TYLER — John Zumbro had just crashed his motorcycle on Interstate 20 and was thrown off his bike into grass and weeds up to 3 feet tall.
Zumbro and his motorcycle were not visible from the road, and there were no signs of an accident if someone came to look for him. He was unconscious, and any movement could cause paralysis or death.
The “butterfly effect” describes how even a butterfly’s wings could cause a change in the weather that could lead to a tornado. It also describes how one change in your routine can alter events in your day.
In the case of Zumbro, two events took place that altered his rescue that day.
Courtney Shelton was visiting her mother and was heading back to Tyler when she had to go back as her mother left her purse in the car. She was with her two daughters and they were on their way, the usual Texas 64 to Tyler when Kylie, 14, asked her mom if they could take Interstate 20 because there is internet on the interstate and not on the rural roads. It’s a route they had never taken before.
Shelton saw Zumbro getting on I-20, but assumed he had sped ahead. While most teenagers would have been looking at their phone, Kylie had her eyes on the road and saw something different.
“Kylie saw him swerve off to the right and then go flying through the air. She said ‘no mom, stop, stop stop.’ The grass was 2 or 3 feet high. The motorcycle was hidden and he was hidden,” Shelton said. “There was no way someone was going to find him unless they were walking in there looking for him. He flew quite a ways away from his motorcycle when I found him. He was on his back, so I knew he had major injuries based on the distance he flew and the height he flew from my daughter’s description.”
Zumbro originally wasn’t alone. He was going to visit his son at college in Tyler on that day in May 2020. The Wills Point motorcycle enthusiast said he had his nephew, Justin, ride with him because it’s always better to ride in pairs.
“We came down 64 and went to get on I-20. Justin is a little younger than me, and he got on the highway and took off ahead of me down I-20. At that point, on I-20, it’s very dangerous so you have to pick up your speed really quick. As I got on the on-ramp, I got it up to 71 miles per hour, but something caught my attention to the left of me, and when I looked back, there was no shoulder on that road at all,” Zumbro said, remembering.
The bike drifted on the median, and he knew he lost it and said, “Dear God help me.”
Zumbro said the next thing he remembered was laying on the ground with “terrible pain going through me. My hands were totally numb, my arms were numb but the odd thing about it was, I could not move my head left or right. Somebody had got on me and was straddling my head with their knees and keeping me from turning my head. It was a young lady who said ‘please don’t move, you’ve been in a motorcycle wreck.’ The calmness of her voice is what kept me from being scared. She talked really gently to me, and it was such a calming effect. I remember them loading me on the helicopter and she was right to the right of me and I never saw her again.”
It was Shelton, who is clinic director of surgery for pre-op at Christus Trinity Mother Frances Hospital in Tyler.
“I did what we were taught to do. I asked him, ‘Sir, are you OK, are you OK?’ He is unconscious and breathing, but breathing shallow. I had my phone with me and we called 911, then you go into your ‘fight or flight’ mode, and as a nurse, we learned to make sure his head was stable,” Shelton said. “As time passed, and it took 20 minutes because we were in the middle of nowhere, I was keeping him still. He wanted to get up and he wanted to move. But he was coming in and out of consciousness, and I had to keep reminding him over and over again what happened.”
Zumbro came out of surgery and the doctor gave him the news.
“The doctor said Courtney is why I am here. Had I turned either direction, I would be a quadriplegic or worse. Then, you think about where I was at, how tall the grass was, if she had not seen me … there was no one else on the highway. She was like an angel and God had sent her … and Kylie,” Zumbro said. “When you take a fall at 60 years old, that’s incredible … I shouldn’t even be here, going at that speed, flying that far and landing on my back.”
On Thursday, as a part of Nurses Week, Christus Trinity Mother Frances Health System honored nurses with several awards. Shelton was honored with the Good Samaritan Award.
As Christus Mother Frances Hospital President Jason Proctor gave her the award at the Wisenbaker Conference Center in Tyler, Zumbro walked in from the back, the first time they had seen each other since the helicopter took him from the crash scene.
Zumbro also gave her and her daughters gifts. He said, “There is not enough I can do for her and her daughter. They saved my life. And how do you pay someone back for that?”
The two are now friends on Facebook and exchanged phone numbers as they plan to stay in touch.
Shelton was thanked again and again. She smiled and added, “it’s in my nature to help someone.”