WALLA WALLA — Using her keys as a primitive scalpel to cut off her own leg was one of the options Noel Shannon considered the night she lay trapped under her 1996 Toyota truck.
Dying was not.
Now, however, keeping that limb is no longer an option. On Saturday evening, doctors at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle amputated Shannon’s left leg from the knee down, and she was recovering at the hospital Monday evening.
It was the third attempt to save Noel’s leg, but too much muscle death made the decision for the medical team, her mother, Christa Shannon, said.
Her daughter’s reaction?
“Now her main concern is having a prosthetic running leg,” Christa said.
Noel, 23, was on a photography trip into the foothills that rise where Milton-Freewater, Oregon, gives way to Walla Walla River country. She was returning from capturing images of Umatilla National Forest about 8 p.m. July 5 when she swerved to avoid a deer that ran in front of her truck on Government Mountain Road.
She overcorrected, causing the truck to roll several times before coming to rest on the driver’s side.
Noel was not wearing her seat belt and the impact of hitting that “solid rock” road sent her left leg through the side window, said her boyfriend, Jake Furstenberg. “So it was outside the vehicle when it stopped rolling.”
Her foot was trapped beneath the door frame, and no tugging could pull it loose.
From that point it was Noel’s “intelligence” and sharp instincts that kept her alive, Christa added.
Noel removed her ring of seven or so keys from the ignition and began trying to dig a trench through the rock under her leg. After hours of effort, Noel had worked through five inches of the concrete-like surface.
“She was trying to take the rocks she had loosened and put them under the frame of the truck to raise it in hopes of freeing her leg,” Christa said.
Throughout the night, Noel would later recount, wolves howled. Fear that the smell of blood from her split-open skin would attract the animals haunted the young woman.
Eventually her daughter recognized she was probably bleeding to death, Christa said, her voice breaking at the thought.
“She knew she would have to cut off her leg with her keys, a lot of those were little keys and she knew they were not sharp enough to do so. So she just had to buckle down and just jerk her leg out.”
That action further split the leg and separated her ankle bones, erasing any doubt the bleeding could become fatal, Christa added. Once freed, Noel used her good leg to break the windshield and climb out, her mom continued.
“In the midst of that, she grabbed the floor mat to put under her leg,” Christa said. “It was twisted in a circle below the knee. Then she took off her sweatshirt and tied a tourniquet.”
Scooting her left leg along with aid of the mat, Noel crawled about 15 feet from her pickup before she collapsed on the roadway.
Too weak to go farther, she was a motionless heap when Dax McReynolds came upon her at about 8:30 a.m. July 6.
The Walla Walla man was with a friend out for some target shooting when they spied a “pile of debris” ahead, McReynolds said.
“I saw the truck on its side and for an instant, I thought I should just turn around because there was no way I was getting around it.”
His buddy, however, speculated they were seeing a body, although the black cloth over the heap made it impossible to tell. Both men are U.S. Army combat veterans, and their first instinct was that perhaps this was some kind of set up, McReynolds said Friday. “Then I saw her hand twitch.”
Although he is enrolled in pre-nursing classes at Walla Walla Community College and does work study at Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center, McReynolds credits six years spent in the Army and his war experience in Iraq for staying calm, he said.
Despite her obvious deep drive for survival, Noel appeared close to death.
“She already had bees and flies swarming around her,” McReynolds said.
Unable to get cellphone service in the remote area, the men loaded Noel into their rig and headed down the mountain, anxious to reach a spot to call 911, McReynolds recalled.
“But she wanted to go home,” he said. “She said she couldn’t afford the ambulance ride.”
When cell service was available, Noel called her mom, who had been out looking for her that Sunday morning. In another few minutes, the two were headed to medical care.
At Providence St. Mary Medical Center in Walla Walla, the artery in Noel’s foot was repaired, although her foot had already died. In hours, she was flown to the Seattle hospital.
And is now ready to move forward once again, her family said.
The 2009 McLoughlin High School graduate is crazy about riding her Harley Davidson motorcycle, training horses and endurance running, among other things, Furstenberg said. “She’s very athletic. Very, very.”
Noel knows just being alive is a miracle, he added.
“She’s very happy.”