Colorado Boy Scouts California
On December 27th 2012, I set out on a canoe trip with four other adults and 10 Boy Scouts in 7 canoes. The adults were parents and scout leaders. I am one of the parents spending some quality time with my son on this trip. This was to be a 68 mile, 4-day, canoe trip on the Colorado River from Blythe to Yuma.
The weather was great during the day. T-shirt weather with blue skies and calm wind. The evenings got down to or close to freezing at night. But we were all prepared for the weather and we had a great time. The evening of the third day we had a medical emergency with one of the adults. As a volunteer EMT with the San Diego Search and Rescue team, I cannot divulge the nature of medical emergency due to HIPPA rules. However, this was a life-threating emergency that resulted in the patient being airlift out in a medevac helicopter. The seriousness of the emergency will become clear.
It is the evening of Saturday December 29th. During the day we had just canoed an 18 mile leg of our 68 mile journey. Over the last three days we have paddled 44 miles. We have docked at Carrizo Campground which is for boaters only on the California side of the Colorado River (33° 2' 10.81" N 114° 40' 11.39" W). There is a road used by California State Parks to service the pit toilet but it is accessible only by 4-wheel drive vehicles. There is no cell phone coverage. Nearest cell service is 16 miles away by canoe. You are not hiking out for help either. There were no boats on the water.
One of our adult leaders turned in early, which was normal. It is cold. The scouts were also already in their tents. I and the other 3 adults had done some star gazing but a thin layer of clouds had passed over and we were also getting ready to call it a night. It is now 7:30 PM and very cold. The adult that had gone to bed early sort of grunted and yelled. At first we thought he was having a bad dream. But he did it again. Now we are concerned and walking toward his tent, he did it again. This adult has a known medical condition. We try to get a response. Getting none we enter the tent. Our friend is responsive to simple verbal commands only, but is unable to communicate to us. He is clearly having a life-threating emergency.
I run for my medical kit and begin treatment. Twenty minutes pass and my patient shows very little improvement. It is time to call for advance life support! As mentioned earlier there is NO cell phone coverage. The nearest signal is 16 miles by canoe (4 + hours of paddling). How about amateur (ham) radio? Only one repeater could be found and there was no response assuming that I was readable into the repeater. So there is no amateur radio communication. How about calling the US Coast Guard? The US Coast Guard also patrols the lakes and parts of the Colorado River. Knowing that I would be on the water I brought along a marine radio. I put out a MAYDAY on marine emergency channel 16. No answer, we are too far south. So there is no US Coast Guard contact. As a member of the San Diego Search and Rescue team, I have a SAR radio with the National SAR frequency. About 30 miles south of my location is the Marines SAR team in YUMA, maybe I will get lucky and someone will be listening. No response. It is important to note that I tried all of these modes of communications multiple times throughout the night.
It is now about 8:00 PM. There is no improvement in our friend. Just to recap, there is no cellular coverage, no amateur radio (HAM))coverage and I have just tried to contact the US Coast Guard and the US Marines with no luck. Now who do you call? Putting people in canoes, in the dark, in near freezing weather with hidden sand bars to paddle another 16 miles after already paddling 18 miles was not an option. Fortunately I had purchased an ACR ResQlink 406 MHz Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) a few weeks before. I push the button and the system comes alive. GPS indicator show GPS position has been determined. I have just sent an emergency request for help to the US Air Force National Rescue Coordination Center via satellite. Now we wait! I asked Mr. Schafer if he would stand on the hill above our campsite with the PLB in the cold to signal any vehicles (or anyone) whether by land, air or river. It was very cold and Mr. Schafer had to put on thermals and a heavy jacket. Mr. Downie and Mr. Dixon attended to our friend while I am calling for help. He is starting to show signs of improvement. But he is still only responsive to verbal commands, not good.
By 9:00 PM he is communicating (although mumbled speech). He is making requests and I can ask questions about his medical condition and medications. While he is improving, he is not responding to treatment appropriately. In my opinion something is still very wrong and the emergency continues. Since our friend is stable for the moment, Mr. Downie stays to monitor our friend while Mr. Dixon and I take a few minutes to walk the surrounding hills for a radio signal. I need to talk to someone about the medical condition of our friend. Nothing! Bummer! I know our friend is tired and needs rest. We let him fall asleep, but we are close enough (just outside his tent) that we can hear his breathing and we regularly wake him too make sure he responds.
It is now 11:50 PM. I wake him again because I need to do another test. I don't get the result I was expecting, this is not good. We continue to wait for help, waking the patient at regular intervals. Being that it is midnight, I suggest that Mr. Schafer and Mr. Downie get some sleep. Not knowing when help will arrive and assuming someone will have to canoe for help at sun up, it is best that someone gets some sleep. Mr. Dixon and I will stay up and continue to monitor and treat, as necessary, our friend. It is now 2:00AM, no lights on the horizon and it is time for another test. I wake our friend and run the tests, the results are really bad. Our friend needs to be in a hospital now! We start treatment. As we finish this round of treatment, Mr. Dixon says, "Is that a car engine?" I pop my head out of the tent and see two headlights come around the hill.
I grabbed my flashlight and started running toward the lights. Now as I am running, I know that these may simply be some off roaders out for a joy ride. Didn't matter, they were going to stop no matter who they were. As luck would have it, it was California Park Ranger and an Imperial County Sheriff Deputy. I explained the emergency and the ranger grabbed her medical bag. The ranger had some additional medical supplies that I didn't have. After all I was on a pleasure canoe trip. Together we provided some additional treatment. After some brief discussion the ranger went back to her truck to request a helicopter for a medevac. She had to use her truck radio because her handheld radio didn't work in the camp. I can't say enough good things about the professionalism of the Ranger, we worked very well together.