It was just a quiet Labor Day drive in the wilderness that suddenly went terribly wrong in a blur of bark and needles and explosive noise.
“It was like a bomb had went off,” said Michelle Childers, who was sitting in the passenger seat as her husband, Daniel Childers, drove their truck on a narrow, tree-lined road in northern Idaho. “I had no idea what happened. I had to ask.”
Daniel looked over at his wife and could barely comprehend what he saw. A thick branch from a spruce tree, more than an inch in diameter and 18 inches long, was sticking out of the left side of his wife’s neck.
“I just saw that stick going through her neck and I knew I needed to get help quick,” Daniel Childers told TODAY’s Norah O’Donnell Friday in New York. “I told her it was in her neck.”
A near miss
The life-threatening accident happened on Sept. 5. Less than two weeks later, Michelle, 20, wore a white scarf around her neck for her TODAY appearance, but otherwise showed no outward signs of how close she had come to death.
Doctors would discover that the branch somehow just missed her jugular vein and her windpipe, bypassing both as it penetrated all the way to the back of her left shoulder.
Perhaps most amazing was the fact that Michelle never felt any real pain and had to ask to comprehend that the branch was actually in her neck.
“I felt pressure,” she told O’Donnell. “There wasn’t a lot of pain; there was a lot of pressure.”
Her 22-year-old husband felt a different sort of pressure — to get his wife to a hospital as quickly as possible. But that was more easily said than done. The Childers were in remote country on the Lochsa River in northern Idaho near the Montana border. They had been enjoying a beautiful day, driving more than an hour away from anything resembling civilization when they went down a back road that dead-ended in the woods.
They turned the truck around, stopped at a creek for a while, then headed back out the way they had come. They estimate they were bouncing along at about 20 mph when Daniel went around a blind turn.
The Childers are still not exactly sure what happened, but they surmise that a branch was sticking out in the road and that it came through the open passenger window in an explosion of bark and spruce needles, impaling Michelle in the neck.
A terrifying rideAfter the freak accident happened, Michelle was in mortal fear that she was going to die. Daniel was also terror-stricken by what had happened and by the lack of immediate help anywhere near.
They were out of cell phone range, and the only thing Daniel could do was drive for an hour or more on bumpy roads to get back to civilization.
“I just went as quickly as I could,” Daniel told O’Donnell. “It was a very bumpy road. I tried to drive slow, but I was trying to go quickly, too.”
They finally made it to the Lochsa Lodge, where Daniel ran in to use the phone. By chance, a nurse practitioner was at the lodge. After checking Michelle and seeing that she wasn’t bleeding and could breathe, talk and swallow, the woman gave Michelle the unexpected news that she was going to be just fine.
“She took my vitals and tried to get help on the way,” Michelle said. “Probably 15 minutes later, an R.N. pulled in and got ground support and air support on the way.”
The registered nurse, whom the Childers know only as Paula, was able to call in a medical helicopter from the hospital where she worked.
After another hour, the helicopter arrived to transport Michelle to St. Patrick Hospital, where surgeons took six hours to remove the tree limb and attempt to clean all the bits of bark, wood and needles from the deep wound that went from the front of the right side of her neck through to the back of her left shoulder.
Michelle is still at risk of infection from any bits of foreign matter still inside her, and her left shoulder is damaged; she has difficulty lifting her arm. But she’s not complaining.
“I don’t know how I’m still alive,” she said, staring at pieces of the branch that she had brought along to the TODAY studio. “I don’t know.”