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[at-l] Derailed at Blue Mountain - Part Two

Derailed at Blue Mountain - by Robert Tomlinson
(part two - part one is reprinted below)

By now, I had suddenly lost my confidence about hitching a ride and so had
asked Greg to get out his cell phone and either call 911 or the sheriff's
emergency number posted on the sign. While he was doing this, a friendly
looking fifty-something fellow drove up, rolled down his window, and said
something along the lines of "you guys sure picked a day to go hiking",
alluding to the wet and rainy weather. He started to tell us of his hiking
plans, now aborted by the weather, but I was not interested in small talk
and so I interrupted with "I have a broken wrist - can you take me to the
hospital?" At first, he was concerned as to whether there was room in his
car, filled with hiking gear, but when I said it would just be me going, he
agreed. Turns out he was a fellow Floridian, working for a screen/pool
enclosure company in Naples. Greg threw my pack in the guy's trunk and after
I rather impatiently waited through a bit more of their hiking chitchat, we
were ready to go. I gave Greg a hug and croaked out a "thanks", but was too
choked up and teary to say more - after all, he had done a lot for me. Then
the newly drafted trail angel and I drove off, leaving Greg to start his now
very long and very alone hike to catch back up with the others.

I recited my version of the directions to the hospital and based on that the
trail angel took off towards Unicoi, but after about thirty seconds he said
"You don't want to go this way to Hiawassee, you want to go the other way!"
He made a U-turn - we headed back the way we came, past Greg, already
occupied with packing up and didn't see us. Mister trail angel said he had
just been in Hiawassee, so I wasn't worried - at least not too much. He
carried most of the conversational ball, which I was grateful for - I was
too preoccupied with planning my next move, and yes, worrying a little bit
if we were going the right direction. Pretty soon we hit Highway 76, so
based on what I remembered from the sign at Unicoi Gap we turned left
(west), but instead of 11 miles we started seeing blue hospital signs within
one mile and shortly after that the signs led us to "Chatuge Regional
Hospital", with a big Emergency Room sign. I asked my trail angel to wait
while I went inside to check it out. He agreed so I jumped out of the car
and ran in. By now, it was about 11:30AM, two and one-half hours after my

I went up to the front desk and explained my problem and the lady said yes,
we have an emergency room, but we don't have an orthopedic doctor here and
so can't do anything about broken bones. Well, where can they help me? Well,
you would probably have to go to Murphy, NC - about 50 miles away - or down
to Gainesville, GA - about 50 miles the other way. While they are explaining
this set of circumstances that seem crazy to a city boy, I have asked for
the yellow pages and am crazily flipping through them to see if I can find
any holes in their story. No luck. But what about the hospital that was
supposed to be 11 miles west on Highway 76 and you were just two miles west?
They didn't really know what I was talking about, but they must be the same
place, because - get this through your head, hiker boy - THERE ARE NO MORE

Well, it looked like I would either have to try to strong-arm my trail angel
into a really long drive or just stay there and see what they could do for
me - they did have some sort of doctor there, after all, didn't they? Maybe
the lady at the front desk didn't know it all - ? Maybe, this is a kind of
minor fracture that they can treat here, without needing an orthopedic

Anyway, based on this somewhat wishful thinking I went back outside, told
Mister Trail Angel (his name was Terry) I was staying here, he brought my
pack inside for me, I said thanks, he said bye, and he was off. I went back
to the emergency room. A very quiet emergency room, I might add. No waiting,
a pleasant change from my big city experiences.

The nurse assigned me a bed and told me to lie down on it, dirty boots and
all. She took my blood pressure while she listened to my story. I would get
a lot of practice telling this tale before the day was over. I gathered they
don't see many injured AT hikers in this hospital, which I guess is a good
thing. After a little bit a doctor appeared, a friendly guy about my age or
maybe a little younger. He also asked for my story and after unwrapping and
examining my wrist, he said that although x-rays were needed to be sure, he
was pretty sure it was broken and therefore pretty sure they would not be
able to do anything much for me there. But let's wait and see how the x-rays
come out and we will discuss it more then.

After the doctor left me, someone else came and rode me in a wheelchair to
the X-ray room, where yet another person took a few pictures. Then they
wheeled me back to my ER bed. Oh yeah, sometime during this process they
made sure to ask for my medical insurance card - good thing I had carried it
with me on the trail, instead of leaving it in the car or even at home, as I
learned afterward that some people do.

Soon after I came back from getting x-rayed, my pain started to get
significantly worse. My fingers were becoming very swollen and numb and I
had to get up and pace around the ER cubicle just to try to keep my mind off
of the throbbing. Where was that doctor anyway? Finally, after more than an
hour (the lunch hour, I might add), he came back. Based on the x-rays, he
saw three separate areas of trauma, but only one that needed attention, and
the way I understood it was that while technically a break, the necessary
procedure was a manipulation to reduce (relocate) the "right radial" (one of
two bones in the lower arm, connecting the wrist and the elbow) from where
it was to where it should be. And that needed an orthopedic doctor, with
access to anesthesia and the necessary equipment. Which as I had been told
before they did not have in Hiawassee, or anywhere near that fair city.

But there was some possible good news. The good doctor indicated that,
during his rather long absence from my bedside, he had been personally
checking into my options for treatment, due to his sympathy for my untenable
position as an injured stranger with only a backpack's worth of worldly
goods (but a valid insurance card), and he had heard that an orthopedic
doctor from Gainesville, Georgia made occasional teaching visits to a
Blairsville clinic, less than fifteen miles away, and he had someone
checking into that as a possible option. Otherwise, I would have to get
myself to Murphy or Gainesville.

Although the Blairsville possibility sounded good, it was still more than a
few miles away and, short of more hitchhiking, I was not sure how I would
get there, or worse and more likely at this point, to an even more distant
medical facility. I thought of 80 year old Gene, who shuttled my group on
Sunday from Woody Gap to our starting point at Dick's Creek Gap, and who had
done a shuttle for another hiking group I was in last July. He did live in
Hiawassee, but I had no idea whether I would be able to reach him and if I
did, what his plans were for the day.

The doctor interrupted my quiet worrying when he said, well I can at least
temporarily splint your wrist until we figure out what we can do with you.
He did it himself, using a gauze-like cloth, which after he soaked in water,
hardened over the next thirty minutes or so. He straightened my wrist and
hand out some as he applied the splint, which improved the circulation and
in turn reduced the swelling in my fingers - while I waited, the terrible
pain finally began to subside.

to be continued .................................................

----- Original Message -----
From: "Robert Tomlinson" <RET33@PRODIGY.NET>
To: <at-l@mailman.backcountry.net>
Sent: Friday, October 18, 2002 7:52 PM
Subject: [at-l] Derailed at Blue Mountain - Part One

> Derailed at Blue Mountain - by Robert Tomlinson
> October 9, 2002 - 9AM. It had been a great backpacking trip so far - we
> covered almost twenty miles over two and one half days, with two and one
> half days to go. Much rainier than we had experienced in previous trips,
> really nothing too bad. But as we left Blue Mountain Shelter that morning,
> continuing south on the AT, it was very foggy and I noticed that the
> was pretty wet. Two of the group had already gone ahead - Bette and her
> Tom - expecting to be the slowest and wanting a head start on what was to
> our longest hiking day. Then us remaining three, with me in the lead and
> Greg and Noel, our strongest hikers, right behind.
> We expected just a little bit of downhill at the start of the day and then
> were looking forward to an extended section of fairly even terrain, which
> had been a bit of a rarity so far in this trip. As I eagerly hit the trail
> and headed down, Greg remarked that I was obviously eager to tackle the
> and jokingly called me "a horse". About one hundred yards down, I passed
> little water source that we had nicknamed the Golden Arches, after the
> crossed trees that marked the spot. I remember thinking that after that
> point the trail looked like it dropped off steeply, but as I got closer it
> seemed to be just an optical illusion caused by some boulders in the
> of the trail, that weren't really that tall but obscured the continuing
> trail from the angle I was standing. I stepped on the boulders and before
> knew it I was sliding feet first - I was going down and put my right arm
> behind me to stop the fall. Other than being a little embarrassed, this
> not seem to be that bad a fall - just down on my butt like I had done more
> than a few times before. I then felt a little pain from the heel of my
> hand and realized it had hit the rocks - I'm not sure my butt even
> hit the ground. At first when I inspected my right arm and hand, nothing
> appeared to be unusual. But when I turned my hand over - palm up - it was
> bent very strangely, causing part of the wrinkled area where the arm
> connects to the hand to almost disappear. I also realized that my fingers
> were in a half-closed claw and would not open further.
> I never had a broken bone in my 45 years, but I instantly knew what this
> and what it meant. I looked up the trail to see first Greg and then Noel
> behind him, coming down the trail behind me. I said "Guys, I broke my
> and I remember Noel saying "no", as in "you must be mistaken". Greg by
> time was standing still, watching me from the top of the not-very-tall
> I had just slid down. And before he could say much, he started to slide
> those rocks also, but caught himself without falling.
> The guys went into action, taking my pack the rest of the way off and Noel
> insisting I take some Advil he offered me with a swig of my Gatorade, as
> well as to put on my jacket. I remembered that I had a long gauze strip
> bandage in my pack (which I debated every trip as to whether I should take
> or not), but not exactly where. After a couple of misdirections by me,
> finally found it and started to wrap my wrist - Noel came up with some
> tape to finish off the job. By now, I was a little woozy and a little
> panicked but not much and thankfully it stayed under control.
> Then we started to strategize, at first excitedly but quickly settling
> into a rational discussion. After we quickly considered our options, it
> became clear that our best bet was getting me to the main highway we had
> crossed the day before at Unicoi Gap, about 2.5 miles back up the trail.
> Although this might not seem that close to some, we had not been that
> to a highway for most of our trip so far and would not cross the next main
> road for another two days. Most of the way back was downhill, but it was
> steep (from about 4000 feet down to less than 3000 feet), wet and slippery
> just like the terrain we were standing on - so, as has been well said
> before, I was not out of the woods yet.
> Here's the amazing part. As I was deciding whether to try to carry my pack
> out or just leave it at the shelter with a note, Greg said that he would
> carry my pack out, and his too. That was a total of 60 pounds and an
> additional 5 miles of strenuous hiking added to Greg's already long day.
> Kelty pack has an external frame, so Noel and Greg lashed Greg's frameless
> "Go Lite" pack to the top of mine, sideways. Noel and Greg agreed that
> was to hike ahead, brief the rest of the party what had happened and stay
> with them until Greg caught back up, hopefully at that night's camp, which
> to complicate matters was not yet decided but had only been narrowed down
> a few options. But it was important that Noel continue on, since he was
> carrying food and equipment that he was sharing with the other two. Also,
> since we had learned a hard lesson about the treacherous terrain, it was
> important to pass that on also.
> Greg hoisted my pack, with his pack now lashed on top, and we were off.
> Leading the way, and cradling my bad hand with my good, I carried only my
> Gatorade bottle and, for some reason, Greg's water canteen. At first the
> trail went back uphill, and then was fairly level for a bit. Then began
> relentless rocky and wet downhill, heading down to Unicoi Gap. Watching
> every step, I picked my way down the trail, worried that I might fall
> or even worse that Greg might fall and wipe us both out. I never was in
> shock, but the injury throbbed pretty badly sometimes and I felt mildly
> nauseous or lightheaded almost all the way down. We chatted some, but
> just watched our footing on the trail. Greg was talking about staying with
> me even after we reached the road, but I told him that I had no problem
> continuing on by myself and that I was sure I would be able to hitch a
> to a hospital fairly fast in my obvious condition.
> In less than two hours, and with no further mishaps, we were at the bottom
> of the mountain and standing by the road (Highway 75). We crossed over to
> recheck the directions to the nearest hospital, printed on a sign in the
> parking area. I had remembered reading these directions, along with the
> other information on the sign, in some abstract theoretical way when we
> crossed through there the day before. Now reading with new interest, I try
> to focus on the directions so that I can relate them to whatever hapless
> stranger I wind up getting a ride with. There are too many roads, numbers,
> and distances, so I condense them in my mind as "go into Helen, take the
> road north to Hiawassee, and then go 11 miles west on Highway 76 to Townes
> Hospital".
> ............................... to be continued
> ............................................................