Editor’s Note: Eight years ago this week, NDA member Phil Bancroft of Florida nearly died while preparing food plots for hunting season. After his recovery, he wrote this story for a 2013 issue of Quality Whitetails magazine. We are publishing it online here for the first time as a reminder to all our readers to make safety your first priority in all outdoor activities.
As deer hunters, we often expose ourselves to risky situations. Tree stands, chainsaws, ATVs, UTVs, tractors and firearms can be dangerous tools with little room for error when it comes to safety. Based purely on statistics, someone reading this will be severely injured or lose their life when a day of enjoyment ends in tragedy. Many of the injuries and deaths could be prevented with a consistent commitment to basic safety measures and situational awareness.
Oftentimes, we let our guard down just one time or only for a brief period, and complacency results in an injury or death. It may take a minute of thought and preparation to prevent an accident, but it only takes a second for one to happen.
I learned this the hard way.
How Long Will it Take to Die?
Like many deer hunters, I take every opportunity to spend time in the woods maintaining my hunting property and enjoying the outdoors. On June 30, 2012, the two-hour drive from Jacksonville, Florida to Coffee County, Georgia was filled with anticipation of how well the food plots were doing and what the trail-cameras might reveal. It wasn’t unusual for me to make the trip alone. I enjoy spending a few days in the woods clearing new areas for food plots, checking cameras, scouting new stand sites and soaking up nature.
This weekend would also represent a personal milestone: the anniversary of surviving three pulmonary embolisms on July 1, 2011, a rare complication after a minor knee surgery. They gave me a new appreciation for how quickly life can be taken away. I was working out four or five days a week to overcome partial lung damage and improve my overall health. The weekly blood tests and monthly doctor visits were behind me. This week would be my last taking blood thinners; it was almost over. I was ready to spend some time in the woods in celebration. At 4 p.m. I made the turn into my property, not knowing this day would be permanently marked on the calendar of my life as anything but a celebration.
Stepping out of the truck, I saw my cell phone sitting in the console but left it behind thinking I would only be a few minutes.
The first stop included checking a Roundup Ready soybean plot protected by an electric fence. As I walked the perimeter and removed vegetation from the wires, I decided it was too hot for the final application of Roundup. The next item on the to-do list was a minor repair on my 1976 Ford 4000 tractor. A few weeks earlier a bolt on the steering tie-rod had fallen off, leaving the tractor stranded down a long, grown-up pine row at the back of a new food plot. As I parked the truck, I glanced at the thermometer on the rearview mirror: 103 degrees. I debated wearing snake boots instead of making the walk down the overgrown path in tennis shoes. Having had a number of encounters with diamondback rattlesnakes, I decided to put on the boots. Stepping out of the truck, I saw my cell phone sitting in the console but left it behind thinking I would only be a few minutes.
Walking from the truck to the back of the food plot, I admired my work converting an overgrown logging deck into new open ground. Beyond that I was navigating through briars, chest-high brush and stepping over old pine branches that littered the ground leading to the stranded tractor. Replacing the missing bolt took less than five minutes. The tractor had not been used in a few weeks, which generally meant it would not start easily. My tractor is equipped with a neutral safety switch, which prevents the engine from starting when the tractor is in gear. I reached over and shook the gear shift to ensure it was in neutral. Standing on the ground on the right side of the tractor, I manually pulled the choke closed with my right hand, reached between the seat and the console with my left hand and turned the key. In that moment of complacency my life changed.
Instantly, the tractor started and surged forward in high gear. I attempted to jump up to the foot rest and grab the steering wheel but instead fell to the ground on my back. While yelling “No! No! No!” I watched the water-filled agricultural tire of a 4,800-lb. tractor roll over the middle of my body. To make things worse, attached to the back of the tractor was a roto-tiller offset to the right side. In the blink of an eye, the tractor had run over me and the tiller was climbing over the entire length of my body. I expected immediate death to follow.
A number of thoughts shot through my mind in rapid succession: I can’t believe I’m getting run over by the tractor. This is going to hurt. Uh-oh, I’m on blood thinners. How long will it take to die? Will they find me before the coyotes do?
Strength to Make It One More Foot
After the tiller tines rolled over me, I ended up on my hands and knees. Right away I knew I was in big trouble. Blood was pouring from my nose and mouth from where the tiller hit my face. I felt warm blood pouring over my genitals. The bones in my lower back and hips were crackling as I swayed back and forth trying not to fall over.
Within a few seconds, I knew the only way to survive would be to get moving and make it back to the phone I had left in the truck. I tried to stand up by grabbing a sapling and pulling myself up, but I spun around it like a merry-go-round back to the ground. It was clear I wouldn’t be walking out, and it was a long way to the phone. Adrenaline kicked in, and I immediately rolled over and started crawling. I began repeating out loud: “Get to the truck, keep moving, do not stop.”
The 350 yards to the truck through overgrown brush, briars and uneven ground became a challenge to overcome one foot at a time. Crawling over logging debris, I thought about how snake boots wouldn’t help if I encountered a rattlesnake at eye level.
My vision turned from color to bright white, and I felt light-headed. I felt as if life might be slipping away.
Determined not to have my son and daughter remember this place where we had spent time together as the place where their father died, I began to pray out loud. I prayed for the strength to make it one more foot and for my wife and kids to know that I loved them if I didn’t make it. I repeated that request every few minutes.
After crawling for a while, I heard a loud rumbling sound. I looked up to see the tractor still running, its front bumper pushing against a tree. The rear wheels were shooting a rooster-tail of dirt as they spun. I crawled over to it, pulled myself up and turned it off. This was a brief moment of accomplishment as I remembered the key to the truck was on the same ring with the tractor key. Worried I might lose them, I rolled on my back and crammed the keys in my pocket before continuing the crawl.
I lost track of time and distance, but a moment of hope occurred when, through the brush, I glimpsed the open food plot in the distance. The hope quickly turned to disappointment as I reached the opening. It wasn’t the edge of the food plot. It was only a bare spot in the long pine row. I looked at the sky at the brightest sun I had ever seen. Blasting through the tops of the trees, it put an intense burning sensation on my face. My vision turned from color to bright white, and I felt light-headed. I felt as if life might be slipping away. The only way I could think to remain conscious was to slap myself in the face a couple of times and keep crawling, no matter what. The prayers continued.
I eventually reached the back edge of the food plot. I don’t know how, but I ended up with a big stick in my hands as I rolled over a pile of logging debris into the plot. Using the stick, I managed to get to my knees and then my feet. As hard as I tried, my right leg would not move or support any weight. The left leg wasn’t much better, but I was able to push it across the ground a few inches at a time. Hunched over and holding the stick in both hands off to my right side, I started a pattern of scooting my left foot forward a few inches, followed by dragging my right foot back to it. With the movement of each leg, the bones in my lower back and hips made a snap, crackle, pop, just like Rice Krispies. I continued to pray for the strength to make it one more foot without falling. I repeated that movement for the remaining 150 yards to the truck.
This is Not a Drill
Reaching the truck brought a huge sense of relief. I pulled the keys out of my pocket – only to find the key to the truck was missing! My heart dropped as I thought about having to go back to the tractor and look for it along the way. I keep a key hidden under my truck, and my thoughts shifted to the difficulty of getting to it. With those painful thoughts flying through my head, I realized why the key was missing: I had switched it to another ring and left it on the floorboard in the truck.
I pulled myself into the driver seat and glanced at my bloodied face in the mirror. Before calling 911, I wanted someone who knew the property to know where I was in case I lost consciousness. The first call was to one of my hunting partners, Tom, back in Jacksonville. The call went to voicemail. I left him a message he won’t soon forget. The second call was to another hunting buddy, Tommy, also back in Jacksonville. He answered with his normal “Hello, how are you?” I told him not good, I had been run over by the tractor and he may need to assist with finding me. After calling 911 and explaining what had happened, I knew I would need to make the three-quarter-mile drive to the property entrance or they’d never find me. Somehow, I managed to drive without my right leg and without hitting any trees on the winding road.
As I reached the gate, a truck was turning into the property from the paved road. It was Vernon, the caretaker of a farm down the road. Tommy had called him. Vernon carried me to his truck, and we sped toward the oncoming ambulance with our hazard lights flashing. I attempted to buckle my seat belt but failed due to the snap, crackle, pop in my hips and back. I asked Vernon for help, but he accelerated around a slower-moving car and reminded me it was the least of my worries at the moment. After passing through the small town of Nicholls, we picked up an escort from the Georgia State Patrol. Between Nicholls and Douglas, we could see the lights of the oncoming ambulance.
A peaceful feeling came over me when I heard Rusty say, “I got you Phil, you are in good hands and I’ll get you there quick.”
On the side of the highway, the EMTs placed a cervical collar on my neck, strapped me to a backboard, and began cutting off my clothes. Assessing the injuries from head to toe, each called out what they saw.
“Multiple cuts and contusions left leg. Large hematoma, left hip. Abdominal hematoma. Contusions and abrasions, left chest. Genital contusions. Cuts and abrasions, left shoulder. Cuts and abrasions, face and head. Nose laceration…”
I was thinking nothing too bad, right? As they started an I.V., I heard the words, “Get a catheter in,” and that changed my mind.
As they put the remains of my blood-stained clothes in a bag, I asked for my cell phone to call my wife. I wanted her to hear it from me and not from a stranger. The call rolled to voice mail, as did calls to my father and brother (both physicians). I left my wife a voice mail, calmly explaining this call was not a drill. I asked that she find my father and brother and start heading to the hospital in Douglas. A minute later, while I’m lying naked, strapped to a backboard on the side of the highway, my cell phone rang. It was my wife. With only a few seconds to speak, I told her I thought I would make it, but to tell the kids I loved them if I didn’t. As they pushed me into the ambulance, I lost consciousness.
You Are in Good Hands
I don’t recall much of my five hours with the EMTs and the Emergency Room physicians at the small regional hospital. I do remember begging anyone who came near me to please get me a drink and to get me off the hard, wooden backboard. My begging yielded only three pebbles of ice. I remained on the backboard for six hours. The hospital was having difficulty matching my blood type and was not well equipped to deal with critical trauma. I didn’t know it at the time, but from Orlando, Florida my brother was coordinating my second rescue of the day. I heard a nurse giving instructions to begin prepping me for transport to Jacksonville. I interrupted to tell her I didn’t think I could make the two-and-half-hour ride. She said not to worry, I would have air transportation. That eased my mind about the pain but heightened my fear of how serious my condition had become.
After being loaded into the tight space in the back of the helicopter, I had a crazy thought, perhaps drug-induced. I remembered that I had known a Trauma One helicopter pilot over 20 years before. I asked the flight EMT if he knew Rusty. Not only did he know him, Rusty was flying the helicopter. A peaceful feeling came over me when I heard Rusty say, “I got you Phil, you are in good hands and I’ll get you there quick.”
Things soon went dark again. I woke up in the Trauma Unit at Shands Hospital in Jacksonville with a crowd of medical scrub suits hovering over me. The CT scan showed five pelvic fractures and internal bleeding. The blood thinners were making it difficult to control the blood loss. My hemoglobin level had dropped to 5 (normal is 14 to 18). After receiving nine units of platelets and two units of blood, the level stabilized. The hematoma on my left hip was the size of a cantaloupe. Everything – and I mean everything – from my chest to my knees was black, blue, green and yellow.
The most painful and helpless experience of my life was lying there alone not knowing what life would be like after that day.
The next few hours were some of the most stressful hours of my life due to both my condition and to what was happening around me. In the station to the left of me was an individual with multiple gun-shot wounds. I could see dark red blood pooling on the floor under the curtain. He died right there next to me. The station to the right was treating a young girl with multiple compound leg fractures after a car accident. She was screaming and crying so loud, I put my hands over my ears and eventually blacked out. Wearing a cervical collar, strapped to a backboard with multiple pelvic fractures, I was awakened by my own vomiting. The most painful and helpless experience of my life was lying there alone not knowing what life would be like after that day.
I spent the next 10 days in intensive care and the trauma unit, battling low hemoglobin and fever from a bacterial infection. On the third day, three young orthopedic orderlies showed up at my door, and the love-hate relationship with rehabilitation began. Twice a day they arrived to pull me out of bed and stand me up. They claimed it was to prevent bed sores, muscle atrophy and ligament shortening, but I felt like it was to hear me scream. I thought I had experienced the highest level of pain known to man a year earlier, when a portion of my lung died after the embolus. I was not even close. My legs wouldn’t move, my bladder didn’t work, and moving my upper body caused massive pain to shoot through my pelvis and back. I had overcome the challenge of crawling 350 yards back to the truck but was now failing at standing in one place on my own. Each time they pulled me up, it was as if my pelvis and back were squeezed in a hydraulic vise. I became light-headed as my blood pressure would drop, but my vocal descriptions of the pain increased for all within the hospital wing to hear.
After my condition stabilized, I was transferred to Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital. Riding in the back of the ambulance to my new temporary home, it was difficult not to reflect on what a nurse had said as they wheeled me away.
“Get ready. They really work you hard over there.”
Learning to Function Again
I was an invalid, and no one could tell me what the future might hold, other than I was headed for pain. I remained catheterized for two weeks and needed help with the most trivial things. I wasn’t comfortable with strangers around at personal moments, so my wife was left to wipe me, bathe me and dress me. I lost 23 pounds and most of the strength in my lower body. I decided to cast doubt aside and do whatever it would take, for as long as it took, to be normal again. Every morning at 8 a.m. therapy began, and it continued until 3:30 p.m. I rotated between physical, occupational and recreational therapy, with a break only for lunch. It felt as if I was back in school, only this time I was majoring in the pain of learning to function again. The first attempt at using a walker yielded three painful steps before my blood pressure dropped to 72 over 51. Out of concern over a repeat pulmonary embolus, I made my third trip to the CT scan; thankfully it was negative.
It was an eerie feeling standing next to the tractor again – as if even without a key in the ignition it might crank up and take off.
Each day brought tiny improvements. Three steps with the walker, then 10, followed by dozens. The eleventh and final day of inpatient therapy ended with a complete lap around my corner of the hospital. It would be another 21 days before I would walk on my own, use the restroom without assistance, take a shower standing up, or simply turn over in bed.
As I write this, it is November 2012. After five months of rehabilitation, my road to recovery is nearly over. The support of a dedicated wife, family, friends and faith helped push me forward. My legs have regained full strength, but the torn muscles surrounding the pelvic fractures caused scar tissue and stiffness. The strain of the long crawl left one shoulder with tendonitis and rotation limitations. Abdominal pressure from the weight of the tractor extended the valve between my stomach and esophagus, resulting in frequent acid reflux. Put into perspective, these are small tolls to pay considering how it could have ended.
I’ve made it back to the property a few times to take my dad and my kids hunting. My father and I retraced the route from the truck to the spot where my life had changed. The QDMA hat I was wearing and the wrench used to tighten the bolt were still lying there to mark the spot. I felt a burst of leftover adrenalin, but it subsided quickly when I saw the tractor. It was an eerie feeling standing next to it – as if even without a key in the ignition it might crank up and take off. After a few deep breaths, I climbed onto the seat, inserted the key and turned it. Wouldn’t you know? It took forever to start. But this time, I was in the seat and in full safety mode.
I feel lucky and blessed to be here to tell this story. I hope it heightens the importance of your consistent commitment to safety and reduces the potential for complacency. The next time you use a treestand without a safety harness, go faster than you should on your ATV, rev up the chainsaw, handle a firearm or crank the tractor… stop and think. The precautions you take can be the difference between going home, going to the hospital, or going to the morgue.
About the Author: Phil Bancroft of Jacksonville, Florida is an NDA sponsor member and a contributor to NDA’s book, “Deer Cameras: The Science of Scouting.” He is also Senior Vice President with the Wealth Management Division at Wells Fargo Bank. Phil’s hunting land is covered by NDA’s Hunting Land Liability Insurance. His medical bills from his accident totaled over $200,000, including a $46,800 helicopter ride. His NDA insurance policy helped defray the out-of-pocket medical costs not covered by his health insurance.