At his parents’ home in Farmington, Justin Stevens recovers from a 25-foot fall from a tree stand 10 days ago. Photo by Phil Luciano.
Hunter faces multiple surgeries after 25-foot fall from tree stand
In a heartbeat, tranquility exploded into chaos for Justin Stevens, as his life tumbled into a free fall.
One moment, he was holding his breath in a tree stand, aiming his bow at unsuspecting turkeys. He readied to let his arrow fly when . . .
The stand collapsed. The screaming Stevens grasped at the tree in a desperate try to stop the 25-foot fall - a distance known to kill or paralyze. But he couldn’t fight gravity. And now he is fighting for his leg
The fall’s impact and compound fractures left his left leg two inches shorter than before, while his left foot shattered like a dropped egg shell. Surgeons have tried once to piece everything back together. They’ll try again this week.
Meantime, six rods pierce Stevens’ foot, keeping it immobile as his body tries to heal. The fit 29-year-old, an active athlete and sportsman, realizes the severity of his injury. Not only might his mobility be forever compromised, but the specter of infection lurks with the threat of amputation.
“I try not let things beat me,” he says matter-of-factly as he wiggles his toes slightly. “You can’t live your life in fear.”
His share of bruises
Stevens runs a small manufacturing company, Phoenix Industries, in his hometown. But since his youth, his passion has been the challenge and rush of sports and the outdoors.
At Farmington High School, he lettered in football and baseball. At age 18, he wrecked a motorcycle, his helmeted head banging to earth - prompting a LifeFlight ride to OSF Saint Francis Medical Center, months of short-term amnesia but no reluctance to ride again.
After college, he continued his active lifestyle. He works out upwards of six days a week, plus looks for pickup basketball games and other activities whenever possible.
A hunter since his teens, he picked up a new challenge five years ago: bow-hunting. He mostly seeks deer in heavy woods owned by a family friend a few miles outside Farmington. There, Stevens set up several metal tree stands, and he often pegs a video camera to the set-up. That way, he later can study and improve his performance.
He likes to hunt alone: less chance of deer detecting human intruders.
“It’s hard to hunt deer with someone else,” he says. “Deer have such sensitive noses.”
On the afternoon of Thursday, Oct. 20, he donned his camo gear and hunting boots. He drove solo to the hunting site, parking his car off Illinois Route 78. Bow in hand, he trod a half-mile through thick woods, to a tree stand he had not used in a long time. He clambered up, about 25 feet, and took his lonely position.
It was about 3:45 p.m. He idled in quietude for about two hours, spotting no chance at game.
Then he saw several wild turkey approach slowly. He flipped on the video camera and got ready to take a shot.
Stevens slowly dropped to one knee. His right knee was on the stand, leg trailing behind him. His left foot on the stand, he braced the bow on his left thigh.
Stevens prepared to let the arrow fly. The video camera - visually trained on just the woods in front of Stevens, including the turkeys - recorded the near-silence of the scene, just light leaf shuffling.
Then, a loud SNAP. A strap on the stand had broken free.
Immediately, Stevens shrieked. He went flying as he frantically scrambled to grab the tree, snatching only air.
“Oh, God,” his mind flashed. “This is gonna hurt.”
He landed on both feet, but the angle blasted most of the force onto his left foot. The impact flung his torso backwards.
He didn’t know it, but his tibia (the bigger lower-leg bone) and fibula (the thinner, inside bone) on his left leg had completely shattered. The force had been so great as to jam his lower leg upward two inches toward his knee cap, with broken bones bursting through his skin in three places around his ankle.
But at that point, flat on his back, all he knew was pain.
“I tried to stand,” he says. “I felt like someone else had control of my body, because I couldn’t move my leg.”
He paused for a moment to assess the situation.
“At first, with the rush of adrenaline, I couldn’t believe I was alive,” he says. “Then pain set in.”
The agony was unreal, far worse that any hit he’d taken as a high school football wide-out, much more intense than the blast from the motorcycle crash.
But it could’ve been far worse. Doctors later said falls of that distance are often are fatal or paralyzing. His workout regimen likely left his body in solid enough shape to endure the impact when he thudded backwards.
“If I had been in any worse shape, I probably would’ve died or broken my back,” he says. “I wouldn’t have been able to absorb the shock.”
Luckily, he had tucked his cellphone into a pants pocket. Even luckier, the fall had left it undamaged. Moaning and gasping, he pushed buttons, calling his father, Brad Stevens.
“Dad!” he yelled. “Come help me! I fell out of the stand!”
The two talked just a few moments. Already flustered by pain, Stevens did not want to keep conversing and risk working himself up further.
“I knew I needed to compose myself,” he says. “The more you stay composed, the better things work out.”
Brad Stevens dashed out the door with his wife, Mary, who had been preparing dinner. As they raced to the scene, they called 911, along with friends who could help look for their son.
Meantime, as Justin Stevens lay on the earth, he rued having not spent $150 for a safety harness for the tree stand.
“I’d been too cheap to buy one,” he says.
Stevens looked around. It was a half-mile to the road, two miles to the nearest occupied house. Sunset was approaching, and temperatures would drop. Further, he had no idea of the extent of his injuries, including any internal bleeding.
His mind paused with the sobering thought: “If they can’t find me, how do I get out of here?”
Stevens tried to crawl. He managed just a few feet, stopped by pain and busted bones.
Then he heard the whistle for the Farmington Fire Department, summoning volunteers. Meantime, other area volunteers, including those with the Logan-Trivoli district, heard the emergency call on their scanners. In all, about 25 rescuers rushed to the area to help.
Stevens heard his father call out, in the distance. Stevens called in return. They repeated their calls a few times, until his father spotted the broken stand. He rushed over to his son.
“I’m on my way, buddy,” he shouted, hustling into the video camera’s view. “You’re gonna be OK.”
A second near tragedy
Soon, friends, relatives and rescuers arrived. They used a body board to carry him through the dense part of the woods, then a pickup truck to motor him to a clearing. There, LifeFlight landed and whisked him to St. Francis.
Stevens stayed conscious the whole time. A morphine drip attempted to ebb the pain, but did little.
With him in the air, his parents quickly stopped at home to grab his mother’s coat. As they opened the front door, black smoke rushed into their faces.
In their earlier haste to get to their son, Mary Stevens had flipped the knob on a pot of pasta boiling on the stove. But frazzled, she turned it not off but up, causing the water to boil and the pasta to burn.
“If we hadn’t stopped at home, the whole house might’ve burned down,” she says.
They turned off the stove and rushed from the smoky house to St. Francis.
There, X-rays quickly showed the broken mess of Stevens’ lower left leg. Surgery was set for the next day.
In a 5 1/2-hour operation, specialists began piecing together the shattered foot. An external fixator - it looks like a cluster of Tinker Toys, though made of carbon-reinforced rods - pierces his foot and leg in six places, setting and aligning the bones with far more precision than a cast.
Aided a little by three medications, Stevens said the foot doesn’t much feel painful, just numb.
Stevens has his own house in Farmington. But to help with his recovery, his parents have set up a makeshift bed in their living room. Luckily, after just a few days of open windows, the house aired out fine, with no sign of the black smoke.
Stevens leaves the bed only to use the restroom. For those trips, he not only uses crutches, but slips on a protective boot.
“The guy who made the boot told me that he sees falls like this about 15 times a year,” Stevens says. “This is the first time he made a boot. Usually, he makes a back brace, because the injury is worse.”
While convalescing, Stevens communicates occasionally with work by computer pad. But mostly he watches a lot of lackluster television.
“I’m not a TV guy,” he says with a frown.
His 3-year-old daughter, Gianna - she lives with her mother in Canton - was shocked to see rods in her father’s foot.
“She knows daddy has a boo-boo,” Stevens says. “At first, it bothered her. She started crying. But she’s getting used to it.”
A second surgery is slated for this week. After that? Maybe rehab. Maybe more surgery.
Fifty percent of the cartilage in his left foot has been damaged. The best-case scenario leaves him limited in terms of impact sports, like running and basketball, but still able to work out.
Another possibility: the extensive damage means surgeons might have to fuse the ankle. That would mean less mobility for the rest of his lifetime.
The worst-case scenario would involve infection setting in. Despite no sign of infection now, there’s no telling what might lurk under the skin. In that case, he would face amputation of the lower leg.
“Worst-case, I’d still be alive,” he says, pausing to glance at his foot. “It looks pretty good.”
While recovering, Stevens keeps the video camera nearby. He lets almost no one see it - especially his mother - but he plans to keep the recording.
“It reminds me of my mortality,” he says flatly. “I have to be a little smarter and safer.”
Days ago, his father took down the tree stand, so no one else would get hurt. But Stevens says it remains usable. And he vows to hunt again, regardless of what happens to his leg.
“It might not be that tree stand. It might not be any tree stand,” he says. “But I’ll beat this.