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John Fahner-Vihtelic on “I Survived” this Sunday (1/29) Evening!!

Trapped For 16 Days, Brave URMC Staffer Tells His Survival Story This Sunday

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The nation will hear about a Medical Center employee’s amazing fight for survival this Sunday night, through an episode of the TV series “I Survived”.

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 (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.

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First Mark Ain Business Model Workshop – Jan. 24, 2012!

Interested in entrepreneurship? The 2012 Mark Ain Business Model Workshop Series, free and open to the University community and general public, is designed to teach you how to write an effective business model plan in three sessions. The first workshop, “Overview of the Competition,” is hosted by the Simon Entrepreneurs Association, on Tuesday, Jan. 24, from 4:30 to 5:45 p.m. in Gleason 318/418. Food and refreshments will be provided. Register online or call 276-3500.

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Pathways to Entrepreneurial Success Event at MCC!!

The Center for Entrepreneurship is a sponsor of the third annual Pathways to Entrepreneurial Success event Wednesday, Jan. 18, at Monroe Community College. Walk-in registration begins at 7 a.m., or register online in advance. The forum features opportunities to learn from and network with successful local entrepreneurs and attend breakout sessions such as Basics of Startups, Marketing on a Shoe String Budget, Advanced Social Media, and Dealing with Difficult Decisions. Students pay a $15 registration fee, which includes a box lunch.

When: Wednesday, January 18, 2012, 8am-4:30pm

Where: Monroe Community College

1000 East Henrietta Road
Building 12
Rochester, NY 14623

For more information please contact Theresa Parker Duane, at The Rivers Organization, or by phone: 585-586-6906.

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F.I.R.E. – January 12, 2012!

The Offices of Technology Transfer, in cooperation with the Center for Entrepreneurship proudly presents F.I.R.E. in January:

“Reasons to File a Patent on Your Research Discovery” 

This month we will look at the reasons for filing patent applications (or other methods of intellectual property protection) on discoveries resulting from academic research. Our presenter is Joseph M. Noto, Esq., a partner in Nixon Peabody. Mr. Noto’s practice areas include Intellectual Property and Patent Prosecution, particularly in Medical Devices, Pharmaceuticals, Biotech, Cleantech, and Technology. 

Where: the Class of ’62 Auditorium (G-9425 & 1-9425)
When: Thursday, 12 January 2012, 9:00 – 10:00 AM 

Refreshments will be served. Please contact David Englert, or call 585.784.8856 for more information or to register for this event.

Although the F.I.R.E. Series continues to be free and open to the public, a small fee for parking may apply (between $4 and $6). Registration would be appreciated by noon Tuesday, 10 January 2012.

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Conwell Named to National Health Care Innovations Program

Yeates Conwell, M.D., professor of Psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center, has been selected for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) Innovation Advisors Program. 

The initiative, launched by the CMS Innovation Center in October, will help health professionals enhance skills that could drive improvements to patient care and reduce costs. The first group of Innovation Advisors was announced this week.

Conwell, vice chair of the Department of Psychiatry and an internationally known researcher in suicide prevention, has helped develop a number of innovative programs aimed at the prevention and treatment of depression in the elderly. He directs the department’s geriatric psychiatry program and the Senior Health and Research Alliance.

Conwell is one of 73 individuals from 27 States and the District of Columbia participating in the Innovation Advisors Program. After an initial orientation phase, Innovation Advisors will work with the CMS Innovation Center to test new models of care delivery in their own organizations and communities. They will also create partnerships to find new ideas that work and share them regionally and across the United States.

The Medical Center will receive a stipend of up to $20,000 to support Conwell’s activities while serving as an Innovation Advisor. Funding for this initiative was made possible by the Affordable Care Act. 

The 73 individuals were selected from 920 applications through a competitive process, and include clinicians, allied health professionals, health administrators and others. By attending in-person meetings as well as remote sessions to expand their skills and applying what they learn, the Advisors will be able to deepen their knowledge in health care economics and finance, population health, systems analysis, and operations research.  

“We’re looking to these Innovation Advisors to be our partners; we want them to discover and generate new ideas that will work and help us bring them to every corner of the United States,” said CMS Innovation Center Director Rick Gilfillan, M.D. 

Among other duties, the Advisors will be expected to support the Innovation Center in testing new models of care delivery, to form partnerships with local organizations to drive delivery system reform, and to improve their own health systems so their communities will have better health and better care at a lower cost.

Conwell is one of two people from the Rochester area selected for the program. The other is Deborah Peartree, R.N., M.S., clinical director of the Monroe Plan for Medical Care, which has its headquarters in Pittsford.

More information about the Innovation Advisors Program, including a fact sheet and a list of participants and their affiliated organizations, can be found at: