Guest column: NAU professor hangs by her fingertips near Havasu Falls
Northern Arizona University professor Jean Balestrery had waited years to finally make the 20-mile round-trip hike to Havasupai Waterfalls in the Grand Canyon. As the July 24, 2017, date approached, Jean and her companions prepared for the hike and the few days and nights camping in the canyon, swimming in the blue-green water and exploring the area.
Jean was an avid hiker. With a doctorate degrees in anthropology and social work, and having taught numerous courses in crisis intervention, Jean felt confident in her skills and preparation for the hike and adventure. Her niece, nephew and good friend who worked as a wilderness guide were joining her.
Early Monday morning, the foursome left the hilltop parking area and hiked down to Supai Village. The group checked in for their stay and continued down the trail to the Little Navajo falls. On Tuesday afternoon, they hiked to the world-renowned Havasu Falls where they enjoyed the initial view from the top of the trail before hiking down to the base of the falls.
The group enjoyed swimming in the pools near the base of the falls. Jean left one of the larger pools to enjoy a nearby smaller pool where earlier she had seen others swimming and walking. As she stood to walk across the edge of one of the pools toward the opposite river bank, the unexpected strong current suddenly swept her feet out from under her and within a split second, she found herself grasping to a slippery edge. Jean tried to pull herself up and back over the ledge, but the current was too forceful. She could see her friend running toward her to help but could not hold on and dropped to the fast-moving water far below.
Jean recalls the traumatic event:
“As water slammed me down, the incredible force of the current on top of my body was like a monster. As my body hit the bottom of the deep pool, all I knew to do was thrash my arms, get out of the current and swim upwards. I finally surfaced. I looked at the falls and literally said aloud, ‘that was my life!’
“My friend was yelling at me to swim to him as he extended his hand and then helped me pull myself more than three feet up a ledge and out of the water.”
There was blood in the water and her left foot was literally dangling to the left, a visible deformity. Jean could barely move. Her friends and other hikers carried her on a cot up to the upper trailhead above the pools and falls to wait for help. Nearly an hour later, the village doctor arrived via an ATV.
Jean was helped onto a metal stretcher, which was strapped on the back of the ATV for the two-mile, 30-minute bumpy crawl up the trail to the small clinic. As she laid on the exam table, Jean realized just how fortunate she was. Not only could she have drowned but she could have been more severely injured, and now it was time to get to a hospital.
“As a crisis intervention instructor at Northern Arizona University and with my doctorate degrees in anthropology and social work, I knew it was up to me to manage my own crisis and to navigate the challenges associated with getting out of the canyon,” Jean said.
Approximately four hours after the fall, a Department of Public Safety helicopter arrived to transport her to the trauma center at Flagstaff Medical Center.
Tests revealed Jean had a compound ankle fracture, broken heel and dislocated ankle, as well as numerous cuts over her body. Shortly after arriving at the hospital, orthopedic surgeon Darius Moezzi, M.D., performed the first of three surgeries on Jean’s ankle to clean the wound, splint the broken bones, and put the dislocated bones back in place. Dr. Moezzi specializes in sports medicine and is a physician with Flagstaff Bone & Joint.
Moezzi also applied a wound vac — a special device that uses negative air pressure (like a vacuum) at the wound site to help remove infectious materials, remove blood and fluid, draw the edges of the wound together and stimulate the growth of new tissue — to help start the healing process.
The following day, Jean met Orthopedic Traumatologist Brandon Clark, D.O., and physician assistant Mike Brown, P.A.-C. Both Dr. Clark and Brown practice at Northern Arizona Orthopaedics, and care for patients at Flagstaff Medical Center.
An orthopedic traumatologist specializes in treating traumatic injuries to bones, muscles and soft tissues (ligaments, tendons) and reconstruction. Clark moved to Flagstaff and joined Northern Arizona Orthopaedics in 2016.
“Given the severity of the injury and the large open wound that had been contaminated by the river water, we had to perform a second surgery to further clean the wound, evaluate the bone and joints, and surgically close the large wound on the inside on the back of the left foot,” Clark explained.
“For the next five days, Jean was given IV antibiotics and underwent strict elevation protocols for her foot to help the swelling in her leg and foot to decrease. She was going to need at least one more surgery to repair and reconstruct her heel.”
Less than a week after her second surgery, Jean was back on the operating table. This time Clark was performing surgery to get the heel in proper alignment and orientation to the leg and foot. The goal was a straight and strong heel and ankle.
“In my numerous years in surgery, this was the first time I have seen a calcaneus (heel) fracture with this much bone loss and degree of contamination,” Clark said.
Just eight days after the fall, Jean was able to leave the hospital and begin the long rehabilitation process. She needed help at home and could not put any weight on the ankle for several months.
“Dr. Clark had the expertise to put me back together again and he did,” Jean said. “Then it was all about physical therapy to get me walking again.”
More than eight months after the traumatic fall, Jean is still doing intense physical therapy. It may take up to two years of consistent therapy to gain full mobility of the ankle.
“I often heard PT meant pain and torture,” Jean said. “But for me, PT means perseverance and trust. I am so grateful for my physical therapists who have worked with me and encouraged me throughout my rehabilitation and recovery. I know there are no guarantees, but with continued hard work, I plan to fully recover.”
Jean says she’s had very little pain, except during physical therapy and as she works to stretch the scar tissue, both of which help her increase flexibility and the strength needed to walk as she did before the fall.
“If it was not for Dr. Clark, Mike Brown, Northern Arizona Orthopaedics, Flagstaff Medical Center and DeRosa Physical Therapy, I literally would not be able to walk; much less, walk as well as I do,” Jean said. “I am so grateful for everyone’s care in getting me back on my feet again, although I may avoid waterfalls from now on.”
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