You did what?! An Alaska bush story of survival (of the fittest)

On call again today–it was really, really chill. I had time to round on my four patients and then review some of our airway/intubation equipment.

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I heard about an amazing story about an incredibly tough liver.

One winter day, a man left a remote village on his snow machine (snowmobile) in temperatures well below freezing. The glare on the snow was blinding, and he hit a patch of slush, came to a sudden stop and was catapulted over the handlebars. He landed on his upper chest onto the ski of his machine. After catching his breath (he didn’t know it at the time, but he broke ribs and other bones and popped his lung), he consciously told himself, “I have to stay awake; I cannot lose consciousness, or I won’t make it.” He stepped in slushy ice that filled his boots with freezing water. The wind was wickedly cold, but he set out walking for the next village.

He had to just keep going. The wind was relentlessly flogging his right side, and his foot was frozen and numb. At one point he needed to make a fire in order to re-warm himself, so he tried to use his lighter to light some grass, but it was too damp. So then he fumbled in his pocket and found a piece of paper–a $20 bill. It was his only hope for getting warmth, so he used it as kindling to make a fire with grass and a log. Luckily it caught fire. He knelt by the log and prayed to make it back safely.

He walked over 10 miles in achingly, numbingly, deathly cold winter wind. With frozen feet. For 10 hours. With one lung. And broken bones. Completely alone. He finally made it back the next morning, and was taken in by his shocked family. They tried to go to the village clinic, but it was closed. So he went home to sleep, because he was utterly exhausted. The next day he went to the village clinic again, and the health aid recognized he needed to go to Nome, but did not realize the extent of his injury.

When he arrived here in Nome, he looked ok. But his right foot looked bad–the entire foot was swollen and red with blistering toes. The left foot was fine. The right side is where the wind was coming from, and the wind-chill is what froze his foot. Other than that, and a bruise on his clavicle and chest, and decreased breath sounds on his right side (but his oxygen saturation was 98% on room air), we still didn’t know what else was wrong.

He had suffered a punctured his lung and was completely deflated (how was he not dying from shortness of breath?), he had several broken bones, including his shoulder blade. It is nearly impossible to break your shoulder blade unless you have a tremendous amount of impact.

He had raw skin on his finger and thumb where he struggled to start the lighter. The lighter could barely make a spark in the cold. He was lucky to have a spark and get a fire going. His knees were red, frostbitten from where he knelt in the snow to pray. There were so many crucial things that happened in his story to get him here alive.

I am in complete awe and humbled by his strength and courage and sheer willpower. His story nearly brought me to tears, and it felt like we have the most amazing job in the world when we get to do things like putting a chest tube in a patient to reinflate their lungs, and to take care of fractures. We get to consult with amazing consultants in Anchorage, like the trauma surgeon, because we don’t deal with as many fractures and an invasive procedures like placing a chest tube very often. But when it works, and allows patients to feel better almost immediately, it can sure make your day. 🙂

Our job is awesome and the people we get to know here are truly amazing!

2 thoughts on “You did what?! An Alaska bush story of survival (of the fittest)

  1. One tough cookie! Carrying a sleeping bag, extra boots, some high energy food and a little emergency stove costs no effort on a snow machine and is excellent life insurance – glad he made it out okay without it.

  2. Pingback: So much strength and beauty…

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