Updated: Jul 14, 2021
The third week in July 1986 was a stunning blue sky in Ketchikan, Alaska, and this is rare when you consider the Southeast Alaska town of 14,000 people receives an annual rainfall of 179 inches a year. This part of Alaska was referred to by the popular journalist Charles Kuralt as “God’s thumbprint on earth.”
I was a guest of SilverKing Lodge with several friends, and we were there to fish salmon and halibut for the week. We had come to the lodge for the previous three years, and I would come at least once per year for 30 more. Over those years, I helped more than 4,000 people have that chance of a lifetime.
We arrived in Ketchikan on Monday, and the fishing was slow. Salmon often like a little blustery weather to get on the bite. Thursday morning was gorgeous, and the inside passage ocean was mirror calm. The tide was high, and the many small islands covered with very tall Cedar, Hemlock, and Sitka Spruce trees seemed to be coming up directly from the surface of the water. A few of us decided to go out early before breakfast and fish the bottom for halibut. We each took our assigned boat, 14-foot fiberglass skiffs with a 25 hp motor at the stern. I had my 16-year-old son Adam and a great friend, Richard Weed, in the boat with me. The other boat had another friend and his son. We went north from the dock and settled into Moser Bay to fish for halibut 200 feet below. We fished for an hour or so, and we didn’t have a bite, so we decided to go back for breakfast and then go on a beautiful hike up into the rainforest along the Naha River. I yelled at our companion boat that we would race them back to the lodge. I was in the back of the boat controlling the motor, and I knew that I would have to cut in front of them occasionally to slow them down with them only having two people. This was nearly my fatal mistake; one time, I got in front of them, and instead of speeding forward, I turned the control the wrong way, and we immediately and quickly slowed down and caused the boat behind going full speed to come directly over the back of our boat. The next thing I knew, I was down in the water perhaps ten feet or more, and I knew something was wrong. I wiggled my toes as I swam to the surface. Adam’s face was terrified. The water had blood everywhere, and he instantly thought I was dead. With Ei bards help, they pulled me into the skiff. I could see immediately that the boat prop had taken off most of the right part of my leg between the knee and my ankle. I was bleeding profusely from under my knee especially. All five of us were now in one boat, and the other had not sunk but was filled with saltwater. All in the boat were scouters and using a belt, they tried to stop some bleeding by using it as a tourniquet. It was very painful and could not stop the deep wounds from bleeding, so they took it off. They all prayed over me, and as they did, I could feel myself going into shock and losing conciseness. I said to myself, “if I faint, I will die,” and I instantly got as clear-headed as could be. When I looked at my leg, I could see a steady stream of blood coming from under the right edge of my knee, and I took my index finger, and with pressure, I filled the artery the best I could. I learned later that three large arteries feed the lower leg, and I had cut one, and if I had cut off two, I would not have survived. At about this time, a floatplane flew high above us, and this was highly unusual because there were no other lodges or places to stop. My partners were waving their bright yellow and red rain gear that they always carry with them, but there was no acknowledgment that anyone had seen us. We then tried to get the boat started to go back to the lodge. It was no use, and with five people in the small boat, it was futile. Just then, the plane came back a second time again, lots of distress waving and yelling, but again nothing. Suddenly five minutes later, the plane was back and flying much lower, and they knew something was awfully wrong. The pilot landed and pulled up to our boat, and everyone assisted my son and me onto the back seat of the Cessna. I remember my son holding my head on his chest and comforting me as we climbed off the water towards Ketchikan, about 25 minutes away. I kept talking while I kept the pressure on the artery with my finger. The plane landed quickly next to a dock not far from the hospital, and an ambulance was waiting there. I was on the gurney fast, and those who were attending me were putting in I.V. Lines in both arms as we drove. I was already getting blood as we arrived at the small emergency room quickly. I had not felt but little pain from the injury because of the trauma, I suppose, but now the pain was almost intolerable until I felt the morphine take effect. A tall, pleasant man talked to me as we hurried down the hall, introduced himself as Dr. Gilson, and said I was going into surgery. I quickly received an epidural like women often get before childbirth, and soon I was completely dead of pain below my waist. The Dr. did not want me totally out so he could talk with me as he operated, and I received units of blood. He told me he was not the usual general physician at the hospital but that the usual doctor was on vacation, and he had come from New Jersey to cover for him. This was one of the miracles of this needless accident. Dr. Gilson was an Orthopedic Surgeon who also specialized in saltwater infections. After operating on me for two hours, he told me that a general Physician would almost assuredly have removed my right leg below the knee. I, of course, had already resolved in my life that I would be happy to give up my leg for my life. I was not out of the woods yet because Dr. Gilson said there is a great chance of terrible anaerobic infections from the ocean that could take this leg of mine. Following the Thursday operation, the Dr. operated again on Saturday and cleaned the wound for an hour. On Sunday, I felt much better, and I couldn’t walk or get out of bed.
It was this Sunday the I found out about two miracles from the day of the accident. The pilot of the floatplane came to visit me and gave me his name: Ned Pleus. He told me about that fateful morning and how he had started the day by training a new pilot to do water landings. He told me that he started towards his usual place to practice when he got airborne, where it was always safe. However, he told me he felt impressed to go north. He kept saying to me every so often, “Randy, I am not a religious man; you need to know that.” He told me how he had flown over our skiffs, and he and his student could see people waving from far below. They didn’t think anything about the waving even when they returned to Ketchikan because people were always waving to them. Then he said,
“About halfway back to Ketchikan, something strongly urged me to turn around. Ned saved my life; the doctor said I really only had a 1% chance of surviving that injury, and my blood loss was critically low even arriving at the hospital when I did. A funny moment came when Ned told me he had just gotten back his plane from Seattle where it had been redone inside with upholstery, and I had covered it all with blood. He got it cleaned.
The next Thursday, I returned to Bountiful. One of our great orthopedic surgeons looked at my leg and knew I needed a microsurgeon. A few days after my return, Dr. Larry Leonard and his associate operated on me for eight hours as they took the large latissimus dorsi muscle from my back and filled in the hole in my leg. They are called microsurgeons because, under the microscope, they have to attach blood vessels and nerves to keep everything living. They finished with skin grafts.
That Thanksgiving of 1986 was unlike any other to that point. I was saved by Divine providence. People have asked me why I was alive, and although I was a Bishop at the time and I had other responsibilities in my life, I knew those were not the reasons. About one year later, our beautiful son and brother to his twin Melinda came down with leukemia, and after three bone marrow transplants from his little sister, he passed away at the end of his Jr. year at Bountiful High. I believe that I was spared to stand with my sweet wife Melanie in those trying years ahead.
So the final miracle in my mind happened two years after my accident, and I ran and completed (slowly) the Deseret News Marathon.
After living in Bountiful for 41 years, perhaps you can understand why I love it here and why every Thanksgiving is special.