Carley Neustel: Brave Little Miracle
By Jodi Harris

Carley Neustel is a beautiful eleven-year-old girl who, at first glance, looks like any other girl her age. Her bright eyes and beautiful smile reflect her positive outlook on life. She and her sister, Sydney, age 14, mom Lisa, and dad B.J. live on a farm near Central City, Iowa. In the past, the girls often took their six-seat Ranger utility vehicle to their creek to fish during the summer, and Labor Day 2015 was no different. On that Monday, however, things were not so typical. Lisa came to the creek on her four-wheeler to get the girls about 6 pm. Carley and Sydney got into the Ranger, and followed Lisa. Carley was driving, lost control, overcorrecting, and one wheel caught the gravel on the side of the road. The Ranger flipped into the ditch. When Lisa did not see the girls, she went back to find the Ranger in the ditch and Carley under the Ranger. Sydney was also thrown from the vehicle, but was not severely injured. Sydney bravely held her sister’s head while Lisa called 911 and went back to the house to get B.J.

When B.J. arrived, he saw the Ranger, wheels up, but could not immediately see Carley. When he got to her, she was alert and knew who he was, and he felt a wave of relief; until he saw her legs. Both legs had been broken, one had two puncture marks where her bones had come through her skin, there was another bone from her right leg, lying beside her, and she had a gash in the back of her head. Sydney was also thrown from the vehicle, but was not severely injured.
The air ambulance helicopter landed in their hayfield
twenty minutes later, and Carley was flown to the University of Iowa Hospitals. Lisa accompanied Carley, and B.J. and Sydney drove to meet them at University of Iowa Hospitals. Once they arrived, Lisa described a flurry of activity as the doctors and nurses went into action to try to save Carley’s legs.

She was immediately taken into surgery and Dr. Michael Willey spent many hours working on her right foot and both legs. By early morning on Tuesday, the family was told that there was still a 90% chance that Carley would lose her right leg. She had lost 12 cm of bone in that leg. During her stay, Carley received multiple surgeries and by the end of the week, the doctors gave her a 50/50 chance of keeping her right ankle and foot. The odds were not great, but gave them hope for Carley.

Dr. Michael Willey, Orthopedic Trauma Surgeon, was Carley’s surgeon. He operates on severely injured patients from the Midwest and many of these injuries are caused by farm accidents. Dr. Willey grew up on a farm in Iowa and cannot stress how important it is to follow safety procedures while living and working on a farm.

“If not for Dr. Michael Willey and the University of Iowa Hospital, I believe that Carley would be wearing a prosthetic rather than walking on her right leg and foot.” Lisa Neustel
During her recovery, Carley was treated like a princess and the Child Life Specialists kept her very busy. The staff in the Orthopedics and PICU became family while she was there. To date, Carley has had more than twenty surgeries and procedures to help her recover from her accident, yet she remains upbeat, positive, and willing to face the challenges that come her way. She has also spoken to groups about the importance of farm safety.

Dr. Willey used a procedure called bone transport or “distraction osteogenesis” to grow new bone across the defect. Her right side also required extensive skin grafting and soft tissue coverage procedures for her tendons. He explained; “To perform bone transport, that bone is cut above or below the segmental defect of the tibia and gradually pulled through the soft tissue 1 mm per day, using external fixation, until the bone fragment crosses the defect. As the bone is pulled through the tissue, new bone grows behind the fragment. Carley performed ¼ mm adjustments to her external fixation’ four times a day for three months. Overall she was in the leg frame for a year after the injury.”

This was a very successful treatment for Carley and it has helped her regrow 9 cm of the 12 cm of bone she lost in her right tibia. Dr. Willey advised they are going to allow her to grow normally for two years, while she will wear a shoe lift to compensate for the shorter right leg. They will then re-evaluate her growth and likely do another bone transport to regrow the remainder of the bone.

Carley has been brave in the face of painful procedures and surgeries. She learned how to care for her wounds after surgery, clean the post op sites and even to take out her own IV’s. Before the accident, she wanted to become a veterinarian, but since her accident, she wants to be a doctor to help others who have had traumatic injuries like hers.

Carley was honored to be chosen from over 2,000 applicants, to be the kid captain for the Iowa vs. Minnesota game on October 8th. To see Carley’s story, go to

Before she left the hospital, Carley made a card for another child who would be treated at the U of I Hospital in the future, and this is what she wrote:

“No matter what they do or what they say, don’t give up hope and keep your courage.” Carley Neustel

*Thank you to Dr. Michael Willey, Lisa Neustel and Carley Neustel for much of the information contained in this feature.

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