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Persistence for love and life: Fredericksburg man gets a second chance after a serious car accident

VCU Health's Shining Knight Gala honors the Level I trauma center and rescue workers who saved Michael Merrigan.

Man and woman smiling on ferry ride Michael Merrigan was involved in a serious car crash several months after marrying his wife, DawnMarie. (Contributed photo)

By Leigh Farmer

Fredericksburg resident Michael Merrigan is a pretty fun guy.

“Everyone is just drawn to him. He is incredibly smart. He is incredibly funny. Quick,” Nancy Ecklond, his sister, said.

In fact, Michael’s wife DawnMarie was smitten with him from the start.

“It was all about jokes and goofing around and having a good time and always a positive attitude. That captured my heart,” DawnMarie said.

But humor only goes so far. It’s Michael’s persistence that sealed the deal. “We got engaged after I think it was the eleventh or twelfth time, he asked me to marry him,” she said.

Michael’s persistence is a key reason why he is still alive, VCU Health team members say.


(Courtesy BookEnd Creative)

On the morning of February 15, 2023, newlywed DawnMarie got a phone call from Michael’s boss.

“He said ‘hey, is Mike home?” she recalled.

Her heart sank. Michael never made it to work. She knew something was wrong, immediately.

Michael’s car was upside down on the interstate in Caroline County. The local fire and rescue team was on the scene in minutes, working hard to get Michael out of the car.

Once paramedics got an IV started, they called for a helicopter to transport him. Due to the complex injuries, they knew that the best place for Michael to get treated was the Level I comprehensive trauma center at VCU Medical Center.

A team approach to critical care

The trauma care team quickly discovered that Michael had injuries to the head, neck, and torso. But, according to the team, their biggest and most immediate challenge was internal bleeding in his abdomen.

Within minutes of arriving at VCU Medical Center, DawnMarie learned how serious the situation was from the care team. Surgeons were going to remove his spleen, pancreas and patch up a tear in his colon. “They said ‘we’re in the mode now of going all out to save Michael,” she added.

two health care workers look at a monitor tracking a patient's heartbeat

The Level I trauma center's interdisciplinary care team provides patients and caregivers a holistic approach to treatment and aftercare from traumatic injuries. (Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

As the trauma team chief resident, Renee Cholyway, M.D., was part of the team leading charge to save Michael’s life.

“When you have a patient who is not doing well, they’ve had a big trauma, some of the safest things to do are to just explore and rule out anything that can be life threatening,” Cholyway said.

Cholyway and her attending physicians were able to take care of the bleeding and stabilize Michael so the team could tend to the rest of his injuries safely. The list of injuries seemed endless to his family, to the point that his sister thought her “brother was unrecognizable” in the hospital bed.

Michael's wrist was fractured. Plates and screws were put in his collarbone. He had a soft tissue spinal cord injury which caused temporary paralysis. Michael's sternum was cracked in half. His ribs were so broken they required surgery to be put back in place.

“If you take a deep breath with so many broken ribs and having chest tubes and all this stuff, it hurts. So he just tried not to breathe,” said Reinaldo Robles, R.N., who works in the Surgical Trauma Intensive Care Unit.

Between the surgeries and inpatient care, Michael developed pneumonia. It was a second gut punch to Michael’s family, already worried that he may not recover. “He’s in the right place. We’re going to take care of him,” was Robles's mantra with Michael’s wife and sister.

From orthopedics to neurology, the care team at VCU Medical Center worked together to give Michael a second chance at life. The cohesiveness brought comfort to his family.

“We felt confident that we had a village to support us and that everyone was really vested. So, I really didn't think that we were going to lose my brother,” Nancy said.

At the end of the day, it was really [Michael's] determination and excellent family support that helped carry him through this difficult time in his life. 

Natalie Hart, P.T., D.P.T., an acute physical therapist at VCU Medical Center

Michael was slowly weaned off the ventilator. And once he could breathe on his own, the physical and occupational work began. Three hours a day, Michael worked with a team of physical therapists, occupational therapists and speech pathologists. It takes the collaboration of an interdisciplinary team to help patients take the step from the intensive care unit to rehabilitation and, over time, a full recovery. A patient’s success, though, not only comes from the clinical staff, but also the support of family members and one’s own determination to get better.

“At the end of the day, it was really his determination and excellent family support that helped carry him through this difficult time in his life," said Natalie Hart, P.T., D.P.T., an acute physical therapist at VCU Medical Center.

After 47 days in the hospital, Michael was transferred to Sheltering Arms Institute, a collaboration with VCU Health, for inpatient rehabilitation. He made the most out of his time at the Institute, determined to get home to his new wife and the life they were just beginning to build.

Christine McQuay, Michael’s occupational therapist at Sheltering Arms Institute, could see his persistence from day one.

“Being able to bump up his discharge a few days was very exciting for him and a goal that he had,” McQuay said.

While the trauma care team was no longer working with Michael, they never stopped cheering for his progress. But they credit Michael for his own hard work toward his recovery.

Unwavering dedication creates Shining Knights

Every year, VCU Health recognizes and honors the emergency personnel, nurses, doctors and team of medical professionals who provide second chances to people on the verge of death through the Shining Knight Gala.

The unwavering dedication of these VCU Health team members is something that sticks with patients, caregivers and the community. DawnMarie will never forget those who saved the love of her life.

“It's selfless," she explained. "You gave us a chance to have a life that we didn't think possible. He's now here to see his grandchildren. He's here to be with his family, to go out with friends, to do things. He's back to work and no one thought that was going to be possible.”

Man with bandages next to woman, man also walking with help of physical therapist

Michael Merrigan's care team says his persistence was a critical part of his successful recovery. (Sherilyn Smail, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

The persistence of the team at VCU Health’s Level I trauma center saves lives, daily. It’s a fact that Michael’s sister shouts from the rooftops any chance she gets.

“VCU is among the best of the facilities I've ever witnessed in my life," Nancy said. "I feel as though we couldn't have been in a better place in the United States. Truly.”

This year's Shining Knight Gala took place on May 18, 2024, and honored Michael’s trauma care team for the herculean effort they displayed during his stay. The gala raises money for VCU Health’s Injury and Violence Prevention Program and honors those who protect and save lives in the Richmond region.