Duke Football Player Honors Nursing Grad Who Saved His Life after Jet Ski Accident
GREENVILLE—Like many modern-day athletes, Duke football player Blair Holliday has a tattoo on his shoulder. The 20-year-old Southern California native says it is a reminder of a life-changing jet skiing accident that left him in a coma and almost cost him his life nearly one year ago.
But Holliday also notes that the tattoo isn’t quite finished. He explains that it will soon have the addition of two angels – one representing his Blue Devils teammate, Jamison Crowder, and another for Chelsea Gibbons, the Pitt Community College nursing student who helped save his life on Lake Tillery last Fourth of July.
Holliday was in Greenville Tuesday night for Gibbons’ nursing program pinning ceremony at Koinonia Christian Center. Near the event’s conclusion, he walked on stage to pin Gibbons and give her a hug.
“She gave me so much (in saving) my life,” Holliday said before the ceremony began. “All I’m doing is just pinning her at graduation; she deserves so much more from me.”
Though he hasn’t yet fully recovered from the traumatic brain injury he suffered when the jet ski he was riding on collided with Crowder’s, Holliday has come a long way since his lifeless body was pulled from the lake. He is learning how to run, again, but does not know when (or if) he will return to the football field
“I had to learn how to walk, talk and breathe again, on my own,” he said. “I am able to do all of that, now, and it’s been less than a year.
“Right now, my main goal is to graduate from Duke, but playing football again is still there,” he continued. “I know, based on my capabilities now, that it will take me, at best, another year to get back to where I was physically.”
Asked Tuesday what he remembers about his accident, Holliday says it really isn’t much at all.
He can remember thinking about how great it would be to spend Independence Day on Lake Tillery. But his next memory is of him boarding a plane to Atlanta en route to the Shepherd Center – one of the nation’s top rehabilitation hospitals for people with brain injuries. He says he cannot remember anything in between.
But Gibbons has certainly not forgotten about the day she had to call upon her nursing training to keep Holliday’s heart pumping until he could be taken to a hospital.
Without question, Gibbons’ skill and quick reaction kept Holliday alive after he and Crowder collided around 5 p.m. The impact sent Holliday airborne and left him unconscious with a broken jaw and torn shoulder in addition to the serious head injury. Though visibly shaken, Crowder was not seriously hurt.
People celebrating Independence Day at the lake came to Holliday’s aid and pulled him onto a dock not far from where Gibbons was enjoying a Fourth of July picnic at a family friend’s house. Gibbons, who had heard the collision but did not see it, knew Holliday was in trouble when she witnessed him being removed from the lake.
“He was like a ragdoll when they pulled him out of the water,” she said shortly after the incident. “He was just hanging there [in his life preserver].”
As she swam over to Holliday, Gibbons says adrenaline kicked in and her nursing instincts took over. “As I was swimming, I was trying to tell them, you know, just lay him down, keep him flat, don’t move his head,” she said.
After identifying herself as a nursing student, Gibbons checked Holliday’s pulse while her mom, Debbie, spoke with a 911 operator. From her nursing training, Gibbons said she knew what to focus on and that Holliday’s pulse was weak and his breathing shallow. When she could no longer find a pulse, she says she gave him two rescue breaths and started chest compressions.
“I’d never actually used CPR, except on a mannequin in training,” Gibbons said, adding that she had just renewed her CPR certification the month before Holliday’s accident.
When Montgomery County EMS personnel arrived at the scene, Gibbons says they administered oxygen to Holliday, and he was taken to nearby Stanly Regional Medical Center before being transported by helicopter to UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill.
“Nothing set in until after EMS got there,” Gibbons recalled on Tuesday. “And then I got to step back and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what just happened?’”
Though many would describe her actions as heroic, Gibbons says she was just doing her job.
“I still feel like it was something that had to be done,” the High Point native says. “I don’t really feel like a hero, I guess. I wouldn’t have wanted to be a nurse if I weren’t interested in helping people, and that help isn’t limited to just people in the hospital.
“I guess I’m just thankful I knew what to do.”
Holliday is equally grateful. “She was just there at the right moment,” he said. “It’s just like a gift from God, honestly. She was there, she knew what to do.”
Once Gibbons told Holliday when and where her pinning ceremony would take place, he jumped at the opportunity to be in attendance and show her his appreciation.
“… I was going to make sure that I was there to support her as she has supported me,” Holliday said. “Even when I was in the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, she and her mom both came to see how I was doing. That meant a lot to me, so I just wanted to show her how much I appreciate her for doing the things that she's done.”
As he was preparing to place the pin on Gibbons’ nursing uniform, Holliday said he kept thinking, “’She deserves more than this, and I'm going to show it to her – no matter what it is or when it is.’”
“I wouldn't be alive if it weren't for her,” he added.
Gibbons summed up her pinning experience by saying: “It’s pretty much the happiest ending you could think of.”
And while her PCC studies may have come to an end, Gibbons’ nursing career is only beginning – and she already has one former ‘patient’ in her corner.
“I think she will do extremely well [as a nurse],” Holliday said. “To be able to successfully recall what you have been taught and put what you have learned into your own hands and be able to manage someone’s life, on a day where it was a holiday, she hit the ground running; that fact is impressive to me.
“I feel like she was put on this earth for a reason—and that nursing may be the reason.”