the brakes and the next thing he knew he was in the fence and the trees.
“He jumped off because he felt this weird popping feeling in his legs. He looked down and screamed for me.”
The Brenners still don’t know what caused the injury, although they speculate it may have been the key on the four-wheeler. However, there was no sign of blood on it.
“The only thing I attribute that to is whatever had deep-punctured him and opened his leg the way that it did, it had to have compressed just enough to keep him from bleeding until he stood up,” said Christina.
“It’s all kind of a blur,” said Peyton. “I still remember a lot from what happened after I called my mom. I was awake for the whole thing.”
What he saw, or tried not to see, was his mom doing her best to save his life.
Christina had been talking on her phone to her other son, 16-year-old Skylar, when Peyton screamed for help. She immediately jumped out of the pool after seeing Peyton, and a friend said it was like she was launched off a trampoline.
She hit the ground running.
“I immediately threw the phone and was screaming to call 911,” said Christina. “I knew that I’d need both hands to do whatever it was I was going to do.
“Peyton was maybe 50 feet away, and the whole time I was running toward him I was yelling at him to hold onto his leg, lay down and get it up in the air. I knew we needed to decrease the blood flow.”
As soon as she reached her son she could better see that he was losing blood by the second. His skin was pure white, and he was terrified.
Christina also knew that an artery had been hit because of the way the blood was spraying out, and by its color. She knew from the location of the wound, near his groin, that it was his femoral artery.
The artery is the main vessel that provides blood to the thigh and leg. Typically, with that type of injury, doctors say that victims can lose all of their blood within five minutes.
Later, after surgery, they learned that both the femoral artery and femoral vein had been severed by whatever punctured Peyton’s leg and caused the spurting wound.
A bikini top is the lifesaver
Another mom happened to be there, and came running when she heard Christina yelling. Together they tried to use a T-shirt as a tourniquet above the wound. That didn’t work.
“Almost immediately I was trying to throw off my swimsuit top,” said Christina, “but it was tied pretty tight. The gal helped me get it off, some other family members eventually arrived, and we were able to use my suit for a tourniquet.
“From the time he hollered my name, to the time I put a tourniquet on him, it had been about one minute.”
By now, Christina was in total nurse mode.
“I was barking out orders to each person, telling them what I needed them to do and when I needed them to do it, so I had the tools to try to save my son,” she said.
Miraculously, Christina was the calm one.
“My mom was on the phone with 911, and she was asking me a multitude of questions,” said Christina. “She was hardly making sense because she was severely upset. I said, ‘Mom! Stop and listen.’
“I’m still trying to put pressure on my son’s open wound, and I told her to tell the dispatcher that he’s a 13-year-old Caucasian male. His name is Peyton Brenner. His birth date of 5-1-07, he’s lost about three units of blood, and he’s hit his femoral artery. Tell them I’m a nurse, and I know what I’m talking about, and they need to be here now.’”
Christina still isn’t sure how she kept her composure, other than by the grace of God, and her training.
“In all honesty,” she said, “I feel like the mom in me checked out, and somebody else took over in order for me to stay calm and execute what needed to be done.”
Amidst the chaos, Christina was the voice of calmness.
She was hollering at her husband to make sure the ambulance knew where to go, since the home was at the end of a long gravel road. She yelled for people to bring towels, not only to use in applying pressure, but also to monitor how much blood Peyton was losing.
“Thankfully, the blood flow had decreased substantially once I had the tourniquet, made from my swimsuit top, above the wound,” said Christina.
At one point, her husband suggested using a belt, and seeing how distraught he was, she told him it was a good idea and that he should go to his truck and find one.
“I knew putting him on another task would give him something else to focus his attention on, rather than standing and watching what was happening,” said Christina. “That’s why I’m a nurse, and not him.”
While Brian headed off to his truck, Christina’s brother-in-law appeared right beside her and said he had a belt.
“I told him to come down and told him what to do,” she said. “I told him which side to put the buckle on, and to pull the tongue towards him, and to pull it tight. We then had tourniquets below and above the wound, so I was decreasing the blood flow from both directions.”
Not only were her hands working to save her son’s life, her mind was trying to think three steps ahead.
“I wasn’t able to think about what I was seeing, and all the blood,” she said. “All I could think about was my next move, and what I had to do next, and then next. I also knew I needed to keep him calm.”
If Peyton would have become unruly or extremely emotional, thus elevating his blood pressure, more and more blood would just keep pumping through his arteries, and he’d eventually go into shock.
“At first, he was crying a little bit,” said Christina. “I looked at him and said, ‘Peyton, am I upset, or am I calm?’ He said I was calm. I asked him what that meant, and he said, ‘That this is very serious.’
“He said, ‘Mommy, am I dying?’ I said, ‘Not today, Sweetheart. This is not your day.’ I was able to calm him down. He said, ‘OK, Mom.’ My cousin was holding his hand and praying with him.”
It seemed like the ambulance was taking forever to arrive, and as Peyton became more anxious she talked to him about his favorite passion: football.
“I asked him why Jerry Rice was his favorite player,” she said, “and he said, ‘because he’s the GOAT.’ I asked him what’s the GOAT, and he said, ‘Greatest Of All Time.’ I said, ‘Peyton, you are the greatest of all time, and that’s why we’re going to get you to the hospital and you’re going to be just fine.’”
It was when she could see and hear the ambulance approaching that Christina had a revelation.
“I was kind of sitting there holding Peyton’s leg, and I finally took time to look around,” she said. “I realized all of my family was there, and I had no top on. I was literally sitting there in the middle of all those people in just my bikini bottoms.
“With the ambulance getting closer, I hollered at some good friends to get me some towels and a T-shirt or something, because I knew I was going in that ambulance, and I wasn’t about to walk into the hospital naked.”
Peyton noticed, too.
“I wasn’t in pain, and I didn’t really cry at all throughout the whole thing,” he said. “I shed a few tears, but I really didn’t want to look at my mom because she had her bikini off. That was a little awkward.”
When paramedics arrived on the scene they applied another tourniquet, a little above the one made from Christina’s swimsuit, and soon Peyton was on his way to Genesis East.
A successful surgery
Dr. Afzal Erik Abdullah was the trauma surgeon on duty that night. He met with Brian and Christina. He told them he wasn’t concerned about being able to repair the artery and vein in Peyton’s leg, but that he was worried about him bleeding out.
When they wheeled Peyton off to the operating room, Christina took off her nurse nametag and replaced it with her mom badge.
“As much as I was able to keep my head together through everything else, the moment they took him back to the OR was the moment that I lost it,” she said. “That’s when I knew he was out of my sight and there was nothing more I could personally do. I had to entrust others.”
Fortunately, many of the people working on Peyton were Christina’s co-workers. She trusted them implicitly. The surgery lasted nearly five hours, and a second one was needed immediately when Christina noticed his calf muscle had swollen substantially after the surgery.
“The doctor and I agreed that he had compartment syndrome,” said Christina, “and that’s where the limb has a substantial amount of fluid that could eventually cut off circulation and could become detrimental to his life.”
Doctors returned Peyton to the OR and performed a fasciatiomy, in which they filleted his calf like a fish. They also attached a wound vac to relieve the pressure.
Christina has nothing but praise for her co-workers at Genesis.
“The chaplain came and spoke with me and was very supportive to me and my husband,” she said. “Our OR team was phenomenal. I work with all these people. They were very understanding and compassionate.”
Peyton was admitted to the ICU, and two days later, July 9, he was transferred to the Pediatrics ICU at University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital in Iowa City.
There, he received several blood transfusions and multiple lab draws. It was discovered that his liver functions were 40 times higher than what they should have been, and there’s reason to believe that he may have had a liver laceration.
Peyton was provided morphine for pain, and on Day 3 was able to transfer from a bed to a recliner with the assistance of physical therapists.
Peyton spent four or five days in the ICU in Iowa City, and was then transferred to the surgical specialty floor. The family talked to surgical teams, learned about the wound vac changes he would require, and began a little bit of physical and occupational therapy.
He underwent surgery on July 14 to close the smaller of the two fasciatiomies, and he was discharged on July 16.
Peyton continues physical therapy in Eldridge and returns to Iowa City every Monday and Thursday for wound vac changes. He also must travel to Coralville each Sunday and Wednesday for a COVID-19 test prior to his treatments the next day.
“It’s a daily hustle and bustle,” said Christina. “Since he’s not tolerating the wound vac changes, because it is so painful, they chose sedation as his best interest.”
The prolonged tourniquets also caused issues with his leg being without blood flow and oxygen for so long, but Peyton has been able to start wiggling his toes.
“He’s having to relearn how to walk, and relearn how to use that leg and foot,” said Christina. “He’s getting some sensation back, and that also means a lot of pain.”
The family has an appointment on Aug. 7 with a vascular surgeon to close the second incision from his fasciatiomy.
“We hope that they can go in and do a little exploratory and see if they are able to get that to close up without having to do a skin graft,” said Christina.
Phenomenal community support
The community support has been off the charts. Peyton’s had contact with his teachers and the principal at Ed White, and his friends and neighborhood have gone out of their way to assist the family.
The Brenners’ daughter-in-law started a Go Fund Me page to help the family with expenses, since Christina doesn’t have much vacation time built up, and Family Medical Leave Assistance isn’t available until you’ve been employed for a year.
“Me being required to take time off to do the cares for Peyton has hit us kind of hard,” said Christina. “The outpouring of support, even from people I don’t know, has been so heartwarming. We are so grateful.
“I say grateful because I can’t find another word to truly express how thankful and how blessed we are to have all this support from people.”
Christina couldn’t be prouder of her son. “I know I’m his mom, but he is the most resilient young man I have ever met in my entire life,” she said. “Oh my gosh, he is so positive. We do have our moments, where some days are harder than others, but getting through those bumps would be so much harder if not for his determination and positive outlook on things.”