Tawnie Wigington can remember every detail of July 11, 2010, almost as if it had been filmed in slow motion.
Wigington’s day began as a lark, joining family members for an outing at Twin Lakes Reservoir north of Preston. It culminated in a bizarre accident from which she is slowly recovering, grateful that she is still alive.
“We were just getting ready to head back from camping at Twin Lakes, me and my family,” says Wigington, 41. “I was sitting in the back seat of my van and my two boys were up in front. It was a three-car lineup of me and my family and I was the last one in the line.”
As the caravan moved at a moderate pace down the road, the first two cars passed by a frontend loader off the road to the right. Wigington saw the scene developing.
“The farmer was coming out. It was kind of slow and we were going kind of slow, and I kept telling my son, ‘He’s not looking. He’s not looking at us,'” she said.
Wigington’s son, Tyler, eased the vehicle to the left side of the road, giving the front loader leeway , assuming the driver would surely notice their car after two others had just passed.
“My son was almost down into the marsh on the other side of us and he couldn’t really go any further ,” Wigington recalls. “I says, ‘You’d better hit your horn, Tyler, he can’t see you.’ As soon as he went to hit his horn, it smashed through the side of the van.”
“It” was one of the long metal tines on the loader. Although the speeds were not excessive, the long, tapered tine speared through the side of the minivan with ease, gliding past the 18-year-old passenger, barely scraping him.
Wigington was not so fortunate.
Movies have depicted the scene hundreds of times: The sword duel that culminates in a flurry of parrying before the final thrust, the victor and victim frozen in a final embrace, a tableau set to dramatize the scene.
Now, instead of swords, imagine a piece of metal about the thickness of a woman’s wrist, tapering to a point about the size of the end of your pinkie finger. That was Wigington’s version of the impaling sword.
“I just remember hearing, and then feeling, the spike go through my leg,” she says.
The spike entered the outside of her right leg, about four inches above her knee and kept going, exiting her leg on top of her thigh, but it was not done.
Like the epic sword duel ending , the spike entered Wigington’s stomach and kept going, exiting through her back on the left, above the iliac crest of her pelvis and below her ribs.
And there it stopped.
“I grabbed a hold of the fork and the seat because it was so painful up through my abdomen and my stomach. I don’t remember my leg hurting, but I remember the pain because I couldn’t relax and sit back down in the seat,” she says. “I had to keep myself held up.”
Wigington was skewered, suspended slightly above the back seat, being held painfully aloft by the spike.
“I couldn’t yell, I couldn’t scream. I could talk very quiet (only), because every breath I took, it hurt,” she says.
Wigington’s son jumped from the van, splashed up through the water on the side of the road and began to yell at the driver of the loader, just what she’s not sure. At this point, neither of the boys in the front seat understood what had happened to her.
What she didn’t know was that the collision had moved the van off the side of the road, almost into the water. The loader operator , unaware of Wigington’s impalement , tried to bring the van back onto the roadway.
“The driver of the (loader) kind of pulled the van back up onto the road,” she says. “He had kind of picked it up a little bit and moved it.”
As the loader operator started to move the machine again, Wigington says a calmness descended upon her. She called to her son, alerting him for the first time of her predicament.
“I said, ‘Tyler, listen to me. Tell him not to back out. Whatever you do, he cannot back this out. I’m on it.'” she recounts.
Wigington does not know how she retained her composure at this juncture. In some ways, it might have been that her mind would not allow her to grasp the enormity of her situation.
“I could see that it went through my leg, but I couldn’t connect that it had gone through my lower stomach,” she says, although the pain was centered there.
“When I look back on it, it’s hard to picture me, that I was the person in that van. It’s just amazing the calmness that came over me,” she says. “I had my two boys in the van and I really had to keep it together, because my kids were freaking out.”
Wigington’s voice breaks as she recalls the effect her words had on her son.
“I think at that point, my son realized that, ‘Oh my God, you’ve got my mom on there!’ she recounts. “So he ran and told that guy, ‘My mom’s on there, don’t back it out!'”
As it happened, the accident occurred on her former in-laws property and her former fatherin-law came to the van and saw her predicament.
“He came to the side of the door and he got in the van. I was talking to him. He said, ‘What do you need?’ I said, ‘I don’t know what I need,’ and at that point I started crying. I said ‘I don’t know what I need, but I’m scared. I’m really scared.’
“He said, ‘I know you are. The ambulance is coming.’ “I said, ‘I guess I need a drink of water.'”
Still holding onto the seat and the tine to keep the pain in her abdomen from becoming intolerable , she was too fearful to move her hands to grab the drink of water.
Meanwhile, the van’s stereo was still blaring. She asked her stepson, Colton, to turn it off, but in his panic, he was unable to effectively respond. Wigington calmly walked him through the process of turning off the ignition on the van, which had still been in drive.
“He kept looking back and he kept saying, ‘Oh God, Tawnie , you’re so white! You’re so white!'” she recounts. “I said, ‘Colton, you need to get out of here.'”
Her family members, including her brother and father in the cars up ahead had seen her vehicle slow, but mistakenly assumed the car had simply stopped so that Wigington could chat with her former in-laws. She watched as the cars drove away.
Her son had used her cell phone to call 9-1-1 and then call family members. And then all they could do was wait. And pray.
“I was more or less just saying, ‘God, please help me. Please help me,'” she says. “I wouldn’t allow my kids to come back in the van. I just said, ‘I don’t want you to see me like this.'”
And she waited.
“To me, it seemed like it was taking forever,” she says. “And then I saw the lights of the ambulance clear down the road and I was thinking to myself, ‘Tawnie, just go ahead and go to sleep now. You can go to sleep and everything’s going to be OK.'”
As emergency responders arrived , so did her family members.
“The next thing I know, my whole family’s there,” she says, her voice catching. “They wouldn’t let anyone come to the van.”
But it was one family member who was not able to be there in person who she credits most for staying alert.
“This voice came to me. It was my mom, who’s been dead for, like, seven years…. ” Her voice breaks. “She said, ‘Tawnie, don’t you dare go out, because you’re not coming back.’
“After that, a calmness just came over me and I knew I was going to be OK, like it didn’t matter. I was alert through the whole thing. I remember talking to the nurse, the ambulance (attendants ), the firemen.”
Emergency personnel had a dilemma in deciding how to extract Wigington. The decision was made to cut the loader tine, rather than trying to pull Wigington off of it. The problem was how.
“They knew that a saw or something like that would have moved it too much in my leg,” Wigington says. Ultimately, it was decided that a welding torch would be required. That, too, presented a dilemma, as it would super-heat the spike that ran through her leg and abdomen.
“All I remember is they put a blanket over me and I remember sparks flying,” Wigington says. “I remember tons of water coming down all over my legs. They were trying to keep that (fork) cool.”
Nearly an hour had passed since the collision. Wigington was still suspended above the back seat, unable to relax.
“My hand was still holding on to (the spike) because I couldn’t let go –that would put me down in the seat and that was too painful ,” she says.
But as fearful as she was to remain, she was equally fearful when the lance running through her was cut.
“I thought, ‘It’s going to hurt so bad,'” she says, but her fears where not realized. “I think there were two of ’em who had a hold of it so it wouldn’t move.”
Although the tine was now cut, she was not yet free. The rescuers had to cut away part of the van to get her out in her compromised position with the spike still in her.
“They kind of taped it and taped my leg so that it wouldn’t move at all,” she says. “They cut the back of my seat off. At that point, I didn’t realize the thing had come out my back.”
Carefully removed from the van, she was placed aboard a Portneuf Medical Center helicopter and was soon flying north.
“I remember the nurse in there saying ‘Do you want something for the pain?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I guess.'”
Once at the hospital, the surgeons mobilized.
“I remember going in and them starting to cut off my swimsuit. I was like, ‘Not my swimsuit. I love this swimsuit,'” she says.
And then she remembers very little as the morphine kicked in and the surgeons began to do their job.
When Wigington awoke, Dr. Drew McRoberts spoke to her, filling her in on details, including her lucidity even under sedation, telling him her whole medical history.
“I said, ‘No, I didn’t ,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, you did.'”
Her femur had been shattered. The surgeons had inserted a rod in her leg. And, of course, they had to remove the steel bar running through her leg and gut.
“They pulled that out inch by inch, is what the doctor told me,” she says. “Inch by inch.”
But the amazing thing was that the spike, which had entered her lower abdomen and exited through her back, had done no damage to her spine or pelvis, and had only nicked her small intestine, which had been repaired after the doctors had done exploratory surgery.
Wigington spent three days in the intensive care unit and a week in the hospital before doctors thought her well enough to return home. Because of the open wounds, her leg could not be placed in a cast.
Then began the hard work of healing.
Wigington could not return to her house, as her bedroom and bathroom were up a flight of stairs. Her brother and sister-in-law in Inkom told her they had a ground floor room awaiting her. She gets emotional speaking about it.
“Coming home and having my family take care of me –it’s awesome, don’t get me wrong –it’s just not being able to do for yourself, counting on everybody else,” she says.
On a sunny afternoon this week, Wigington, with the helpful guidance of Sherri Heiner, a physical therapy assistant, is put through her paces, stretching her right leg before being accompanied for a short jaunt outside on crutches. In her white slacks, it’s impossible to tell that Wigington has anything wrong with her leg, other than she still cannot put any weight on it. The shattered pieces of her femur are slowly reassembling.
Wigington shows one scar, a small purple blotch on her back where the end of the spike protruded. Looking at it, it is hard to imagine how the metal shaft did not do her fatal harm in its path through her body.
Wigington sits down and is passed the 11-pound metal spike, holding it for the first time since her accident more than three months ago. The 26-inch piece of metal is burnished to a shine by farm use. The thick end, however , is darkened and rough where it was cut with the welding torch. Its weight and thickness furthers the wonderment how anyone could have survived being run through with it.
Wigington knows how.
“God was guiding it,” she says.
Tawnie Wigington can remember every detail of July 11, 2010, almost as if it had been filmed in slow motion.