“Life in the Balance,” Ensign, Feb. 1984, 42
At seventeen, our son Paul was a little anxious to experience life, a little impatient to grow up. But he was a good boy with a lot of potential. Like most young men, he had a variety of interests, but his one great enthusiasm became a new motorbike. It became the central thought of his every waking moment, and he searched diligently for one that he thought he could afford. Then, when he finally found one, he badgered us to help him obtain the necessary financing. We finally gave in to his insistent coaxing, and Paul was soon riding his life’s dream.
We scheduled an outing for the following month—an excursion to the Little Sahara sand dunes southwest of Provo, Utah. Those who had motorbikes in our group were told they could take them. Everybody would leave for the dunes Friday afternoon and come home late Saturday. Paul was really excited.
Paul decided to go ahead of the main group early Friday morning with three of his friends—Rex Huffaker, age 20; Doug Cox, age 19; and Dave Huffaker, age 18. They were accompanied by Scott Symes, an adult leader. I knew all three boys well; I had been their Scoutmaster, and they were like sons to me. All were excellent Scouts, having earned the Eagle badge while still thirteen years old. Each had held the highest leadership position a boy can hold in his Scout troop, that of senior patrol leader. They had learned their Scouting skills well, and they were Eagle Scouts in every sense of the word. It was easy to let Paul and his three friends leave a few hours ahead of the other boys and dads who would be leaving later in the day.
Arriving at the sand dunes, the boys were anxious to go for a ride. Hurriedly, they unloaded their bikes and readied themselves to go. The dunes were everything they had dreamed of, and more—a biker’s paradise. The landscape rolled out for miles with hills to climb, narrow winding gullies to follow, and jumps to zoom over. After a lengthy ride and with their gas tanks almost empty, they reluctantly returned to the campground.
The boys quickly wolfed down a lunch they had brought from home and refueled their bikes. After making a few mechanical adjustments, they were again roaring towards the sand dunes.
The ride was fun, exhilarating, challenging. To a seventeen-year-old boy, it was something he would like to spend the rest of his life doing.
Paul was proud of his new bike. It was running well, one of the fastest bikes there. Up and down the hills they went, leaning into turns, jerking on the handlebars to sail through the air as they skipped over the wind-blown dunes.
Then, as he approached one dune, Paul raced his bike as fast as it would go. This dune was larger than most of the others, and he was going to soar over it in style. But the wind over the years had played what was to be a disastrous trick on Paul. It had shaped the dune so that its far side dropped off in an almost vertical descent for more than forty feet. With the bike’s momentum, Paul cleared the top of the dune with ease—then plummeted the forty feet to the bottom.
When his friends reached him he lay in a crumpled heap, his bike crushing him into the sand, its engine now silent. It was a horrible sight. Paul was unconscious, blood running out of his nose and mouth, his face a bluish purple color.
Now, Scouts don’t learn lifesaving skills ever hoping to use them. And because opportunities to use them don’t abound, it takes well-prepared and motivated instructors to teach the lessons and instill the importance of being prepared to meet an emergency that may never happen. As I look back, I thank the Lord that when I was their Scoutmaster, I considered the subject serious enough to ask qualified professionals to provide extensive training for these young men.
The boys acted quickly, almost by instinct, as they began recalling their earlier Scout training. Was Paul alive? They couldn’t tell. Maybe not; he wasn’t breathing. Recalling the first aid lessons they had gone over and over again, they forced his mouth open to clear the air passage so they could give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. He had swallowed his tongue; with some effort they pulled it back into a natural position and cleared the blood from his mouth. Relief swept over them as Paul, his air passage now unblocked, began to breathe.
But his condition was very critical. He was still unconscious and bleeding profusely. The Scout first aid merit badge book says to send someone for professional help. Scott Symes was selected to go. Jeff Duke, a younger boy, volunteered to go with him, and they left immediately in the direction of a ranger station on the perimeter of the sand dunes.
Meanwhile, Rex, Doug, and Dave knew there were still a number of things to be done for Paul while they were waiting for help. They remembered being told how important it is to treat for shock, having heard over and over again as Scouts that shock can kill. Paul’s body was in an uncomfortable, contorted position that made breathing more difficult. Remembering their earlier first aid training, however, they knew that they should avoid moving the victim unless it was absolutely essential. They decided it was. Very gently, with all hands providing support to his head and body, they moved Paul into a more comfortable position that allowed the blood to freely drain from his mouth and made his breathing easier.
In their Scout first aid book they had read that the injured victim must be kept warm. They were fortunate in this regard, since the desert sun was warm—perhaps even a bit too warm. To keep the sun from beating down on Paul’s head, two of the boys held a cloth about a foot over his head to provide a little shade. They decided it would be best to let the sun warm the rest of his body.
Continuing to treat for shock, keeping his air passage clear, and checking his pulse, the boys waited. After about forty-five minutes Paul began to regain consciousness, and the boys’ morale rallied considerably. Determined to help their friend, they gave Paul encouragement and comfort as he repeatedly drifted in and out of consciousness during their long ordeal.
It took two and a half hours for the helicopter and medical team to arrive. (One of the boys later remarked that it seemed more like two and a half weeks.) The professionals now took over. A tube was inserted to draw blood out of the stomach, oxygen was administered, and Paul was placed on a stretcher and readied for a quick airlift to a Salt Lake hospital, some one hundred and twenty miles away. As the helicopter lifted off, a small cluster of somber boys watched it disappear over the horizon, realizing that life was fragile and knowing there was a very real possibility that Paul might not survive.
The helicopter flew to the hospital closest to Paul’s home. A call was made to my wife, at home, notifying her of his condition; she asked her best friend to accompany her to the hospital and provide moral support. I had left for the sand dunes just minutes before, looking forward to an enjoyable outing with Paul.
The hospital staff gave my wife some grim news. He was in critical condition. Immediately she turned to the Lord for help, then called the bishop. When the call came, he quickly contacted a member of the stake presidency and they rushed to the hospital. About the time they arrived, it was decided to call the helicopter back to transport Paul to the larger LDS Hospital where there were more facilities and medical specialists. Hurriedly, Paul was given a very strengthening and encouraging blessing by Bishop Dan Workman and President Gerald Robinson. Once again, the helicopter lifted off with him. Would our firstborn son reach LDS Hospital alive? He had stopped breathing again just moments earlier.
The Spirit and the LDS Hospital staff joined efforts in Paul’s behalf. When my wife saw him again it was in the LDS Hospital emergency room. She was encouraged, for his appearance in thirty minutes’ time had improved considerably. He would make it. The Spirit gave her that assurance.
The medical team that had accompanied Paul to the hospital were heard to tell the hospital staff what excellent first aid treatment he had received on the sand dunes at the hands of his friends. It was agreed, in fact, that the three Eagle Scouts had saved our son’s life. Here were three boys who had learned their Scouting lessons well, and, finding themselves in a situation requiring quick action, didn’t panic.
I didn’t learn about the accident until I arrived at the sand dunes. Without hesitation, I turned the car around and headed back. By the time I arrived at the hospital, Paul was in the intensive care unit and his condition was improving rapidly.
Two days later, Paul was moved from the intensive care unit to a semiprivate room, where the boys who saved his life visited him. Dave Huffaker handed him two large pieces of teeth that Paul had spit into Dave’s hand after the accident. These two boys have great love and respect for each other. Indeed, just a few years earlier, Paul, also an Eagle Scout, nursed Dave when he became gravely ill on a backpack trip in the Wind River mountains of Wyoming. Paul won’t ever forget using his Scouting skills to make a stretcher to carry Dave ten miles out of the mountains.
Today, Paul has completely recovered from the effects of that near-tragedy on the sand dunes. We give thanks daily for our son’s life—and for the three choice young Eagle Scouts whose preparedness made all the difference.