Trapped For 16 Days, Brave URMC Staffer Tells His Survival Story This Sunday
Thursday, January 26, 2012
On Sept. 11, 1976, Johnny Fahner-Vihtelic, now deputy director of the Medical Center’s Office of Technology Transfer, was driving through a remote forest in the rugged Cascade Mountains of Washington when his 1975 Mercury station wagon edged near the shoulder of a road, which crumbled beneath the vehicle, sending vehicle and driver plummeting and tumbling 150 feet down a steep and narrow ravine.
Miraculously, he survived the crash – only to find that he was trapped in his crumpled car, pinned at the left foot and ankle by the root of a tree that had pierced the windshield.
Fahner-Vihtelic was out of sight and beyond earshot to drivers on the road above, to anyone.
His first efforts, of course, were to get out – to get free of the tree, of the car, now upside down. He tried to pull his foot out, but it would not give. He pulled, he yelled, he tried with all his might to pull free or to get someone’s attention—but all he heard back was the roar of a nearby stream.
Fahner-Vihtelic drew on his experience as a medic with the Green Berets and took stock of his situation. He had broken his foot, but that wouldn’t kill him. He didn’t have food handy, but he knew he could go days, even weeks, without it. But water – he realized he would die without water.
Fahner-Vihtelic – ever resourceful – eventually rigged a way to get water. He pulled metal coil from the car’s ceiling, tied it to string he unraveled from his tennis racket that was strewn nearby, and fastened one end to a loose can, which he then tossed 15 feet or so into the stream, reeling it back for a sip. But after a few hours, both cans and a bottle he had access to had fallen out of reach or had shattered.
The next day he realized that he could use a loose shirt in the car in the same fashion. He attached the shirt to the wire, tossed it into the creek and then reeled it back, squeezing water from the shirt into his mouth. Again and again.
And that is how he survived – for 16 days.
Besides collecting water, his main task was to try to catch the attention of a passing motorist far above. He attached one of the car’s mirrors to the tennis racket, and when the sun rose high for about three hours a day, he would angle the mirror to send a flash of light toward the road, hoping another driver might catch a glimpse and investigate. But days went by, and the only “rescues” that came were in his dreams.
Always, there was the continual labor of trying to get his foot free. He was able to put his hands on a tire iron, and during the two weeks spent tens of hours trying to pry his foot free of the tree and the dashboard. But he got nowhere, and with each day that passed he realized the chance of rescue was remote.
The conditions, while dire, were livable – until gangrene began to set in.
At the first signs of gangrene, Fahner-Vihtelic recognized that his life was in danger. Since two weeks had passed and no one had found him – despite an extensive search by friends, relatives, and officials – he realized it was likely that gangrene would outpace any rescue. So he regrouped, determined to free himself no matter what.
Having whacked at the tree thousands of times, to no avail, Fahner-Vihtelic realized he might have more force if he added a heavy rock to the regimen. A rock could act as a hammer to pound the tire iron even more strongly. He was sure he had lost the use of his foot, and so he determined that if it had to go, it had to go – a scene that brings to mind the Colorado hiker who in 2003 cut off his own arm to free himself from a heavy boulder.
Fahner-Vihtelic spent an entire day using a suitcase and wire to coax a large rock to within his reach. Rock in hand, he went to sleep for the 16th night in the car, hopeful that the rock would give him the force needed to free himself.
After a fitful night of sleep, Fahner-Vihtelic was up early, using the rock to drive the tire iron into the tree more and more deeply. After three hours, the tree loosened its grip and he freed himself. He caught his breath, took a long drink of water, rested for about 10 minutes, then pulled himself up the embankment, where he was found by a passer-by. At the hospital his left leg was amputated midway between his knee and ankle.
He had survived for 16 days by being resourceful, and never giving up hope.
“The accident and the outcome were really a validation of our human abilities,” says Fahner-Vihtelic today, matter-of-factly. “We have a great capacity to figure things out, to extract ourselves from situations that seem hopeless.”
In the years since, he has become a world-champion triathlete. He has biked across Asia and raced across Antarctica. He has helped wounded veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars reconnect with their bodies, their families and their lives. And he has helped the Medical Center launch more than a dozen start-up companies. “Johnny,” as he goes by, is crucial to the future of dozens of technologies created at the University and designed to help people.
His story airs at 9 p.m. this Sunday, Jan. 29, on the Biography Channel, which is Channel 266 to customers who have DirecTV and is also available to subscribers of digital cable. A preview of the episode is available at http://www.biography.com/tv/i-survived/videos/johnny-preview-2176636295 (unfortunately, the link does not work for all browsers). Next week the entire show will be available on the “I Survived” web site. Fahner-Vihtelic is one of three people who tell their stories during Sunday’s hour-long show.
When he discusses how the accident changed his life, Fahner-Vihtelic doesn’t jump to deep statements about the meaning of life or to questions like “Why are we here?” Instead, his thoughts turn to the practical: Living with an artificial foot and leg, a device that requires constant care and must be replaced periodically. With even slight changes in body weight and other factors that change all the time, it can be challenging to stay active for someone like Fahner-Vihtelic, who runs, bikes, sails and skis.
That’s why today [Friday] is extra-special for Fahner-Vihtelic: Not because of the upcoming TV show, but because he’s heading to his doctor’s office to receive his new leg, a better fit than the one he currently has and one that will allow him to regain the active lifestyle he thoroughly enjoys.