Rescuer, crash survivor reconnect years after life-changing car accident

Chance meeting leads to new friendship

TROY, Mich. – It should have been an ordinary meeting to discuss an upcoming hospital research project.

But for Dr. Dave Donaldson and engineering student John Katona, it turned into so much more.

As Donaldson immediately realized, the men had crossed paths before nearly nine years ago, on a night Katona can't remember, and Donaldson will never forget.

It was nearly 5 o'clock on a Friday in April 2005. Then 17-year-old Katona was driving down Adams Road in Oakland Township, on his way to his part-time job.

Tired from pulling an all-nighter, the straight-A student fell asleep at the wheel and crashed head-on into an oncoming truck.

A few cars back, Donaldson, a Troy Beaumont emergency room doctor, was on his way to dinner with his wife and three children.

"We saw smoke coming from the engine, and we knew it was a bad accident," said Donaldson.

Without hesitating, Donaldson and his wife, a nurse, jumped out of their vehicle and raced to the crash.

"What I saw was quite shocking to me. It was a young man who was obviously very badly injured," said Donaldson. "My biggest concern at that point was he just wasn't breathing, and I knew again I needed to do something quick."

Reaching through the broken glass, Donaldson performed a maneuver called a jaw thrust to open Katona's airway and waited for rescuers to arrive.

"I was afraid that if I let go, he would lose his airway, you know permanently, so I did not want to let go under any circumstance," said Donaldson.

As the Oakland Township firefighters worked to cut Katona out of the car with the Jaws of Life, Donaldson continued to hold on tight.

"Obviously I didn't have any protective gear on, so I do remember one of the firefighters putting, it was either a large coat or blanket, around me as I held onto his airway," said Donaldson.

A medical helicopter was called, but it needed more open space to land.

"We boarded an ambulance and drove that quarter of a mile. In the ambulance ride, just that few minutes, unfortunately John began to have a seizure," said Donaldson.

Donaldson was able to intubate Katona and as the helicopter flew away, he called ahead to the Royal Oak Beaumont emergency room to let them what to expect when Katona arrived.

"The receiving physician, when I talked to him, he could sense that I was anxious and I was not my normal self," said Donaldson. "He didn't realize I was actually calling from the middle of nowhere on Adams Road and not from another hospital."

Katona was severely injured, but thanks to Donaldson and the rest of the rescuers, he survived.

"I broke my neck, and I had a head injury," said Katona. "I was told that I probably wouldn't have lived if someone wasn't there."

He gradually learned the accident had left him paralyzed from the chest down.

"I was in ICU for a month, and then I was in the hospital for two months, and then did rehab for another three months," said Katona.

Determined to continue his life, Katona returned to high school for his senior year and graduated on time.

Unable to play guitar any longer, he turned to electronic music and now plays in the band Dog & Panther. The group had a song appear in one of this year's Super Bowl commercials.

His attitude about his injury --

"If I give up, live off the government, take aid and don't do anything, my life is going to be worse than if I try harder and try to do great things."

And he's doing great things.

Katona earned an industrial engineering degree from Oakland University, is finishing his master's, and plans to pursue a Ph.D.

"He is really unique as an engineer because of his people skills and his outside interests," said Bob Van Til, Ph.D., professor and chair in the industrial and systems engineering department at Oakland University. "Industrial engineering does involve working with people, so it's a nice skill to have, but John takes it to a whole different level. He's just an amazing, positive guy."

It was Katona's thesis project that would bring his amazing story of survival full circle, more than eight years after his accident.

He was working with Troy Beaumont creating a computer simulation to study the flow of patients in the emergency room. At one of the initial meetings, a doctor he didn't know approached him.

"I said to him, 'You probably don't know who I am, do you?'" said Donaldson. "And he gave me a blank stare, looked at my name tag, and said, 'Nope.'"

"He said, 'I was at the scene when you got in your car accident,'" said Katona. "It was kind of a big surprise."

It was also the start of a true friendship. They've met each others' families and talk often. Katona even recorded a song in his recording studio for Donaldson's daughter.

"I would stop for anybody in that circumstance, but I think just icing on the cake is seeing what a wonderful person John is," said Donaldson.

"I think it was miraculous, I think it was a 'God thing,'" said Katona. "What are the chances of a guy who can actually help, being there to help, at that time?"

Donaldson said he thinks about that night often, as a doctor and as a dad.

"I think it hits you a lot different when it's not in the hospital setting," said Donaldson. "You're not prepared for it, I mean I was ready to go out to dinner with my family."

And for that, Katona is forever grateful.

"It's nice to show the impact that he has had on my life and what I've done since then, and how important he was in where I am."

They plan to keep in touch going forward, and of course, there's still that research project to finish.