Flying to Save Dominic


In one moment, play turned to panic and the longest ride of his grandma’s life


The helicopter ride took only 20 minutes, but for Elena Chavez, who was sitting next to her grandson lying on a gurney, 20 minutes never felt so long.


“I was the most scared I’ve ever been in my lifetime,” she says, reflecting on that midnight ride that was taking her and grandson Dominic from the Paso Robles area to Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital.


It started out as a typical summer day on July 12, 2012. Dominic, then 7 years old, was visiting his cousins near his home in Paso Robles, and the kids were having fun playing on a trampoline.


Dominic was unzipping the trampoline’s netting to get down when he lost his balance and fell onto concrete, hitting his head right in the temple area.


His family rushed him to a nearby emergency department. While the seriousness of Dominic’s head injury was not clearly evident to his family at first, it was Dominic who was the most convinced that his condition was life-threatening.


Elena recalls her grandson’s frightening words to her while they sat in the emergency room awaiting test results. “He told me, ‘Grandma, you don’t understand how much my head hurts. It feels like it’s burning.”



She put her hands around Dominic’s face to lift up his head and to look into his eyes. What she saw sent chills down her spine.


“His eyes looked strange, and I knew that something was very, very wrong,” she said. “He asked me ‘Grandma, will you pray with me?’”


A CT scan was taken and Dr. Richard Lehman, director of pediatric transport services for Cottage Children’s Hospital, was contacted to advise on Dominic’s situation.


“What I saw on that scan was extremely alarming,” said Dr. Lehman. “There was a massive epidural hemorrhage in his brain. Any further delay would surely have cost him his life. The clock was ticking to get him into surgery.”



Approximately 120 children are admitted to the trauma center each year, and about 60% suffer from brain injuries like Dominic’s. The trauma center at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital has been designated by Santa Barbara County Emergency Medical Services and verified by the American College of Surgeons as a Level II Pediatric Trauma Center. This achievement recognizes the trauma center’s dedication to providing optimal care for injured patients, and the hospital’s complete spectrum of care from the prehospital phase through the rehabilitation process. Pictured at right are members of the Trauma Services team at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital; the team worked to establish Cottage Children’s Hospital as a Pediatric Trauma Center.



Dr. Lehman requested an immediate helicopter transfer for Dominic. Children suffering from traumatic head injuries have a critical window of only about 30 minutes for a medical intervention to be performed in order to give them the best chances of recovery.


Within 20 minutes, Dominic was wheeled through the doors of Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, where a team of trauma experts had been assembled for him. Dr. Alois Zauner, a neuroendovascular surgeon, performed an emergency craniotomy to drain the blood seeping into Dominic’s brain.


Dominic’s father, Ernest Cano, was out of town on business when the accident happened, and he was in a panic when he learned that Dominic was in the emergency room.


“I felt so helpless and scared, especially since I couldn’t be there immediately,” he said. “But when I found out he was going to Cottage, I felt like he was going to be Ok. I knew that he was going to have the best care. That gave me great hope.”


The surgery took hours, but when Dr. Zauner finished and came out to speak to the family, he assured them that Dominic would be alright.


Within a day, Dominic’s breathing tube was removed and he was able to talk. Within five days of his terrible injury, he was ready to go home.


Today, Dominic doesn’t dwell much on the incident that almost took his life. His thoughts are on all the things he wants to accomplish, now that doctors have given him the green light to pursue fun activities like playing ball and going to Lego camp.


“It is a miracle, and I can’t say thank you enough to all the people with the loving hands that touched Dominic,” Elena said. “I don’t think my lifetime would be enough time to say how thankful I am to everyone for saving his life.”


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