Authors: Mueller, Larry
Citation: Outdoor Life, July 1994 v194 n1 p62(5)
Subjects: Amputees_Personal narratives
Survival skills_Personal narratives
People: Wyman, Donald_Wounds and injuries
Reference #: A15484728
Abstract: Donald Wyman had to amputate his lower left leg on
Jul 20, 1993, after a tree he sawed fell on it. He
believes he was able to survive because of his
experiences and training as an outdoorsman. He was
hunting later in the year, wearing a prosthetic
Full Text COPYRIGHT Times Mirror Magazines Inc. 1994
Almost everybody has heard the extraordinary story of Donald
Wyman, the 37-year-old outdoorsman who cut off his own leg.
Alone one evening cutting down trees at his work site, by a
freak of nature a massive cut tree trunk launched itself at
him like a battering ram, throwing him backwards and pinning
him to the ground. Barely able to move, his leg shattered,
and with no way to get help, he was forced to make the most
harrowing decision of his life.
Of course, for most of us, it's impossible to hear the
horrifying details of this story without magining-in fact,
feeling-the excruciating agony Donald Wyman felt. And as we
go through this ordeal in our minds, most of us will ask
difficult questions. Such as, faced with the same unbearable
circumstances, how would we react? Could we have found some
other way to free ourselves? If not, would we have had the
courage, the sheer strength of character, to face hellish
pain and do what Wyman did? And there are other questions:
What kind of man is this guy, really? What unique traits
him the very special kind of person who could do what he
Had his many years as an avid outdoorsman given him urlique
preparation for surviving this bloody, life-threatening
To the last question, Wyman's response is immediate and
unequivocal: "Yes, I'm sure they did." And then, thinking
further, he says, "But it's such a gradual process that it's
hard to say exactly how it came about."
On July 20,1993, Donald Wyman had just completed his shift
a bulldozer operator in a Pennsylvania strip mine. When a
site widens, trees must be cleared, and Wyman had made a
deal. Rather than see trees wasted, he had acquired
permission to keep selected trees he removed on his own
This particular evening, Wyman chose a 26-inch oak. To avoid
risk of kickback, he always pushed over his trees with the
bulldozer instead of sawing. When this oak toppled, he
its trunk downhill a short distance to the mine road. There,
it would be more accessible for cutting off the stump and
root wad. His 16-inch chain saw wouldn't cut all of the way
through, of course, so his first cut was up from underneath.
Next, he sawed down from the uphill side to meet his
cut. As he did, he felt his first cut pinching together.
Mistakenly, Wyman thought that the stump was trying to roll
downhill. Instead, the tree was trying to spring uphill.
What Wyman hadn't noticed was that the upper part of the
had wedged between other trees when it fell. As he pushed
trunk downhill, the oak developed a bow somewhat like a
bent-sapling snare in reverse - but magnum in size and
strength. With the heavy stump and root ball holding it in
place, it had become nothing less than a giant trap waiting
to be sprung.
"When I sawed deep enough for it to break free," Wyman says,
"the spring in the tree drove the trunk at me like a Mack
truck. It knocked me 10 feet, broke both bones in my lower
left leg, and smashed my foot into the ground. My instant
reaction was to push the tree off of me, but of course, that
didn't work. I was pinned. I could see that the broken bones
were protruding against my pant leg about seven inches below
the knee. But the rest of my leg and foot were under the
Wyman yelled for help ... it was unlikely that anyone would
hear, but it was something to try while clearing his head
other options. He had always been good at options-sometimes
too good. His dad had been a steel worker and truck driver
who worked a lot and couldn't always take him hunting. So
Wyman's solution was to hunt alone. The game warden drove
home one afternoon, explaining why that's not an option for
boy under 16 in Pennsylvania. ...
The chain saw lay five feet away, still running. Wyman
grabbed a stick with a little hook of a branch, pulled the
saw within reach, and shut it off to conserve fuel. But
exactly how to make good use of it wasn't immediately
evident. The log had hit the outside of his left leg,
him to the ground on his right side. He couldn't twist
against his trapped leg far enough to use the saw. And even
if he could reach the log, the saw would cut only 16 inches
deep, while the tree was 26 inches thick. Obviously, he
couldn't get around to the opposite side of the log to make
the second cut.
And there was another sobering thought to consider-he was
probably pinned right at the tree's pressure point. Did it
have any spring left in it? If someone disturbed it by
cutting, would the tree butt crash into his chest or head
The question was academic. Nobody was there to do the
But Wyman kept yelling, though without much faith that
was there to hear. Janet, his wife, would not worry until
after dark, when he usually came home. As she put it later,
"The only thing he can't stand is being cooped up
inside-he'll do anything to stay outdoors." And in his many
years spent in die outdoors, Wyman had settled one one
fundamental rule - to fill his tag or switch tactics and try
Now he clawed dirt out from under his leg with his bare
hands. Perhaps he could dig himself out.
Quickly, he was down to hardpan. A stick wouldn't loosen it.
The chain saw? It worked, but three times the chain hit
and flew off of the bar. He patiently dismanded the saw each
time, careful not to lose nuts or bolts, then reassembled
When the saw ran out of gas, he tore it down one more time
and used the bar to continue digging. Finally, he could see
his foot. It was totally inaccessible, smashed between the
tree and bedrock.
Wyman fought the panic that threatens when your last plan of
action has fallen through. All his life, he had been
challenging himself - trying, testing, seeing how far he
could go, what he could survive. One ear he'd hiked into the
Allegheny Forest with a buddy in late February to camp in
minus 15 [degrees] temperatures without a tent. On that
adventure there had been no lack of ideas. They built a
fireplace and heated the rocks all day. Spread on the ground
and covered with a mat of hemlock boughs, the rocks made a
warm platform for sleeping bags.
Wyman had wanted to take the challenge one step further when
small-game hunting was again legal after deer season. He
proposed hiking in without food or tent. But nobody shared
his confidence that, with survival at stake, he could always
be able to come up with that one great idea that would save
Now, however, with tons of pressure bearing down on his
shattered leg, Wyman had no backup plan, no great idea. He
prayed. He thought of his family. He looked around the
thought hard, searching for solutions. In the forest, he
thought, dead limbs-even whole trees - fall every day. So
what would a raccoon do, say, if its foot became trapped
under a deadfall?
He knew the answer: When the foot numbed, the raccoon would
amputate it with its teeth. man had been inned for an hour.
It would be another four or five hours before his wife would
suspect something was wrong. More until someone came
He feared he'd go into shock by that time-and-people die
That was when it came to him. The only answer: "I could
my leg here and live."
Wyman reached for his pocket knife. It had a narrow
three-inch clip blade. He used it for cleaning grease
fittings on his bulldozer, not for skinning. He tried to
his pant leg to see what sort of damage he had suffered. The
knife wouldn't even cut cloth.
Fishing about in the dirt, Wyman found a piece of sandstone.
He began to whet an edge on the blade, just as he'd done on
deer hunts so often before. A lifetime in the outdoors had
taught him that those who give up easily don't succeed. Now
Wyman's steely determination to succeed would be put to the
sternest test it would ever face. With the roughly honed
blade, he slit his pant leg. "When I saw how bad it was,
bones sticking out and my foot smashed, I knew what I had to
do," Wyman said. "I pulled the starting cord out of my chain
saw for a tourniquet. Of course, a tourniquet causes damage
when it's on too long. I tied it right above where it was
really bad so I'd lose as little leg as possible. Then I cut
my skin, sort of scratched it with the knife, to see if
was any feeling. It didn't hurt too bad. So I tried it again
a little deeper. That hurt I doubted I could do it.
I decided there was no other way to stay alive. I got myself
in a determined state of mind, grabbed my leg with my left
hand, resolved not to pull back, and I started cutting where
the bones were already broken. It hurt terribly every time I
hit a nerve or vein. My muscles jumped like frog legs in a
frying pan. But I kept cutting across the top. And then I
up from underneath until the knife came through and I could
"Blood was spurting from arteries, so I laid the chain saw
wrench across the tourniquet knot, tied another knot over
and twisted until the spurting stopped. I gave my leg one
last look and crawled 140 feet up the hill to my bulldozer."
It's never easy to get on a bulldozer. And holding the
tourniquet tight with his left hand, Wyman had on his right
hand and right foot with which to climb. After two or three
futile attempts, he said onto one of the force arms holding
the blade. That enabled him to crawl up the front of the
track and drag himself back to the cab. Wyman started the
engine and threw the automatic transmission into gear. "I
relieved to be on a piece of machinery that could take me
someplace," he said. "My truck was a quarter of a mile
The pickup's four-speed standard shift posed a whole new
problem. Wyman grabbed a file to extend his reach. With it,
he pushed the clutch pedal, got the transmission in first
gear, and left it there to drive.
The first two homes he came to along the road looked
deserted, but a girl was playing in the third yard. "Get
dad," Wyman yelled. "I'm bleeding to death."
John Huber came out of his dairy barn cautiously-he thought
this fellow was yelling like a madman. Finally, to make
himself clear, Wyman raised the stump of his leg. It looked
as if it had been blown off by a shotgun. Huber ran inside
call an ambulance.
"What direction are they coming from?" Wyman asked when
"I don't know."
"Go back and ask the dispatcher," Wyman urged. "It's faster
if we meet them halfway."
Huber came back, now with a clear plan, slid behind the
controls, and the raced off. Incredibly, Wyman asked Huber
slow down so they wouldn't die in a wreck!
At the crossroads, Wyman's clear-headed thinking and
continued. Volunteer fire fighters, a rescue team, beat the
ambulance to the scene. Wyman calmly drew them a map of
his leg could be located. He climbed onto the wheeled
stretcher, but refused a sedative, not wanting to be knocked
out in case someone else got excited and made a mistake.
"I did let them give me morphine at the hospital," Wyman
later. They had to wash the leg and clamp the arteries. Boy,
that hurt! Soon after, they took me to the operating room
did a nicer job than I had. My leg followed me to the
hospital by a half-hour, but the doctors said it was too
late, they couldn't reattach it. In fact, they said it was
probably best that I had cut it off. With all the broken
bones in the leg and smashed foot, I would have been
hospitalized from six months to two years. It would have
taken many operations to reconstruct the bones. Even then, I
may never have walked as well as I do now."
Motivated by Wyman's courage, the Advanced Prosthetic and
Limb Bank Foundation decided he should be one of 100
testing a new technology called "Sense-of-Feel." Sabolich
Prosthetics and Research Center, Oklahoma City, fitted Wyman
with a leg that has sensors on the bottom of the foot. These
devices send signals to his leg muscles, which are still
operating his foot, even though it isn't there. "I know when
a rock is under my foot," Wyman says. "So I can avoid
sliding. And it greatly helps my balance to know when the
foot touches ground."
Just three months after the accident, on Sunday, October 24,
Wyman had been back to work on his bulldozer for a full
By then, he'd astounded nearly everybody in America - except
those who already knew him before the accident. His wife,
son, Brian, his boss, David Osikowicz, and his close friends
were all aware of his strength of character. None were
surprised that he was able to adjust his thinking to do
whatever it took to survive.
A day earlier, the Wyman family had returned to the accident
scene for the first time to sit on the log, the only
remaining evidence of Wyman's horror. Somehow, Janet Wyman
had expected the site to be twisted and torn - as tormented
as the feelings she had about die torture her husband had
survived. Instead, she found only peace and quiet. Rains had
erased the bloody trail Wyman had left from log to
The single sound was a grouse in the distance.
Don Wyman listened in silence as his wife tried
unsuccessfully to reconcile the serenity she saw around her
with the sorrow she felt. She'd narrowly escaped the long
suffering of widowhood. But traumatic as it had been, when
all else failed, Wyman had been permitted this one
heart-rending, lifesaving decision.
And now, like nature itself, he was ready to move on. "I
don't mourn the loss of my leg," he says. "I'm alive and
already getting around pretty well. I'm happy the way things
By December, Wyman and his son, Brian, were hunting in the
Alleghenies again. To no one's surprise, Wyman got his deer.
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