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A Second Chance at Life

Loras student crushed by train in Dubuque shares recovery story

By Assistant Professor of Media Studies Mark Mederson PhD for the Telegraph Herald

“The last thing I remember doing was praying to God, and I told Him, ‘No one else is out here to help me except you, God.’ I needed help bad, and about that time, somebody came running, and I just heard the crunching in the snow running towards me, and it was getting louder,” Jayden Upton, 21, said as he used the sleeve of his hoodie to wipe away the tears streaming down his face.

It was late in the evening on Saturday, Feb. 4. Upton, of Rock Island, Ill., was lying on his back in a snow bank near the Third Street bridge and US 61/151 yards from the railroad tracks. He had been there for more than an hour when the man approached. The man, who Upton said has never been identified, screamed expletives when he first laid his eyes on Upton’s severe injuries. His arm and leg had been crushed when he was run over by a train.

“I couldn’t turn around to see who it was,” Upton said. “I said, ‘I need help, man. Is there any way you can help me?’ About that time, I heard him take off running … gone.”

Upton said he had no idea whether the man had run for help or just left him there, very near death. Just minutes later, Upton could hear sirens, and he knew help was coming. It wasn’t long, he said, before police officers were on the ground next to him.

‘It hit my shoulder first’

The day started like many others. Upton, who was a junior at Loras College at the time, had put in a shift at Pro-Clean car wash on University Avenue. After work he went to his rental house on Alta Vista Street, just across the street from the Loras College Fieldhouse. He said he was hanging out there with his friends before they all headed to downtown Dubuque.

Some time later, his friends decided to head back home. They planned to meet Upton later at Diamond Jo Casino. The temperature that night was in the low 30s, pretty mild for Dubuque in early February. Upton decided, like he had done many times before, to just walk to the casino by himself.

As he neared the casino, he hit a roadblock: a stopped train on the track. He said there was no indication — no flashing lights or sounds — to alert him that the train was going anywhere any time soon. Upton decided to cross under the coupler between two cars. As soon as he crawled under the coupling, he heard a noise, a sound he described as a pressure release. The train began rolling and Upton said there was no time to get out from under it.

“It hit my shoulder first,” he said as he grabbed his left shoulder, “and it knocked me on my butt.”

The train then ran over his left leg and arm. Upton’s voice cracked as he said, “I can’t even describe the pain at first.”

He said he knew he wanted to get away from the train as fast as possible. In excruciating pain and with the use of only his right arm and leg, Upton, who is listed as 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds on the Loras College football roster, said he “army crawled” several yards on his back.

He stopped in a snow bank against a fence and began yelling for help. After the train passed, he said he could see people across the road but his cries for help went unanswered.

“I thought I was yelling loud, but who knows,” Upton said.

Upton said it felt like he had been lying there forever. Train records show that the train began rolling at 11:15 p.m. and police records show they were dispatched to the scene at 12:35 a.m.

Upton’s father, Jason, said his son lost a lot of blood. He recalled the doctors at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City saying that several factors contributed to Jayden surviving that long with such severe injuries. First, the fact that he had moved himself to the snow bank; the cold helped constrict his arteries which kept him from bleeding out.

His physical condition as a linebacker on the Loras football team helped.

And, the alcohol in his bloodstream was vital. Jason Upton said doctors told him this may have prevented his son from going into shock.

Jayden Upton admits he had been drinking before the incident but was not drunk at the time.

Upton said he lay there so long, he could tell his body was beginning to shut down.

“It sounds really weird but my body just kept telling me to go to sleep,” Upton said. “You know, I was tired and my mouth was dry, and I just thought that was it.” It was at that moment when Upton said the prayer.

After first responders arrived, he recalled being put on a stretcher and lifted over the fence he had been leaning against. He said the emergency medical technicians were shaking him in an effort to keep him awake. Police found Upton’s phone which had fallen from his pocket and out of his sight. Upton was taken to UnityPoint Health-Finley Hospital.

He was then transported by helicopter to the hospital in Iowa City.

Upton’s arm and leg were not amputated by the train. In Iowa City, Upton went into surgery with the hope that his limbs could be saved.

Surgeons told his parents, Jason and Stephanie Upton, they weren’t sure how long surgery might take — or if he would even survive. His parents were told their son’s chances for survival were just 11%.

But, doctors said, the longer the surgery, the better Jayden’s chances were. The surgery lasted more than 12 hours.

Doctors were able to save his limbs temporarily. Jason Upton said the limbs were so damaged that they later had to be removed.

‘A second chance at life’

Upton was in a medically induced coma for three days. His mom and dad said that during that time they were directed to prepare themselves for how they would tell him about what happened.

“The doctor said as soon as he wakes up, you’re going to have tell him why he’s missing an arm and a leg,” Stephanie Upton said. “When he woke up, the doctor said gently, ‘Do you know what happened?’” Stephanie Upton recalls her son’s response: “Yeah, I got smoked by a train.”

Jason Upton said at first his son’s left arm ended just below his elbow. Over the course of two weeks his son had surgery about every other day. Each time more of his arm and leg were removed. The tissue on both limbs had died and was creating problems with his son’s kidneys, he said.

The doctors were preparing to start Upton on kidney dialysis, but one of those surgeries was successful, and the dialysis was canceled. Upton ended up with his left arm ending just below his shoulder, and his left leg was removed up to about his mid-thigh.

Upton spent the next 30 days in the hospital. He said everyone at Loras College made him feel loved and supported the entire time he was in the hospital. He was especially thankful for the support of the Loras football head coach, Steve Helminiak.

“Every day, Coach H texted me and called me — asking me how I was doing,” Upton said through tears. “Coach H and some of the players came to the hospital, too.”

Upton’s dad recalls one time they snuck about six or seven players into his son’s room.

After Upton was released from the hospital, he spent 10 days in physical, occupational and speech therapy. Upton said he had tubes in his throat in the hospital that left his voice scratchy.

The good news was his therapy was in a facility in Moline, Ill., near most of his family and friends.

Upton’s dad said getting back to Loras was one of the things that motivated his son in the hospital and during the rehabilitation process.

Upton was on the sidelines in a wheelchair with Duhawk football players at Loras’ first home game this season. He returned again for Homecoming on Oct. 7. While currently attending classes at Eastern Iowa Community College, Upton hopes to reenroll at Loras in the spring.

After a long wait, he finally was fitted for a prosthetic leg, which he used at the Homecoming game.

Upton said he really liked standing with the other players on the team.

Upton’s parents said he’s had an unusually positive attitude throughout the ordeal.

Upton said, since the accident, he has learned to be more patient and live day to day.

“I accept what happened and kind of view it not as losing an arm and a leg, but getting a second chance at life,” Upton said.

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