On the 15th of September 2012, my husband and I set off for an evening deer hunt not far from our rural home. We spent the day before, searching for the right trees from which to hang our new tree stands, and to clear scrub, and dangerous debris from the foot of the trees. We spent the evening before our hunt, familiarizing ourselves with the new fall arrest systems that came with our tree stands to insure that we knew how to use them properly.
The evening of our hunt, was perfect, not a hint of a breeze, warm, clear skies…just perfect! We parted at a trail junction, each of us heading to our stands out of sight, but within shouting distance to each other. Using a safety approved ladder, I climbed the 16 feet in to my hanging tree stand, secured my fall arrest system to the tree, hauled up my pack, and my bow, and confidently settled in to wait. After about a half an hour, I carefully stood up to stretch my legs, and get a drink from my pack. I hung my bow from the bow hook, reached in to my pack, and suddenly found myself on the ground, fighting for my life. Thankfully, I had landed in soft grass, with no dangerous debris to puncture my body, but, air was rushing out of my lungs, I could not stop it!! I knew if I didn’t do something drastic and immediate, I would suffocate. I gathered my courage, and bit down on my tongue as hard as I possibly could, causing an involuntary gasp, and stopping the uncontrollable exhalations as my lungs were collapsing. Unknown to me at the time, my husband heard me hit the ground, and was on his way to me. Taking small gasps of air, I managed to stay conscious till he got to my side. The look in his eyes scared me almost as much as not being able to take a breath. Pain was wracking my body in sickening waves, and even though I tried not to, any time I even flinched, I screamed in pain. I did not black out at all when I hit, and heard every sickening crunch as multiple bones in my body broke. Even with him at my side, re-assuring me while talking with 911, I was slipping in to a panic state, fighting to breathe, fighting to stay conscious, and terrified that I would not survive.
The EMT’s arrived within 15 minutes, and I was so thankful that we had planned our hunt to include a rescue plan in the event of an accident. It was a long tortuous haul out of that field, taking almost 30 minutes to get from the site to the ambulance, every step they took, jostled me on the stretcher, and caused excruciating pain in my left side. During the short drive to our small town hospital, I faded in and out of consciousness, struggling to get enough air in to my lungs, and fighting down the panic when I could not. On arrival to the ER, I was sent immediately for x-rays, causing me again to cry out from the horrible pain as they manipulated my body to take the x-rays. Within a few minutes of the results, it was apparent that I would need treatment above and beyond what our small hospital could provide. I was rushed by ambulance to Health Sciences Center in Winnipeg.
We arrived at 11:30 that night, and by the time we got there, I was in agony and frightened beyond belief that I was going to die. Over the next 6 days, I have no real memories of anything that happened to me during that time. The day after my arrival, I was moved to ICU in critical condition due to the damage to my lungs, placed in a medically induced coma and put on a respirator in order to rest my lungs, and provide oxygen to my body. Six days later, I was finally awake enough to be told the extent of my injuries. I suffered 2 broken bones in my right arm, ALL ribs on my left side were broken in 2 places, one was broken in 3 places. My left collarbone was shattered in 4 places, with severe tissue damage to the left shoulder rotator cuff, and collapsed lungs. I had a chest tube drawing excess fluid from my chest cavity, my right arm in a cast, 2 plate and screw sets holding my collarbone together, an epidural in my back for pain management, and an arterial intravenous line installed to administer additional pain medications and fluids.
I was in the Health Sciences Center for a total of 2 and a half weeks, and for all but the last 4 days, confined to bed. The first time I was allowed to walk around, I was giddy with excitement, until that is, I tried to stand. I was unable to stand straight, doubled over with the still burning pain in my ribs. Getting up to go to the restroom, was a 15 minute ordeal that left me weak, and most times mortified, as I simply could not move fast enough in my damaged condition. Once at home, I needed almost constant care, as for the first 3 weeks I could not get in to or out of my recliner without help, could not prepare even a slice of toast on my own, and needed assistance with even the most basic of personal care. I was on heavy narcotics for pain relief, and most days were just a fuzzy blur. Aside from the physical pain, I was terrified that my left arm, which hung uselessly, would not regain its strength, and I would not be able to work, or enjoy my hobbies first of which is archery.
I am now undergoing painful physiotherapy to regain the use of my left arm and right wrist. I still cannot lay down flat in bed, having to sleep on an incline to keep the pain down in my ribs. I am plagued night after night, by horrible nightmares, reliving the fall over and over like a sadistic film reel. I see the frightened faces of my children, and husband as they visited me in the hospital, not knowing whether I would survive. Worse than my physical pain, was the fear, and the game of “what if” that the mind plays when you have nothing to do bu sit for days on end. This, has been the single worst event in my life…but I was fortunate, very, very fortunate. I could have died that day, or, could have fallen on my head, causing brain damage, neck, or back injury, with permanent disability.
I was wearing a full fall arrest system, but I made a couple of tiny, seemingly insignificant mistakes. I personally did not take the time to read the instructions on this new and unfamiliar equipment, trusting that my hunting partner read and fully understood them. My next mistake was not testing the fall arrest at home on the ground before taking this in to the field, trusting that the safety certification with the system proved it to be safe to use. These are mistakes that ANYONE can make. I am a seasoned hunter, confident in my abilities, and knowledge of safety practices, and yet these mistakes almost cost me my life, and there is no guarantee at this time, that I will gain 100% use of my left arm.
Experience is no excuse to become complacent, to think that you know enough to protect yourself. I don’t know what caused me to lose my balance and fall in the first place, in the grand scheme of things, it really does not matter as falls can, and do happen whether you are experienced or not. The fall arrest system is designed to save you from injury, but it can only do its job if you yourself fully read and understand the instructions, and practice using the equipment on the ground BEFORE taking it out in to the field. Last of all, whether your hunting partner is a friend, spouse, or family member, experienced hunter or novice, always double check for yourself that your equipment is being used according to instruction, your life depends on it.
UPDATE: It is now March 2013, and in a week, I will turn 52. I am still in physiotherapy once every 2 weeks, and when at home, I have special strengthening exercises I need to perform 3 times a day to keep my shoulder moving, and limber. There is a lasting effect that doctors will be working on in the coming months as well. Due to the accident I have developed Benign Paroxymal Positional Vertigo (BPPV), which can come on in a flash and makes me feel as though the ground has tilted way off side. Sometimes, this can be cured, and sometimes, you have to learn to live with it. Because of my stubborn, persistent nature, I am almost up to a hunting weight again with my bow, and am eagerly waiting for spring turkey hunting. I am working with Manitoba Natural Resources to turn my experience in to something positive, and have agreed to share my story, and to work with the Hunter Safety program to include an in depth section on tree stand safety. I do not want to hear of someone else suffering the same accident I had.
Since the accident, I am also pursuing my dream of being a wood working artist…a lot of my work is on my face book page…I do carvings now as well..and am in the process of getting my name out around here doing cute and different things. I make really awesome crib boards..and can engrave or carve wildlife images, and logos on them.
CURRENT UPDATE, MARCH 2014: Hi Ladies, My road to recovery has gone as far as it can. I live each day with mild to moderate pain in my shoulder, and a small lack of mobility. I managed though, to get back in to archery, and spend as much time as I can at the range working on honing my abilities. I became the president of one of our local archery clubs, and in December, I shot a Vegas style tournament, coming in 8th over all, and had an amazing time! My husband and I went hunting last fall, but, alas, I did not get a shot at a deer. Those does were just too smart for me! I have a couple of long term problems as a result of my fall that I am still working with my doctors to solve. I have Positional Vertigo which comes on very suddenly, and can cause me to fall over with the dizziness, so tree stands are not longer an option for me under any condition. And the second is Post Traumatic Migraines. Neither of these are a lot of fun, but, I keep my confidence up that between myself and my health care team, they will one day become a thing of the past. I still occasionally have nightmares about that fall, and sometimes I find myself saddened at the fear I put my family through, but I trust that everything in life happens for a reason, and I stay positive, and busy every day, even when the discomfort tries to drag me down. I just keep looking forward, and try hard not to look at the past too much. Stay safe out there!! Check your equipment, and remember that above everything else; safety comes first!!