Wednesday, November 9, 2011

My Dad's Tougher Than Yours! (No, Really!)

This is not a story about guns. This is not a story focused around hunting, or deer, it is just how the story begins. This is however very much a story of survival, determination, medical miracles and above all else - human willpower. This is the story of how I had less than a 5% chance of growing up with a father. This is the story about the time a hunting accident nearly stole a human life. This is Mike Martin's story.

If you grew up in the western world the chances are pretty good that you've seen a gun fire. Maybe on television or movies, maybe in person; odds are you've even experienced the firing of a weapon first hand. Now there are several different types of guns; pistols, rifles, shotguns, machine guns, sub-machine guns. Inside of those broad categories are the nearly limitless sub-categories, as limitless as the human minds capacity for destruction. Most importantly though you need to understand a shotgun. To start you need to understand that a Shotgun fires several different types of projectiles which are typically measured by Gauges, hence the name "12 gauge" shotgun. The most common shells used locally are Buckshot (a "shell" casing that contains several hunks of round led. Imagine a bunch of 'bullets' the size of the tip of your pinky finger all exploding out the end of the barrel at once, as opposed to a standard bullet that only fires one projectile at a time.) Buckshot or "buck" is measured in gauges with smaller numbers indicating larger projectiles and vice-versa. 00 is the one you need to know for this story. It fires 9 chunks of led, all of which individually hold the ability to kill a deer - a creature far more durable than any human being. The process in which you hunt deer is as follows: To kill a deer with a shotgun you get a group of people together (a hunting party) and you 'push' through a bush. Pushing a bush is when you walk in a line spread out evenly and parallel to one another from one end of the bush to the other. The goal is to scare the deer into the open and then you shoot them if they are in your firing arc (the firing arc is the area directly in front of you, so that you are never firing towards another person). Now that that is cleared up, the story begins...

On November 7th, around 2:30pm Mike Martin was sitting at a friends eating lunch with his hunting party. It was the second day of the 1988 shotgun season for deer hunting and the group of friends were more than eager to snag some deer. It just so happened they were in luck - two fair sized deer sprinted past them while they were enjoying lunch on a picnic table in the backyard. So immediately the group grabbed their gear, which consisted of loaded shotguns and orange vests (for safety reasons), and followed after the deer.

The hunting party formed into their line to push the bush and headed east. Mike was used to walking on the outside of the group of hunters but decided to switch to an inside position which means exactly what it sounds like - he was much closer to the middle of the group. He thought maybe there he would have a better chance of seeing a deer.

After walking the first bush in pursuit of the deer they had just seen minutes earlier they came to a road intersecting the two sections of bush. As the group were crossing the road another group of hunters emerged from the bush opposite. They had just pushed the bush from east to west, the opposite direction of Mike's hunting party. The two groups agreed that they would not shoot because the second group was still awaiting the arrival of two members who had lagged slightly behind in the bush which was indicative of irresponsible hunters. It was only moments later that they decided both groups would continue on once the second group was at its full capacity. But the events did not unfold exactly as planned because just then the word "deer!" was yelled loudly from somewhere within the bush to the east. 

A deer walked out into the clearing and crossed in front of a female member of Mike's hunting party. It was towards the outside of the group. The female member of Mike's hunting party had the clear shot and had raised her shotgun; butt of the weapon to shoulder, eyes down behind the sights and the bulk of the weapon pointing length-ways across her chest, level with her heart, prepared to take the shot. The shooting rang out as could have been expected, but what happened next was certainly not expected.

"I remember 4 or 5 shots sounding off," says Mike. "The next thing I knew I was laying on the ground looking straight up," he continued. He recounts that he felt no pain but was certainly confused as to what he was doing laying on the ground. He could hear the female member of his hunting party screaming out incoherently. He feared she had been shot. 

"She's been shot!" Echoed voices from both hunting parties. One of the 9 chunks of led fired from the buckshot shell from one of the two hunters remaining in the bush to the east had flown into her right hand. That was the hand that was holding her shotgun securely across her chest and thankfully it was or the piece of led would have entered her heart and surely killed her had it not lodged into her hand. Naturally her cries of pain monopolized the attention of every single person there and they all went running over to see - someone had just been shot after all!

Mike continued to lay on spot for a few minutes, unable to yell out. He was confused, in no pain, and unable to move. He lifted his head and what he saw was not reassuring - blood, and a lot of it. It was more blood that he had ever seen. So much so that he could see his precious blood leaving his body quite rapidly. The realization of what had happened dawned on him with the utmost horror - he had been shot. Mike was a seasoned hunter by this point in life and he knew full well that a shot to the neck meant certain death. "If I tag an animal in the neck it was going to be my dinner that night, that's just the way it works. I knew what was going to happen next," he recalls.

He knew that no one knew he was down, they were pre-occupied with another injured hunter. He closed his eyes and prayed to God that his two sons, aged 1 and 3 at that time, would be taken care of. That his then wife Barb would understand what happened and be able to one day explain to his children what had happened. "I wasn't scared, I wasn't in pain. I was coherent, ready to die," Recounts Mike. He kept his eyes closed and decided to wait for death like only someone with extensive knowledge of a shotguns stopping power possibly could. 

An uncertain amount of time passed when the voice of a fellow member from his hunting party happened by and broke Mike's silence. "WHAT IN THE FUCK?" The man said. It was enough of a shock to force Mike's eyes open. "Did you shoot yourself?!" the man asked. Mike put all of his strength into his response "no, I don't know who shot me." He could barely bring his voice to a whisper and whether the man from his hunting party could fully comprehend his response did not matter. He sprung into action the best he could while Mike laid there believing that these were his final moments.

"Should I put pressure on the wound?" The man asked. The first pain Mike felt was the pinch-like pain from the man pressing so hard on his neck. "It felt as if I was being choked because he was pressing so hard. He was definitely scared, I could see it in the look on his eyes," Mike recalls. Mike's anxiety started to rise quite rapidly as the man took his hands off of his neck periodically and Mike realized they were completely covered in blood - his own blood.

The man yelled and soon there were at least ten people standing around him; minus the injured hunter and her husband who had just left "at light speed" on their way to the hospital. The next issue then was that all of these people had zero first aid experience or training.

The remaining men were scared to move Mike in case they caused more damage. They started debating whether or not to go and get another vehicle or wait for the ambulance to take him to the hospital (the ambulance hadn't been called because in 1988 they were not carrying cell phones). Mike, who was in the most unnatural calm given the circumstances of him currently bleeding to death, reminded the other hunters that given the amount of blood he had already lost he would certainly die if they didn't get him somewhere quick. Realizing that the men around him were flabbergasted and he was calm, he gave them directions to gather around him and lift him into the truck while keeping his neck straight. It's funny how the man with the most to worry about was the most level headed.

They strapped him into the truck and the first semblance of injury-related pain began; a significant burning sensation in his neck. He remembers making it to the Drayton clinic within minutes. The doctor came out to examine him in the seat and Mike remembers feeling the doctor's fingers enter his neck and subtly feel the wound. What an unimaginable feeling that must have been. The doctor told him there was no exit wound - the chunk of led was still inside of his neck somewhere and that was not a good thing. The doctor left immediately to call an ambulance to take his new patient to Palmerston General which had a helipad which would in turn be used to airlift Mike to London University Teaching Hospital. 

Mike says that he remembers sitting there, unattended except for his friend, looking down at his orange hunting vest. So he looked down and realized he could move his left arm, albeit not feel it whatsoever. So he clumsily reached with his left arm into his right coat pocket and pulled out his lighter and pack of cigarettes and sparked up a smoke. Makes sense, right? Naturally if you were bleeding to death from a massive piece of led that had been fired at a speed of no less than 1100 feet per second into your neck you would want to enjoy a cigarette...naturally. When the doctor returned a short while later he was not impressed to see a man gushing blood from his neck and blowing smoke from his mouth. So unimpressed actually that he ripped the cigarette out of Mike's mouth. Mike remembers the doctor uttering some colourful and choice words while they waited for the ambulance to arrive.

From the shot being fired to the ambulance arriving to Mike being placed in the helicopter the total time elapsed was approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes. The helicopter should have brought good news to a man convinced he was going to die but it did not. That was when the burning pain in his neck turned from a small fire to an inferno-like nerve pain that engulfed him from his chest up to his face and included both his arms. The pain could not be felt below the middle of his chest however and at that point that did not mean much to Mike except a slightly less amount of pain to deal with. Spinal cord injury was not a thought that crossed his surprisingly conscious mind.

When Mike arrived at the London hospital he remembers tests. Endless amounts of them. X-rays specifically, the doctor's needed to understand the exact trajectory that the bullet (which had taken at least two discernible turns inside the neck) traveled and eventually ended up inside the spine. The bullet fragmented slightly, the muscle tissue and the esophagus peeled 6 tiny fragments of the bullet off as it made it's way to it's eventual destination - the spine. The bullet, which had entered the left side of the neck, missed the corrotid artery by a fraction of a millimetre and hit the spine at the C7 vertebrae, the bullet went in against the spinal cord, crushed it and then traveled slightly upwards where it stopped in the C6 vertebrae. Spinal cord injuries are typically from severe trauma via car accidents or force trauma like a fall, the spine shifts and the bones slice the spinal cord completely. This wound was something altogether different. The doctor described it as taking 10,000 telephone wires and squishing them together to a fraction of their intended size, and then twisting them. Some signals get crossed, some are broken and mixed while some never make it through to the places the brain attempts to send them.

For the next several hours (4:30pm until 10:15pm, approx.) there were an array of tests and procedures performed to determine the best course of action. Meanwhile the pain was mounting to levels that could only be described as unimaginable. Every part of Mike's body (that he could feel) felt as if it were going to explode with a pulsing nerve pain because of the shock to the nervous system. As much as he asked for pain medicine the doctor would not give it to him. It was later explained that the only thing keeping him alive was the intense pain and any attempts to extinguish the pain would have certainly extinguished his life as well. Unfortunately at the time that knowledge was not available to Mike who was in excruciating pain, so the doctor received the full brunt of his colourful vocabulary (and for anyone who knows my father, you do not want to find yourself on the receiving end of his extensive verbal communication skills).

Around 8:30pm the doctor had a meeting with Mike's father and then-wife (Barb) where he informed them that he currently had approximately a 5% chance of making it to the operating table. Once they begin the operation the chances drop off almost completely. The doctor told them that they should prepare themselves for the worst case scenario - his death. It was explained that even if he did survive his life would change dramatically; for one thing, he was going to be paralyzed from the waist down. The doctor explained that finding the several pieces of fragmented bullet would prove difficult, but not nearly as difficult as removing the chunk of led from his spine without instantly killing him from further shock and trauma - the body can only handle so much. At this point the doctor had just told a man's father and wife that he was going to die shortly and to be prepared for it when the news reaches them. Those were the odds.

The surgery went on for hours, from around 10:30pm until 4:45am. The doctor removed every single piece of led, including the remaining bullet inside the spine itself. Mike survived the operation although no one was quite sure how given the circumstances. When he awoke around noon he found several IV tubes attached to each arm, a feeding tube inserted through his nose and the pain was actually much, much worse than before the operation. Pain on that level will cause someone to lose consciousness, or at the very least to fade between coherent thought and complete loss of focus. The next four days were just sets of four hour time periods; the time when he could quell the pain by the nurses administering more morphine. He was still very close to death and the pain was severe, but the positive effects of the morphine only lasted two hours. So for two hours he would rest peacefully and then for the next two sit as patiently as possible while suffering agonizing pain and awaiting his next moment of relief. That was all he knew. Trying to make it through - every second alive adding to the total chances of his survival.

After four more days the doctor began to lift his legs and ask if he could feel anything - he couldn't. The doctor then explained that being paralyzed was the likely outcome. Up until that point the full impact of what a spinal cord injury meant had not sunk into Mike's mind. As an avid fisherman and hunter, a hard working man with a full time job, a wife and two young children at home, the idea of not having use of his legs was as much of a shock as being shot in the first place. The thought of being in a wheelchair was unfathomable. Surviving with less than a 5% chance to where he was now was not enough to give him hope, the despair inevitably was taking hold. Each day the doctor would come in and lift both legs and tell him to concentrate as hard as he could on moving muscles in his leg but it was not looking good. After six days the doctor felt a small twitch. It wasn't enough to be discerned as controlled muscle movement but the doctor's eyes lit up nonetheless. 

An ounce of hope was all it took. After 7 days he was downgraded from intensive care to a 1-on-1 care ward. Each day the doctor lifted his legs and the twitch became more frequent. After 9 days more he was moved into a private room and despite not having any feeling in his legs he continued to move the same muscle just a small amount each day - some type of signal was getting through. The doctor couldn't be sure whether or not the signals would improve, or whether or not they were enough to let Mike walk again; but seeing as he had already survived against all odds and his condition was stabilizing rapidly it was worth a shot. The thought of not walking was motivation enough to keep trying.

He was moved into Parkwood Hospital to begin physical therapy. The first few days he rested in his bed while the doctors did their best to figure out a strategy for his recovery process. After approximately 4 days, it was finally time to begin. Mike was nervous but determined. It was explained that this process would start his life over just as if he had become a baby again. Everything from moving his wrists, fingers and lifting his arms, grasping objects, to turning his body left and right, it all had to be relearned by his muscles. They were unsure whether or not he was going to be able to recover fully and because of muscle atrophy which was accelerated by spinal cord shock (which can last for the rest of a person's life after suffering spine trauma) the situation held few positives. As well they were unsure as to whether or not the spine had been damaged beyond the point of walking. In 1988 there was very little known about the inter-workings of the spine. In fact the damage was so severe that he had a 'sitting up' exercise. Sitting up made Mike dizzy to the point of passing out if he didn't lay back down. Could you imagine being that incapacitated? That you couldn't sit up when you saw fit to? Well he didn't have to imagine it, he was living it every minute of everyday. He wanted to go and see his family in his own home, away from the hospital, even if just for an over night stay. But until he could sit upright for at least eight straight hours it wasn't an option.

Each day he went through the motions, sitting upright as long as possible, being held up so that pressure was forced on his leg and hip muscles - the more tension on them the faster the muscles would reactivate was the idea. He truly felt that his life depended on regaining his ability to not just feel his legs, but to use them to walk again. So everyday he pushed harder than he ever thought possible despite the immense pain that resulted. When the physio-therapists took him back up to his room after each lengthy day he was strictly ordered to sleep, or at the very least, rest. But he was not finished his day then, merely biding his time until everyone was asleep. When the ward was fast asleep and quiet he would pull himself out of his bed, across the floor, and into his wheelchair. Then he would quietly sneak out of his room (which was strictly against the doctors rules for him as well as strictly against hospital policy) and wheel down the empty hallway into the meeting room. It was a round room with a bar about waist height that ran the perimeter of the room in front of the windows. Therein was the target - the decorative bar in front of the windows at the edges of the room. He would wheel over to the window and pull himself up with his arms and lean against the wall while using the bar to prop himself up. He would then apply pressure to his legs, almost as if he was standing. He could feel the strength returning. Not much, but he was beginning to feel the muscles moving when he told them to.

And so every day he followed the instructions of the physio-therapists and each night he patiently awaited being the only one awake so that he could break out of his room and continue the treatment of his own accord. He was caught a few times by the night-shift nurses and was given ample amounts of punishment for disobeying doctors orders; but as far as he was concerned the rule book had been thrown out when the bullet entered his neck.

 Four months of physical therapy had paid off however. He was at the point where he could stand with the help of the parallel bars and was granted a walker to bring back up to his room. He was getting close to completely defying the odds and he was turning heads. He had mixed feelings about his new-found abilities to walk with assistance because the other people in his ward were completely paralyzed, some from the neck down. The day after he was given a walker he expected to feel nothing short of elation but having the other heads in the ward turn when he stood up of his own accord brought nothing but feelings of guilt. He then decided that he would wheelchair himself to a different wing of the hospital to practice walking with his walker. Of course they had lost their ability to walk but with complete separation of the spinal cord they also suffered no physical pain - not to say the emotional pain wasn't severe. Mike's physical pain was vicious and chronic. It never ceased, not even for a minute. He may have been regaining his ability to walk but it was paid for through his immense physical pain. The pain was not enough to stop him though. He was determined to walk out of the front doors of the hospital - a promise he made to himself and he was unwavering in his conviction to see it through to fruition.

He was at the point of walking with assistance of cane and railing. It was time to be discharged. The official hospital rules stated that no patient will leave on the day of their discharge unless taken out in a wheelchair to a waiting vehicle, mostly for insurance purposes. By this time the staff knew Mike very well because you form bonds when you live with people for over 4 months. They knew him well enough to know that unless they wanted to fight a losing battle they may as well not even try to enforce his leaving via a wheelchair. That day, after surviving a gunshot wound to his neck, after surviving a surgery that predicted certain death, after surviving weeks in intensive care, after teaching himself how to walk despite being told he would certainly be paralyzed; Mike walked out of the hospital with a cane in one hand and his wife's hand in his other. It was the first truly bright day in months. 

His struggles were far from over however. Spinal trauma causes Nervous System Shock which sends the nervous system into over-drive and the fact that the signals were not sending the way they were meant to be sending just increased the issues. Chronic pain, muscle spasms, not being able to sit for too long and conversely not being able to stay standing for too long, not being able to sleep for more than a few hours at a time; these are the daily struggles of a person with such a severe injury.

Mike copes everyday with the pain and injuries he sustained. He had to teach himself to become left-handed because his right hand functions at minimal capacity. He has to walk with a limp and deal with displaced pain because of the crushed spinal cord. But he does not complain, he does not grow bitter as he reaches his 53rd year, he doesn't ask why that tragedy happened to him. Instead he wakes up every morning and ignores the pain while keeping a positive attitude. He keeps his life long hobbies of hunting and fishing and has never missed a season for deer. Since the accident he uses crossbow only when hunting deer, a much more sophisticated weapon that is leagues safer to hunt with.

When ordinary people are put into extraordinary situations they sometimes do things that were once thought impossible. Mike's story is a perfect example of doing the impossible. With an incredible team of medical staff (that Mike's entire family is grateful for everyday) and pure human willpower and sheer determination backing him, he beat the odds. Because of his survival and his incredible recovery the doctors were forced to re-evaluate the limitations of the human nervous system. His story is still used in teaching hospitals to this very day.

To the doctor's he is a medical miracle, to his friends he is the luckiest man alive, to people who hear his story he is an inspiration. However, to his family he is just that - family. A brother, a son, and a father - and we are all very grateful that he stayed with us. 


  1. Today was not a good day for me, reading Mike's story i realized that i needed to snap out of it & thank God that i have my health!...I havn't met Mike yet but i know we will share a toast at Julie's wedding.....hey!!!! I will even buy....LOL

  2. Thanks Chris for writing this! I can't begin to imagine how difficult it was for you. But knowing Mike for most of my life and never knowing exactly how this all happened...(you know this town!)'s nice to finally know exactly how it happened. Mike is one person who has always inspired me to keep pushing through my own health issues and reading it now from his own perspective makes me admire him even more! You have an amazing Dad there and he's definitely and inspiration to all! Goes to show just how precious life is and to know it's worth living no matter what path you're given!!