Dr. Kenneth Pettine trademarked the phrase, “Friends don’t let friends get fused,” and during his years of practice, he has treated patients of all ages and of all kinds. He has witnessed amazing transformations as people overcome orthopedic pain and other conditions, and are able to do the things they want to do. However, there is one patient’s story that sticks out from among the rest.
The Cowboy in the Woods
Several years ago on a busy day in the clinic, Dr. Pettine met a cowboy who had come to see him about cervical artificial disc surgery. The cowboy was 36 years old and weighed approximately 200 pounds – all of it solid muscle that had been earned on the ranch rather than in the gym. His nickname was Buck, and with sandy blonde hair sticking out from under his Stetson hat, he began to tell Dr. Pettine the reason why he was seeking surgery. As he spoke, the doctor knew this was going to be perhaps the most interesting injury he had ever heard about in his 30-plus years as a surgeon.
Six years prior to his visit to Dr. Pettine’s office, Buck had undergone a two-level cervical fusion from the C-5 to C-7 vertebrae and an anterior plate. The doctor asked him why he had undergone the major neck surgery, and although he seemed reticent at first, he finally shared the tale.
Buck was an avid outdoorsman and spent many hours in Wyoming’s Big Horn Mountains. This stunning mountain range runs across north central Wyoming, west of Sheridan to thirty miles from the battlefield of Custer’s Last Stand. From where Buck lived, he could travel to completely remote mountains in less than an hour. He would often take a couple of horses out by himself and ride for a day or more, camping in secluded areas, surrounded by peaks. On this particularly consequential trip, he was elk hunting alone in late fall. The six inches of snow on the ground were perfect for tracking bull elk.
He had his horse trailer attached to his truck, and drove into the mountains much further than usual. After parking, he loaded his pack horse Dakota with supplies, and strapped a saddle on Hawk, his a buckskin quarter horse that stood 15 hands high (about five feet high). The cowboy and his horses set off on the trail. During the entire ride, everything around them was dead quiet. There were only the sounds of the horses breathing heavily into the cold fall air, and the snow crunching under their hoofs with every step.
As they made their way through the heavily laden forest, a nearby tree branch cracked and fell to the ground, sounding like the crack of a rifle fired at close range. Hawk spooked and reared, and Buck – totally off guard – was tossed high into the air. He landed on the back of his neck, a dull crunch sounding upon contact with the ground.
Buck felt severe pain shooting through his neck and back, but he was able to breathe. He lay in the snow for several minutes until the shock of the fall faded. He could move his arms and legs, but as he lifted his head to stand, he felt an immediate electric shock throughout his body. He attempted this several times, and each time, his arms and legs would ignite like he had shoved a fork into a wall socket. Buck realized he had broken his neck, five miles away from his truck, five miles away from his cell phone. The buffer of snow he had landed on had likely saved his life, but he had no way to contact anyone and no one knew where he was located. No one would even miss him for days.
Buck realized that his only chance of survival was to place both his hands on his head and support his neck enough so that he could sit up, stand, and eventually walk. Buck knew that if he tripped, his fractured neck bones would sever his spinal cord, which would most likely be fatal. After many attempts, Buck was able to pull himself to his feet and get moving. Several hundred yards on, he became so fatigued that he couldn’t hold his head up any longer, and had to lie back down and rest. After resting, he got back up, still feeling the intense electric shock permeate his entire body. But Buck kept moving, walking a hundred yards, resting, getting up, walking another hundred yards, resting and then getting up again. Dakota and Hawk wandered, but mostly followed. All night, the pale moonlight glistened off the hoof tracks they followed back over the frozen snow. Exhaustion completely overtook his body and mind. Fourteen hours later, he reached his truck.
Buck called his wife gave her detailed information on his location and his dire situation. He was hypothermic, exhausted, dehydrated, and physically spent. He hadn’t had any water or food during the entire ordeal. An hour passed, and Buck heard the sound of a distant helicopter. He burst into tears, thinking about his wife, the fact he had survived, and that he was not paralyzed. The helicopter flew Buck to a hospital in Montana to undergo emergency neck fusion to stabilize his spine.
As Dr. Pettine listened to this story, he knew he’d never heard a personal tale of someone displaying such determination, courage, and an indomitable will to live. A few days after meeting Buck and listening to his incredible story, the doctor placed a cervical artificial disc into the C4-5 vertebrae above his original fusion. Today, Buck is back on his horse and back to being a real cowboy!