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It Was All Fun and Games – Until It Wasn’t

April 11th, 2017

Howdy.

When I first met her, she was crumpled under the cliff, her face bloodied, and her right eye blue, and swollen shut. Her right cheekbone and nose were also swollen and appeared to be fractured. Her face, underneath the bleeding, was pale, and although she was screaming and trembling, her body was not moving. Her uncle was with her, cradling and holding her feet in his hands. 

My husband, Jerry, our three sons, and I had been nearby, exploring and climbing the hoodoos known as the “goblins” of Utah’s Goblin Valley State Park when we heard a scream, followed by a loud yell for help. We quickly descended and bolted toward where the yell came from, and that is how we came to meet Ivy, who, presumably, was just moments before having the time of her life exploring with her younger sister, and her uncle.

How quickly one’s life can go from full to fragile…

If you look closely, you’ll spot our three sons. The crag near the upper left is near where Ivy fell from.

I am the mother of three sons. Two of them entered the world in the form of an “emergency,” and at least for some moments there was concern about their survival. I will never forget the despair Jerry and I felt in those moments of uncertainty. The possibility that our son’s life was at risk was too much to bear, and I didn’t have the emotions or ability to hold myself up under its weight.

That is similar to how I felt as I took my first steps toward the girl. I didn’t have the emotions for this and yet I felt the weight of tremendous responsibility and a desire to help. I wondered if I was up to the task. I took a deep breath, and collected myself so I could put myself to use.

Sitting with my sons only moments before responding to Ivy’s fall.

I am an adventurer, adventure guide, and a member of a very adventurous family who spends a lot of time outdoors exploring. I am a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) graduate, and six years ago, I became a Certified Wilderness First Responder.

If something were to go wrong for any of my family members, friends, clients, myself – or anyone I encounter in the wilderness who needs help – I wanted to have the skills to be able to help. I wanted to know what to do in situations like this one, and if necessary, to be able to help save a life.

Until March 30, except for blisters, altitude symptoms and minor injuries, my First Responder skills had never really been put to the test. I was hoping it would stay that way.

We’ve been taking our sons, Wolf, 16, Hayden, 15, and Finis (“Fin”), 9, to Goblin Valley since they were toddlers. We’ve traveled extensively in search for great outdoor adventure, and to date, Goblin Valley is our family’s top pick when it comes to natural jungle gyms. The state park boasts a 3-square-mile area called the “The Valley of Goblins.” There are thousands of hoodoos (“goblins”) that beckon.

A child’s natural instinct is to climb, so it’s unreasonable to take kids to Goblin Valley and expect them not to climb and explore the area’s hoodoos. When the boys were little, I would spend most of our time at Goblin Valley yelling and worrying and freaking out as I tried my best to keep the boys on a “short leash” and from falling. That was the way it was when we came here – the boys had a blast, and Mom and Dad worried.

Our sons, eager to explore the 3-square mile of “Goblins.”

Here’s a short video clip of me following our 9-year-old as he climbs and explores up and over “goblins”:

As our boys have gotten older, and more experienced in the outdoors, and with these “goblins,” we have extended more freedom, and there’s less freaking out. But the worrying is always present, and the What Ifs are as numerous as the goblins…

What happened to Ivy is a parent’s (uncle’s) worst nightmare. She had taken a big fall from a “goblin” that was above us.

I did a quick recall of the first steps of the Wilderness First Responder protocol. “Size up the scene,” I told myself, and quickly scanned for immediate dangers to the girl and any of us. I determined she had fallen, learned that it was her uncle who was with her, that the girl’s name was Ivy, and that she had been exploring with her younger sister (who was nearby, hunched over, terrified and sobbing). I asked if anyone saw her fall. Her younger sister pointed to where she had fallen from, which was pretty high up there. I asked if she had seen how Ivy landed, and the answer was no. I (and Ivy’s uncle and my husband, Jerry) couldn’t get Ivy to calm down enough to talk to me directly. She was in excruciating pain. Moaning and crying loudly, and at times, screaming. She trembled in pain and fear, and her face, underneath all of the blood, appeared pale. I asked her uncle if she was conscious when he got to her after the fall. He said he thought she was out/unconscious for “a full minute at least.”

I remembered from my WFR training that when someone suffers a fall from a height, there is a significant risk of spine or head injury – and likely, both. “Let’s be sure to not move her,” I said. She was not on level ground, which made it hard to assess her condition, but we made sure not to move her.

I quickly went through what is known as ABCDE. I checked her Airway for obstruction; Her mouth was full of blood and I couldn’t tell if her teeth had been knocked around, but I couldn’t see anything obstructing her airway; I checked her Breathing–I looked, listened and felt; I won’t lie, this was hard given Ivy’s screaming and pain, and my anxiety and concerns for her were great; Circulation – I tried to check her pulse, and I examined her for any bleeding other than what I could see on her face; Disability – I managed for spine injury, again cautioning anyone who could hear me not to move her; and last, Environment/Expose – assessed environmental life-threats and exposed any serious wounds. I was just guessing, but there appeared to be fractures to her face and nose, and I wondered if her left arm, or wrist, might be broken, and worried about her back being broken, or at least severely injured.

Next, I did a quick and dirty head-to-toe exam. She had sensation in her toes and fingers. “Good news there,” I told myself. I tried repeatedly to discern from Ivy what hurt the most, but couldn’t make out what she was saying; she couldn’t talk and was in tremendous distress.

I recalled from WFR training that it would be important to keep her awake and alert, so her uncle and I continued talking softly to Ivy, and tried to help calm her down. We asked her if there was a song she liked, that she could sing. It was no use; she was in extreme pain and couldn’t compose herself. But we did keep bringing up that idea. It would help her, and us, if we could calm her down even a little bit so we could learn more about her injuries and state, and to conserve some of her energy.

Then, to my great relief, a man appeared who identified himself as a family doctor who happened to be in the area, and who had with him a trauma kit. I moved aside, and let him take over the medical care while I remained in the background trying to help calm Ivy down. A moment later, another doctor, an anesthesiologist, was also on the scene. (Whew! I have never loved doctors so much…)

“I know it’s hard, but try to take some deep breaths. You’re going to be okay,” I told Ivy, while rubbing her left arm lightly. Now that there were doctors on the scene, the mother in me took over. “Help is here, and more is coming. You’re going to be okay. Try to take some deep breaths,” I told her over and over again, while no doubt also trying to make myself believe it.

In the meantime, the family doctor wondered out loud if there was something we could lay Ivy on to at least transport her to more level ground without compromising her spine. The uncle mentioned he had a cot in his trunk, and gave my sons Hayden and Wolf the key, described his vehicle, and our boys ran as fast as they could to the parking lot to retrieve the cot. In the meantime, other area tourists started showing up and lending a hand.

Turns out, when we first arrived, another man, who also heard the initial yell for help, had ran to get help from the Ranger station, so in pretty short order, the Ranger(s), along with others, including our Wolf and Hayden, ran toward us, carrying a litter, oxygen and other supplies.  

Several minutes passed while the head Ranger and the family doctor worked on Ivy, and not long after that, we started hearing Ivy singing, what sounded like the song, Jingle Bells.

As the Ranger and doctor tended to Ivy’s care, and more help was solicited, our son, Wolf, worked to comfort Ivy’s sister, who was by now in great distress. The rangers and doctors completed their assessments, and a handful of people were able to move her to a board and then put her on the litter. Next, the crew administered oxygen to Ivy, and the group, including our oldest sons, took turns carrying the litter with Ivy in it. (Jerry, and our youngest son, Fin, walked just ahead of the group to navigate to find the easiest and most direct path for them to take to the parking lot.)

Once at the parking lot, Ivy was put in the bed of the Ranger’s truck and accompanied by the doctor, her uncle and the rangers to the Ranger station to meet a helicopter that was now en route.

As we parted ways with the uncle and Ivy’s sister and the others who had helped in the rescue effort, the uncle looked at us, and thanked us. I told him we’d pray for Ivy, which he seemed to particularly appreciate. (I remembered during the emergency births of two of our sons that a nurse in each case had offered to pray with us. It was moving and powerful and just what we needed in our desperation and helplessness.)

During our one-mile hike back to our camp, my family was mostly quiet. It had been a sobering experience, and we were all a little traumatized. Then one of our sons spoke up, recalling that, coincidentally, the uncle and Ivy and her sister had been camped in the spot right next to ours in the Goblin Valley State Campground the night before. We hadn’t talked to them, but we then all recalled that the uncle looks like one of our favorite comedians, Jim Gaffigan, and I mentioned that I remembered noticing he was eating Honey Nut Cheerios at the picnic table in their camp that morning. We recalled Ivy and her sister had been playing and messing around at their camp, but we hadn’t paid very specific attention to them at the time.

The night before, we had marveled at the beautiful sliver of a moon that was right above a black, silhouetted ridge of “goblins.” Soon after, the sky became totally black, except for the thousands of twinkling stars. It was one of those unforgettable, brilliant night skies as we ate s’mores, and looked forward to our next day of adventuring in the “goblins.” The boys’ anticipation was palpable.

The moon over our camp the night before the rescue.

Later that night, as we lay in our tent trying to sleep, we could hear the man (who we now know to be Ivy’s uncle) and the girls’ –Ivy and her sister’s– voices, laughing and talking, presumably by their own campfire. By all indications, it was a blessed night for them.

We had no idea that the next day we’d meet them the way we did, and be involved in helping to save Ivy’s life. (I tend to think there are no coincidences – that the Universe has a plan – and and that things happen for a reason. This experience certainly feels like that.

For a day or two following the experience, I think we were so traumatized that we felt like it was bad luck for us to be part of such a terrifying and serious experience. But now, we view the experience, and our role in it, as more of a blessing. Of course we so wish Ivy didn’t fall, and yet because she did, we feel grateful to have been so close at hand to be able to help.

Family selfie in Goblin Valley, March 30, 2017.

As a family, we have revisited the experience often.

Since our return home to Lander, Wyoming, 2 weeks ago, I’ve tried to hunt Ivy and/or her family down. We are worried about her, and continue to talk about the experience and pray for Ivy. We would love to know how she’s doing. We know she was helicoptered to St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction, CO, but Ivy is a minor, and we don’t know her last name, and due to HIPPA and other privacy restraints, we’re limited in our quest. I’ve searched Facebook extensively, and have shared the posts with all of my friends in Grand Junction and also in Salt Lake City, where her uncle (during the rescue, had told me she is from), in hopes that someone will know her, or of her condition.If you’d be willing to share a link to this blog post, I’d be grateful. I know it’s a long shot, but it could reach someone who knows Ivy and her family, and somehow we could get information about her well being, which would mean the world to us.

For the record, my family members and I are no heroes here. There were numerous people who helped to save Ivy’s life and to get her to help as soon as possible. The doctors and Rangers did far more to help Ivy than I did.  

I have always worried about what it would feel like to be with someone who has a heart attack or who suffers a life-threatening injury, and to not be able to help them. I can’t think of a greater feeling of helplessness than that. Although I probably will never be completely confident in my Wilderness First Responder capabilities, I am grateful for my training. Thanks to it, I was able to know the very basics of what to do when I met Ivy on March 30.

Finally, people are amazing. It was spectacular to see how so many strangers came together to contribute to help Ivy, and I will never forget the kindness and compassion and leadership that a group of strangers demonstrated. None of us exchanged names or shook hands, and yet what happened was significant. Deep and meaningful connections to one another were formed in our group’s effort to help Ivy, and yet none of us will probably ever see each other again.  

I have a feeling that whenever we hear the song, Jingle Bells, and whenever we return to our favorite “goblins,” we will think of Ivy.

SIDEBAR:

This experience has been a great teacher. I have learned so much, including:

–How quickly one’s life can go from full to fragile. One minute you’re playing and feeling so vital and alive, and the next, your life could be hanging by a thread.

–Worrying and trying to keep your kids “on a short leash” in the wilderness is a good start, and is better than having a cavalier attitude, but in the wilderness, worrying is not enough. What happens when someone does fall or get injured? We all need to ask and consider this question before going to a place like Goblin Valley. A first aid kit is of no value if we don’t know what to do when we need to use it. At the very least, I recommend a CPR class and certification, and if you spend a lot of time in the outdoors, are a parent or lead groups on adventures, consider a Wilderness First Aid or Wilderness First Responder course.

–The stakes/consequences are high in the wilderness and in remote areas. A medical emergency in Goblin Valley, or any wilderness or other remote location can have a very different outcome than in a town or city. Everything is harder, and takes considerably longer. When we go to play outdoors, we need to consider the risks, and not only worry about and mitigate those risks, but seriously consider what we’ll do if something bad happens. We need to have an emergency plan in place in case something does go wrong.

–Time in the outdoors is important, fun and invaluable for children, and for all of us, especially during these times when we’re so attached to our phones, computers, TVs and other “screens.” Most of the time, things don’t go wrong. For years now, my family and I have spent significant time in the outdoors, and we have never had a serious injury and, until March 30, had never been involved in a rescue or evacuation. Incidents like Ivy’s, although very serious and sobering, should not be a deterrent from spending time exploring the outdoors, but they should serve to inform us.

–Being unplugged on a vacation or adventure (without a cell signal) is both the good news AND the bad news. We had left Four Corners National Monument the morning we arrived at Goblin Valley. That was basically a four-hour stretch that had virtually no cell phone signal. We did not have a cell signal anywhere during our 2 days in Goblin Valley, even when climbing to the highest perch we could find. Do not count on your cell phone to call for help when in remote, wild places like Goblin Valley.

–Being able to manage our emotions, especially during times of high stress and/or a life-or-death emergency, is a very important skill. I like to say, “Freaking out isn’t leadership.” No one wants to follow a leader who is freaking out or who is an emotional mess. And if our life is at stake, we’ll do much better, and our outcome will be much more positive if the people caring for us have a calm and emotionally collected demeanor. This is hard to practice unless you’re tested in real life. Last Thursday, I got a lot of firsthand practice. I didn’t wish for that, but I know it could help me to help, and lead, others in the future.

Here’s a video I captured about one hour before we heard Ivy’s scream and her uncle’s yell for help. It will give you a fantastic look at what is Goblin Valley: