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Being prepared helped save Finning employee’s life

Warning, some details in this story are of a graphic nature.

“When you are off-roading in a remote location with your buddies, the last thing on your mind is how you’d get out of here in the event of an emergency,” said Mike Holmes, Mining Product Services and Sales Manager with Finning. But that scenario became a reality for Mike in July of 2017, when he was side-by-siding with a group of friends 200 kilometres north of Fort McMurray in the Six Lakes region, literally as far north as you can travel on Highway 63. “It’s a well-known off-roading location with a lot of trails and it’s also a great spot to go camping. There are some beautiful crystal-clear lakes in that area and even some sand dunes,” said Mike. “On this particular trip we were exploring a different area that’s not well-travelled and has numerous dead trees due to a fire.”

It took an hour and 15 minutes for the helicopter to arrive. “They came faster than I had thought possible,” says Mike. “I remember the huge relief I felt when I heard the chopper and saw it come into view. I was in shock and the worst pain I had felt in my life, but still conscious. The first thing they did was administer pain relief which got me to the point where I wasn’t so fixated on the pain in my leg.” The next challenge was how to remove the tree. “It was 25-feet long and still rooted in the ground. The other issue was that the front wheel was up against the trunk, and the branch in my leg was bowed. They were worried about the damage to my leg from the whipping action if they just cut it. So they braced the tree and Bill started to cut at the root to slowly let the pressure off the branch. As they got closer to my leg, Roger made the final cut with a hand saw leaving about a foot of the branch protruding.”

Once freed, Mike was carefully lifted onto a back board and carried another 50 to 80 yards to the waiting helicopter. “Once in the chopper, I was sedated and didn’t regain consciousness until I was in the Fort McMurray hospital,” says Mike. “The surgeons made the decision to medi-vac me to the University of Alberta hospital in Edmonton. The hospital rarely sees an injury like mine, so along with four to five surgeons and nurses there were residents in attendance as they asked to use the surgery as a teaching event."

Mike has had seven other surgeries, the first six were to deal with infections and compromised tissue due to the large number of contaminants in the dead tree that impaled his leg. And about a year ago, he underwent a nerve graft and relocation to try and rebuild his damaged sciatic nerve. “I spent six weeks at the hospital due to post-operation infections and I was on crutches until mid-August following the incident,” says Mike. “I have regained some strength and flexibility in my leg, but I still walk with a hitch.” Mike had some motor-function issues associated with nerve damage, but he was back to work full-time three months after the accident and feels extremely fortunate. “The branch missed my femoral artery and femur. And even though it exited near my hip, it never broke a bone. If the branch had been any higher it could have perforated my urethra or bowels. I know I will never regain full mobility in my leg, but I think I’m very lucky.”

Mike was in the lead with his buddy Bill and as he drove his side-by-side around a corner, a dead tree struck the vehicle and perforated the lower door panel and came up through his seat. A branch, about five inches in diameter, impaled his right leg three to four inches from his groin and exited near his hip.

“The pain was incredible,” said Mike. “And the first thing I thought was I’m going to bleed out up here, there is no way they’re going to get to me in time.” 

The tree had stopped the vehicle and Bill, who was in the passenger seat, jumped out and ran around to Mike’s side to see what had happened. Kyle McMillan and Roger Sieber, two friends Mike has known since high school, who also work for Finning, were in the machines right behind Mike and were on the scene within minutes. “I immediately asked how much blood there was,” said Mike.

“And I knew I was going to need a helicopter and was doing the math in my head to determine how quickly they could get here.” Fortunately, the branch missed Mike’s femoral artery so there was very little blood. However, the branch was attached to a tree that was still rooted in the ground. Given the uncertainty of the situation and the location of the branch, the decision was made to leave the branch in the wound.

As Roger had First Aid he stayed with Mike and tried to keep him calm, Kyle left to find cell service to call for a helicopter. “Being in such a remote area, the cellphone service is patchy at best,” said Mike. “He got cell reception about five minutes down the trail and called in the emergency. The other challenge was clearing an area for the chopper to land. I had a chain saw, so Bill grabbed it and started clearing a landing area and built a fire to help the emergency crew pinpoint our location.”

Mike believes one of the lessons to learn from his accident is to be vigilant about safety, not only at work but in your personal life as well. “At work, health and safety is just a part of what we do each day. Those same rules should apply to your personal life,” says Mike. “Some things are just out of your control, but you can help reduce the risks by being prepared. First, make sure you have all the right tools with you for the area you are going to be traversing. If I hadn’t brought along a chain saw, my situation could have been a lot more serious. If you are off-roading in a remote area, ensure you have GPS and identify where you can get cell phone reception. And don’t go out on your own. Use the buddy system and make sure someone is trained in first aid. It is also a good idea, if you are exploring an unfamiliar area, to do a scouting trip in advance so you are aware of the terrain and any dangers it could pose.” He credits the quick response from his buddies, knowing what to do in that situation and the paramedics for getting him quickly and safely to the help he needed. “I am so thankful,” says Mike. “I know I’m not the first serious injury in a remote location where your best chance of survival is to be airlifted to hospital, but I am so grateful we were prepared, and my friends were there and they did everything they needed to do to get me the help I needed as quickly as possible.”