Big Sky local survives near-fatal horse accident

By Jana Bounds EBS Contributor

BIG SKY – There’s a reason why seasoned medical professionals nicknamed him Chuck Norris, Jr.

Gus Hoffman talks with a raspy voice and sports a bandage on his throat, hints of what the 15-year-old has endured the past three months.

It’s easy to rattle off the ingredients in the recipe for disaster that occurred in the modest young cowboy’s life on June 21: a storm, a tree branch, the likely presence of a grizzly yearling, a spooked horse, a stumble and a kick delivered square to the throat.

What isn’t so easy to figure out is just how, exactly, Gus was able to climb back on the horse who kicked him and ride 2 miles for help with a severed windpipe and internal hemorrhaging.

Due to Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) regulations, medical personnel who helped Gus that day couldn’t comment. However, Missoula physician Marc Mentel, who was attending a conference at Big Sky Resort, said he was astounded after looking at medical records provided by the family.

“What an amazing kid,” Mentel said. “He’s extremely lucky that he survived that level of trauma and was able to get himself to help. His windpipe was torn. The fact that he was able to get air in his lungs is a miracle.”  

Gus credits his life to Soldier, the ranch horse; the medical professionals who helped that day; and his own will to survive.

Born and raised in Montana, Gus is a knowledgeable horseman with over a decade of experience. He became a valuable hand at 320 Ranch, where his father Marce works as the horse operations manager.

June 21 began as a typical day. He was charged with making sure the trail was clear for the evening guest ride since a storm had blown through the night before. So he saddled up Soldier, a wrangle horse, and went to work.

He discovered a large tree branch had snapped, but was still attached to the trunk. He felt it could fall at any time.

“It was dangerous for guests,” he said.

Gus dismounted from Soldier and started sawing the branch with one hand while gripping the lead rope with the other. Then, the horse spooked, he stumbled and the kick was delivered.

Gus believes the horse was reacting to a grizzly presence.

Gus quickly recognized that he couldn’t breathe well. He tried to call for help over the radio, but his voice wouldn’t come. Instinctively, he jumped on Soldier and rode.

It’s clear that if he had not done things just so and if a chef at 320 Ranch had not summoned help after seeing Gus struggling on his horse, Gus would not have survived.

All that was visible on the outside was a developing bruise. Beneath the skin, everything had been smashed: voice box, windpipe, larynx. As a result, he was bleeding internally.

Everything began to blur for him. He was loaded into a suburban, rushed to Big Sky Medical Center, and flown to Billings in an air ambulance. His mother Beth flew with him.

There, Beth was informed that he needed to be sent-on to a more specialized facility. “They let me go in to see him and all the sudden he just started vomiting blood profusely across the room. They kicked me out,” Beth said.

Gus Hoffman (center) celebrating with friends at the Gallatin Riverhouse Grill a few days after getting out of the hospital on July 9.

An emergency tracheotomy was performed and an X-ray of his lungs showed that both had collapsed.

Tubes were inserted and he was stabilized enough for a life flight to Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City.

There, the waiting game and Gus’s long road to recovery began.

A June 23 journal entry posted by family friend Carla Rey on CaringBridge.org, a nonprofit that provides updates on a loved one’s condition, hints at what the family endured.

“They were able to find all the pieces of his damaged parts of his larynx—and put them back together—but they aren’t sure how or if they will heal,” Rey wrote. “They also placed a stint in his voice-box in hopes that it will repair itself around the stint. He was also placed in a medically induced coma. He has a feeding tube and is in ICU currently.”

Doctors thought he may never speak again.

“I know that I’m going to,” he wrote for his parents after he was brought out of coma and informed of his condition.

Now, he does.

He was back on a horse, his horse Sunny, a month after the accident.

“His biggest goal was to have his [tracheotomy tube] out by November for hunting season and for snowmobiling,” Beth said.

All the hope and determination has been interspersed with emergency trips to Salt Lake City. His tracheotomy became clogged, so they had him remove it, thinking he would make it to Bozeman before having trouble. Beth was driving, and panicked when his breathing became labored. With no other option, Gus plunged it back in himself. His breathing leveled.

None of it has been easy, but Gus is facing it all with the same grit that got him through that day.

“Now, that’s Gus-tough,” Nick Wade, Gus’s cowboy friend from school, said when he discovered what Gus had survived.

The first thing Gus did when he returned to Big Sky after the accident was visit Soldier.

“It wasn’t the horse’s fault, it was my fault,” Gus said.

“It was no one’s fault,” his mother quickly replied. “You did nothing wrong. It could have happened to any of us.”

Beth said a prayer chain extended across the globe and messages poured in from strangers. She said medical personnel were amazing and the family received remarkable support from the Big Sky community, 320 Ranch, and her employer Big Sky Build, which flew her to Salt Lake City repeatedly during her son’s hospital stay.