Lucky to be alive
By Amy Robinson
Farmer Staff Writer
What should have been a normal hunting trip in McKenzie County last month, ended up with a 70-year-old Minnesota man and former Mayo Clinic doctor breaking his leg during his solo hunting expedition, and trying desperately for nearly 17 hours to search for help in frigid temperatures.
And what could have ended tragically didn’t, thanks to a trucker from Joliet, Mont., who spotted the man frantically waving for help from a wheat field. He stopped to assist the badly-injured hunter, ultimately saving his life.
“I really want to focus on the help I got from Bryant Duncan, the truck driver from Montana who stopped to help me,” said Dr. Richard Olsen. “He really took the bull by the horns and got everything going. And the fact that he was willing to stop and help me, well, he saved my life.”
An avid hunter, Olsen has been coming to North Dakota for the last several years to pheasant hunt. His first cousins, Larry and Mryna Nelson, who live northeast of Watford City, have assisted Olsen with his hunting needs.
Olsen came to McKenzie County in the middle of December for his solo hunting trip. His pheasant pursuit took place on several wheat fields belonging to Doug Olson.
“I started hunting the afternoon of Dec. 19,” stated Olsen. “I had been wearing my cell phone on me all day, every day, until the last day. It was the last day of my hunt and it was getting late in the afternoon. I got in a hurry and left my cell phone in my truck.”
Olsen headed out into one of the wheat fields, to some lower land where there was a draw. Olsen states that it was kind of a bowl - a depressed area in the middle of one of the wheat fields.
“I got about half a mile into the draw,” Olsen stated. “There was grass in that bowl that had blown over a ditch. I stepped into the ditch and fell about four feet. I must have hit part of the wall with my one leg - my left leg, at a right angle. It went under my right leg. I knew I had broken my leg. I had never experienced pain like that before.”
Olsen tried to orient his broken leg to be parallel with his unbroken leg. He clutched onto some tall grass beside him to try and pull himself out of the ditch he had just tumbled down. He got to a standing position and about two minutes later, lost his balance and fell back into the ditch. His broken leg was lodged in-between a boulder and the wall of the ditch. Olsen says it took him another hour to an hour and a half to inch back out of that ditch.
Olsen had to inch out backwards probably 30 to 40 yards up the side of the bowl. After a long, hard struggle, he made it to the top of the bowl around 7 p.m. There was a lot of rocks and trees around him. If they were too big to climb over, Olsen had to detour around them, which only added more time to his race against time.
Olsen slowly, but surely inched his way to a barbed-wire fence that bordered a county road. He didn’t make it there until well into the next morning, almost 17 hours later, in freezing temperatures.
According to Olsen, the barbed-wire fence had a low tie on it and he got hung up on it for awhile. He was exhausted, cold, and desperate. He had gone in and out of consciousness throughout the night, but miraculously made it to the fence. The fence, however, sat right next to a steep ditch before the county road met the top of the opposite side of that ditch.
“There was about three to four feet of wheat in the bottom of that ditch,” stated Olsen. “I wasn’t convinced I’d get out of that ditch if I’d gone down it. So I propped up against the fence. I had blaze orange on and I tried waving to get someone’s attention. I probably waved for an hour and at least six to 12 cars passed and didn’t see me. I was feeling pretty desperate and I was starting to fall asleep and doze off.”
Then as luck would have it, a semi truck drove by. Olsen waved, but the truck passed. Olsen thought the truck missed him too. What Olsen didn’t know is that as the truck driver passed by and started climbing a grade, the driver happened to look in his side mirrors and spotted Olsen in his orange, waving his hands in the field he had just passed.
According to Bryant Duncan, the trucker that stopped, he stated that he had actually seen Olsen’s truck the day before. Of course at that point, he didn’t know whose truck it was. He said that during this part of the year, a lot of the well pads have orange on them, and most of the time, there are different colored trucks at the well pads - surveyors’ trucks. When he passed Olsen’s truck the day before, that’s what he had assumed - that it was a surveyor’s truck.
“But later on that night, probably around 2 or 3 a.m., I nearly ran over a bird dog,” stated Duncan. “I knew there were no houses around there so I thought maybe someone had lost their hunting dog. But I didn’t see that truck again because it was so dark. But the next morning, I drove by again and saw that same truck with frost on it. And when I drove by and saw the man in his orange coat, sitting there, and waving his hand, I thought it was a survey guy and I kept going. But really it was God. He told me, ‘hey there is still frost on this guy’s truck, he’s waving at you, stop!’ So I stopped, backed up, and I knew he must be in real trouble.”
Once Duncan turned around and came back, he could see Olsen’s legs and knew one of them was broken. He also knew the man was at the point of going into shock. He needed to act quickly to help this badly-injured man.
“He turned around and came to me,” Olsen stated. “By then I was so cold. I was shivering so badly that I couldn’t even get my name out. I broke into tears and pleaded with him to not leave me. Then he called 911.”
Duncan could see how badly Olsen was shivering and ran to his truck to grab his sleeping bag and a coat. He came around the backside of Olsen and tried to keep him warm with his own body heat. He called Olsen’s wife and explained what happened to her. Then he called Olsen’s cousins’ house to let them know what happened as well.
By the time first responders arrived, Olsen remembers getting on the stretcher and getting into a warm vehicle.
“Once they loaded me into the ambulance, I remember thinking that I’m finally going to get warm,” said Olsen.
Olsen was taken by ambulance to Trinity Health Hospital in Minot, where he underwent surgery. Doctors put a rod in his leg and placed screws to stabilize the rod. After his surgery was complete, he was transported by air ambulance to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where he is still currently recovering. Ironically, it’s the same hospital Olsen was a Developmental Pediatrician at for 30 years until he retired in 2010.
Olsen will remain in the Mayo Clinic’s rehab center, the Charter House, until he is able to function and perform his daily living activities. According to the doctors, that could take months, because it’s one of the worst breaks they have ever seen.
“My three incision areas are doing well,” said Olsen. “I lost a lot of blood to that area, however, and my kidneys were partially blocked. There was a lot of medical issues to take care of. I still have a lot of swelling and a lot of pain. But I’m able to walk with a walker now, about 30 to 40 feet, and I’ve started dressing myself. I have three fingers that were frostbitten and we’re not quite sure how those fingers will turn out yet. But I’m actually making sensible progress.”
Despite the hard work and long recovery process still in front of him, Olsen feels like he is lucky to be alive.
“That’s really the Christmas miracle of things,” said Olsen. “And I finally got to talk to Bryant, the truck driver that saved me, on Christmas Day. His real job is picking up water, but he went above and beyond the day he stopped to help me. See there’s this prevailing attitude about oil field workers. But in my experience, they are extremely professional and Bryant went way beyond the call of duty. He really saved my life from my perspective.”
Duncan wouldn’t take credit for going above and beyond the call of duty. He said he’s just a guy that happened to realize Olsen was in trouble and stopped to help. He says he believes anybody else would have done the same thing if they knew he was in trouble.
“I have to say though that I’ve met a lot of people in my life and that’s probably one of the toughest men I’ve ever met,” Duncan stated about Olsen. “Most people would have given up. It was in the teens, maybe 20s throughout the night. The ground was freezing, and Olsen crawled all night with a broken leg to get help. That took a lot of determination.”
Olsen’s real hope in sharing his miraculous story is that although people have worries about stopping and lending aid to others, that people would think twice about rendering aid.
“A 70-year-old man with a broken leg isn’t going to do much harm,” joked Olsen. “My hope is that people would just think twice about rendering aid to other people that are in need of help. And I really want Bryant to get the right amount of recognition for a stellar job of saving my life.”