A woman from the Cariboo Chilcotin continues to beat the odds after surviving a serious snowmobile crash 11 months ago.
An experienced snowmobiler, Sheila Butler was sledding with her cousin, his son and some friends near Hendrix Lake in the South Cariboo on Jan. 22, 2022 when she crashed into a trench and a few moments later was hit by a second rider’s sled.
The back of her head separated from her spine by two centimetres, she ruptured her liver and spleen, fractured a rib, had a torn rotator cuff and bicep, and sustained a deep gash along her right jaw.
Vancouver General Hospital orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Charles Fisher led the surgery.
“He said the last time he saw an injury like mine was 11 years prior and the person did not survive,” Butler said. “I don’t know how many surgeons they had during my surgery but they were there so they could learn and help put me back together.”
It was the first time Butler and the others went sledding in the area, which is about 90 km south of Williams Lake.
Around 4:30 p.m. the group began heading down the mountain toward where they’d parked.
There is an old molybdenum mine site in the area that operated from 1965 to 1983.
She recalled the sky had changed to high clouds and the light was flat as she headed down the road that goes past the old mine site. There was about eight to ten feet of snow on the ground.
Suddenly she saw a small berm ahead, which she later learned was a man-made trench put in to keep vehicles from driving in.
She quickly realized the trench dropped deep and in a split second she decided to apply her brakes, slightly.
Unfortunately, she was unprepared for the depth of the trench as she crashed.
“I tried to hold my body back from impact, but the force was too great and I blew through my arms.”
Initially she was fine and began scooping snow out her helmet, but then another sledder coming behind her didn’t see the trench either. He did not know that she had fallen into it.
The next thing she knew, she felt a smash on her back from the other sled, ringing in her ears and then nothing.
“He hit the hole so hard after punching me down into snow and got ejected over his handlebars from hitting the far bank. His body landed up on the bank.”
When her cousin Arnie Kunka showed up he walked up to the edge of the hole and was looking around assessing the situation, wondering how he was going to haul the two sleds up out of the trench.
At that the point the rider whose sled hit Butler started screaming from where he’d landed on the other side, saying Butler was under his sled and all he could see were her boots sticking out.
Quickly they began digging her out from the snow.
“It was a brutal scene,” Butler has been told. “I was unconscious and not breathing. They figured they’d uncovered a corpse.”
Arnie carefully removed her helmet’s chin strap. When he saw the blood pumping from the gash on her jaw he knew she had a heart beat and was alive.
He straightened her neck slightly to remove her helmet, which opened up her trachia and esophogus and she started breathing on her own.
“He said it was a horrible roaring sound at first and then it started evening out to normal breathing.”
Arnie was holding her in a C-Spine to keep her head and neck straight when she regained consciousness about 30 minutes later.
Attempts by the group to start a fire with sled fuel were unsuccessful because the wood was too green.
Two of the sledders went down to the old Hendrix Lake townsite where there were some other riders.
Michelle Ball, who has level three first aid, and Court Wilson raced up with dry wood, blankets and other supplies.
“I should have warmed up but I never did. I’ve never been so bone-chilling cold as that day in my life,”Butler said.
Donny Kunka, Arnie’s son, used his Zoleo GPS to send an SOS and texted to confirm the location and requested an air ambulance.
Butler said Donny had texted several more messages to increase the urgency to 911 dispatch to let them know her condition was worsening.
“We learned a few helicopters were cancelled but then he received a text back asking if I had fluid in my airway. Donny replied yes, she is bleeding out of her mouth and fluids are in the airway.”
That final text resulted in the dispatch of a helicopter.
When South Cariboo Search and Rescue arrived about 10 p.m. they took over first aid treatment until a Talon helicopter, deployed by North Shore Search and Rescue, flew in around midnight, almost seven hours after the accident.
On board were an ER physician and an anesthesiologist.
Butler was moved onto a spine board stretcher, re-wrapped in blankets and carried into the helicopter.
The gash in her jaw had compression bandages applied by Arnie and the others, but because it was an arterial bleed it was still gushing, more so once she was inside the helicopter and began to warm up.
Initially she was transported to Cariboo Memorial Hospital in Williams Lake, then medevaced to Kamloops the next day, before being transferred to Vancouver General Hospital (VGH) on Tuesday, Jan. 25.
Surgery and recovery
The surgery at VGH lasted about five to six hours. After the surgery she remembers the medical staff wanting her to squeeze fingers and hands because they were really concerned about paralysis.
“Right from day one I could squeeze with my normal strength with no tingling, no numbness.”
Her neck had pain though.
Any movement would feel like it was tearing or stitches pulling, but she was assured it was from the surgery and would feel like that for a few days.
She still has a plate in the back of her head and some screws in the C0 to C4 vertebrae.
“They said it would be 10 months to a year before they could think about taking them out.”
The rods run from the back of the plate at the base of her skull and run through the screws that basically anchor the rods to hold her head stable until all the soft tissue heals up. There were no broken bones, just torn ligaments, muscles, tendons and nerves.
While she has noticed quite a bit of improvement, she still cannot do very much with her head and neck. She can turn her head to a certain angle, which she has been tackling through physiotherapy.
Each week shows a little more progress but the rods limit her range of motion.
“They are hoping 85 to 95 per cent recovery, but they don’t really know for sure because it is not something they have experienced before.”
The rods also limit her ability to look up to the ceiling and down to the floor.
Part of the recovery involves setting goals to stay focused and maintaining a positive attitude.
“I joined a gym a couple of months ago because I had torn the rotator cuff and the bicep tendon. The man who owns the gym used to work at VGH as a physiotherapist himself.”
Bones behind her eyes and cheeks were fractured from the blow during the crash and her eyes ended up with a prism effect.
She was unable to focus on one object and had double vision for a long time.
An optometrist prescribed prism glasses that helped.
“I no longer have double vision, but looking at something like fir trees in a distance is stilled messed up. I’m sure it will come in time.”
There was not a scratch, scuff or mark on her helmet.
“The only cut was on the cover that holds the chin strap.”
At the time of the accident she was living in Williams Lake.
Now she goes back and forth between the homes of her twin daughters Courtney Zwack in Kamloops and Sydney Zwack in Kelowna to attend different appointments.
Butler grew up at Bluff Lake in the West Chilcotin.
She competed in snowmobile racing for 10 years, eight of those with the B.C. Snowmobile Federation.
“I did a lot of the cross-country races at Anahim Lake for 60 miles and 120 miles.”
The first year she raced the 60-mile, Wynee Sager from Anahim Lake beat her.
“Every year after that I never let anyone beat me. That was back in the day. Those were some fun years.”
The sledder that hit her did not have insurance, so Butler has been grateful for an online auction initiated by her friend Cordy Cox to help with her recovery.
“It was so amazing. I was so appreciative. I couldn’t believe what the community rallied to do.”
She has some benefits from her employer Dawson Road Maintenance, where she was working as an operations manager, and is using money from the fundraiser to pay for ongoing treatments that are not covered by the benefits.
The snowmobile accident was her first and the experience was a learning curve.
“It is definitely a spot that none of us had been on before. We went with a couple of guys who knew where they were going, but when we were leaving the mountain they were not leading the pack.”
Two of the sledders were going faster and managed to clear the trench, one of them barely, she added.
“It is just one of those things. Wrong place at the wrong time and unfamiliar territory.”