I was sharing the role of “camp cook” for a group of women on a horseback trail ride in the high country of Western Wyoming. The ages of the women ranged from 18 to 60. Unfortunately, the organizer and leader of the trip had not asked the women to fill out health forms. A major faux pas on his part.
About the time we hit 8,000 feet in altitude, the youngest of the group, an 18 year-old girl, began feeling ill. When we reached 8,200 feet, she was in real trouble. The leader and organizer had, at this point, gone ahead of the group and was no where in sight. I got the girl off her horse and into the shade. She began having seizures and convulsions. One of the other ladies had brought a wool blanket with her and I put that around the girl as she began going into shock. She was, by this time, convulsing so hard I had to hold her to keep her from smashing her head into the ground and surrounding rocks. Inbetween seizures she would vomit and cry. Most of the group went on ahead to try to find the leader. Staying behind with me and the girl were two ladies that accompanied her on the trip and the outfitter who owned the horses. I asked the ladies that came with the girl what kind of medicine the girl might be taking. They told me she was taking medication for acne. I asked them to get me the PI (package insert) from her medication. Under the listing of “brain damage” was all the symptoms the girl was experiencing. I read further to discover that this medication also caused swelling in the brain. I knew for certain that between the drug and the effects of high altitude that she was in serious trouble.
It didn’t take long to realize we needed to get this girl down out of these mountains. Fortunately the outfitter had a satellite phone. I told her to get me a helicopter NOW! Once the call was made, I split the orange plastic bag I had gotten from Peter to make it larger. I then sent the two ladies, that had come with the girl, out into the open with the bag and instructions to “shake it like a tablecloth.” I knew that color plus movement increased the chances it would be seen. After what seemed like an eternity (but was only about 1 hour) we heard the helicopter. During the wait, the girl continued to have seizures and convulsions, worsening with each one. She no longer had lucid moments and could not speak. The only way she could communicate was with a flaccid squeeze of her hand. About the time we heard the helicopter’s approach, she lost consciousness, quit breathing and her heart stopped. I had to perform CPR. She responded.
We saw the helicopter circle the girls with the orange bag. They spotted us!
About the time the helicopter was landing, the girl went “out” again and again I had to perform CPR. Thank the Lord she came back a second time. But, her heart beat and breathing was so shallow and weak I knew if she went again, that would be it. She would not come back.
We were so far out in the back country that I am convinced had it not been for the EMTs in helicopter spotting the orange bag that they would not have reached us in time and without all the sound advice I have received from Peter over the years that this 18 year-old girl would have died.
The girl made a full recovery and last I heard, is doing fine with no negative, long-term effects of her ordeal.
Thank you Peter for sharing all your great, life-saving knowledge.