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The Spine Crushing Tree Stand Fall and The Miraculous Recovery

By Derek Benoit, February 23rd, 2022

Tree stand fall: what images do those words put in your mind? Mitchell Patterson didn’t have to imagine such a scenario. Unfortunately, he live the horrifying reality on a late October hunt in 2019. This Q&A is a sobering account of his fall from the heights and the arduous but miraculous comeback that ensued. Read on, whitetail hunters!

Image courtesy of Mitchell Patterson

1.) You suffered a horrific fall from your tree stand during a sit for whitetails. What went wrong?

I was chasing a 7 year old buck we named NASA because his frame came straight up. On October 28, 2019 I decided to move my stand closer to where I knew he was bedding. I had one climbing stick left before I could hang the stand and hook into my tether. There was one branch in my way, I had to unhook my lineman’s rope to get above the branch. Holding on to the tree I unhooked to move my lineman’s rope and before I could hook back in the climbing stick swung around the tree throwing me 25 feet to the ground. I’m not sure how the climbing stick moved because I tightened the strap and made sure it was snug to the tree.

2.) What were the injuries you suffered during the accident?

As soon as I hit the ground I knew I was hurt but I didn’t know how bad. The fall didn’t knock the air out of me because I hit my lower back. I tried to pull myself up and my legs were completely numb, that is when I knew I was in trouble. When the rescue team got there they noticed I had some minor cuts and scratches from falling through the tree branches.

3.) How were you able to contact help, and how long did it take to get to you?

Luckily I had cell phone service where I was hunting and was able to call my wife. She immediately called 911 and she was actually the first one to find me about an hour later. We just kept yelling back and forth until she found me. When the medical team got there they loaded me on a gurney and then on a side by side. Once we made it to the ambulance I was life flighted to the hospital.

4.) What was the prognosis from your medical team? When did you start to see signs of beating the odds of recovery?

Upon first look at a few X-rays and scans I had 3 broken vertebrae in my lower back one was shattered like glass and I had a blood clot in my back. That night I had my lungs collapsed and I flatlined. Fortunately God had other plans for me. The next day they decided to do a wide decompression surgery on my back.

What should have been a three hour surgery ended up taking seven hours because the doctors determined I had [damaged my] cauda equina. The cauda equina is the sack of nerve roots (nerves that leave the spinal cord between spaces in the bones of the spine to connect to other parts of the body) at the lower end of the spinal cord. After the surgery I felt immediate relief but I knew I wasn’t out of the woods yet. The doctors told my wife that if I lived I would never walk again. I spent a total of 19 days in ICU on my first day of physical therapy I took about 10 steps and that drove me even more.

Image courtesy of Mitchell Patterson

5.) Can you talk about the process of physical therapy and what went into your recovery, in hospital and following discharge?

After two weeks of physical and occupational therapy I was released to come home and continue physical therapy near home. I went to physical therapy three days a week for about two months until COVID hit and everything was on lockdown. I knew that if I didn’t exercise I was never going to get better, so I decided to start walking in the woods on my own.

6.) You’ve been able to build back up to some long hikes since you’ve recovered. What was the most difficult part of rebuilding that endurance?

Slowly but surely I would increase the distance of my hikes, then I started hiking uphill, and finally I added weight to my backpack. By the end of the summer of 2020 I was walking uphill with 40 pounds of deer feed in my back pack. The hardest thing to overcome was the nerve damage in my lower body which made my leg muscles extremely weak. I hunted in 2020 but I noticed my legs would get weak walking uphill so during the winter I tried to walk uphill at least one a week. Last year I downloaded an app to my phone that kept track of steps, distance, etc. It was amazing to look at the app and see that several times I had walked over five miles and hunted some of the steepest hillsides in West Virginia.

7.) With such a long road to recovery, what did you do to keep up your attitude and stay focused on your recovery goals?

I’ve always been a hard worker and provider so I was bound and determined to go back to work to provide for my wife and our two boys. Every night I would pray to get better and be able to provide for my family. I work pipeline which is one of the most physically demanding jobs so I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Everyone told me I should just get on disability but I didn’t want that. I love to work and feel like I’m doing my part as a husband and a dad. In March of 2021 I got a call to go back to work on the pipeline. Luckily I got on a good crew and most of them were my buddies who already knew about my situation and they didn’t mind to help me when I needed it.

8.) What tree stand precautions did you take prior to this fall, and how, if at all, have they changed since the accident?  

First I always tell my wife where I am going. My wife and the Good Lord are the reason I’m alive today. She fought for me when the doctors wanted to give up. I always wore a safety harness but I haven’t been in a tree stand since my fall. Honestly I’ve seen and killed more deer from the ground in the past two years than I ever did in 17 years of hunting from a tree stand. If I was going to hunt from a tree stand I would use a ladder stand I just feel like they are safer than a hang on stand like I was using.

No matter what I would still always use a safety harness, they only take a minute to put on and no animal is worth any one’s life. The past two years I have hunted from the ground using a HECS suit, paying really close attention to my scent control, and this year I’m considering buying a Ghost Blind. I’m more mobile and able to have more encounter hunting from the ground, and you can’t fall far if you’re not in a tree stand.

For more information on tree stand safety, please visit the following sites:

https://www.standsafety.com/

https://ahuntinglease.org/tree-stand-safety-tips

https://the-outdoor-phoenix-community.com

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