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NEWS | Oct. 1, 2015

The computer that saved the Soldier’s back, and the helmet that saved his life

By Master Sgt. Michel Sauret 416th Theater Engineer Command

DARIEN, Ill. – By the time Nicolas slammed on his motorcycle brakes, it was already too late. The Honda CBR 600 wobbled hard, fell over and he skidded across the road until he and the bike crunched against the pickup truck.

Nicolas Laboy doesn’t remember the accident. He knows he was riding to work, but the entire memory of events has been lost in a sinkhole of his mind. For 10 days following, he lay in a hospital bed in a medically-induced coma.

As he and his mother recalled the injuries, it took them nearly five minutes to list all of them.

His left leg broke in two places: Both the fibula and tibia. He fractured his right foot. He suffered a third-degree burn across his right thigh, likely from the motorcycle exhaust pipe pressing against him on the ground. His kidney and liver were severed. His spleen ruptured. 

“His internal organs were mangled. His stomach was bruised beyond belief,” recalled his mother, Ilda Laboy. 

“He had to remain with his stomach opened while those organs were compacted to stop the bleeding for at least three-and-a-half days ... His stomach was bruised, and his intestines were not where they should have been. They got shifted, so they had to put everything (back) into place,” she said.

But that wasn’t all.

Nicolas also fractured his shoulder at the scapula and chromium, and he suffered three fractures in his spine: Lumbar one, two and three. 

“It would have been worse, but I had my backpack, which had a laptop and a cushion protecting my back. Otherwise, I probably would have been paralyzed because, I mean, a spine breaking ... you know? Yeah.”

He laughed as he listed some of his injuries, including the spine. The laughter expressed relief while disguising a hint of nerves. Still, he seemed in good spirit as he recalled the horrific details, looking much healthier than he did just months earlier.

Laboy said with confidence that the laptop and padding saved him from paralysis. Yet, it was his motorcycle helmet that saved his life. Without that helmet, none of the other injuries would have mattered.

“The doctor told me straight up, ‘If you didn’t have your helmet, you would have died instantly.’ And even with it, I still had a broken nose, and my brain was bleeding internally,” he said.

The accident happened three months ago, one day before the Fourth of July. In a way, it’s ironic that Laboy should suffer this trauma so close to the nation’s most patriotic holiday. He joined the Army Reserve in late 2012, with a commitment to defend the country’s liberties.

Instead of celebrating Independence Day with family, he lay in bed, a dependent of tubes and medical professionals keeping him alive.

Adding to the irony, Laboy had become somewhat the face of the U.S. Army Reserve in the months leading up to the accident. He had posed for an Army photo shoot in Chicago, and those images had been used widely to promote the Army Reserve. In fact – not knowing about the accident – the command sergeant major of the Army Reserve used a portrait of Laboy to wish everyone a happy Independence Day on Facebook. In that photo, Laboy looks over his shoulder wearing his uniform, sporting ballistic glasses and a combat helmet.

Meanwhile, as Laboy’s photo wished everyone a happy Fourth, his life was on the line, with so much medical equipment attached to him that he looked nothing like the poster image he once embodied.

Yet the Army Reserve didn’t leave him behind, forgotten. In the first few hours of the accident’s aftermath, Ilda Laboy called everyone she could think of, from family, to coworkers and even Nic’s Army Reserve supervisors.

“I just remember before I could even hang up the phone, she was in front of me,” Ilda recalls, talking about Master Sgt. Dina Sharp, who was the information technology (IT) and communications (G6) noncommissioned officer in charge for the 416th Theater Engineer Command (TEC) at the time.

Sharp and her husband, Capt. Luc Roy, rushed to the hospital and informed their commander about Laboy’s accident. Roy even went to the scene of the accident to take photos. He saw that things didn’t add up as described in the police report. Laboy had been accused of crossing over into the other lane at an intersection, causing the accident.

“(Roy) got pictures of the crash site taken by first responders that showed the true story,” Sharp said of her husband.

Those photographs helped correct inaccurate witness statements, showing Laboy was innocent. They immediately referred the family to a friend who is a lawyer.

“I was the first person, outside of family, who was allowed back to see Nic ... My heart broke to see Spc. Laboy, one of my Soldiers, lying in that bed with multiple IVs and hooked up to different types of monitors,” said Sharp.

Within days, Roy launched an online funding campaign that would raise more than $35,000 to offset the costs of Laboy’s medical expenses. Roy, Sharp and other Soldiers took to social media to promote the campaign since they couldn’t officially endorse it through military channels due to Army policy.

Both Sharp and Roy visited the hospital as much as possible. They brought Ilda water bottles and food during mealtime visits. They kept the unit informed of Laboy’s progress so Soldiers could visit and pray for him. Soldiers invaded the hospital with get-well-soon cards and small gifts. He even received command coins from the 416th TEC and the command sergeant major of the U.S. Army Reserve.

“I’ve never seen so much love, commitment, honor, shown in my whole entire life. The Army has totally taken my breath away,” said Ilda Laboy with a quivering voice and tears held in her eyes.

“You guys were there for him as much as you were there for me in the worst time of our lives. It was ... ‘My cup runneth over,’ sincerely,” she said.

Laboy agrees. Those Soldiers proved not only their affection, but a type of leadership he admires.

“Going forward, it kind of shows you what an officer or a (noncommissioned officer) is supposed to be like. That is above and beyond what you’re told they’re supposed to do,” he said.

Laboy also received a lot of support from his civilian work, he said. He is an IT specialist at an Aldi corporate office in Batavia, Illinois. At the time of the accident he was a temporary hire, but they are holding a contracted position for when he returns. Through the dark times of his recovery, he looks to these blessings to keep him motivated, and remembers some of the funny moments in between.

After Laboy was out of his coma, but still sedated, a one-star general from the 416th TEC visited him. Laboy tried to lift his right arm, but he couldn’t move it, so he saluted with his left, but immediately worried over the mistake.

“It was just hilarious because he was like, ‘No, no, no, no! Stop! Don’t move, don’t move! Relax!’” Laboy recalled, laughing.

“And after that it was like, OK,” and he sighed in relief.

Laboy spent a total of six weeks in three different hospitals to treat his injuries and receive care for his recovery. He returned home in Bolingbrook, Illinois, in mid-August and continued with another month of physical therapy. His mother and girlfriend moved his bedroom from upstairs to an open day room in the home’s first floor because he still can’t make it up the steps. However, Laboy is expected to walk again in three more months, a prognosis that seemed impossible in the first few hours after the accident.

In fact, he’s fortunate to still have both feet today.

“There was a threat in the beginning. He couldn’t get circulation at the bottom of his left foot, so I had to choose whether to save his kidney or save his foot,” his mother recalled.

As later explained, Laboy needed a computed tomography (CT) scan which uses a dye that allows X-rays to map out his arteries and blood flow down to the foot. However, the dye is hard on the kidneys, one of which had been badly damaged during the accident. In order to do the scan to save the foot, Laboy might loose the kidney. Ilda chose to save the foot at the sacrifice of the kidney, but as it turns out the kidney survived as well.

“Oh yeah,” Laboy responds to whether she made the right decision. “I would have been upset if I woke up missing a leg.”

Now, Laboy has the hope of walking again. He plans on attending Army battle assembly at the unit as early as November, and might move around free of his wheelchair and walker soon after.

The thing keeping him back from a speedier recovery is the open burn on his right thigh. It hurts to touch or when it rubs against something when he moves. Yet, as he feels the burn on his thigh keeping him back, he also feels the burn of life calling him to move forward. It wasn’t just the helmet and laptop that saved his body, but also the love of Soldiers that encouraged him and his family through that journey of recovery. 

The Laboy family would like to thank all of the medical staff at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital (Downers Grove, Illinois), RML Specialty Hospital (Hinsdale, Illinois) and Rush-Copley Medical Center (Aurora, Illinois) and all of the first responders for saving Nicolas’ life and all the medical treatment he received.