By Alex Hassman
Big Sky Weekly Contributor
After driving 10 hours south from Montana, we turned off the highway onto a rambling dirt road that ran across a dry sagebrush wasteland.
The snap orange colors of the scrub oak that dotted the northern hills were gone. We were heading to the put-in of Desolation Canyon on the Green River, Utah. We left Montana as it was transitioning to fall and preparing for winter.
I pulled over on a sand drift along the road to secure the raft, hoping not to repeat what our friend Eric experienced earlier when a dry bag was jettisoned from his boat and then creamed by an 18-wheeler. All contents were recovered, less his daughter’s swimsuit, long underwear and a recent issue of Fancy Dog magazine—a difficult extraction during 5 o’clock rush hour on a four-lane interstate north of Ogden, Utah.
After I bomb-proofed the gear and changed into flip-flops and shorts, my son Kjetil climbed onto to my lap and took the wheel. It’s what we do when we drive the dirt roads leading to trailheads and river put-ins; he drives and we listen to bluegrass or Notorious B.I.G.
The temperature rose as we snaked through the vast, rolling dry land. Oilrigs bobbed up and down in a slow eerie rhythm.
One year ago we made a similar sojourn to the Green River. That trip was a reunion of friends and families for an adventure down a beautiful desert river.
Every river trip is arguably a celebration of life, or possibly a celebration of being away from your life—as in turning off cell phones and engaging in your surroundings. But this year was different. This was a celebration of life in the truest sense.
On day three of last year’s trip, after returning from a four-mile run along a fresh water tributary of the Green, my wife Suzy began to complain of nausea and dizziness. The treatment at the time seemed simple: rest, shade and hydration. With four EMTs, a paramedic and a former ski patrol director along, we felt confident in our field diagnosis.
By midnight Suzy was in a virtual coma and had lost control of all faculties. At first light, after a night furiously trying to stabilize and treat her symptoms, we made a satellite phone call to an emergency room doctor and friend, Dr. Jim. He diagnosed Suzy with hyponatremia, and without treatment, he said, this would lead to cerebral edema, which was potentially fatal. Her condition was worsening and was irreversible in the field. She needed to be evacuated.
Suzy had essentially flushed her body of all necessary salts and minerals, and also had an unknown staph infection. In an attempt to bring balance and retain as many essential minerals as possible, her body had shut down all its borders. Excess water began to swell up and pool, and with nowhere else to go, it began to swell around Suzy’s brain. The clock was ticking.
More than 40 miles of river lay downstream, including some whitewater. It was hard to decide whether I would accompany my wife on the helicopter and leave our two young children with friends, or send Seth, a friend (more like family) and a paramedic. We ultimately chose the latter, which meant Seth had to leave his wife Nikki and their two kids.
With the help of a blue jean-clad river ranger and his astonished sidekick, Suzy and Seth headed downstream to meet a helicopter en route from Grand Junction, Colo. In what looked like a Viking funeral, Suzy’s body was strapped to a raft and pushed out into the current.
When they met the helicopter, Seth and the flight medic had a showdown of emergency medical bravado, which won him entrance onto the helicopter—something not typically allowed for non-family members. This may go down as the single most critical event in the eventual saving of Suzy’s life, not excluding Eric’s satellite phone and our ER doctor on speed dial.
An hour later, we heard the helicopter. It’s hard to describe how I felt as it flew over the river, carrying my wife lying in a coma. Our two kids watched by my side, bemused by the site of a helicopter, not fully comprehending.
The flight medic was convinced that a simple injection of intravenous fluid and glucose would bring Suzy out of what he thought was hyperglycemic shock, and directed the pilot to head for Salt Lake City. If Seth hadn’t been there to explain her symptoms and condition, Suzy would have been mistreated and very likely would have died. The helicopter re-routed back to Grand Junction, the nearest medical facility.
Back in the canyon, our group carried on with necessary bravery, maintaining an air of confidence in an attempt to keep scared and puzzled kids entertained and distracted.
We received two updates on Suzy’s condition, both of which reported she wasn’t improving, and that complications were starting to present themselves. I cried as we floated down the river, thinking that was the last time I would see my wife alive. I fell asleep that night under the stars with my two kids under each arm.
How quickly our lives can take a turn. Suzy went for an afternoon run and by evening was having seizures and lay in a coma.
By sunrise we made contact with the Grand Junction ICU and heard great news. Suzy had drastically improved and was conscious. The doctors said if we’d waited another half hour, recovery might have been impossible.
On day three of our “do-over” trip, we hiked to petroglyphs along the creek where Suzy had run the year before. After the walk, our daughter chased lizards, and our son dug tunnels in the sand. Suzy climbed onto a paddleboard and headed downstream. We’d closed the circle, made peace with the past. The river asked nothing of us this time, but in return we gave it respect and the celebration of life.
Alex Hassman writes from Big Sky.