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- August 09, 1993
- Vol. 40
- No. 6
Cut or Die
Trapped by a Fallen Tree, Donald Wyman Amputates His Own Leg to Save His Life
For the stunned Huber, 43, it was the start of a desperate race to save the life of 37-year-old Donald Wyman. But Wyman, a burly bulldozer operator, had already waged his own herculean struggle for survival. Minutes earlier, alone in the western Pennsylvania woods, he had been forced to amputate part of his own leg with a three-inch pocket knife. It was his only hope of escaping the huge oak tree that had crushed the leg and pinned him to the ground. Leaving a bloody trail, he crawled 135 feet uphill to his bulldozer, hoisted himself into it and rumbled 1,500 feet to his pickup. Then, using a metal file to depress the clutch when he shifted, he drove his manual-transmission truck a mile and a half to Huber's place. "I told myself it's too early to go out like this," Wyman told PEOPLE days after his July 20 ordeal. "I thought, I gotta get out of this for my family.' "
At the farm, Huber raced inside to call for help. But when he got back, Wyman said, "That's not fast enough." With remarkable clearheadedness, the hemorrhaging man, who lives with his wife and teenage son 15 miles from Huber's Oliver Township spread, urged the farmer to tell the dispatcher that the pair would meet the rescue squad at a crossroads.
"I never saw a man so sharp under those conditions," says Huber, who did the driving. "He kept thinking and planning. Not me. I was praying." Huber says his passenger was so levelheaded that he actually asked Huber to slow down. Explains Huber: "He didn't want to die in a car wreck."
Minutes later, Wyman calmly told the ambulance crew, "Go get my leg," then sketched a map that would lead them to the accident site. Wyman lifted himself onto the gurney, declining both oxygen and painkillers.
"He has more stamina than anyone I know on the whole earth," says David Osikowicz, president of Original Fuels Inc., the local surface-coal-mining company for which Wyman has worked the past three years. "If anyone could have gutted it out like that, it was him." Wyman, a steelworker's son, is more modest. "I guess I just like to do things on my own," he says. "I've always been pretty determined."
The road to Wyman's hell was paved with the best of intentions—building a house for his wife, Janet, 35, and son, Brian, 17, so that they could move out of their two-bedroom mobile home in New Bethlehem, Pa. After finishing his shift clearing trees at the mouth of a strip mine, Wyman wanted to gather some logs to barter at a local sawmill for lumber for his house. Everyone else was leaving as he sharpened his chain saw. Around 4 p.m. he began slicing into a massive oak lying on a hillside. Then it happened.
Suddenly the trunk snapped back at him and fell, pinning his leg underneath. Because the top of the tree had been wedged between others it was slightly bowed; the cut released the tension like an enormous spring. "As many trees as I've cut, I should have known better," Wyman says. "It drove me right into the ground. I didn't, know what had hit me." Seconds later, he knew. The trunk had rolled over his left shin about seven inches below" the knee, cutting flesh, shattering bone and burying his lower leg under an immovable weight of oak.
For the next hour, Wyman dug feverishly to free his broken leg; every so often he stopped "to bellow for help." Unable to reach much of the log with his saw, he used it instead to chop the hard ground beneath his leg, then scooped the soil away with his hands. "I felt some fear, but not too much," he says. "Mostly I just tried to assess the situation and not panic."
But then Wyman ran into a huge rock—one he couldn't dig around to free his foot. He weighed his odds of rescue—it would be several hours before his wife started to worry about him and, by then, he might bleed to death. "I had my knife," Wyman recalls. "I just realized that if I was gonna get outta here, this [amputation] might be the only way."
First, Wyman grabbed a rock to sharpen the dull blade of the $3 flea-market knife. Next he sliced away his jeans. Then he pulled the starter cord out of his chain saw and made a tourniquet to stanch the bleeding.
After a first quick cut, Wyman, who remembers fainting at the sight of blood in a high school biology class, thought, "I can't do this. I'm not gonna be able to cut my leg off because of the pain." So he sat there for three or four minutes, realizing it was his only choice. Reliving the ordeal, Wyman has increasing difficulty getting out the words. Finally he pauses, squeezing his wife's hand for support.
"I was praying," he says. "When I got ready to cut, I said, 'God, help me to get out of here'—and He did. But once I started culling, I didn't pray—I was so concentrated on that." After a minute of agony as he cut through the splintered bone, Wyman felt a surge of joy. "My leg was free now!" he says. "At that moment, I thought I was starting down the road to being saved."
Thanks largely to his own courageous efforts, Wyman made it. But the rest of his leg didn't. Although the rescue crew easily found the limb—still wrapped in blue jeans and wearing a laced-up, steel-toed boot—by the time they were able to saw it free and rush it to the hospital, more than two hours held elapsed and tissue damage was too severe for reattachment. But despite his sacrifice, many are convinced that Wyman made the right choice. "If he wanted to live, he had to gel out of there," says assistant fire chief Christopher Lento. "And that was his only way out."
The warmest praise for Wyman comes from his family. 'I think he's the greatest man alive, that he could do something like this," says Brian, a high school senior who hopes to become a lawyer. "Don would do anything for us," adds Janet. "He did what he did because he knew he was coming back to his family."
After less than a week in the hospital, Wyman was ready to go home. It will be a while before he'll be back bass fishing or tracking deer—or at work, which Original Fuels has promised he'll have for life. But according to his physical therapist, Wyman can expect eventually to regain up to 95 percent of his leg function with an artificial limb. (Meanwhile a Don Wyman Fund—c/o Harmarville Rehabilitation Center, Box 11460, Pittsburgh, Pa. 15238—has been established to raise money for his medical bills and Brian's education.)
Looking back now at his narrow escape, Wyman says simply, "I had a life-and-death situation. I have so much to live for that I did the only thing I could—I chose life."
TOM NUGENT in Punxsutawney
- Tom Nugent.
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