What are the odds that a physician would be riding his mountain bike in the remote Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Trails in Crow Wing County, Minnesota, at the exact same moment that another biker a few miles ahead, was fighting for his life after taking a nasty spill?
Biker Jesse Coenen usually rides the rugged Cuyuna Lakes trail to unwind after spending his shift as an emergency physician at the Hayward Area Memorial Hospital in Wisconsin.
“Mountain biking is an activity that I enjoy, which is why I happen to be in that spot that day,” Coenen acknowledged.
Ironically, that stress that motivated Doctor Coenen to get on his mountain bike the morning of September 12th, 2021, also motivated Todd Van Guilder. Todd worked in an equally stressful environment as an Eagan, Minnesota, corrections officer. “It’s a huge stress reliever, just with the nature of my job,” Todd confided after the accident.
The emergency medicine physician from Wisconsin happened to be on the same Minnesota mountain biking trail when a stranger named Todd fell down a ravine. https://t.co/5zGX7gPveZ— Brea Douglas (@BreaWVTM13) September 24, 2021
Van Guilder was biking with friends when he misjudged how close he was to the edge of the trail and his wheels began to skid off the trail. The trail sloped downward towards a ravine, and Todd suddenly found himself speeding downhill.
Without thinking, Van Guilder instinctively leapt off the bike “in Superman fashion” with both hands out in front of him, hitting the ground hard and landing on his chest and stomach.
Van Guilder recalls, “How I got away with no broken ribs or bruises or fractured ribs is beyond me, because when I landed, it wasn’t like I was sliding into second base. It was a pretty good impact.”
When he attempted to sit up, he saw a strange flashing white light, similar to that of a strobe light photographers use. When he squeezed his eyes shut to make it stop, all he could see was white.
“It’s hard to explain to somebody who’s never experienced this,” he said. “This was like the brightest white light that you could ever see. Not to, like, preach religion or anything to anybody, but when you stand at the gates of heaven or whatever, and you see the bright light, that’s pretty much what it looked like.”
Semi-conscious, Van Guilder could hear his friends attempting to revive him. One of them decided to call 911, and within a matter of minutes, an emergency team was on site attempting to aid the stricken biker. Frantic and confused, he began flailing away at his rescuers.
“They talk about somebody who’s had trauma, where they go into that fight or flight mode? Well obviously, I was in fight mode,” Van Guilder recalls.
It was at that precise moment that Doctor Coenen came upon the scene. He had originally planned to bike on after seeing the emergency team administering first-aid, believing that Van Guilder was in capable hands. Then he realized that, although the paramedic had tried to administer oxygen to Van Guilder, something was blocking his airway.
Coenen recalled, “After handing over the oxygen tank, I did not initially introduce myself as a physician. But after listening to the conversation and realizing that they were discussing medication dosing in preparation for intubation … that’s how I realized that my skill set could be helpful. That’s when I joined the group.”
The physician continued, “Unfortunately, his oxygen level got worse and it lowered to a point where I was concerned that he was at risk of having a cardiac arrest. That’s when I realized that we were going to have to do whatever it took to get oxygen into his lungs.”
At that moment, Doctor Coenen decides he must perform a life saving, trailside tracheotomy. Borrowing a worn surgical glove from one of the paramedics, the doctor turns the glove inside out as another paramedic hands him a scalpel.
“This is a procedure that I have studied over and over and that I review on a regular basis and that I’ve performed on mannequins as well as animal models, but never on a live person,” Coenen stated.
The surgery was a success. “Within moments, his oxygen level started to rise,” Coenen said. “That’s when I took a sigh of relief, I think.”