The Friday after Thanksgiving 2014, I went to my favorite Michigan treestand for a morning hunt. I had climbed this particular tree more than 30 times and was confident I was safe. I had my harness on, (not a lifeline), but believed I was safe because I would lock my harness to the tree once in my stand. I always wore my harness because it made me feel safe.
If I had forgotten it I would hunt from my ground blinds. At 9:30 a.m. I was ready to come down so I unhooked my harness from the tree and proceeded to climb down. While in the process of getting on my climbing stick, with one leg on the step and my left hand on a limb above my head for balance, I brought my left leg over, and suddenly the limb I was holding onto broke. I fell straight backwards from 25 feet. The fall severely broke my back.
I can still remember the fall.
I felt my back snap as I hit the ground.
Luckily, my cell phone was in my upper front pocket so I was able to call my wife, Brenda, for help. At first she thought I was kidding but after a few seconds the phone went dead silent and 911 was called. Brenda met the EMTs at the farm to guide them. I was in shock, and honestly I barely remember all that took place. The ambulance took me to Spectrum Hospital in Big Rapids.
After an x-ray, the doctor informed us that my back was severely broken and they would have to aero-med me to Spectrum Hospital in Grand Rapids. The pain was unbearable. I barely remember the helicopter transport.
Upon arrival, nurses cut off all my expensive hunting gear. That is when I first heard them call me a “deer diver.”
Deer diver is the name the hospital uses for hunters who fall out of trees.
The Injuries and Aftermath
The surgeon informed me that I had a burst fracture on L-2 and L-3 in my lower back which was pressing into my spinal column. They were not able to perform the surgery until Saturday morning. The pain was unbearable. In my mind, I knew my life had been changed and I didn’t know if I would ever walk again.
I spent 10 days at Spectrum and the pain was so intense that I don’t remember much of it due to the heavy pain meds. There were many challenges during that 10 days I told Brenda numerous times that I just wanted to die because I couldn’t take the pain anymore. At one point, due to the heavy pain meds, my breathing became too shallow and I could have died.
Prior to my discharge, my surgeon informed me that I was ONE in a MILLION to be alive and that I would walk again. I lost 33 pounds while in the hospital and was addicted to the pain medications when I came home. I had to wear an upper torso turtle shell for 3 months, fight pain med addictions, and go to physical therapy for more than five months.
I was out of work for more than 9 months. While recovering at home, the medical bills started coming in. I thought I would lose everything I had ever worked for. Short term disability was minimal for 13 weeks and then Long term disability took over. My bills totaled more than $300,000. The aero-med helicopter transport alone was $22,500. The financial impact of an injury of this magnitude can ruin you and your family forever.
My back hurts me every day and probably will forever. But I am alive and not paralyzed, so I am grateful it wasn’t worse. I was fit and athletic and competed in Iron Man Triathlons, local triathlons, marathons and ultra-marathons. I can no longer compete in any of the activities that I truly loved to do. Additionally, my construction job was very physical. Much of the reason I survived and healed from this fall is because I was in great physical shape. The doctor said if I had not been in shape I would not have survived the fall.
I am back to work. But everything has changed and I can no longer work on a construction job site. I feel fortunate that my employer found me a job with the restrictions I now have. Some of those restrictions include having a 25-pound weight limit, no ladders, not sitting or standing too long, etc.
Choices We Make
The choice I made by not using 100-percent fall protection has taken me and my family to a new normal. Each day I run across tasks that used to be easy but I can no longer do. I cannot lift a 40-pound bag of dog food into the grocery cart, pick up a suitcase from the trunk of the car or pick up five gallons of gas for the boat. Now I have to ask for assistance in the simplest of tasks, which is a huge struggle for me.
My life has changed forever all because I wasn’t tied off 100 percent. This a choice every tree stand hunter makes when hunting out of trees. Make the right choice for you and your loved ones. Please use 100 percent fall protection or stay on the ground when hunting.
Recently, I spoke at a DNR convention. I asked the audience the following:
- “How many of you hunt out of a tree stand?” Answer: 60 hands were raised.
- “How many of you honestly use 100 percent fall protection?” Answer: 3 hands were raised. Everyone in the room looked around and the impact was huge.
The choices you make before you climb your tree stand could seriously change YOUR life and your FAMILY’S life forever.
— 82% of hunters who end up in the hospital with serious injuries or dead as a result from a tree stand accident were wearing a harness at the time of the fall!
— 86% of accidents occurred when climbing up or down or when installing or removing a tree stand.
— 73% said poor judgment and carelessness caused the fall.
— 80% said safety was concern but actually believed that the fall would NEVER happen to them.
— 34% of hunters surveyed wear 100% fall protection.
— 39% of accidents were from less than 10 feet.
Spectrum Health Hospital-Michigan provided statistics from 2009-15. These are stats from just one Michigan hospital:
- Eighty admissions due to a fall from a tree stand, or an average of 17 hospitalizations a year;
- 7 spinal cord injuries;
- Multiple vertebra fractures and pelvic fractures;
- 2 patients were discharged to skilled nursing facilities;
- 23 patients were discharged to a rehab facility;
- 52 patients were discharged to go home;
Hospital records show that fall victims with multiple internal injuries account for the most injuries. Spine fractures and fractured arms and legs are a close second.
Editor’s Note: Visser submitted this story as, hopefully, an eye-opening reminder for all hunters who use elevated stands to use a fall-restraint system from the moment you leave the ground until you’re back on it. Don’t think you’re bulletproof and can’t fall. Hunt safely.
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