RYAN SEWELL AND RYAN “Future” Roden, two friends from Texas, camped and climbed in Rifle Mountain Park, Colorado, for a week in late July. While there, they chased a deer mouse out of their car, thinking little of it at the time.
The boys headed to Boulder to climb in Rocky Mountain National Park and then drove on to Salt Lake City. On August 8, Sewell complained of feeling ill and a loss of appetite, but thought he was simply dehydrated from the altitude in RMNP or was having a small bout with food poisoning. On the 9th he had a fever and no appetite, and felt very fatigued. He went to University Medical Center in SLC. Not suspecting his condition would turn into full-blown Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS), doctors put him on an IV to re-hydrate him.
On Friday, August 10, Sewell’s father, Dr. Robert Sewell, insisted that Ryan be flown back home, where he was admitted to the hospital in Bedford, Texas. There, blood work ruled out both Rocky Mountain spotted fever and West Nile virus.
Sewell’s fever spiked to 104.9 degrees F later on Friday and a series of chest X-rays showed a rapid progression of fluid build-up in his lungs. His breathing became more and more labored. Events unfolded quickly. With evidence mounting, the infectious-disease doctor had blood work sent to test for HPS. By 6 p.m. on Saturday, Sewell was intubated and on a ventilator. Even with 100 percent oxygen piped to his lungs, Sewell barely held his blood-oxygen above critical levels. To compound the problem, his blood-clotting functions had become extremely abnormal. “The threat to his life was now both from respiratory failure and potential hemorrhage,” Dr. Sewell says. Ryan’s existence was hanging by a very core-shot rope.
It wasn’t until August 14 that Hantavirus was confirmed by the CDC as the source of his illness, but Sewell gradually came through with supportive therapy. Feeling better, Sewell actually went out bouldering on some easy problems five days after being released.
Upon learning of Ryan Sewell’s illness, Ryan Roden’s mother stopped him from leaving Miami for Ecuador and had him flown back to Texas for HPS testing. After testing negative and having no ill effects, he came in seventh place in the Male Juniors category at the World Youth Championships of climbing in Ibarra, Ecuador.
According to the infectious-disease specialists, there is no way to be certain that Sewell contracted HPS at Rifle Mountain Park, but the evidence pointing in that direction is strong. Colorado has several cases of HPS every year, according to the state’s Board of Health, and they are concentrated on the Western Slope, where Rifle is located. Also, there is no other time Sewell and Roden can recollect coming in contact with a known reservoir of the virus.
Contamination might have occurred when the boys chased the deer mouse out of their car. When frightened, deer mice urinate while fleeing, and according to the CDC, infection in most of North America generally happens when aerosolized deer-mouse urine or fecal matter is inhaled. It may also be transmitted if excrement gets on a person’s body and then that body part comes in contact with a mucous membrane.
Hantavirus can be deadly—the CDC reports a 38 percent mortality rate, though mortality rates tend to be higher if patients are hospitalized only after fluid has begun collecting in the lungs. As of July 2007, six states have reported 30 or more cases of HPS since 1993, when the virus was discovered: New Mexico (69), Colorado (49), Arizona (46), California (43), Texas (33) and Washington (30).
The virus is also stealthy due to the fact that its original signs and symptoms mimic those of a cold or the flu. Loss of appetite, fatigue, fever, and general malaise may point to HPS, if you think you may have come in contact with a contaminated vector. Deer mice can be almost anywhere (the CDC reports they can fit through a hole the size of a button), but areas with the greatest risk are seasonally closed or abandoned buildings, or any dwelling infested by mice. Sweeping out barns, cabins or warehouses are very high-risk activities.
There is no specific treatment for HPS. A patient with HPS will be intubated, placed on a ventilator with 100 percent oxygen and positive pressure breathing, and continuously monitored.
Campers like Sewell, Roden and much of the climbing population are at risk of being infected by HPS through contact with deer-mouse excrement. The best avoidance is never to give the mice any reason to come around and contaminate your kitchen area, vehicle, tent or food storage.
Keep your campsite clean and free of loose or open food. If you are sleeping in your vehicle, keep it as clean and unfriendly to mice as you can. Wash your hands frequently if you’ve been handling anything that has been gnawed on by a rodent; the saliva may be a vector as well. Dispose of food that shows signs of rodent break-in. Store food in mouse-proof containers.
In daily life, avoid sweeping out varmint-infested storage sheds, barns, garages or warehouses without first wetting down all excrement and nest-matter with a solution of one cup bleach for every gallon of water used. Wear a mask and gloves, and wash your hands after handling any materials that appear to have been contaminated.
MY HELMET SAVED MY LIFE. STORY NO. 4 PRESENTED BY PETZL
Sometimes I wonder what my boyfriend smells
like. Or I try to remember the aroma of popcorn or the odors that fill your car at a gas station. The trace of ozone before a spring shower; the awful
rose tea scented perfume my sister got five years in a row for Christmas. That high school teacher everyone said reeked. I know I liked vanilla, cinnamon
toast, and mint chip ice cream. I was given a cedar chest once and it made all my sweaters smell like our pet hamster, Crappy. My hands would stink
after sneaking a cigarette, and I would hastily cover the funk with some fruity spray. Cucumber melon was gross, but raspberry mist did the job of
concealing my cancer-causing habit for years. I am told that even sex has an essence. I used to work in a bakery—what a tease. Should I stop
running from skunks? After five days in the backcountry can I truly believe him when he says he doesn’t notice my funk-filled gloriousness? Sometimes
it will tingle way up there, past even where my finger can reach. I’ll think this is it—I’m a medical miracle—each time
I take a deep breath in filling my nostrils with the scent of hope. But when the moment passes, I still can’t smell anything.
A friend had given me some hand lotion as a get well present. I squeezed the bottle oozing a pink drop into the palm of my hand. I brought it up to my
sniffer anticipating the fragrant smell of cherry blossoms. I smelled nothing. Zero. Nothing. That was weird. I got out of bed as quick as my aching
body would allow. There was week old Chinese food in the fridge, I went to the kitchen. I unfolded the white packaging, brought it to the tip of my
beak, and inhaled deeply hoping to end this nonsense. Nothing. I went to the sink, tore open the cabinets, found the strongest smelling astringents,
bleaches, soaps. Again, I brought each to the tip of my whiffer, closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Nothing, nothing, and nothing. My banana was
broken, not by fist, but by fall.
A few days before my discovery, I was learning to lead climb at a local quarry. I wasn’t on any glamorous route or anything beyond my limit. I was a new
leader, learning how to use those wacky spring-loaded devices, forgetting about good stances, and freaking out. I was on the second pitch and 15 feet
above my belayer. Between him and me I had placed two cams. It was a crack, fist-sized. I didn’t know about jamming. I tried to layback it, tried
to place a cam, tried to keep control of my nerves. I failed at all three and fell off. The next piece flew out of the crack with a loud popping sound.
I kept going, upside down. While in flight, I whacked my bean against the rock, once, twice, three times, I don’t know. I ended up 15 feet below my
belayer. I looked at him in a daze and stammered, “I want down.”
I can never repay my friends who cared for me and got me to the ambulance. Getting back-boarded is not fun, and I’m sure the nurse I puked on wasn’t having
fun either. I suffered a level II concussion or what most people call a traumatic brain injury. The rock and the back of my dreambox had collided
many times, but I only bled from a small laceration. My helmet (Petzl Ecrin Roc) absorbed the impact and it saved most of my melon even though both
cracked. The permanent brain damage occurred as my brain bounced inside my skull. The olfactory nerves, the central command system for your smeller,
lie at the base of the frontal lobe, right behind the eyes and above the nose. These nerves were damaged as I bounced off the rock. Doctors say olfactory
nerves don’t usually regenerate.
The day after I buried my face in the decaying Chinese food, I was back to the doctor for an official, “smell test”. The nurse had a dozen unmarked vials.
Twelve times in a row, she brought a vial up to my nose; I would take a deep breath and shake my head. Each time she looked at me with disbelief. At
the end of the test she said, “You must have a cold, Sweetie.”
MY HELMET SAVED MY LIFE. STORY NO. 3 PRESENTED BY PETZL
Eager to get down and move on to the next climb, I threw my rope ends and started to rappel. I don't have
another memory until about a week or so later, when the meds wore off in the hospital.
About 80-percent of the time, I remember to tie knots at the end of the rope when I rappel. If I'm being honest with myself, that’s about how often I wear
my helmet. I've been climbing for almost five years, and the most action my helmet ever saw was a desperate moment in a narrow chimney on Epinephrine,
in Red Rocks, where I stood up into a rock ledge.
I was wearing a helmet that day, but I forgot the knots. The two-pitch route I was rappelling wound slightly left, making it impossible to see the belay
area below. I rappelled off the end of my rope, with 20 feet to the next rappel station, hit a ledge, and ricocheted another 40 feet to the ground.
Paramedics airlifted me to the nearest level I trauma center.
I broke both femurs (my right in two places), shattered my kneecaps, broke the ball of my right hip clean off, fractured my left ankle, my right arm, broke
multiple ribs, fractured my collarbone and shoulder blade, sustained compression fractures on my lower spine and chipped something in my neck, as well
as partially deflated a lung and suffered lacerations to my liver and spleen.
I had three major
surgeries while in the ICU, where I stayed for a month and a half to recover and begin physical therapy. There were setbacks along the way, such as
pneumonia and a condition called heterotopic ossification, where your body grows unnecessary bone outside of the skeleton. However, despite all the
frustrations and pain of learning to bend my knees again, I am forever grateful that I was wearing my helmet that day.
The blood splatter on the inside was evidence alone that I would not be here today had I forgotten to wear it.
I took countless cognitive tests during my stay in the hospital, and as a 7th grade science teacher, it initially enraged me to fail math calculations
that I knew were at a middle school level. However, within just a few days, things became easier. By the end of my stay, I tested above average for
someone at my age level who has been knocked unconscious.
Regaining my personality has only made me more determined to conquer the hurdles that lay ahead so I can get back outside. Knowing how lucky I am to be
able to walk again on day, I celebrated with an outing to The North Face store after being discharged from the hospital. The salesperson watched me
struggling to try on down jackets in my wheelchair. “That one is great for wearing around town," she said.
I stared at her, confused. "Oh no. I'm buying this for alpine climbing."
MY HELMET SAVED MY LIFE. STORY NO. 2 PRESENTED BY PETZL
The route was Chouinard’s Gully (WI3), in the Adirondacks. My partner was leading off to the side and was about 30 feet up. I was tied off to a little tree at the base with a rock buttress
next to me. I thought I was safe.
I was standing there belaying and the next thing I knew I was on the ground. I wasn’t knocked unconscious, but the hit was forceful enough to make my knees
buckle. I stood up, shook it off, and felt the top of my now-cracked helmet.
My partner and I believe that some climbers topping out more than 200 feet above must have knocked a chunk of ice down. Even if they’d yelled “Ice!” we
wouldn’t have heard it—and perhaps it’s a good thing: if I had looked up, I could have gotten it in the face.
—Anne Skidmore Russell
MY HELMET SAVED MY LIFE. STORY NO. 1 PRESENTED BY PETZL
On August 28, 2010, I was climbing a technically easy multi-pitch trad route near Banff, Canada, with my partner, when
I fell while leading. I don’t know what caused the fall—perhaps a hold broke, perhaps I simply slipped; that moment has been wiped from my memory—but
I plunged about 20 meters, hitting various hard obstacles on the way down and losing consciousness in the process.
When I awoke, my partner phoned to arrange a helicopter rescue, and I’ve been recovering since, first in hospital and now at home. While I sustained fairly
severe injuries, I’m extremely fortunate that those comprised only scrapes, bruises, and broken bones, all of which will heal in due course.
My helmet is another story. It fared far worse than I did, as it absorbed blows from one or more of those hard objects I encountered on my sudden descent.
Have a story to share on how your helmet saved you? Send an email to HelmetsMatter@petzl.com