Dr. Ronald Cornelsen with his granddaughter in a 2020 photo. (Courtesy of Megan Kiklas)
A longtime Huntington Beach pediatrician is recovering in Salt Lake City after being hit by a truck while checking on people who were involved in a separate car crash on a freeway.
Dr. Ronald Cornelsen, 88, was on a road trip with his daughter and her husband earlier this month when they witnessed a crash on I-80 outside of Salt Lake City. The group stopped to check on the passengers involved in the wreck they witnessed when a semitruck hit a truck on the road that then slammed into Cornelsen and his daughter, Heather Williams, according to news reports of the crash.
Williams, 50, was thrown over a fence that runs parallel to the two-lane freeway, and Cornelsen hit the ground and was partially in one of the lanes, unable to move, said Megan Kiklas, another daughter of Cornelsen.
Cornelsen recounted to Kiklas at the hospital that it “felt like my hair was moving with every car that went by,” she said. “My Dad laid there and just prayed.”
Cornelsen and Williams had to be airlifted to the hospital. There, doctors said Cornelsen had several broken ribs, fractures in his pelvis and sacrum, a concussion, road rash injuries to his head, and cuts throughout his body. Williams “took the brunt of the accident” to her face, lost an eye and needs more facial reconstruction surgeries.
Utah Highway Patrol is still investigating the incident.
Kiklas said this wasn’t the first time her father has stopped to help people after an accident. A few summers ago, he tended to teenagers involved in a wreck at Pacific Coast Highway and Warner Avenue.
Cornelsen has worked as a pediatrician in Orange County since the 1960s, most known for his practice on Beach Boulevard in Huntington Beach. He retired in 2020. His daughter, Williams, was raised in Orange County, but now lives in Iowa. Both are in stable condition and recovering at the Craig H. Neilsen Rehabilitation Hospital at the University of Utah Hospital.
Kiklas said her father’s therapists are targeting early December for him to return to his Huntington Beach home, depending on how he improves. He’s expected to need home healthcare since his left leg can’t bear weight for at least another two months, and his pelvis will need at least half a year to heal, she said.
Cornelsen was born in 1935 in Bakersfield, but grew up in Hillsboro, Kansas, where his father was the mayor and owned a Ford dealership and his mother was a homemaker. He worked on his grandparents’ farms over the summer and went to the University of Nebraska and then studied medicine at Loma Linda School of Medicine.
“He wanted to go into medicine when he was a kid,” Kiklas said. “The town pediatrician made him feel comfortable, and that was what he wanted to do. He didn’t want kids to be (fearful) of going to the doctor.”
After completing his residency at the Los Angeles General Medical Center, Cornelsen opened a practice in Westminster in September 1964, before opening an office in Huntington Beach in 1968. In Cornelsen’s waiting room, he kept large wooden boats he built himself that children for decades played on while they waited to be seen.
Cornelsen left with Williams and her husband from Huntington Beach on Nov. 2. They were at Yosemite National Park until Nov. 6, when they left to drive to their booked hotel in Salt Lake City. Their final destination was Colorado to visit family.
Since Kiklas made her father’s injuries public, she said there’s been an outpouring of support from people who were patients of Cornelsen wishing him well and contributing to GoFundMe pages set up for both Cornelsen and Williams.
Cornelsen’s wife, Denise, said everyone’s kind notes to the family mean a lot to her and Cornelsen. She hopes he can be home by Christmas.
“He’s such a wonderful person and a wonderful husband,” Denise said. “This is really hard because he cares for other people. Now he’s having to be cared for.”