By Jennifer Kotila
DASSEL, COKATO, MN Justin Bollin, a 2009 Dassel-Cokato graduate, and his family never suspected how drastically his life would change the morning of Feb. 26, 2010.
Bollin’s day started pretty typically that morning. Having just finished working a 12-hour shift at Jennie-O in Willmar, he and a friend, Kevin Pearson, went out for breakfast at Perkins.
After eating, Bollin dropped Pearson off, and started the journey to his dad, Jay Bollin’s home in Dassel, where he was living at the time.
On Highway 12, between Kandiyohi and Atwater, Bollin said he drifted off to sleep and rear-ended a semi-truck that had just pulled out of the ethanol plant.
Though Bollin does not remember much about the incident.
“I remember waking up when I heard the Jaws of Life cutting me out of the car. They had to cut the door off to get me out,” he said.
After being extricated, Bollin was transported by ambulance to Rice Memorial Hospital (RMH) in Willmar, where he was hospitalized for one week.
Externally, Bollin had a small cut on his leg, along with bumps and bruises.
However, internally, Bollin had a lacerated liver just under his bile duct. There was a small tear in the bile duct, causing it to leak, he said.
While in the hospital, Bollin underwent a procedure to place a stent from his liver to his intestines to control the bile leak, his mother, Debbie Sale, wrote on his Caringbridge website.
When Bollin was released from RMH, he went to stay in Cokato with his sister, Jennifer Breiwick, who helped monitor his pain and get him to his follow-up doctors’ appointments.
Doctors continued to monitor Bollin’s liver function and watch for infection and pain.
He was expected to fully recover, with nobody suspecting what was about to come next.
Bollin hospitalized with life-threatening infection
After about two weeks at home, Bollin became very ill. He could not keep down any food or water, had severe abdominal pain, cold sweats, a high fever, and his heart was racing, he said.
Some of Bollin’s test results became a concern for doctors March 16, and Bollin went for a CT scan the following day in Waconia.
Upon review of the scan, the doctors realized Bollin’s stent had become dislodged and bile was leaking into his abdomen.
Bollin was immediately transported to Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) by ambulance.
The next day, Bollin underwent laparoscopic surgery to insert a new stent and remove several pockets of infection caused by the bile leak.
The morning after his laparoscopic surgery, Bollin suffered respiratory distress and had to be intubated and placed on a respirator to breath.
He was rushed into surgery again where an incision was made from Bollin’s sternum to his pelvic bone, with another incision below his rib cage to his liver, said Amanda Kranzler, Bollin’s girlfriend.
What the surgeons found was not good. Bollin was full of infection.
While cleaning out pockets of infection, Bollin’s hepatic artery ruptured.
“The surgeon, Dr. VanCamp, said she tried to sew the hepatic artery back together, but it was like sewing tissue paper,” Kranzler said. The infection had eaten it away.
Bollin needed 10 units of blood during surgery.
Because surgeons had to repeatedly clean Bollin’s abdomen of infection, and his organs were swollen from the major surgery, his surgical incision was not closed following surgery.
Surgeons told Kranzler and his mother they had found Bollin’s gall bladder was no longer connected and it had just been floating in his abdomen.
After surgery, doctors did not expect Bollin to make it through the night. His liver was barely functioning and was only receiving blood through small capillaries, since the hepatic artery had disintegrated.
The day after surgery, Bollin was assessed to see if he would be eligible for a liver transplant because his liver was failing.
Although Bollin would have been placed at the top of the waiting list for a new liver because of the infection, a new liver was not feasible, Kranzler said.
“We were told that all we could do is pray for your liver to last long enough to get the infection under control,” Breiwick wrote in his journal.
That evening, the family finally heard some good news from the doctors. Bollin’s liver function tests had stabilized and were improving.
At this time, Bollin was in a medically-induced coma, and had a breathing and a feeding tube.
He remained in the medically-induced coma for nearly a month while doctors worked to clear his infection.
The long road to recovery
Finally, doctors were able to place a mesh in Bollin’s abdomen to begin pulling together his abdominal wall, which had been open about 10 inches for more than two weeks.
Every few days, Bollin would be back in the operating room to pull the mesh tighter to close his abdominal wall.
Bollin had another small setback when doctors began weaning him off the ventilator. He had developed an infection in his lung that could not be treated by antibiotics, because it would be too hard on his liver.
“Mom was worried about this and scared we were starting all over again,” his mother wrote in Bollin’s journal. “I prayed a lot today, and also cried a lot. I am so proud of how strong you are and keep fighting this. Mom will be with you every step of the way.”
A chest tube was placed to drain the fluid from Bollin’s lung.
Through all of that, doctors continued to wean Bollin off sedation and the ventilator. He was completely off sedation four weeks after being admitted to HCMC.
A HIDA scan was performed during another surgery April 23 to check for more bile leaks.
To the doctors’ surprise, Bollin’s bile duct was repairing itself and pushing through the scar tissue, meaning he would not have to have reconstructive surgery to repair it, his mother wrote on Caringbridge.
Bollin’s abdominal wall was also pulled together enough by this time that a permanent mesh could be placed to hold in his abdomen, Bollin said.
While being weaned off the ventilator, Bollin was sent to Regency Hospital in Golden Valley, where he also began therapy.
By the time Bollin was fully weaned off the ventilator and returned to HCMC, he was able to drink, and eat soft foods. He had also sat up and taken a few steps.
During the last three weeks of Bollin’s hospital stay, he worked at strengthening his back muscles and learning to do things without the help of his abdominal muscles, Bollin said.
Bollin went home May 21. His abdominal wall was mostly pulled together, but the incision had not yet been stitched closed.
Because the incision needed daily care, he stayed with Breiwick.
In early August, Bollin finally had the incision sewn closed.
Although Bollin is now fairly healthy and his liver is functioning well, 55 percent of his liver is just dead tissue. He will have to monitor his liver function for the rest of his life, he said.
He visits the doctor monthly to have labs done, and may still need a liver transplant some day, Bollin said.
Enjoying a cold beer after a long days work is something Bollin will not be able to do. Alcohol would cause more damage to his liver, he said.
Bollin also has to monitor his bile duct, as the scar tissue could constrict the duct, causing it to leak again.
Because he now knows the symptoms to watch for, he will be able to catch a bile leak before it gets as serious as it did after his accident.
Due to the damage to his abdominal muscles, Bollin still deals with severe back pain. His back muscles do all of the work for his upper body, which is usually distributed between the back and abdominal muscles, he said.
Bollin has also changed physically. During the medically-induced coma, Bollin dropped nearly 55 pounds.
“Everybody comments on how I look now,” Bollin said.
He looks better than when he came home from the hospital, when he had a yellowish tinge to his skin, Kranzler added.
Although Jennie-O promised to hold Bollin’s job for a year, it is not yet known when he wil be strong enough to return to that type of work, he said.
One thing is for sure, “I’m glad to be alive, and glad I made it through all of this,” Bollin said.