ROCHESTER – A former Mayo doctor is calling it “a Christmas miracle” that he survived being trapped overnight Dec. 19 on a frozen North Dakota field after breaking his leg on a hunting trip.
Rochester resident Richard Olsen said the biggest lesson from his accident is people shouldn’t let fear and uncertainty keep them from reaching out to see if someone is all right.
Olsen, who retired as a Mayo Clinic developmental pediatrician in 2010, is recovering at Mayo Clinic-St. Marys Campus.
“We are so grateful to my dad for fighting so hard to get back to us alive,” said Sarah Brown, his daughter. “It’s still kind of hard to wrap our heads around what he went through.”
Olsen was hunting on a cousin’s land near Watford City, N.D., in the sparsely populated western portion of the state. On Dec. 19, he tried a new spot and forgot to bring his cell phone, the only time on the trip. He trekked more than half a mile with two dogs to a harvested wheat field.
Eyes fixed on the horizon in anticipation of another pheasant taking flight, he stepped on a thin crust of snow clumped on blown-over brush above a drainage trench. It collapsed and dropped him four feet to the bottom.
“I knew immediately I was in trouble,” Olsen said.
His left leg hit first, taking the brunt of his weight and momentum before snapping the femur above the knee.
After “a considerable amount of cussing,” he lay on his side to reach for his shotgun, unloaded it and used it as a makeshift crutch. He spent an hour and a half climbing the earthen trench backward to keep pressure off his bad leg.
When he was partly up, he slipped and slid back down, slamming into a large rock and wedging the foot of his injured leg.
“I told myself that if I didn’t get myself out of that ditch, I wasn’t going to have a very good night,” Olsen said.
He worked his foot free and climbed more slowly and cautiously out of the trench.
Olsen immediately realized the enormity of the task before him. The accident occurred about 4 p.m., and it was nearing 7 p.m. with the road far away as the sun was setting.
Olsen focused on crawling to safety. Even with his gun crutch, hopping was impractical. Instead, he sat down and pushed himself backward less than 40 inches at a time with his good leg.
“I’ve always been stubborn. We all face moment when we must be very persistent. Skidding across the prairie on my backside was worth it [to get back to my family],” he said.
Progress was exhausting and required frequent breaks. Temperatures dropped to the teens overnight, and snow melted and soaked his gloves and boots. He knew he was at risk of going into shock from hypothermia and developing frostbite.
“There were many times during the night where I wondered if I could keep on trucking,” Olsen said, wiping away some tears during the interview.
His dogs were the one humorous element in his ordeal. They had been playing in the field and eventually came up to him, trying to lay on his back and bad leg to absorb some of his body heat. They periodically howled at distant coyote sounds.
The dogs eventually ran back to the heated trailer and were rescued.
Olsen finally reached the barbed-wire fence near the road around 8 a.m. on Dec. 20, about 16 hours after the accident. His vehicle and trailer were visible on the other side, yet he was far from saved.
A steep ditch with snow and heavy brush stood between the fence and the road. He decided to sit by the fence and wave down a driver.
During the next half an hour, he waved wildly and shouted until his voice was hoarse, but six vehicles passed without stopping. He said he doesn’t blame those drivers, who either didn’t realize he needed help or were fearful for their own safety.
“People get reluctant to stop from someone because of all the stuff you hear in the news,” Olsen said.
Bryant Duncan, a trucker hauling wastewater for an oil drilling company, was returning from a long shift and noticed Olsen’s vehicle. He had seen it the night before but assumed it was a survey crew that returned early. He saw Olsen waving, but the angle made it look like he was standing in tall grass and shouting to someone else, so he kept driving.
At the last moment, he noticed two unusual things. First, the truck had a layer of frost. Second, he barely saw Olsen’s feet in the grass, meaning he wasn’t standing.
“Honesty, I felt like it was God who told me that man was in a bind,” Duncan said. “I believe God put me in just the right position to realize the man was hurt.”
He stopped his truck, reversed it, and ran up to Olsen, who was completely white with a light blue tint and a clearly injured leg.
Duncan wrapped Olsen in a sleeping bag and blankets after calling police.
Olsen was taken by ambulance to Trinity Health Hospital in Minot, N.D. He was stabilized and underwent extensive surgery on his leg. He later was flown to Saint Marys Hospital, where his family celebrated Christmas in his hospital room.
“When they got me to the hospital in Minot, my red blood cell count had dropped to eight. I don’t think I would have survived if he hadn’t stopped,” Olsen said. “I am so grateful to him.”
Olsen is undergoing physical therapy for his leg. He suffered serious frostbite on his fingers.
“I expect I have quite a long time before I’m going to be able to get up and move around. But the worst part is already behind me,” Olsen said. “In my view, it was a Christmas miracle — for my family and everyone else involved in this.”
Duncan downplayed his role in saving Olsen, saying it is common for Montana residents to check on someone on the side of the road.
“I’m glad the man was able to get back to his family for Christmas,” Duncan said. “That right there was the best possible Christmas present I could have received.”