JOSEPH — It was a tragic accident that nearly cost him his life — or at least a leg — but Joseph Charter School cross-country runner Keelan McBurney isn’t letting it keep him down by any means.
It was May 15 when McBurney, then 15, had gone to visit a friend who lived about three miles south of Joseph on the back side of the west moraine. He decided to keep the friend, who was the same age and has since moved out of the area, anonymous.
“About 45 minutes later,” said his mom, Chantay Jett, “I get a call from his friend who is so distraught that he’s not able to speak on the phone. I could hear Keelan in the background and he said, ‘Mom, I’ve been in an accident. I think I broke my leg. It’s really bad, you need to come immediately.’ ”
Jett said that the two had driven the friend’s mom’s car down the driveway to the mailbox and upon returning, McBurney was guiding the friend into a parking spot at the house when the friend thought he had the car in reverse, but it was in drive. The friend hit the gas, panicked and hit the gas harder and pinned McBurney to the house, crushing his left leg.
“The license plate of the vehicle actually severed Keelan’s leg and the impact broke the tibia and the fibula and dislocated the fibula, as well, and cut the femoral artery,” Jett said. Another artery and a ligament that connects to the knee also were severed.
Because the arteries were severed, “He was bleeding profusely,” Jett said.
As she was heading out to get McBurney, her husband, Lem McBurney, arrived home. A part-timer with the Wallowa County Sheriff’s Office, the elder McBurney asked if his son was bleeding.
Jett had called the Wallowa Memorial Hospital to alert them that they’d probably be there in about 20 minutes.
“I didn’t even think to ask so I called the boys back and I said, ‘Keelan, are you bleeding?’ He said, ‘Mom, my shoes are filled with blood.’ ”
As the McBurneys arrived it was getting dark and they could see their son laying in the driveway on his side in a pool of blood.
“As I was saying, ‘We need a tourniquet,’ my husband was taking off his belt,” Jett said.
The tourniquet was applied above the left knee, where it would stay for more than seven hours.
The first emergency personnel to arrive were from the Joseph Fire Department, Jett said.
“They were amazing,” she said. “My understanding is they have been having some training given by the hospital on lifesaving techniques and they were just nothing short of expert the whole time.”
They got his clothes off, onto a clean sheet, a back brace and a neck collar because they weren’t sure if there were neck or back injuries. Soon, a two-person ambulance crew arrived from the hospital.
“Since there were a lot of us, we decided we could lift him into the ambulance because the driveway’s really steep and a gurney would have been difficult,” Jett said. “But we didn’t even go to Wallowa Memorial Hospital, we just went right to the Joseph airfield and jumped on a LifeFlight to Walla Walla (Wash.)”
At the hospitals
There they gave McBurney a full-body MRI and did a vascular assessment. The hospital staff determined damage was limited to the left leg, but because of the vascular damage, decided he needed to go to Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, Wash.
“Because of Walla Walla’s fantastic assessment, they were able to assemble three surgical teams in Spokane who were waiting for us and they took Keelan back for the first round of surgeries that was about seven hours,” Jett said. “That’s where they did about eight vascular grafts — they took two donor veins from his right leg and they repaired his left. Then the orthopedic team came in and put pins in his knee to stabilize it. Then they fashioned what’s called an ‘external fixator’ to his leg.”
The external fixator consists of two rods that run the length of his legs connected by bolts to keep the leg stable. It remained in place until near the end of his 20-day hospital stay.
The worst of his scars, at present, is the result of one of the operations where surgeons did a fasciectomy, a surgical procedure where the band of tissue beneath the skin is cut to relieve tension or pressure commonly to treat the resulting loss of circulation to an area of tissue or muscle.
The limb-saving procedure allayed the McBurney family’s worries about the boy possibly losing a leg.
“We were worried about him losing his leg,” Jett said. “The surgeon told me before they took him back for the first surgery, he was past the point of when they would normally amputate someone’s limb. Usually it’s about six hours in a tourniquet then tissues start to die and there’s a lot of blood loss … but because of his age and because he’s an active runner, he has a lot of oxygen in that blood that kept pumping and really keeping all of that flesh alive, which was really exciting because he was at about 7½ hours in a tourniquet, which is a really long time. … We were really ecstatic when they came out of surgery and said, ‘He’s fine, we’ve saved his leg.’ ”
McBurney, too, was worried at first. During the LifeFlight trip, he even thought he might die, he said.
“I didn’t know if I was going to make it at first, but I would’ve been completely OK if I didn’t,” he said. “I felt prepared that (death) could possibly happen. I mean, I’m terrified of death, personally.”
But while in the hospital, at first, he was too anesthetized to think much about it.
“I’m not really sure,” he said. “I’d just gotten out of seven surgeries so I was pretty loopy, but then I was pretty positive except for one time when I was so loopy, I got into an uncontrollable state of rage, I started throwing things everywhere and cussing and screaming.”
To this, his mom retrospectively chuckled nervously. She said such a condition is known as “ICU delirium.”
Finally, after nearly three weeks in the Spokane hospital, the McBurneys were able to bring their son home June 3. And they came home to a community that welcomed them with open arms.
Jett said Lisa Collier organized “a parade, if you will,” with a police escort from the Lewiston Highway all the way to their home in Joseph. People were cheering and waving all along the route.
She said at Eggleson Corner, a number of people were waving signs and emergency vehicles — including the Joseph Fire Department — added to the escort.
That latter group was important to McBurney.
“They gave me a new shirt,” he said. “They’d ripped off all my clothes” at the time of the accident.
“People were out along the highway and gave us one of the best receptions,” Jett said.
Given the timing of the accident — schools were already closed for the COVID-19 pandemic —McBurney missed only a month of school. The now-sophomore at JCS said he made up missed work in about a week and a half.
“All the teachers said I did fantastic on all the work that I had to make up,” he said.
McBurney continues physical therapy — mostly various workouts and stretches — as well as regaining his activity. Needless to say, the accident put a crimp in his participation in cross-country this year.
“Yes, it has, but I know for a fact I’m going to be back next year and I’m going to be better than ever,” the determined youth said.
He’s also gotten back into some of the outdoor activities he loves. While he hasn’t been able to water ski or wakeboard this year, there’s been no shortage of swimming, fishing and other less-taxing activities. But he plans getting back to them.
“I get my excitement by doing risky stuff,” such as cliff diving or jumping on a trampoline, he said.
“He’s a super-active kid,” Jett said.
But despite the trauma — both physical and emotional — to all, Jett is keeping her “mother bear” instincts in check, having watched her son grow into a responsible young man. She’s even encouraged him to become active again, insisting he drive since he got his learner’s permit and to do physical activities he feels up to and safe doing.
“I think at times I actually push him to do the things I know he can,” she said. “He’s been a bit tenuous about approaching things — he gets scared.”
McBurney agrees Mom has been an encourager.
“She’s let me be very independent,” he said. “Even before the accident, she let me be independent and none of us thought that would ever happen. She knows I’m a pretty responsible teenager.”
As for the future, following high school, McBurney hopes to get his pilot’s license and attend college Reserve Officer Training Corps before a career in the U.S. Air Force. They haven’t yet determined if his injuries could put a crimp in military service, but they’re confident it won’t.
“We’re hoping that on full recovery, there won’t be any limitations on him getting into the Air Force,” Jett said. “We’re just really confident and just moving forward every day … taking every day as it comes.”
Overall, she said, the response from the Wallowa County community has been overwhelming.
“I don’t think we could express how grateful we are to the community for their outpouring of love and support and affirmations — and food. We were part of a meal train,” she said. “There were days when I couldn’t even think about food and at 6 p.m. some happy person with a plate of delicious food would be at the door and it was just a godsend. We are so grateful to live where we live.”