North central Washington state is a lot of nothing other than fields. Every year, the Federal Aviation Administration closes the airspace in a remote part of the area for a model rocket competition, the National Association of Rocketry Annual Meet. It’s a 2-day event and a pretty big deal. People come from all over the country to be there.
When you were a kid, you probably saw those rockets that are 3 feet tall. You launch them up in the air, they have a little parachute that comes out and they come back down to the ground. Well, picture that on ultimate steroids. There are anywhere from 3-foot to almost 20-foot-long rockets at this thing. People show up with horse trailers full of rockets and components. I mean, it’s an obsession.
Some of these rockets are super sophisticated. They have different stages where the first stage burns out and the second takes over. They go up thousands of feet to the edge of the stratosphere. Most of them have GoPro cameras, so you get to see when the rocket reaches the top of its trajectory and the last engine burns out. As it starts to descend, a parachute deploys and it can drift back anywhere from pretty close to where you launched it to a couple miles away. Then you use your little GPS to find it.
Why not? I drove out there and parked my Jeep and was walking over to the competition when I noticed something off. A bigger commotion than there should have been.
Here’s what happened 2 minutes before I got there:
A 5-foot-long rocket, 2½ inches in diameter, had reached the top of its several thousand–foot trajectory and was ready to come back to Earth. But its parachute didn’t deploy. It turned itself point-down and literally shot back to earth like a rocket.
It had gone up pretty darn straight and came down just as straight – right into a circle of people sitting in lawn chairs.
It hit a middle-aged man. But you can’t imagine how. First of all, who knows how fast it was going. The point glanced off his forehead and ... how to describe the rest. The man was pretty heavy. So the rocket impaled him through the abdomen and stuck right into the ground. As in, the point entered the top of his belly just below chest level and came out the bottom of his belly. The rocket pinned him to the ground through his belly.
Well, this was not how I planned on spending my day. But my spectator time was over. There were a lot of people running around in circles where he was pinned, not really knowing what to do.
When I said I was an emergency physician, instantly 15 heads looked right at me for direction like, Oh my gosh, please take over! A lot of people were asking: “What can I do? What can I do?” I said: “Well, we don’t need to do CPR. What we really need to do is get this rocket out of the ground. We need to keep him still while we dig out the rocket and get him flat.”
People gently dug around the nose of the rocket. It was in about 6 or 8 inches, enough that we didn’t want to just yank on it (I still marvel at how fast it must have been traveling to both impale the man the way it did and also jam into the ground like that). We wanted to loosen it up and ease it out of the ground.
We managed to dig the nose out and get the guy on his back. Needless to say, he wasn’t particularly comfortable. He looked pretty ashen, like he was in pretty good trouble.
The festival had an EMS kit with some bandages in it, but not a whole lot else. There’s the old joke in emergency medicine: What can you do with duct tape, a Swiss army knife, and a paper clip? It’s like, what has anybody got that might work here?
What we really needed to do was keep both the rocket and the man from moving. We cut off his shirt and got his pants down so that I could better see where it entered and exited. Then we used a couple of clean T-shirts to stabilize the rocket so it didn’t move while he lay flat. It didn’t bleed all that much. And his belly wasn’t massively expanding like he was bleeding internally. I mean, he looked crappy. But so would I!
We were about an hour away from the closest EMS and only a couple people even had cell service out there. But we managed to get hold of EMS. It was also one of those 92-degree days with no shade for 50 miles in any direction.
There was a volunteer firefighter there to man the fire rig. He helped carry the guy into an air-conditioned trailer without moving him very much.
Basically, we stabilized him by keeping him super still and as comfortable as we could until EMS arrived. I rode with him about an hour and a half to the closest trauma center in Central Washington. He was conscious, which was lousy for him but reassuring for me. “You’re still talking to me,” I said. “I think you’re going to be okay.”
One of the take-home points from a medical point of view is never try to remove something sticking out of someone when you’re out in the field. If it’s pushing against something vital, you could do a lot of damage, and if it’s up against a blood vessel, that vessel’s going to bleed uncontrollably.
We got to the trauma center and they took him to the OR. By the grace of friendships, somebody got his wife to the hospital. She was calmer than I think I would have been if my spouse had been hit by a rocket.
The full diagnostic story: The rocket bouncing off his forehead gave him a small skull fracture and slight concussion. That was no big deal. But picture this: The rocket only went through his belly fat. It didn’t hit any of his abdominal organs! I still think this is absolutely amazing. If he had been leaning forward in his lawn chair even a few inches, the rocket would’ve gone through his head and that would’ve been all they wrote.
He stayed in the hospital for a couple of days. I never saw him again, but I received follow-up from the surgeon. And I read the paper the next day. Let me tell you, in Central Washington, this is pretty big news.
It wasn’t the way I’d planned my morning. But you just can’t predict that kind of thing. I don’t know, maybe spiritually or karma wise, I was meant to show up about 90 seconds after he’d been hit. The only emergency physician at the whole event, just by chance. My work blesses me with a certain skill set. I know when to really worry, how to go about keeping somebody safe until you can get them to the ED. It’s something I thank my stars for every single day.
As I said to the guy on the way to the hospital: “Well, it’s not your lucky day, but it sure as heck could have been a whole lot unluckier.”
Stephen Anderson, MD, is an emergency medicine physician in Auburn, Washington and is affiliated with MultiCare Auburn Medical Center.
A version of this article first appeared on.