SACRAMENTO, Calif. — In a remote stretch of rugged granite landscape in Shasta Trinity Forest, Air Force Maj. Jeremy Kilburn, a 34-year-old critical care pulmonologist, broke his leg while hiking last week.
He required rescue by helicopter — and instead, he became part of a team of rescuers helping save a grievously injured California Highway Patrol paramedic named Tony Stanley.
“The doctor endured excruciating pain to help our officer,” said CHP Lt. Scott Fredrick, who is based in Redding. “The doctor really wanted to help.
“He fell down and rolled a bit to make his way to our officer.”
The incident began Thursday when Kilburn and a companion — Dan Grasso, Kilburn’s best friend from the time they were 4-year-olds in Buffalo, N.Y. — were hiking near Big Bear Lake.
With his young German shepherd, Virgil, Kilburn had driven from Las Vegas to San Jose to pick up Grasso, an electrical engineer in Silicon Valley. After traveling up the coast, they hiked to Big Bear Lake on Wednesday and planned to spend Thursday circling near the lake.
Mid-hike that day, Virgil pushed the back of Kilburn’s leg a little too hard, causing him to fall several feet, breaking his left leg and dislocating his right ankle.
“I reset the leg and took my boot off and sat down,” Kilburn said by phone from Nellis Air Force Base. “It was pretty messed up.”
A hiker who came along headed downhill for help, and Kilburn and Grasso waited for the help they knew would take hours to arrive.
Several hours into their wait, two counselors and eight junior high- and high school-aged campers from Palo Alto’s Camp Unalayee hiked through the area. The counselors, Bryce Harbert and Elizabeth Fitch, radioed their base camp to call for help by satellite phone.
“It was awesome how great these people were,” said Kilburn. “They took my pack, and they looked after Virgil.”
And they waited with Kilburn and Grasso while help slowly made its way the 40 miles from Redding. By 6:30 p.m., a CHP helicopter piloted by Officer Brian Henderson circled and circled the nearby valley before spotting a small flat spot 100 feet below the injured doctor.
Kilburn was facing away from the helicopter.
“None of us thought he’d be able to land the helicopter,” he said. “It was a brilliantly executed landing. The kids were cheering when the pilot finally cut the engine. And then I heard the kids saying, ‘Oh, my God! Oh, my God! It’s terrible!’
“My friend says, ‘Dude, this guy got hit in the head with the main rotor.’
“I said, ‘Get me down there immediately.’ I was trying to run with one leg. It was a nightmare getting down there.”
Together, all of them saved a life.
Stanley, the paramedic, was hit by the main rotor rushing to rescue Kilburn. At Stanley’s request, CHP officials declined to release more details about the extent of what happened to him.
Trained in wilderness assistance, camp counselors Harbert and Fitch — who were not available for comment — provided basic first aid, said the CHP’s Fredrick. Henderson, the pilot, helped familiarize Kilburn with the helicopter’s medical equipment. With Fitch helping the injured Stanley breathe by airbag, Kilburn hooked him up to the appropriate monitors.
It took all of them, as well as Grasso, to position a cervical collar on Stanley to protect his spine and neck, then lift him onto the helicopter.
Stanley, 40, a 10-year CHP veteran, remained unconscious, said Kilburn.
“I struggled onto the helicopter myself,” said Kilburn. “I’m not gonna lie to you. It was really, really painful.”
With Fitch on board to act as flight nurse, keeping pressure on Stanley’s wound, and Kilburn ventilating him and keeping an eye on the monitors, they flew to Redding’s Mercy General Hospital.
“He was in the trauma bay next to me,” said Kilburn. “I was keyed in to what was happening to him.”
Stanley, who remains hospitalized, has requested the CHP not release information on his condition, said Fredrick.
Grasso and Virgil hiked safely down the mountain, Kilburn said.
Now Kilburn has returned to Nellis, where he is the federal medical center’s intensive care unit director. He awaits surgery next week, once the swelling subsides on his deeply sunburned leg.
He worries that his recovery will delay his first overseas deployment, which had been scheduled for the fall. And he doesn’t think he should be the focus of the story: He was doing what he’s trained to do, broken leg and all.
“But my friend and the camp counselors, they’re not medical people,” he said. “That situation is my comfort zone, even though it’s not what I expected in the wilderness.
“But for them, they conducted themselves in an astonishing way.”