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Nurse Directs Her Own Surgery

A woman with a fatally wounded windpipe guides her husband through an emergency tracheotomy in the Montana wilderness.

September 19, 2004|From Associated Press

BLUFF CITY, Tenn. — Her windpipe crushed by a kick from her horse in the Montana backcountry, nurse Betty McClelland futilely whispered instructions to her husband to try to save her life.

"She told me I was going to have to do a tracheotomy," Mike McClelland recalled of the Sept. 9 accident.

"She was so brave. During all that ordeal, she never showed one sign of fear. Her lip never quivered."

The Tennessee couple loved the outdoors, McClelland said in Wednesday's Bristol (Tenn.) Herald Courier. Every vacation since their honeymoon in 1996 was spent in the enormous open spaces of the West.

This year's vacation took them and their horses to Montana's Bob Marshall Wilderness, where development and wheeled travel is prohibited. They set out Thursday afternoon, altering their route only slightly because grizzly bears had been seen in the area.

After a couple of hours, they made camp. He chopped firewood as she led one horse to a stream for a drink, then another.

A short time later, he looked up to see her walking back slowly without the horse. He hurried to her.

"He kicked me," she said softly.

The only visible sign of an injury was a red mark on her throat.

They packed up. She saddled her own horse. And they set off for help. But they didn't get far before Betty complained she couldn't breathe.

Betty McClelland, 41, was a registered nurse and branch manager for Coram Health Care in Johnson City, Tenn., and Asheville, N.C. Although she worked in administration, she knew what to do.

Her husband ran for the first-aid kit, and she whispered instructions for the tricky procedure of cutting a hole in her throat and inserting a tube so she could breathe.

He tried for half an hour without success, so they got back on their horses and pressed on. Soon after, she said she had to stop. He tried again to open her windpipe, and failed again.

She got back on her horse, but fell off. He tried the tube again, desperately attempting to save her until well after he knew she was dead.

"I tried and tried and tried to get her onto my horse so I could carry her out," he said. "But I just couldn't."

He managed to get her body back to the campsite, put it in a tent and tied their dog outside to guard her. "I said, 'Buddy, don't you let anything touch her.' "

Then he began the long ride out. Search-and-rescue crews reached her the next morning. The body was unharmed, the dog still standing guard.

An autopsy revealed the improvised surgery was textbook perfect but failed because the injury was so severe.

"We always said we weren't going to wait until retirement. We were going to see it now," McClelland said. "We felt safer in a million acres of wilderness than we did on the interstate highway."

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