A Bowhunter?s Brush With Death, By Dan Durbin From the Page’s of Bowhunting World Magazine
A blood trail and high-tech lifeline lead rescuers to a very ?lucky? bowhunter.
Blood had been trailed by hunters in these Iowa woods before, but this time it was different, much different. The five inches of fresh snow made the red droplets easy for the state game warden to track?not once did he have to mark last blood. He peered over a small rise and saw the source of the blood?crumpled-up, pillow-like, in the alfalfa field, with no sign of life present.
?He?s over here!? the warden yelled.
In the next few minutes, the quiet woods came alive, bursting with activity and noise. When the rescue team arrived on the scene, a broken Pat Sutter lay nearly unconscious, still grasping the cell phone which had served as his lifeline.
All of his ribs were broken. His spine was chipped. The rescuers feared internal bleeding may be draining what remained of Sutter?s life out of him.
The highly-trained professional emergency personnel knew they faced a challenging task.
In The Beginning
Two days before, on November 15, Sutter had arrowed a magnificent 8-pointer near his home in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin. The buck, which grossed 160 inches, was the seventh in his 39 years that would score in excess of 120 inches. Sutter, a bowhunter at heart since age 12, didn?t think twice about passing on Wisconsin?s gun season opener to head to Iowa for a chance at another bow-kill.
Pat Sutter with Buck
He left home at 4:00 a.m., once again adding to the 200-plus hours he puts in a stand each season.
Virgin snow powdered the ridge Sutter hunted that morning. He knew a deer of equal or greater proportions to the one he killed a couple days before was on the property, so his spirits were high as he made his way to his dark platform. There he sat, perched in the snowy morning splendor. He waited, and waited some more. At 8:30 a.m., with the temperature teasing the below-zero range, Sutter relocated.
The Blink Of An Eye
Sutter had to walk about 200 yards to retrieve a treestand from another spot to put in his new location. He sat down his fanny pack and bow in a field, grabbed the stand, and walked to his new spot. He screwed-in several steps, getting to height of just over 20 feet. As always, Sutter screwed-in an ?I? bolt above his proposed treestand spot, which acted as a carabineer, and attached his safety belt. Next, he put screws in the tree and tied-on a rope to pull up his stand.
Everything was going as planned. His stand was hung, all he had to do was drop down and grab his bow. He put his foot on a step, then another. His hands gripped a couple of ample-sized sugar maple limbs, and he began his descent. Without warning, Sutter felt the 4-inch diameter limb disintegrate in his grip. His once-anchored hand now held nothing but air. His weight shifted, applying force to his second handhold, but that limb also snapped in a fragment of a second.
Sutter found himself free falling, and reached out in desperation. A branch about four feet below would be his last chance at safety. His hands reached out, gripping the limb like a trapeze artist, but it couldn?t support his 170 pounds.
The world became a blur.
A Will To Live
It felt like a cement truck t-boned his ribs. Bolts of fiery pain raged through his body?everywhere between his chin and hips. His breath was impossible to catch, and when he did grab oxygen, it stabbed at him like an ice pick.
A feeling of finality overcame his thoughts, as began to think he may have made his last mistake on Earth.
?It couldn?t have happened,? he thought.
Every precaution had been taken. Like-sized limbs had supported him several times, but this day, they failed. Was it frigid temperature? Were the limbs dead? None of it mattered now.
When he struck the ground, he had bounced-up into a sitting position. Seconds later, he determined his legs still functioned, so he began to move. Pain surged through his gut, chest and back. Hope drained in the process. His limbs fought him. Sutter knew he couldn?t get out on his own power, but he remembered the cell phone he always carried. He reached for it, and felt nothing. Suddenly, he realized he had left his phone some 200 yards away when he had grabbed the new stand.
Reaching Down Deep
?I knew the only chance I had was to get to my fanny pack, and that cell phone,? Sutter recalled later. ?Everything was foggy, and I felt really lightheaded.?
Consciousness was waning. Light began to fade in-and-out of his vision. Still, he maintained his wits. The rural and wooded Iowa terrain prevented any sort of quick rescue, Sutter knew that much. He had to get to the phone.
He moved an arm, then a leg. He repeated the process in a robot-like manner. Each inch closer to the phone gave Sutter a little more hope. He pictured his kids, Carson, 9 and Brook, 8, wanting their daddy to come home.
Foot by foot he stumbled, fighting off the darkness of unconsciousness. Despite the debilitating effects of crushed ribs and a damaged spine, he finally reached the fanny pack containing his phone.
His first call was to his wife, Greer. The phone rang.
A Question Of Faith
?His voice was quivering when he said my name,? Greer recounted. ?At first I wasn?t alarmed, because that?s the way he sounded two days before when he shot the eight pointer. I figured he shot another nice one.?
The mood changed rapidly, however, when Pat told Greer he had fallen, and couldn?t move his limbs.
?I knew that I wasn?t paralyzed, because I had just stumbled a couple hundred yards,? Pat said. ?My body just wouldn?t cooperate.?
Greer Sutter is a creative manager for Lands? End. She is a bowhunter and has been extensively trained in first aid and rescue.
?I became certified in outdoor and emergency care because we live in a somewhat remote area and I didn?t want to wait for an ambulance to arrive if something happened to me or my family. I was certain Pat was going into shock, and that the risk of internal or spine injury was high. It was cold that day and I knew we didn?t have long.?
The Golden Hour
Thanks to Greer?s training, she knew critically-injured people have a great chance of survival if they?re attended to in the first hour after the accident. Immediately, she began calling for help.
?I hated to say good-bye, but I had to let Pat go, so he could call 911,? she said. “I started calling his hunting buddies, the land owner, and anyone I could think of that might help.?
Pat dialed 911. A loud beep answered him, followed by a recording: ?The cellular customer you are trying to reach is out of the service area; please try your call again later.? Having to focus his concentration as each button was pressed, Sutter tried again, with the same results. Next, he tried the operator.
Finally, he reached someone, only to be cut off, either by the person on the other end, or a weak cell phone signal. Another failed attempt, but the third time, he got a good signal.
?The operator told me I had to dial *(star) 9-1-1,? Pat said. ?Apparently, in most of the country, that?s what you have to do.?
When Pat reached the 911 operator, she was already waiting for his call. Greer had tracked down Iowa?s 911 service through a series of calls and gave them directions.
?They wanted me to stay on the line,? he said. ?They wanted to keep me conscious, but the battery on my phone was about to die, so I let them go to save the juice for when I really needed it.?
Still, Pat wanted to talk to Greer, despite the weakening battery. Greer called Pat as she drove to Prairie Du Chien, where she expected the rescue helicopter to land before airlifting him to a regional medical center.
?He was fairly clear-headed, but felt as though he was desperately hurt,?she said. ?I told him that he sounded really good, and tried to reassure him that he really wasn?t hurt that badly. I tried not to let myself jump to any conclusions because I knew I had to stay focused, and not panic.?
Pat told Greer that his phone was about to lose power?he painfully had to say good-bye, so he could reserve what little battery time remained to speak to the rescue team.
?I just kept thinking how much I loved my family,? he said. ?I had been in serious trouble before from a different accident, and was bound to get through this one.?
Amid all the calls and contacts, Greer had reached one of Pat?s hunting buddies, who knew where Pat was hunting. The two created an ad-hoc verbal map for the rescuers to follow, although the snow obscured many of the landmarks.
Pat lay hunched-up, shivering in the sub-freezing cold, waiting for a first sign of rescue. He felt oddly intoxicated, and his extremities, which were freezing seconds earlier, now seemed pleasantly warm. Then, while waiting for the 911 operator to answer his call, he heard the first faint sounds of a siren in the distance.
?I knew it was an ambulance,” he said. ?What I didn?t know was how they would get back to me. (I figured) they would need a chopper, and even if they did get to me, I didn?t know if it would do any good.?
Pat phoneed the 911 operator. Glancing at his cell phone, he noticed the battery indicator was on empty. At any moment, the phone would die, so he tried to quickly give the operator directions to relay to the EMT unit.
?After an hour, I started to hear people calling for me, but I didn?t have the wind to call back,? he said. ?I was in too much pain, and I just didn?t have it in me.?
A Iowa state game warden was the first to reach Pat, tracking the human blood trail. The team of EMTs accompanying the warden carried out stabilization procedures and evacuated him to a nearby waiting helicopter.
Never Trust A Limb Again
After three hours on the ground and another in the air, Pat arrived at the hospital trauma center.
?The doctor said he had never seen someone fall from so high and not need much fixing,? he remembered. ?The doctor said that so many of my ribs were broken that they quit counting. My internal organs were bruised, and there was a chip knocked off my spine. The doctor said that all I could do was let time heal me.?
Time did heal Sutter, but he?s more than a little gun-shy after his experience.
?A few months after I had healed, I wanted to get back in a stand,? he said. ?I?ll admit, I was pretty shaky getting up there (the first time). It will take a while, but I?m sure that someday I?ll be at ease in stand, but I?ll never trust a limb again.?
Always make sure that the cell phone is on your person, not in a fanny
pack hung next to the tree. The phone doesn?t do you any good if you fall
and it?s hanging 15 feet overhead.
A mini-external antenna for the phone can drastically improve reception,
and transmission capabilities, especially in remote areas.
Don?t trust a limb, regardless of the size, to support your weight. You
never know if it?s dead. Stick to tree steps.
Try to stay attached to the tree with a harness as long as possible. One
harness, the Seat of the Pants, actually lets you stay attached to a safety
cord when ascending and descending a tree.
Make sure that someone always knows exactly where and when you?re hunting.
Put a note on a buddy?s truck if you move, or leave a note at the stand
you were supposed to be at as to where you are, if you relocate. Have home,
work, and cell phone numbers for everyone. Program all these numbers into
a cell phone so they are handy at all times.
Make sure you and your partner know the address of the land you?re hunting,
as well as the phone number of the landowner.
Mark on a topographic map where you?ll be and make sure it is accessible
should an accident occur.
Make sure all your equipment is safe before using it. Test all bolts, belts,
or straps on your treestand, and safety harness, several times each year.
Avoid hunting from home-made treestands whenever possible. Wood, no matter
how well treated, rots. Check them often if you must use them.
The Sutters always climb by the ?3-point rule.? They always have three
secure points (two hands, one foot, etc.) so if one hold gives way, there
are still two points to save them.