By Linda Mansfield
INDIANAPOLIS, April 12 — USAC Traxxas Silver Crown driver Johnny Heydenreich was finally “back home again in Indiana” in mid-March, nearly four months after he left Indianapolis to attend the Performance Racing Industry (PRI) show in Orlando, Fla.
By all accounts he’s lucky he made it back at all.
The Bloomsburg, Pa.-native was seriously injured in a traffic accident in North Carolina on Dec. 5 while he was driving back to his home in Indianapolis to prepare for another racing trade show, the International Motorsports Industry Show (IMIS) at the Indiana Convention Center.
A sales manager for Seals-It in addition to being a race car driver, Heydenreich was transporting the majority of Seals-It’s trade show booth to Indianapolis when the van he was driving and a tractor-trailer made contact near Greenville, N.C. in the wee hours of the morning, sending the van into the side of a bridge.
Heydenreich, a past winner of two of the most prestigious midget races in the country, the Chili Bowl and the Hut Hundred, was unconscious when rescue workers reached him. He regained consciousness while he was being airlifted by helicopter to Pitt County Memorial Hospital in Greenville. His injuries included a broken right arm; six broken ribs on his right side; a bruised lung; a shattered right ankle; a broken fibula in his right leg and numerous cuts in his forehead that required nearly 100 stitches. Heydenreich’s head impacted the van’s windshield and his right ankle became lodged under the van’s dashboard during the crash.
The only thing Heydenreich remembers is rescue workers pulling his head out of the windshield.
The van was demolished.
Heydenreich’s right ankle was so badly injured that he risked losing his foot and the bottom of that leg.
Since that fateful morning Heydenreich has undergone three surgeries in North Carolina, Connecticut and New York City. He is currently an outpatient of Dr. Robert Rozbruch at Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) in Manhattan. Heydenreich is still on crutches but he’s doing well and expects to be back racing this summer.
This season marks Heydenreich’s 50th year of racing. A very personable and popular driver, he is well known for his numerous victories in the American Racing Drivers’ Club (ARDC) midget series in the East in addition to his prowess in USAC races throughout the Midwest. He finished fourth in USAC Silver Crown points in 2005 driving for Sharon Bank. He would like nothing better than to get back behind the wheel of the No. 90 USAC Silver Crown car, which is sponsored by Superior Tank & Trailer, CoolFitWear.com and ShopForPuppy.com.
But all of that — and life as he knew it — looked slim when faced with the possibility of losing his leg.
He underwent a four-hour surgery on the ankle on Jan. 10. At that time Dr. Rozbruch used the Ilizarov method, which entails the use of an external fixator device, to reconstruct and save Heydenreich’s ankle.
This method, which began in Russia, works on the principle of distraction osteogenesis and reverses the long-held belief that bone cannot be regenerated. In this process a bone that has been cut during surgery can be gradually distracted (pulled apart), leading to new bone formation (osteogenesis) at the site of the lengthening. In Heydenreich’s case Dr. Rozbruch inserted three circular external fixation devices (metal rings) and bone marrow from other parts of Heydenreich’s body to regenerate the bones in his ankle.
“It kind of looks like bead locks for a mini-sprint’s wheels,” said Heydenreich of the three rings that surrounded his ankle. The apparatus included seven pins with 14 insertion points that went directly into and through the bone and out the other side, and two studs that threaded into the bone.
At the end of February the bottom ring was removed, which allowed Heydenreich to start to move his ankle. He hopes Dr. Rozbruch will be able to remove the other two rings at the middle or end of May, and then he wants to resume his racing career as soon as possible.
“I was lucky because they didn’t have to remove the plate that was already in that ankle from one of the surgeries I had in North Carolina,” Heydenreich said. “That saved me quite a bit of time in the recovery process.
“But it’s been quite an ordeal,” Heydenreich admitted. “When I woke up from the four-hour surgery the first thing I did was check to make sure I still had a foot. The work that Dr. Rozbruch did is really amazing. I missed Christmas but I really wanted to get home to celebrate my daughter’s birthday in March, and I made it!”
“Johnny suffered a pilon fracture, which is one of the most challenging fractures in orthopedics,” said Dr. Rozbruch, director of the limb lengthening and complex reconstruction service at HSS. “There’s a very high complication rate and a high chance of infection if surgery is performed. Johnny had been told to wait until the swelling went down before the final surgery, but infection and bone loss can cost people their leg.
“I was able to stabilize the fracture and place the fixator in such a way that it would gradually correct the deformity, because Johnny’s ankle was already healing in a position that was crooked,” Dr. Rozbruch said. “We were also able to protect the cartilage in his ankle to lower the risk of arthritis. The fixator actually enables ankle cartilage to regenerate. It’s a joint preservation technique.”
“Within 5 minutes of meeting Dr. Rozbruch I knew he was the man for the job,” Heydenreich said. “I’ve been a people person all my life, and he is too. He has confidence and he is professional but he isn’t arrogant. He just told me what he could do, made a plan and laid it on the line. I’ve been trying to do everything he says and we’re making progress, and I plan to be back racing this summer. I’m anxious to get back to the track and see all my racing friends, for sure!”