Up and Away

After a terrible plane accident, Harborview helps rebuild a pilot's life.

John Sessions has been flying airplanes for 35 years, but the pastime hasn’t lost its thrill. Not in the least.

“There’s still a spiritual element when you break through the clouds and you get to the blue above,” says the 65-year-old Sessions, who directs the Historic Flight Foundation. And, like any good pilot, he’s intimately familiar with the mechanical and aerodynamic aspects of flying.

That said, even a pilot with Sessions’ experience can hit a patch of bad luck. The kind that makes your plane fall out of the sky.

A new body
In November 2018, just three months after a plane crash that severed his left foot and led to the amputation of his leg, Sessions is seated at his dining-room table. There are crutches within arms’ length. He’s in good spirits, explaining that the black sock that covers his knee is called a shrinker, and that it’s the prelude to getting a new, prosthetic leg.

Sessions is fascinated by the biology of amputation: that nerves retreat back into the leg, for instance, that veins reorganize themselves, and that the shrinker helps move fluid back toward the heart. He likes to understand how things work, and his recovery has given him time to think about the day leading up to the accident — to identify what, precisely, went wrong.

At the air show
It was Aug. 11, 2018, and Sessions and the Historic Flight Foundation were making their annual appearance at the Abbotsford International Air Show in Vancouver, B.C. Sessions, the foundation’s director, was busy, giving rides in a de Havilland Dragon Rapide from the 1930s and performing aerobatics in a World War II-era Grumman F8F Bearcat.

As the day wore on, the weather turned sour. All manageable, Sessions thought, and he took four passengers up in the Rapide. Suddenly, shortly after takeoff, the wing was struck by a wind shear. Sessions fought to right the plane, but the Rapide had too little horsepower to cope. It dropped 50 feet, nose first, into the tarmac.

Somehow, Sessions did not lose consciousness. Instead, he fashioned a makeshift tourniquet and helped his injured passengers out of the plane. Afterward, medics took him to Royal Columbian Hospital. There, surgeons amputated his leg and sent him home to Seattle — and Harborview Medical Center — to recover.

Getting better
Tuesday is a busy day at the Sessions household: It’s time for the weekly visit to the Harborview Amputee Support Group, where Sessions and other attendees tell their stories, ask questions and trade advice.

It’s also the day that he and his wife, Lucia, visit the rehabilitation clinic at Harborview. At the beginning, this, too, is a weekly visit. The team, led by Janna Friedly, M.D., Res. ’05, UW associate professor of rehabilitation medicine, monitors his wound healing and shows him how to manage daily life — getting out of bed and handling stairs, for example. They transitioned him from plaster casts, to the shrinker, to his first prosthesis.

This care is supremely necessary, but it can’t be taken for granted. Sessions came to Harborview for treatment immediately after surgery at Royal Columbian, but not all of Friedly’s patients take a similar route. Some arrive at her clinic years after their amputation, bringing all sorts of physical and emotional complications with them. “They feel abandoned,” she says.

Emotional complications are also on the team’s radar because, as you might expect, people can react quite differently to amputation. Many are depressed. Some display PTSD-like symptoms. Others, like Sessions, exhibit a resilient optimism.

“I think he’s going to be able to do whatever he sets his mind to,” says Friedly.

Picking up the pace
What Sessions wants to do is run; he ran regularly before the accident. Ed Strachan, CPO, a prosthetics and orthotics expert at Harborview, is at the ready. “My job is to help people recover and regain their quality of life,” Strachan says.

Strachan is deeply interested in the tech behind prostheses. Sixty years ago, he explains, device sockets were made of wood, and people used a sock to protect their limb. These days, the field relies on modern materials like silicone, titanium, fiberglass and carbon fiber. And, in some cases, microprocessors.

A few months ago, Strachan helped Sessions adjust to his first prosthetic leg, a standard model. For running, though, Sessions needed a second leg, one made of flexible, energy-releasing carbon fiber. Strachan fitted him this spring, and now Sessions is running regularly.

“John has progressed a lot faster than most,” says Strachan. “He has a strength that we don’t often see.”

When the culture is right
This is not to say that Sessions’ recovery has been easy. In fact, he and his family experienced another near-death ordeal last September when a blood-thinning agent wore a hole in his stomach, leading to sudden, calamitous blood loss. Today, however, Sessions is determinedly looking forward.

Running his real estate development business keeps him busy. He’s been checking in on his passengers from the air show (all of whom are doing well). And this month, Sessions is back in the cockpit: he flew a C-47 (DC-3) to Normandy, France, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

Though his visits to Harborview have grown less frequent, Sessions had hours to observe the hospital in action, and he has some opinions. He knows Harborview saved his life and helped make him whole. He also saw the way team members enjoy working with each other — and how they believe in the best for all their patients, especially the most vulnerable.

“You can tell, going into an organization, when the culture is right,” says Sessions.

Read More About Sessions’ flight to Normandy.

ACCELERATE CARE

With a gift to the Amputation and Prosthetics Fund for Rehab Services at Harborview.

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