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Pacific Northwest | January 9, 2005Pacific Northwest MagazineJanuary 9, 2005seattletimes.com home Home delivery

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NOW & THEN
PREVIOUS ISSUES OF PACIFIC NW


WRITTEN BY ELAINE PORTERFIELD
PHOTOGRAPHED BY JOHN LOK

Back from the brink: From disaster on the slopes, a new adventure rises
Back From The Brink - From disaster on the slopes, a new adventure rise

   Dr. Douglas Smith examines X-ray images of Witkowski's amputated legs recently during an office visit at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. To stop the devastation of frostbite, both legs were removed below the knee.
Dr. Douglas Smith examines X-ray images of Witkowski's amputated legs recently during an office visit at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. To stop the devastation of frostbite, both legs were removed below the knee.
 

FIRST CAME THE workouts with the physical therapists. After a month, they told him he'd recovered so quickly there wasn't anything more they could do.

Then came the biking. The first time out in May, it was on a tandem. He went solo within a few weeks. Next was the mountain biking, first for an hour, then for a couple hours, then five. His friends had trouble keeping up.

After that, he added tennis. His opponents, thinking they should cut him some slack, considering what had happened and all, sported him two bounces on the ball. But they quickly rescinded the charitable gesture after he began blasting out a new, powerful serve and putting a wicked spin on his return volleys.

The in-line skates came out of the closet by October. He tossed in some golf, too.

Shortly after came the day he had dreamed about all spring and summer — his liberation after all those soul-sapping days in the hospital, after all those endless trips over the mountains from Ellensburg to visit his medical team in Seattle.

On this day, Dan Witkowski skied.

 Smith helps Witkowski up from an examination bed during an office visit. Smith and prosthetist Ryan Blanck, right, are amazed at Witkowski's quick recovery since his five-day ordeal in the Cascade Mountains.
Smith helps Witkowski up from an examination bed during an office visit. Smith and prosthetist Ryan Blanck, right, are amazed at Witkowski's quick recovery since his five-day ordeal in the Cascade Mountains.
 

No, it wasn't a pristine run in the silent backcountry he loved so much. Instead, he skied on a moving ramp covered with worn gold carpet inside a Bellevue strip mall at a place called Mini Mountain. His tips were tied together at first in a snowplow — as though he were a kid on a bunny slope — and an instructor skied backward only a few feet away, murmuring a constant stream of direction.

But he skied. And he did it just eight months after a surgeon removed both of his legs from the knees on down — the consequence of one decision, made in a moment. In that moment, Dan Witkowski made the biggest mistake of his life.

BEFORE HE WENT missing for five days in the snowy backcountry of the Cascade Mountains, Dan Witkowski "was almost a skier first, then a person," his father, Robert, says.

His disappearance on New Year's Eve 2004, the subsequent search for him and his ultimate rescue was, in many ways, the quintessential Northwest outdoor adventure — on steroids. Most searches do not last so long. Most people lost in the wilderness could not survive record-breaking cold with 20 inches of snow falling on them for more than a couple of days, let alone five.

Searchers termed his survival extraordinary, almost unprecedented. The 26-year-old former restaurant dishwasher would be invited to go on Oprah and other national television programs, and would give interviews to reporters from around the world.

His recovery was, in a way, another kind of amazing Northwest adventure. In perhaps no other part of the country would there be the breadth and depth of talent in exactly the areas he needed — from wilderness medicine to trauma care and amputation surgery at Harborview Medical Center to the latest in prosthetics, made with advanced materials and precision-fitted for specific uses, from simply walking to rock-climbing.

 Witkowski formed a close bond with Smith after months of visits at Harborview. Smith, a nationally known orthopedic surgeon, performed Witkowski's amputations and is overseeing his recovery.
Witkowski formed a close bond with Smith after months of visits at Harborview. Smith, a nationally known orthopedic surgeon, performed Witkowski's amputations and is overseeing his recovery.
 

It all began on that New Year's Eve just a little over a year ago.

Witkowski had planned to take some backcountry runs on the last day of the year, then meet up with friends in his hometown of Ellensburg. An experienced extreme skier and sometime ski teacher, he faced the day's runs with the easy confidence of someone who'd grown up skiing Alpental, perhaps the most challenging ski area at Snoqualmie Pass.

He has a gallows humor about a casual remark he made to his father at the beginning of the ski season: "My footwork is really great this year."

He took a chairlift up to a 5,450-foot summit that day, wearing a helmet and the usual gear: gloves, parka and polyester fleece coat, ski pants, a T-shirt and long underwear.

What he didn't have along would turn out to be just as significant: no food, no water, no cell phone, no compass, no emergency equipment. And he hadn't told anyone where he was going or when to expect him back. Worst of all, he broke the unwritten backcountry skier's code when he went outside the designated safe areas. Alone.

On a whim, he decided to take a snowy chute he'd never been down before. When he came to the bottom, he realized he was lost. And the more he tried to find his way back, the more lost he got.

 Robert Witkowski helps his son with his new prosthetic legs. Choosing to be grateful for his son's survival rather than dwell on the mistake his son made, Robert has helped Dan a great deal, driving him from their home in Ellensburg to Seattle for regular medical checkups.
Robert Witkowski helps his son with his new prosthetic legs. Choosing to be grateful for his son's survival rather than dwell on the mistake his son made, Robert has helped Dan a great deal, driving him from their home in Ellensburg to Seattle for regular medical checkups.
 

Over the next few days, he climbed ridges, crossed divides and creeks, traversed basins, shedding gear as he began to hallucinate. He slept only two hours at a stretch and believed he was walking with the spirits of Native Americans who had once lived there.

At first, no one even knew he was missing.

The friends he was supposed to meet called his family home after he didn't show up as planned. Worried, Robert Witkowski drove to Alpental, but didn't see his son's car parked in one of the lots. Believing his son's plans for the holiday had changed, Robert drove home.

But by the middle of the night, Dan Witkowski still hadn't returned, and Robert called the Alpental Ski Patrol.

The search that unfolded over the next five days was massive: 225 people took part, putting in 9,000 hours.

A Ski Patrol crew found him, just a few hours before the search was to be suspended. The rescuer who found him thought at first he was dead. Then Witkowski opened his eyes, and the rescuer shot straight up in the air.

When they slammed him into a helicopter to fly him to Harborview, Witkowski's internal temperature was 85 degrees. His hands and feet were riddled with frostbite, and he'd dropped 20 pounds.

 Technicians Richard Roe, center, and Manuel Moreno team up to pull off a prosthetic mold for Witkowski's new legs. The work was being done at Northwest Prosthetic and Orthotic Clinic in Seattle, a center of innovation in the field of prosthetics.
Technicians Richard Roe, center, and Manuel Moreno team up to pull off a prosthetic mold for Witkowski's new legs. The work was being done at Northwest Prosthetic and Orthotic Clinic in Seattle, a center of innovation in the field of prosthetics.
 

But he'd faced and conquered physical ordeals before. He'd been born with club feet and came home from the hospital wearing casts. By the time he was in high school, he was running on the cross-country team. He hiked, too, and mountain biked. But even then, it was as a skier that his physical grace and athleticism expressed itself most strongly.

He struggles to describe his passion: "It's a combination of speed, catching air. It's really fun. It's play."

When his father first saw him in the hospital, Witkowski was cutting in and out of consciousness. But he was able to get one important thought across.

"His vocal cords were screwed up — he was kind of raspy," Robert Witkowski recalls. "He motioned to me and I got low, and he said: 'You've got to pay my insurance.' "

He'd gotten health insurance at the beginning of the ski season, and there had been a month's waiting period. The day he went down that snowy chute was the first day he was covered.

WHEN WITKOWSKI FIRST met with the media five days after his rescue and discharge from the hospital, it looked like he'd beaten the frostbite. Sure, his hands and feet were covered with blackened patches.

But his hands, at least, continued to improve — thanks to their superior circulation. His feet did not. Within a few weeks, infection and tissue mummification had set in. His toes were amputated in an attempt to save his feet.

 With help from instructor Jim Mercer at Mini Mountain in Bellevue, Witkowski skis for the first time since his legs were amputated last February. Witkowski bought a season pass even before strapping on the skis in October.
With help from instructor Jim Mercer at Mini Mountain in Bellevue, Witkowski skis for the first time since his legs were amputated last February. Witkowski bought a season pass even before strapping on the skis in October.
 

It wasn't enough. The infection raged on; the tissue continued to mummify.

Enter Dr. Douglas Smith for The Conversation.

Smith, a national expert on amputations, could see the big picture. Returning to surgery to take more of Witkowski's feet off presented a number of problems. Better to take both legs off cleanly, the doctor said. That way he could craft residual legs better able to stand up to his patient's intensely athletic lifestyle. The Conversation turned out to be closer to four or five conversations including Smith, Witkowski and his father over the course of a week.

In the end, Witkowski agreed with his doctor, and on Feb. 13, his legs were amputated below the knees. Smith would perform a more aggressive surgery than normal, building a bone bridge between the two lower leg bones, coupled with more extensive muscle reconstruction, for additional stability.

The night before his surgery, Witkowski mused over his decision to go skiing that New Year's Eve. Accounts of his mistakes that day had been broadcast, printed and commented on by countless people around the country. But Witkowski knew he would not, could not, dwell on that. Wallowing in self-hatred would not bring his legs back, would not help him rehabilitate or allow him to live his new kind of life. He had paid a heavy price for his folly. And that was that.

He felt the same way in the months during his recovery as a bilateral trans-tibial amputee. Even the smallest things had to be thought through: He always left a wheelchair by his bed so he wouldn't crash to the floor if he got up to use the bathroom, because he forgot in his sleepiness he'd lost his legs.

And he worked hard at his bike-riding skills because that let him get around town without having to ask anyone for a ride.

 Dan's father, Robert, hugs Rochelle Vos, a nurse at Harborview Medical Center who worked with Dan after his rescue. Dan, at the hospital for a checkup, later joined his dad to pass out homemade cookies to staff members who helped him through his recovery and rehabilitation.
Dan's father, Robert, hugs Rochelle Vos, a nurse at Harborview Medical Center who worked with Dan after his rescue. Dan, at the hospital for a checkup, later joined his dad to pass out homemade cookies to staff members who helped him through his recovery and rehabilitation.
 

Witkowski's parents were there through it all. His dad took time off from his demanding job as head of Community Development for Ellensburg to take his son to all his medical appointments in Seattle. He didn't begrudge the time.

"I thought he was dead," Robert Witkowski deadpanned one day in a drab Harborview exam room. "This works for me." He'd love to say he'd come through the whole experience a better man, "But it's a lesson you have to keep reminding yourself. You become a little bit better person, but you can't become a completely different person. That's unrealistic."

As for his son, Dan Witkowski is still the quiet, almost introspective, person he always was. Like many mountaineers, hikers and other athletes attracted to the wilderness, he prefers to express himself through action, not words. He is comfortable in his own skin, and neither seeks nor needs approval from others.

But he does not hide from what happened. He often wears shorts in public, revealing his prosthetics. He's met with high-school students several times to put it all out there.

"I don't mind talking," Witkowski says.

Still, he doesn't naturally display emotion. Only in private does he talk about his gratitude to his family — how he could not have come this far without them:

"They're giving me space without telling me what to do."

RYAN BLANCK WAS with Witkowski before his amputation surgery and almost immediately after. An ace prosthetist, part owner and director of clinical operations for the Northwest Prosthetic and Orthotic Center on Capitol Hill, Blanck lives and breathes artificial limbs, a specialty that hovers between high-tech science and the hopes and dreams of people who have found their bodies and lives irrevocably changed by a boat propeller, a motorcycle crash, a rock-climbing fall, or a wrong turn on a snowy mountain.

 Prosthetist Ryan Blanck takes a close look at Witkowski's gait using his newly-made composite-fiber legs. These prosthetics are much lighter and offer higher performance than the temporary legs Witkowski used after the amputations.
Prosthetist Ryan Blanck takes a close look at Witkowski's gait using his newly-made composite-fiber legs. These prosthetics are much lighter and offer higher performance than the temporary legs Witkowski used after the amputations.
 

It's an area with amazing development in recent years, but Blanck meets patients all the time who think there's little he can offer beyond a pirate's peg leg. In fact, he often tests advances in prosthetics, some with computer chips, crafted from materials like titanium and silicon.

"What I say to every patient is, 'Whatever you did before your amputation, you can do again within two years,' " Ryan says. "Of course, Dan's doing it within six months."

Witkowski chose Blanck for his recovery even though he initially talked to a prominent national prosthetics firm about signing on as a kind of celebrity amputee poster boy. But Blanck, just five years older than him at age 31, had an encouraging, friendly manner and killer attention to detail; he just seemed like the right fit.

Blanck would fit Witkowski with the Flex Foot, a design descendant of the Seattle Foot, which represents possibly one of the biggest advances in prosthetic limbs ever. Instead of aping the appearance of a real foot, the prosthetic looks more like a giant tongue depressor folded back over itself.

The Seattle Foot was developed in the mid-1980s by orthopedic surgeon Ernest Burgess, who had been on the University of Washington faculty. Burgess, with the help of local aerospace engineers, used a strong, lightweight material from DuPont to craft the foot, which works by storing and releasing energy as the user walks, resulting in a much more natural stride than any other prosthetic foot.

In visit after visit, as the swelling went down in what remained of Witkowski's legs, Ryan would tinker and tinker with both prosthetics to provide the best fit possible. He and Smith would meet with Witkowski at Harborview, both men watching with unblinking concentration as Witkowski learned to walk on them. At first, he had to clutch a set of parallel bars. Then he used crutches, graduating to a cane by mid-spring. Finally, by late spring, he walked unaided.

During each visit, the doctor and Blanck would adjust the layers of padding in the sockets, tighten a screw, examine Witkowski's skin to make sure the tissue was holding up to the stress. Blanck, who has worked with many disabled athletes, would pepper Witkowski with questions: Did he experience swelling after a vigorous workout? Did his feet feel OK on regular bike pedals, or did he need to modify them?

Lately, his prosthetics have felt pretty comfortable. When he wears long pants, someone who didn't know him probably couldn't tell he's a double amputee, so smooth is his gait. Witkowski doesn't think about it every minute now, either, though things are sometimes different when he sleeps.

  sticker on the back of Robert Witkowski's car shows how he feels about his son's survival.
A sticker on the back of Robert Witkowski's car shows how he feels about his son's survival.
 

"I've dreamed I have legs," he says.

In his waking hours, he's making plans for the future. His time with the medical system has stirred an interest in the field; he wants to attend an X-ray technicians program at Yakima Community College. His mother, Maryann, would be content with that, she says, since "school has never come easily to him."

But for now, skiing, which took away his old life, will continue to be the center of his new one. Blanck is already working on a new pair of legs crafted just for skiing.

Freckles standing out on his fair, flushed face, Witkowski had exulted after that first time up on skis last fall at Mini Mountain. "It just seemed right," he'd said. "I want to ski a lot this winter," he added later, immediately launching into a discussion with his father about what kind of ski boots he should wear to fit his prosthetic legs. He confessed he'd already bought a season's ski pass. And he mourned a loss, something perhaps only another extreme skier could understand. It seems his beloved skies were never found after his rescue.

"They were twin-tip powder skies," he said wistfully. "They were some of the first made."

Doug Smith, his doctor, can't repress a sigh when he hears that:

"It wouldn't surprise me if he went looking for them."

Elaine Porterfield is a Seattle free-lance writer who learned to ski in the Cascade Mountains. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.


 
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