When an injured mountain biker walked into the emergency room, little did Dr. Keeli Hanzelka know that his injury would turn her into … well, not exactly a Hollywood star, but does Vancouver, Canada, count?
Actually, the real star may be the tree this pedal-pusher fell into. It inflicted a couple of remarkable injuries on this patient, which led to some interesting medical moments and, ultimately, to a Saturday, Jan. 18, episode of the The Learning Channel’s (TLC’s) “Untold Stories of the ER.” (It also is to air on the Discovery Fit and Health channel on Jan. 10.)
As one might expect, this “Untold Story” is based on a true story, but HIPAA and artistic license have altered it significantly. One aspect, though, is true: Hanzelka, who works at University Medical Center Brackenridge and also does several shifts a month at Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas and Ascension Seton Edgar B. Davis Hospital in Luling, not only helped the show prepare the script, she also stars as herself.
Not bad for someone whose entire acting resume previously consisted of being a background singing extra in a single high school musical.
So, what’s the story? The bicyclist suffered a wound to one of his forearms after falling off his bike and landing at the base of a tree (on the show, she’s female; in reality, the patient is a man named Dan Grieco). He went to an urgent care center, where staffers were unable to diagnose his injury. The next day, Grieco showed up in the UMC Brackenridge emergency room with an infected wound.
“Something was in there that was one or two centimeters long,” Hanzelka recalled. She used tweezers and a scalpel to open up a tract in his arm and found a square, thick piece of bark surrounded by smaller tree fragments and a lot of pus.
After removing the foreign objects and cleaning it up, she inserted some gauze into the original opening in the skin and allowed the pus to drain.
Two days later, the patient returned and the wound wasn’t draining – and actually was even more infected. Because the tree bark was originally lodged under the skin a few inches away from the wound opening, it was hard to access the infected area. So in order to do the most complete cleaning possible, Hanzelka cut a second hole in the patient’s arm, near where the bark was originally wedged. From there, she cleaned the wound by flushing saline into it and having it exit through the second hole. Doctor and patient agreed to keep it open so it could properly heal.
Then it got weirder.
“Right as I and the nurse went to discharge him, he says, ‘Hey, I forgot. I wanted you to take a look at something on my butt,’ ” Hanzelka said.
What Grieco had thought was just a sore from the fall had turned into a painful knot on his left side that was getting worse. Hanzelka looked and saw a “tiny scab” that was slightly red.
So out came another suture kit, the buttocks was numbed, the area beneath the scab explored and … you guessed it, another piece of tree bark, this one “impaled a good two centimeters below his skin. He’s still so puzzled as to how it got there because he said he was wearing underwear and bike shorts” when the accident occurred, Hanzelka said.
In the TV show, some dramatic aspects have been added. For example, the now female patient has a boyfriend who throws up on another patient after watching Hanzelka remove the first piece of bark and running from the room (and the lucky “extra” who got to be thrown up upon was the episode’s director).
After sharing this tale with “Untold Stories,” Hanzelka was invited to the episode filming in Vancouver in late September. Her tight schedule being what it is, she raced to the Austin airport after finishing up an unusually busy 24-hour shift at Ascension Seton Edgar B. Davis with emergency rooms full and some patients in hallways. (Actually, it was a 23-hour shift; one of her colleagues covered her last hour so she wouldn’t miss her flight.)
In Vancouver, during the “read through” of the script, talking stopped when everyone at the table came to the doctor’s first line.
That’s when Hanzelka realized she would star in her own story.
She not only did a camera-facing interview to more or less narrate the segment, she performed in 15 or 16 scenes (voicing three to four lines per scene) shot over 13 hours during a single day. At times, she changed her lines without complaint from the director.
The glitz, the glamor, the bright lights, the star treatment (Hanzelka had assigned to her some who continually did her hair and makeup between scenes) – what did she think about being a star?
“I will keep my day job,” she said simply, smiling.