MY DARKEST HOUR

On November 19th, 2008 I set out with my colleague, pediatrician Dr. Roger Gollub, for a short dog sled ride outside of Kotzebue.He was very excited to get to go on a dog sled and had been telling his young patients about the ride for two days. I’ve been running dogs in the area for about 6 years, frequently on the trail back and forth from town. The trail I was on is used consistently by Louis Nelson, his sons Darin and Robert, John Baker and his handlers, Ed Iten and his family and handlers, and various sprint mushers for training at times, as well as lots of snowmachiners.We took off from town with me driving until I got my leaders straightened out. I put my hooks down and Roger got on back. He was thrilled with the sensation of the runners gliding over the snow. He was mesmerized by the stars and how clearly the milky way stood out. He shouted encouragement to the dogs and thanked me over and over for taking him out. Behind us, a snowmachine light appeared. I got up on my knees in the sled and began to shine my light directly at the approaching light, flashing and moving the light side to side and up and down. Most snowmachiners are considerate, (although I’ve had one other close call, as did Chuck Schaeffer – my husband) when you turn to the side and swing your headlamp around, they give you a nice wide berth. For a bit it sounded like he was slowing down, then my worst nightmare came true. He hit us, directly. It’s a sight I see over and over when I close my eyes and I’ll never forget it. I was aware of myself flying through the air then hitting the ground very hard and experiencing more pain than I had ever felt before. When I tried to get up I couldn’t at first, but I kept trying and when I did I could feel broken ribs grating in my chest. I saw how badly Roger was hurt and I vowed at that moment that I would not pass out until help came. The details of the next hour are gruesome and I won’t be sharing most of them, as there is an ongoing investigation into the matter. I will share, however, the fact that Roger and I were left on the ice alone. He suffered serious injuries and I attempted first aid but my injuries made my attempts pretty futile. Roger did not survive. I will also share the fact that my dogs were in a tangle, all except young May, an 8 month old pup. She was stuck right next to Roger. I thought about cutting her out of her harness, but she was acting calm and snuggled up to Roger and so I left her there. She lay her head on his chest and calmly watched me as I tried to help Roger and move the dogs. All of my dogs just watched me from that tangle. I had four 8 month olds and four adult dogs, three of whom are females that do not like each other and fight every chance they get. No one fought, though. Every time I looked at them they were watching me, but they stayed calm. I was eventually taken by snowmachine to the edge of town where an ambulance awaited me. My parka and down undercoat were cut off of me, filling the ambulance with down and making me cough, which caused even more pain. I arrived at the hospital and the rest of my clothes were cut off and I was treated for hypothermia, given something for the pain and x-rayed, which revealed several broken ribs and a slight fracture to my left arm. Chest tubes were placed in to help keep my lung from collapsing, which it did. I was sent by a medivac plane to Anchorage and brought to Providence Medical Center where I was further x-rayed and had a CT scan. I was told that my aorta had been damaged, as well as my spleen, and would be undergoing surgery. My experience in the hospital was nightmarish at times. They had induced a coma after surgery and coming out of that was like fighting my way up through thick, black murky water that was trying to suck me back down. I fought though, I was determined to make it back. I could hear my mom, Chuck, and my dad and I used every bit of effort I had to move my arms and legs and let them know I was here. Coming off the ventilator was such a huge relief—being able to breathe on my own and communicate. Eventually I was able to sit up on the side of the bed, something I had done with hundreds of patients as an occupational therapist in various hospitals. My first walk was about three steps and I felt like I was walking on logs. Everything was such a huge effort. I asked a nurse one day how the average person was able to recover from injuries like this and she replied, “They don’t!”I had so much support at the hospital from family and friends. My little brother flew in from Egypt, where he got off a ship he had been working on. Two nieces set up websites, one sponsored by Providence to let everyone know how I was doing and one to allow people to make donations. I had an endless stream of visitors, phone calls, e-mails, flowers and messages wishing me well. I had fantastic surgeons and several great nurses that were very supportive. The cardiac rehab staff took me on walks until I was able to walk alone. Then I would make lap after lap, trying to get strong enough to leave the hospital. I met and began to speak with Roger’s wife, Dianne. Then Chuck, Diane and myseIf talked about something good coming of this. We asked how can we raise awareness and prevent further tragedy. When I was able to get on the computer I contacted Maniilaq Health Center, the Northwest Arctic Borough and The Northwest Arctic Borough School District and initiated a poster contest with themes that revolved around not driving drunk on a snowmachine. There is a calendar in the works with the same themes and artwork completed by Roger’s young patients. If you are interested in doing something along the same lines in your community, I’d be happy to share with you some of our finished products when we have them. This tragedy shouldn’t have happened. Dog mushers and snowmachiners can use the same trails safely and generally do, but traveling in the arctic and drinking don’t mix and it was a lethal mistake on this night. Roger Gollub’s family and I have been working with the Injury prevention department at Maniilaq Health Center to get LED vests that would be really hard to miss. The Northwest Arctic Borough purchased reflective materialwhich they are cutting into triangles and distributing at all the dog mushers meetings. There has been meetings concerning use of the trails and it has been determined that non-motorized vehicles must be given right of way by motorized vehicles.Presently I am in upstate NY with my family, recovering until I’m strong enough to get back to Kotzebue and then to our home 30 miles northeast of Kotzebue. I miss Chuck terribly, the dogs, and my life in general. I’m so thankful I’m alive, though, and I’ll get back home, back on the runners. Every run I take with my dogs Roger’s spirit will be with me, smiling. ●Tracey Schaeffer is an occupational therapist, who works with kids with disabilities (physical and learning) so they can succeed in school. She has been in that district for 13 years, and has met lots of the kids that she worked with as infants in early intervention.For more information on Tracey or Dr. Roger Gollub please visit our websites: www.drrogergollubcommunity.comwww.traceyschaeffer.com

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