NOTE: The following was originally published on TnHunting.com Sept. 6, 2007.
“We have to trust God to help us handle whatever comes.”
Billy Word knows a thing or two about trusting God. Last December, he wrote those words at the end of a personal journal he had been keeping to document his recovery from a horrific treestand accident a year earlier . . . an accident that made that simple premise take on a whole new meaning.
Billy, who lives in northern Alabama but hunts in Tennessee, agreed to share the story of his fall with TnHunting.Com, in hopes that it might encourage treestand safety. Two years have now passed since he fell while exiting his treestand in October 2005. Today, he’s as close to 100% as he’ll ever be, but his road to recovery wasn’t easy. His is a story of perseverance, endurance and faith.
AN ORDINARY MORNING IN THE WOODS
The date was October 17. Billy was headed to his Wayne County lease for his first archery hunt there of the 2005 season.
“The morning started like most all of my mornings in the woods: Full of anticipation,” Billy said. After gettting his climber situated, he settled in before shooting light began and waited for the hunt to begin.
After seeing a doe and a forkhorn buck early, he decided to get down and scout as 10 a.m. approached.
“I had some turkey calls with me and hoped to get on some turkeys while scouting and then bow hunt the late afternoon,” he said.
After lowering his bow, Billy unhooked the tether on his harness and started down the tree. He had to unhook the top part of his climber to clear a limb. As he was slipping the pin back into the cable, the bottom part of his climber slipped.
“I went over backwards and everything kind of went black after that,” he said. “I hit the ground and lay there on my back for a few seconds trying to figure out what just happened and what condition I was in. I struggled to breath. I could not feel my legs. As I was trying to get my breath, I coughed up blood. I’m thinking, ‘OK, my back is broke, I’m paralyzed, and I have a punctured lung.'”
GOD, TAKE CARE OF MY FAMILY
As Billy lay on the ground, thoughts raced through his head.
“I thought of how my wife had asked me not to go up there by myself. She said to be sure and take my cell phone. I didn’t,” he said. “I thought of my family. I prayed that God would take care of them.”
Billy also thought of work, how he hadn’t missed a day in over 16 years, and how that would now change. Then he thought about something else: How to survive.
“I decided I was not going to lie there and die, and I knew that no one would be looking for me for hours after I did not check in at noon,” he said. “I made the decision to get out if I could.”
Making the decision was the easy part. But it was 400 yards to the truck, and the going would be rough. Every move sent pain shooting through his body.
“I rolled over on my stomach and the pain shot through me like a lightning bolt,” Billy said. “I screamed. I tried to pull myself with my arms, but I made very little progress.
“As I tried to pull myself, I was praying for the strength to do so. I started to feel tingling in my legs, and soon I was able to push a little with my feet.”
Billy continued to pray and work his way up the incline towards his truck.
“After a while, I got enough feeling in my legs to be able to get up on all fours,” he said. “There was more pain, more screaming, more praying. [But] I began to make progress then.”
STILL THINKING OF HUNTING
As Billy slowly worked his way up the incline towards the road, thoughts continued to race through his head . . . including thoughts of when he would be able to get back into the woods.
“I thought of the Wheeling Sportsmen and how I might become a member. I thought of my son taking me hunting again as soon as I was able. When I got to the road, I stopped to look back at how a green field near there was doing. I thought about all the turkeys I had worked and killed near that area.”
The pain, he said, was almost intolerable as he continued to work his way slowly towards the vehicle on his hands and knees.
“I continued to scream. I continued to pray. I tried to lie down on my stomach to rest but the pain was worse. I had to stay on all fours. My wrists were hurting and fatigued.
“When my truck came into view, it was such a relief,” he said. “It was still over 100 yards away, though, and it was getting tough to keep going. I knew if I could get there, I could either call someone or flag down a passerby.”
After getting to his truck, Billy discovered that he could not reach up and unlock the door. Fortunately, he was parked near the main road, and could try to flag down a car.
Fifteen minutes later, after trying in vain to yell loud enough for passing vehicles to hear him, a log truck leaving a nearby timber cutting operation did hear his cries, and stopped.
“Man, when those brakes came on, it was like hearing an angel choir,” Billy said.
Nearly two and a half hours had passed since Billy had fallen. As he waited for the truck driver to phone for an ambulance, a second truck stopped and Billy used the driver’s cell phone to call his wife.
Within minutes, paramedics were on scene. After a quick evaluation, they called an air flight team to transport him to Vanderbilt hospital.
EIGHT HOURS OF SURGERY
Billy woke up in the trauma center at Vanderbilt several hours later, still on his stomach. He says the next several hours were a blur, but he remembers a doctor telling him that he had crushed his T12 vertebra, which would require rebuilding.
Two days later, doctors conducted the surgery, which required over eight hours and 18 units of blood. By the time they had completed their work, they had removed one of Billy’s ribs, rebuilt the vertebra using cadaver bone, and fused it to the adjoining vertebrae with a plate and screws.
Two days after that, five days after he had fallen, Billy was able to walk for the first time, using a turtle shell brace.
“I could barely move my feet,” he said. “I finally managed to walk about 20 feet before heading back to the bed . . . it was a humbling experience.”
A SLOW RECOVERY
After a second surgery and a total of 11 days at Vanderbilt, Billy was able to go home. Doctors told him that it was a miracle that his spinal cord did not suffer any more damage than it did, and credited his physical condition as being a reason why he had survived the fall.
While Billy was headed for home, he still could only walk with the assistance of a walker, and had to rely on help from his wife — who he says “was an angel through it all; I don’t know what I would have done without her” — for help with tasks as simple as shaving.
BACK TO THE WOODS
Amazingly, Billy was able to return to the woods on the final Saturday afternoon of Tennessee’s deer season in early January 2006. His son took him to his grandfather’s farm in Giles County and helped him into a shooting house.
“I took my old .243 for the light recoil and I hadn’t been there much over an hour when I shot me a big fat doe,” he said. “It was an emotional time for myself and Tony. It was a ray of hope that things would eventually return to normal.”
Things would continue towards normal over the next several months. Billy’s rehab went well enough that he was eventually able to move from a physical therapy center to a gym for his workouts. And the opening day of Tennessee’s spring turkey season — April 1, 2006 — found him back in the woods with son Tony for a successful hunt.
“I struck one mid-day that wouldn’t cross a big hollow, so I called Tony on his cell phone and had him come in from the other side because I just wasn’t able to get over there; I had already walked more than my limit.
“He was able to call that bird up and kill it. I was so proud of that but not as much as he was. He said it was a very special bird for him in light of what we had been through. It was a great opening day.”
Unfortunately, Billy would only get to hunt one more day of the spring season before a setback in his recovery.
On April 6, five days after his and Tony’s successful opening day hunt, Billy underwent a routine surgery for what was supposed to be a 30-minute “clean-up job” of the original surgery site.
Nearly four hours later, he woke up to learn that doctors had discovered that a staphe infection had set up around the plate in his back.
“I was devastated,” he said. “I had already been released to go back to work the next week. It was a great disappointment.”
Compounding the disappointment was the fact that he had exhausted his short-term disability with his employer, and would have to go on long-term disability.
“Although the company officials had assured me I could return if I could rehab in a reasonble amount of time, I still had an uncomfortable feeling about it,” he said.
Eight weeks of IV antibiotics at home helped to clear up the infection, and Billy was able to resume rehab a month into the treatment. By May, he was walking as much as four miles each day, and he was released to go back to work in early June.
“God again brought me out of a deep valley,” he said.
“I have learned to take one day at a time and make the best of it; there’s no guarantee you will have tomorrow. I have learned, and continue to share with anyone that will listen, to never say ‘it can’t happen to me.’ It can.”
But Billy would have to endure yet another setback in his recovery.
Six weeks after he had returned to work, Billy began to experience pain again. Three days after his mother died in August, he returned to Vanderbilt hospital and was admitted due to a flare-up of the infection. After four days in the hospital, he returned home for another round of IV antibiotic treatments, but at a check-up three weeks later, learned that another surgery was necessary to replace some of the hardware in his back. The surgery was scheduled for October 10, exactly one week short of a year after he had fallen, and in the middle of Tennessee’s archery deer season.
During the fourth surgery, doctors “beefed up” the hardware and used a piece of bone from Billy’s pelvis to strengthen the vertebra, as well as straightened up his spine. Within two days, he was released and able to return home.
FINALLY BACK TO NORMAL
In his journal, Billy records his last entry in December:
“My rehab has been going great. I haven’t had a pain pill since Thanksgiving. I have been able to get out a lot lately. I’ve been walking a lot and doing minor chores around the place.”
Before deer season was over, Billy was able to get back into the woods, killing two deer, including a good eight-point buck on his grandfather’s Giles County farm. In January 2007, he was cleared to return to work.
Today, Billy says he isn’t 100% and never will be, but he’s about 90% to 95%.
“I have not missed a day of work (since returning in January). I can do about anything I want to now, but I do a few things a little different.”
While Billy’s recovery was long and hard, he was one of the fortunate ones. Every year, hunters are killed or paralyzed in treestand falls. Billy says a couple of extra minutes are well worth the precaution they add.
“Use fall protection and use it going up or down,” he says. “It only takes a couple extra minutes to tether up while climbing. I was using a full body harness when I fell. I had unhooked it to climb down.
“Also, don’t get complacent with the chore of climbing. I know we do it so much it’s second nature and most of the time we’ve got visions of huge bucks dancing in our head and are not concentrating on the task at hand. Take the time to consciously get in and out of the stand safety, because that’s when most accidents occur.”
Billy makes it clear that he didn’t become bitter through the long process. Several times as he made entries into his journal, he stated, “I am so blessed.” He cites his faith often and gives credit to family and friends for helping him through it.
“One thing I share with folks is that I am here by the grace of God and he deserves all the glory and praise for getting me through this,” he says. “I am thankful for the strength from my God to endure it all. We never know what the future holds for us.
“I may never be 100% again, but I’ll give 100% of what I am.”