On a late November evening, Scott Carnahan returned home from an all-day off-road motorcycle ride and said to wife Tammy, attempting to sound casual, “I’m kinda hurt. I think maybe we should go to the ER tomorrow.”
Tammy reports, “When he got home, he kind of looked like the hunchback of Notre Dame. He barely made it in the front door. So I said, how about now?” and went with him to the hospital.
Scott had spent the day with a very elite group. “A friend of mine teaches soldiers how to ride in the desert,” he says, “and he invited me to ride along with one of his classes. I was riding with guys from the Danish special ops, UK special ops, Delta Force and the Navy SEALs. It was a great group of guys and a chance to discuss product development and do some networking.” (Scott works for a company that designs and manufactures holsters, body armor and other equipment for the military, law enforcement and sportsmen.) “The minute I fell, I knew I had broken some ribs. We were about 30 miles from camp when the bottom dropped out from under me as we transitioned from desert to sand dunes. I went off a six-foot drop off at about 30 mph, and the bike stopped suddenly in deep sand.”
Although Scott was in substantial pain, he chose to ride the three and a half hours it took to finish drills and get back to camp. “I wasn’t spitting up blood, I wasn’t seeing stars, I didn’t pass out,” he says. “And I was with special ops and Navy SEALs! So I decided to keep riding. I got some pictures with them before we said goodbye, even though I was in agony by then.”
Scott is no stranger to motorcycles—he’s been riding for years and used to race. “I’ve now broken 14 ribs and 18 bones,” says Scott.
“They don’t call my husband ‘Crash Carnahan’ for no reason. He was really trying to be stoic,” say Tammy, who had been married to Scott about three years at the time.
It all started in Row 8. That’s where Tammy, a flight attendant, had noticed a man watching a video on his laptop. Although most folks wouldn’t file a shooting video on the “Romance” shelf, in this case it did the trick. “My teenage son and I had just decided to go to shooting school,” Tammy explains, “and there’s Scott, who turns out to be Mr. Shooter Guy of the World. I wasn’t originally scheduled to be on that flight, and Scott normally flies with a different carrier.” Thanks to five hours in the air, the two had a chance to converse. Several weeks later, they met up. “That was it for both of us,” Tammy says.
That fated 2011 meeting was followed by a 2012 wedding and a 2013 move to Big Bear Lake. This small city in the San Bernardino Mountains has a population of about 5,000 and an elevation of just under 7,000 feet. At the local ER, Scott figured he’d be given some pain medication and sent back home, but following a CAT scan of his chest, the doctor informed Scott that his injuries were beyond what the small hospital was equipped to care for. They would need to transfer him elsewhere.
While the hospital looked for a ground ambulance, Scott told the doctor that he really didn’t need to be transferred. He said he’d had broken ribs before and knew how to take care of them. However, in addition to breaking six ribs, Scott had punctured a lung, and the doctor was concerned about possible additional injuries. “And there’s weather coming in,” the doctor said, “so we’ve really got to get you out of here.” Then came word that the ground ambulance was already off the mountain and wouldn’t be coming back up. It was time to call for a helicopter.
At REACH 13 in Upland, Pilot Chris O’Neil assessed the situation. “The storm was coming in, and the ceiling was starting to drop,” he says. After a thorough review of all the factors, Chris determined they could safely fly. But they needed to hurry. The crew, which included Flight Nurse Patty Cauthen and Flight Paramedic Greg Lattimore, prepared for immediate departure. “We got out of there just in time,” Chris reports.
Meanwhile back on the mountain, Scott’s anxiety was somewhat reduced knowing that he and his broken ribs would take a twelve to fifteen minute helicopter flight versus an hour and a half road trip, most of which would have been a winding, bumpy downhill descent. “I could see in his eyes that he wasn’t happy they were going to take him off the mountain…until he knew he was going by helicopter,” Tammy remembers. Also, Scott had done ride alongs with law enforcement in the past, so he wasn’t afraid of the flight.
Tammy on the other hand was struggling to keep it together. “I’d held it together for four and a half hours, but when I found out they were going to put him in a helicopter, I became afraid it might be the last time I would see him,” Tammy says. “But when the REACH crew got there, Chris pulled me aside and talked to me. I think he could tell I was about to lose it. He was very reassuring. He told me, ‘I’ve got this. He’s going to be good.’ He’d also learned that I was a flight attendant, and he told me that a friend of his had just started as a pilot with the airline I work for. “That kind of brought me back to earth, and it was a good distraction. I told Chris that it was unlikely I’d ever run into him, but just a month later I get on a plane, and who’s my first officer? Chris’ friend. Up here in our small community, there aren’t even six degrees of separation.”
Tammy illustrates with another story. “There are only about 6,000 residents in Big Bear. When we first moved here, we were strolling through town one day, and we ran into a guy that Scott worked with years before. He told us about the REACH for Life air ambulance membership program and said we had to get it. So we did, never thinking we would need it.”
Now Scott and Tammy are spreading the word. “We had a chance to meet five new couples at a New Year’s Eve party,” Tammy says, “and we asked everyone if they’d heard about REACH membership. They all said they hadn’t, but that now they were going to sign up!”
“It is a small world,” agrees Chris O’Neil, who decided as a teenager that he wanted to be a helicopter pilot. “I grew up outside of Philadelphia in a very rural area, and we had volunteer fire and ambulance. I was a junior fireman, and I ran on the ambulance as well. One night there was an accident, and I was assisting at the scene. I heard a helicopter. It landed down the road, and then the crew came and picked the patient up. I was like, that’s it! That’s what I want to do. So I went to the airport and started taking flying lessons when I was 16.”
“I remember when we heard the helicopter,” Scott says. “The REACH crew came in and talked to the doctor. They were so calm, and so calming,” Scott remembers. “I just can’t praise them enough. They talked to the doctor and followed their protocols, then they got me out to the helicopter.” Scott was informed that there might be some turbulence on the trip to Loma Linda University Medical Center. “They told me it might be bumpy because of the storm,” Scott remembers. “But the flight was so smooth it was crazy! And the takeoff and landing were perfect.”
Scott also appreciated the way the crew interacted with Tammy. “They spent a lot of time with Tammy; they were very calming to her. And the pilot promised he would call her as soon as we landed, and he did.” Tammy says, “Chris told me the flight normally took 12 minutes, but that due to the weather it might take 15. After they left, I watched the clock, and he called me exactly 12 minutes after they took off. I don’t think the helicopter blades had even stopped.”
Unfortunately, the storm kept Tammy from joining Scott in Loma Linda that night, but she was able to get there the following morning. Doctors at Loma Linda performed CT scans and multiple X-rays, and determined that surgery would not be necessary. However, just days after being released, Scott reports that he wasn’t doing very well. At first he tried to be a tough guy and fight through it, but he ended up back in the ICU. Yet another scan revealed a clot in Scott’s right leg, and a portion of the clot had broken off and moved up to settle on not just one lung, but both. This condition is called a Bilateral Saddle Pulmonary Embolism, and nearly 30% of people with this diagnosis die within one month. Recent evidence also suggests that up to 10% of pulmonary embolisms are fatal within the first hour of the onset of symptoms.
Scott was hospitalized for a week, including Thanksgiving Day. He was prescribed Coumadin for six months and told to “take it easy”. Coumadin is a blood thinner used to treat clots, and can cause severe bleeding from just the slightest scrape or bump. Scott couldn’t afford to fall or in any other way injure himself while on the drug. “It was a rough six months for him mentally, not being able to do anything,” Tammy says.
Then on May 4—which happens to be Scott and Tammy’s wedding anniversary—Scott passed out in the shower. Twice. Paramedics took him to Big Bear Hospital, where he was given a heart monitor to make sure Scott’s heart was pumping enough blood and also to make sure it wasn’t slowing down excessively when he slept. That visit included another small world experience. “When I went back to Bear Valley Hospital, I ended up with the same doctor I’d had in the ER back in November! He remembered me, and he remembered that I had been stubborn. So I got to tell him that he was right that night.”
Scott’s follow-up scan at six months showed his lungs to be in substantially better condition. “I had awesome doctors,” he says. “My lungs were really bad before. Two separate doctors that I met along the way said, ‘Holy smokes, dude! You survived that?’”
So how does Scott feel about the experience now that he’s out of the woods? He says he’s very thankful to everyone who offered support, especially Tammy. “I owe my life to her!” he states.
“It was so great that REACH was available, that we had access to that service,” Tammy says. “Before we left for the ER that night, Scott made sure we had our membership cards. And when we got there, I think he threw down his membership card before his insurance card!”
Scott also made a big decision recently. “Even though I’ve raced and ridden motorcycles for all these years, I’ve decided to stop. I used to race professionally, but things happen. The risk-versus-reward is too high. I want to be there for my wife and kids.”
REACH says cheers to that, and we’re betting there are more cheers coming from daughter Kate (29) and sons Cory (27) and Colter (19). Congratulations, Scott, on your wonderful recovery. We’re honored to have transported you!