Amanda Friedman for Reader's Digest
It was 5:45 a.m. in March 2011, and as pediatrician Michael Shannon, MD, drove along California’s Pacific Coast Highway toward the beach, he could smell the sea. He was taking a route he knew well to meet a friend for their regular Tuesday walk. As he headed toward Dana Point Harbor, a blanket of white suddenly interrupted his vision. A semitruck had pulled onto the road in front of him. The physician had no time to react.
“I probably said a few expletives in my mind,” he recalls. “I remember the wham and the sound of breaking glass, and then everything stopped. I was sitting still.”
Shannon remained conscious during the collision. In the quiet afterward, his first thought was that he was alive. His second thought was that he had to get out—fast. He sensed something burning. His legs and feet, wedged beneath the crumpled dashboard, felt hot. But he was pinned.
Help arrived almost instantly; a unit from the Orange County Fire Department was on the scene in less than two minutes. Four men work on Engine 29—two are paramedics—and that morning, they were returning to their firehouse when they got the call. The guys were exhausted from working all night, but the timing was better than good. They were already in the truck and ready to go.
Arriving at the scene, paramedic Chris Trokey could immediately see how urgent it was. At 30, Trokey had been on the job for eight years, and this accident was a nine out of ten in severity. The whole front end of the SUV was tucked under the body of the semi. He could see that the engine was smoldering—now only a small red flame like a campfire, but he knew it could explode within minutes. The man inside the vehicle appeared remarkably calm. “He wasn’t freaking out. He wasn’t yelling,” recalls Trokey. “He was saying, ‘Get me out of here.’”
Meanwhile, Shannon’s lower extremities were getting hotter. He could feel the nylon mesh of his running shoes melting onto his toes. The crew acted fast. “Someone handed me a fire extinguisher through the window, and I think I used another expletive and said, ‘I need a hose!’” Shannon says. He was given a fire hose and used it to put out the flames inside his vehicle.
The firemen doused the engine fire and called for backup: They needed stronger tools to pry open the SUV. As they waited, Trokey phoned Mission Hospital in Laguna Beach to alert the medical trauma team. After 20 minutes, with a second crew’s help, the Chevy Suburban was opened with the Jaws of Life, and Trokey put the man on a backboard and a gurney within seconds. As he sat with him in the back of the ambulance with the siren blaring, Trokey began to meditate on the crash victim’s name: Michael Shannon.
The paramedic wondered, Could this be the same man who had saved his own life 30 years ago, when he was a preemie and arrived at the very same ER they were headed to with panicked parents and a perilously high temperature? The doctor who slept by Trokey’s side in the hospital until he was well enough to go home? As Trokey sat with Shannon, the feeling of recognition grew stronger. But he didn’t say anything—not then. “I wanted to focus on what was going on.”
In June 1986, Chris Trokey entered the world ten weeks early. His father, Mike, likes to joke that his son loves ambulances because he was almost born in one. Mike and his wife, Dee, went to Mission Hospital after her water broke. There, they were rushed by ambulance to the hospital at the University of California Irvine, 25 miles away. UCI had the region’s only neonatal intensive care unit (NICU); their baby, the Trokeys were informed, had a 50-50 chance of survival.
Weighing three pounds, two ounces at birth, the baby could fit in the palm of Mike’s hand. But Chris was tough, breathing on his own within hours. While he was in the NICU, his parents commuted between Irvine and their home in Dana Point. During those anxious first weeks, Mike and Dee searched for a local pediatrician who was skilled enough to cope with the health problems that premature babies often face. Mike worked as an educator in the Saddleback Valley school district, coordinating programs. As he looked through student files, he noticed one name again and again: Dr. Michael Shannon. When the Trokeys went for a meeting, they liked Shannon right away, from his capable manner to his shoulder-length hair, denim shirt, and turquoise belt buckle. “He was the type of guy you could talk to as if he was your brother,” Dee remembers, “but you had confidence that he could do anything.”
After seven weeks, Chris was discharged, and his parents drove to Shannon’s office so he could check the baby out. Chris was fine. However, within two weeks, he spiked what Shannon coolly calls “a pretty good-sized fever”—dangerous for a newborn but exponentially more so for a preemie. The Trokeys were in touch with Shannon as the fever soared, and the doctor soon suggested the family meet him at Mission Hospital.
Dee was a wreck. Having already faced the possibility that her newborn might not survive and then living apart from him for nearly two months, a life-threatening fever felt like the last straw. At the hospital, Shannon was waiting for the Trokeys. Utterly calm, he took the entire family into his care. There was no infant ICU at Mission at the time, so “pediatricians took care of their own intensive problems,” says Shannon. He took Chris’s blood and sent it to the lab and did a spinal tap to rule out meningitis. Then he put the infant on an IV antibiotic drip and had the parents go home to sleep. Shannon would watch over their son, he told them. The pediatrician stayed with Chris for two nights, and on the third day, the boy went home.
Chris grew up with the family legend of the time that Shannon slept in the hospital with him until he was safe. His parents told the story again and again as the happiest resolution to the most desperate period of their lives. Chris continued to be Shannon’s patient until he was in his teens.
After the car wreck, in an echo of what had happened 30 years before, Chris Trokey stayed by Shannon’s side in the trauma room for a few minutes. “I asked, ‘Do you remember me at all? You stayed with me when I was really little,’” says Trokey. Shannon had suffered a perforated small intestine. He had second- and third-degree burns on his feet, and part of a toe had to be amputated. Shards of glass were embedded in his skin.
Shannon recognized Chris’s name at once. Although he has treated more children than he can remember, it’s the ones who need him most who stick. Yet if they’d passed each other on the street, neither man would have recognized the other: At 72, Shannon had cut his hair short. And at six feet three inches tall and 195 pounds, Chris looked nothing like the fragile baby he had once been.
The day after Shannon’s surgery, Trokey and the crew from Engine 29 went to visit Shannon in the ICU. This was unusual. As firefighters and paramedics, they save lives as a matter of course. But this case was different, because it was such a close call—“I don’t know if he knows how lucky he was,” says Trokey—and such a coincidence. Both men still marvel at the connection. Neither Shannon nor Trokey is a churchgoer, but each says this feeling—of having someone enter your life at a critical time and watch over you until you are well, of giving a gift without expectations and then getting it back when you need it most—has given him faith in a higher power.
Shannon and Trokey are busy people—Shannon sees patients four days a week, and Trokey works three 24-hour shifts a week. But every year on the anniversary of the car accident, the two men meet for a meal. And in 2015, Trokey himself became the father of a baby boy. His name is Porter, and he has had no major health problems so far. Dr. Michael Shannon is his pediatrician.