Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Photo of Brandon Christian, Christina Meyers and baby son Baden. © John Maniaci

Brandon Christian, Christina Meyers and their baby son Baden Meyers survived a serious tree stand fall injury.
© John Maniaci

August 2011

Tree stand tumbles

The long road to recovery.

Susan Lampert Smith

For tree stand safety tips, visit Tree Stand Safety.

There are no windows in the third floor neurosurgery operating room at University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics, but neurosurgeon Dr. Nathaniel Brooks can tell the season by the causes of the broken and crushed spinal cords that he repairs.

In winter, they're caused by snowmobile crashes, in spring by motorcycle accidents and in summer by diving into shallow water. And on opening day of the 2010 gun deer-hunting season, three hunters arrived by ambulance and medical helicopter with spinal cord injuries caused by falling out of tree stands. One died, but three lives were saved. And, yes, those numbers don't add up, but for a happy reason that you'll learn more about later in this article.

Photo of Dr. Nathaniel Brooks. © John Maniaci
Neurosurgeon Dr. Nathaniel Brooks treats hunters who suffer tree stand injuries.
© John Maniaci

As bad a day as it was, the injuries that wound up being treated at UW Hospital, one of two Level One Trauma Centers in Wisconsin, were only the worst of the falls.

"Unfortunately, it's a pretty common injury," said Brooks. "The problem isn't using tree stands for hunting; it's getting in and out of them safely."

Tim Lawhern, head of enforcement for the Department of Natural Resources, said that research shows that one out of three hunters who hunt from an elevated stand will fall from it sometime during their hunting careers. So with potentially 621,094 hunters in the field that day, it is likely that hundreds of other hunters were bruised and banged up.

Lawhern hopes he lives to see the day that number is zero.

"The more education and public outreach we do, the better our safety record becomes," he said. "At some point in history almost every hunter will have taken hunter education training. The goal is zero tolerance for hunting incidents. We are hopeful that hunting incidents will become a thing of the past."

But as the stories of hunters injured during last year's hunt show, knowing what is right and doing it every time are the critical issues.

Have a harness with you

Dan Pustina, 48, wasn't one of the hunters injured on Opening Day 2010. He missed opening day because he was already in UW Hospital, recovering from surgery following his fall from a tree stand during the 2010 bow-hunting season.

Pustina is well aware of the safety precautions a hunter should take. In fact, he had a harness but he left it in a second tree stand "because I thought my son was going to be hunting there."

Like most hunters, Pustina was eager to get out of work and into the field on Nov. 4. Luckily, he told his son, Cale, that he was going hunting on land near his father's home near Highland in northern Iowa County.

He walked about 600 yards down into a steep valley and climbed 20 feet up to the stand. Pustina stood on the platform for a moment, then reached over the side to pull up his bow. The entire platform shifted and slid down the tree, throwing him to the ground.

He landed on his feet, crushing his ankles and breaking his legs. It was fortunate that he couldn't try to walk out. His spine was also crushed at the L3 vertebrae in his lower back, where a break can cause permanent loss of leg control.

What followed were some of the coldest and most painful hours of his life. It started to snow, but Pustina could only roll from side to side to try to keep warm and ease the pain.

At 8 p.m. that night, Cale called his grandfather, Delbert Pustina, worried that Dan hadn't returned.

"At first my dad said, 'Don't worry, he'll be home,' but then he sat down and thought, 'Something's not right,'" Dan Pustina said. His father drove down the road and saw his son's truck still parked, long after dark.

"I could hear him calling for me, but he couldn't hear me calling back and the ground was too rough for him to walk in very far,'' Pustina said. Eventually, his dad got Pustina's brother-in-law Jeff Micek, a member of the Highland EMS, who found him and called in the rescue squad. Rescuers had to carry him by stretcher up over the steep valley side. Then it took a painful ambulance ride, and a Med Flight helicopter to get to UW Hospital.

Dr. Brooks was able to repair Pustina's spine, but he spent a month in either the hospital or the rehabilitation nursing home before he could return home. Six months after the accident, Pustina walks with considerable pain due to his leg and ankle injuries, and hasn't been able to return to work as a ceiling installer.

Pustina knows he's fortunate to be alive and walking, but adds, "It's hard to see myself as lucky when everything I do, every day, is a battle."

One in three

As horrible as it was, Pustina's accident was typical of tree stand accidents. Outdoors writer Patrick Durkin surveyed hundreds of hunters when he was editor of Deer & Deer Hunting magazine, and gleaned the "one in three" accident rate from those surveys.

Durkin's work led to an industry-wide change, changing the safety standard from a waist-belt strap to a full-body harness.

He believes that the one-in-three rate is probably high, because people who had fallen were probably more likely to fill out and return the surveys. Even so, his work revealed the most common ways the accidents occur.

"The trouble is," said Durkin, "that most accidents happen while hunters are climbing up, climbing in, climbing out or climbing down from a tree stand, when most hunters are unharnessed."

Unexpected news

Christina Meyers said she learned about the importance of wearing a harness when she learned to hunt.

"I grew up hunting. My grandpa got me a gun when I was 12,'' she said. "And my dad always made me wear a harness. But I guess when you're older, you don't always do what you learned."

Like many hunters, Meyers, 25, of rural Sun Prairie, was up before dawn on Opening Day 2010, excited to get out to the tree stand on the farm where she lives. She didn't eat breakfast, and that could have been her tragic mistake.

She remembers feeling hot and dizzy, then waking up on the ground, 21 feet below the deer stand.

"My boyfriend (Brandon Christian) saw me topple over and hit the ground,'' she said. "He was so freaked out, he jumped out of the stand himself. I asked him, 'Did I fall?'"

Meyers could move her legs, but felt a stabbing pain in her back when she tried to breathe. Because an ambulance probably couldn't drive across the plowed field, her boyfriend got the Jeep and drove her to the hospital. On the way there, her neck didn't hurt, but her head began to loll uncontrollably to one side. When she arrived at an outlying hospital, she learned she was five months pregnant ("I thought I was more like three months.") and that her injuries were so severe she needed to be transferred to UW Hospital.

Once there, doctors discovered she had two breaks in her spinal column: a fracture at T-6, between her shoulder blades, which made it difficult to breathe, and an even more serious injury, crushed C-6 and C-7 vertebrae in her neck. A break there can result in complete paralysis of the entire body.

Dr. Brooks spent nearly six hours in surgery, repairing her neck with bone graft, rods, plates and screws, a surgery that required her to be operated on from the front and the back of the neck. Because she was pregnant, Brooks decided not to add further risk to the fetus, so the other fracture was left to heal on its own.

"They did an ultrasound, and thank God he was okay," she said, of baby son Baden, who survived the surgery and was born healthy in March.

Meyers said she'll never hunt from a tree again, and said her family is mad that she took the risk when she was pregnant.

"My mom said it's a good thing I broke my neck or she would have broken it herself," Meyers said.

As well as things turned out for Meyers and baby Baden, one of the other opening day hunters died of complications related to a fall and another is partially paralyzed.

Dr. Brooks said he would like to see Opening Day 2011 come and go without seeing a single hunter brought to UW Hospital.

"I think people focus on the gun-safety aspects of deer hunting, but from my experience, falls can be equally deadly," Brooks said. "The good news is that these accidents are preventable."

Susan Lampert Smith is a science writer for UW Health Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.