My view of a tree stand accident

September is tree stand safety and awareness month.  And throughout this month, I’ve read alot of articles extolling the virtues of using safety harnesses and lifelines while in the stand.  You’ve probably read the same ones; without a harness, you’ll fall, crack some bones, possibly lose your life, severe brain injuries and so forth.  And yet, despite all of those pleasant thoughts (yes, that’s sarcasm people) some hunters just don’t practice any type of safety protocol.  It’s a pain, the harness is uncomfortable, etc.  So WHAT will get hunters to start wearing harnesses?  Not sure if my story will help but I’d like to think it could.  This is a story about my husband and the accident he had-but told from my perspective, the wife, the caregiver, the family left to pick everything up.

It was early fall and my husband had left before dawn to hunt about a half hour from our house. I wasn’t sure of the spot, didn’t have the address and no one else knew he was going. Mistake #1.   The sun was up and it just our young daughter and me in the house; my sons were with my ex-husband.  I was having a bit of a lazy morning.  Really just some light cleaning and a trip to the grocery store were on my list. So while I showered, the bathroom door was open and my daughter played in the space between the bathroom and bedroom.  I heard the phone ring but wasn’t in any rush; if it was important I expected the person would leave a message. For whatever reason, my daughter answered the phone. Now she was 3 or 4 (I can’t remember!) and never expressed any interest in the phone. But that day she answered it.  She walked into the bathroom and said, “Mommy there’s a man on the phone.” I told her to tell him I would call him back.  She said, “No Mommy, there’s a man on the phone.” I never did find out what was said to her but it must have made an impression. So I turned off the shower and held out my wet hand for the phone.

Here’s the conversation:
Mrs. Herbert?
This is Chief ?? from the Anne Arundel County Fire dept.  (And I immediately think if they are selling those jellies the troopers sell I am hanging up)
Your husband has been involved in an accident this morning.  (What? I think. He can’t be in an accident, he’s hunting).
He fell from his tree stand. He is conscious, moving his extremities but we are transporting him to Shock Trauma in BaltimoreMy husband would later point out that the stand and strap broke but that’s another topic.

I went numb. Literally numb. I didn’t hear properly and experienced tunnel vision. I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back now I know those things happened.  I didn’t feel my fingers holding the phone. The whole conversation was so surreal.  I started to think whether or not they had the right person.  I can’t be MY John! But then I heard people talking and I heard John’s voice through the phone. They were loading him onto the ambulance to take him to a parking lot to meet up with the helicopter that was to fly him to Shock Trauma.  How can THAT be happening while our daughter is happily playing on the floor?  How?

“Mrs. Herbert, do you have someone that can drive you to Shock Trauma? Because we don’t want you driving yourself.” I answer yes. It was a total lie. He asks me again, probably hearing the lie in my words. No, no I insist, someone can take me.  I get the particular details, the ambulance, the flight to Shock Trauma, etc.  I have no idea how to get to Shock Trauma.  I hang the phone up and realize I’m on the bathroom rug, wet, hair dripping, no towel and I’m not fazed. I have to make a plan of action. I actually spoke out loud to myself: Okay, put a towel on your head. Get dressed. Get a piece of paper. Call your ex-husband because he can tell you how to get to the parking garage in downtown Baltimore. Don’t tell the boys yet.  Dry your hair. And make that dreaded call to your in laws.

My in laws weren’t home so I left this message:  I have to tell you-John has been in an accident. He IS FINE, really, I heard his voice. But he has to go to Shock Trauma. Again, he is talking, moving but they are taking him.  I am loading up now. I am sorry to leave this message but you have to know. I hang up and realize my words sound rushed and I’m out of breath.  I was lying to them. How did I know he was okay? But I couldn’t say or think anything other than he was fine. I feel like a jerk for leaving a message.

My mother in law calls me back. She is coming over. John’s aunt will pick up Savannah. They live 5 minutes from my house but it feels like an eternity before they show up.  Both Mother in law and Aunt get out of the car. Should Auntie take Savannah back to her house? Stay here? Did she eat?  I hand Auntie the keys telling her something along the lines of figure it out-I know my daughter is in good hands. I’m leaving I cannot wait anymore.  I couldn’t bring the words to my lips but I thought-He’s dying!  He’s dying! and I’m standing in my driveway. 

So we were off; my mother in law driving and me; the passenger with acid in her stomach, numb to it. Sitting, sitting , sitting, doing nothing, thinking, thinking, thinking. If he wasn’t badly injured, why Shock Trauma? Why the helicopter ride? God what could have happened?

We arrive at Shock Trauma.  I have to smile and ask questions, to figure this monstrosity of a building out. I can’t breakdown and after all, I know this is wrong. I’m here for the wrong person. I’m prepared to get pissed at these people.  They walk me and only me into the elevator.  I don’t know what floor we went to.  I don’t even remember what the person looked like that took me into the elevator.  We then exit and I immediately see the Shock Trauma floor and its’ patients; one man is totally nude, strapped to a gurney, wires and tubes attached and definitely unconscious. I’m mad for this person whose privacy has been taken away.  But I don’t have time to dwell on this.  I turn left. The lights are bright and in my face. As I walk down beside the hanging curtains, I hear my husband’s voice.  I know all my selfish thoughts and hopes of finding the wrong person, another John, someone else’s husband are gone. It’s really him. All his clothes have been cut off and just a sheet around his mid section. (He will later complain that it was an IBO World Championship shirt that he lost) Neck brace attached. A needle full of morphine sitting there. The yellow pasty color of pain on his face. Bruises are starting to bloom all over his chest.  God I’m going to break down but I can’t. The look in his eyes – the relief when he sees me. I touch his arm because that’s the only place I feel that I can safely touch.  I need to reassure myself that he is alive and warm to the touch.

John stays in that place for 4 more days. One cracked vertebrae and two compressed vertebrae requiring a total brace from neck to hip. The brace is on for three months.  It’s a miracle people say; no brain injury, he will walk, blah, blah. I can’t focus on that. I need to figure out how to get him into the house, where will he sleep, who will take care of him when I eventually go back to work. Does he still have a job?  I have nothing left for anyone or any sympathy. I’m on a mission to keep everything together. I don’t feel sad or lucky or grateful. I don’t feel.

The morning of the accident, he hunted all morning, got down and decided to move the stand. As he climbed up and onto the stand, the strap holding the stand broke, sending him down to the ground. He didn’t have a lifeline and hadn’t hooked up to the belt he had strapped to the tree.  He fell 20 feet.  When he tried to get up, he realized he was in serious trouble.  He put his hands on his knees and did a type of crab walk out of the woods to the nearest house only to discover no one was home.  Sitting on the front porch of that house, he thought he was going to die if he didn’t move.  His cell phone was busted. He then drove about 2 miles to the fire dept and waved the guys over to his truck as he could not get out.

Three months for him in a brace. He got lucky. Our family was lucky. He eventually made it back to work.  Yes he still has back pain but he’s alive.

So that’s my perspective.  I didn’t fall from the tree.  I wasn’t physically injured.  But I still have a story to tell.  When these accidents occur it isn’t just the hunter that’s affected.  This is my story of how NOT wearing a harness or using a lifeline affected all of us.  And I’m not even talking about financially.  Thank God that he survived and we were given the opportunity to learn from this. Neither of us hunt anywhere without telling someone else EXACTLY where we are.  The day of the accident no one, including myself knew where he was hunting. We use safety harnesses and lifelines. A foot doesn’t step off the ground without being hooked up.  Straps are constantly checked and no stand has just one strap.  We double up on everything.

So please, learn from us.  I know all of the “safety talk” can be overwhelming, irritating, a pain and sometimes a bit “preachy”.  Your loved ones don’t want that call. You don’t want to get that call.  No one wants to suck it up, shove the tears away and be the tough one who is numb when all it would have taken was a lifeline and a harness to avoid this!  You and your loved ones don’t want to walk down that hospital hallway.  Trust me.