It started as a mountain biking excursion with two friends. When we drove into the trailhead parking lot, we saw several emergency vehicles. Then a helicopter passed overhead.
Half a mile down the trail, we encountered another police officer. He asked if we would be willing to go back to get an oxygen tank from the ambulance and carry it out to the scene. The three of us turned around, went back to the parking lot and were able to snag a tank of oxygen. We put it in a backpack and biked out again.
We found the scene about a mile down the trail. An adult male was lying on his back in the dirt after a crash. His eyes were closed and he wasn’t moving except for occasional breaths. Six emergency medical personnel huddled around him, one assisting breaths with a bag mask. I didn’t introduce myself initially. I just listened to hear what was happening.
They were debating the dose of medication to give him in order to intubate. I knew the answer to that question, so I introduced myself. They were happy to have somebody else to assist.
They already had an IV in place and quite a lot of supplies. They administered the meds and the paramedic attempted to intubate through the mouth. Within a few seconds, she pulled the intubating blade out and said, “I’m not going to be able to get this. His tongue is too big.”
I took the blade myself and kneeled at the head of the victim. I made three attempts at intubating, and each time couldn’t view the landmarks. I wasn’t sure if his tongue was too large or if there was some traumatic injury. To make it more difficult, a lot of secretions clogged the airway. The paramedics had a portable suction, which was somewhat functional, but I still couldn’t visualize the landmarks.
I started asking about alternative methods of establishing an airway. They had an i-gel, which is a supraglottic device that goes into the back of the mouth. So, we placed it. But when we attached the bag, air still wasn’t getting into the lungs.
We removed it and put the bag mask back on. Now I was worried. We were having difficulty keeping his oxygen above 90%. I examined the chest and abdomen again. I was wondering if perhaps he was having some gastric distention, which can result from prolonged bagging, but that didn’t seem to be the case.
Bagging became progressively more difficult, and the oxygen slowly trended down through the 80s. Then the 70s. Heart rate dropped below 60 beats per minute. The trajectory was obvious.
That’s when I asked if they had the tools for a surgical airway.
No one thought the question was crazy. In fact, they pulled out a scalpel from an equipment bag.
But now I had to actually do it. I knelt next to the patient, trying to palpate the front of the neck to identify the correct location to cut. I had difficulty finding the appropriate landmarks there as well. Frustrating.
I glanced at the monitor. O2 was now in the 60s. Later the paramedic told me the heart rate was down to 30.
One of the medics looked me in the eye and said, “We’ve got to do something. The time is now.” That helped me snap out of it and act. I made my large vertical incision on the front of the victim’s neck, which of course resulted in quite a bit of bleeding.
My two friends, who were watching, later told me this was the moment the intensity of the scene really increased (it was already pretty intense for me, thanks).
Next, I made the horizontal stab incision. Then I probed with my finger, but it seems the incision hadn’t reached the trachea. I had to make the stab much deeper than I would’ve thought.
And then air bubbled out through the blood. A paramedic was ready with the ET tube in hand and she put it through the incision. We attached the bag. We had air movement into the lungs, and within minutes the oxygen came up.
Not long after, the flight paramedics from the helicopter showed up, having jogged a mile through the woods. They seemed rather surprised to find a patient with a cricothyrotomy. We filled them in on the situation. Now we had to get the patient out of the woods (literally and figuratively).
The emergency responders had a really great transport device: A litter with one big wheel underneath in the middle so we could roll the patient down the mountain bike trail over rocks relatively safely. One person’s job was to hold the tube as we went since we didn’t have suture to hold it in place.
We got back to the parking lot and loaded him into the ambulance, which drove another mile to the helicopter, which then had to take him a hundred miles to the hospital.
To be honest, I thought the prognosis was poor. I suspected he had an intercranial bleed slowly squeezing his brain (that later turned out to not be the case). Even though we had established an airway, it took us so long to get him to the ambulance.
The director of the local EMS called me that evening and said the patient had made it to the hospital. I had never been a part of anything with this intensity. I definitely lost sleep over it. Partly just from the uncertainty of not knowing what the outcome would be. But also second-guessing if I had done everything that I could have.
The story doesn’t quite end there, however.
A week later, a friend of the patient called me. He had recovered well and was going to be discharged from the hospital. He’d chosen to share the story with the media, and the local TV station was going to interview him. They had asked if I would agree to be interviewed.
After the local news story ran, it was kind of a media blitz. In came numerous media requests. But honestly, the portrayal of the story made me feel really weird. It was overly dramatized and not entirely accurate. It really didn’t sit well with me.
Friends all over the country saw the story, and here’s what they got from the coverage:
I was biking behind the patient when he crashed.
I had my own tools. Even the patient himself was told I used my own blade to make the incision.
The true story is what I just told you: A half-dozen emergency medical personnel were already there when I arrived. It was a combination of all of us – together – in the right place at the right time.
A month later, the patient and his family drove to the city where I live to take me out to lunch. It was emotional. There were plenty of tears. His wife and daughter were expressing a lot of gratitude and had some gifts for me. I was able to get his version of the story and learned some details. He had facial trauma in the past with some reconstruction. I realized that perhaps those anatomical changes affected my ability to do the intubation.
I hope to never again have to do this outside of the hospital. But I suppose I’m more prepared than ever now. I’ve reviewed my cricothyrotomy technique many times since then.
I was trained as a family doctor and did clinic and hospital medicine for several years. It was only in 2020 that I transitioned to doing emergency medicine work in a rural hospital. So, 2 years earlier, I’m not sure I would’ve been able to do what I did that day. To me, it was almost symbolic of the transition of my practice to emergency medicine.
I’m still in touch with the patient. We’ve talked about biking together. That hasn’t happened yet, but it may very well happen someday.
Jesse Coenen, MD, is an emergency medicine physician at Hayward Area Memorial Hospital in Hayward, Wisc.
A version of this article first appeared on.