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Choosing life over limb

January 10, 2002|By DARREN SIMON, Staff Writer

Daniel Olivas can't remember everything that occurred the morning of Nov. 20 — a day on which one misstep changed his life.

He does remember the moment his left leg slipped into a feed-grinding device called an auger in a feed yard in Brawley.

He remembers calling for help as the auger pulled his leg deeper and deeper, crushing it and tearing through muscle and bone.

He can remember feeling alone as he waited for help and he can remember the agony as the machine swallowed his leg and threatened to take his life.

What the 21-year-old Olivas, of Imperial, cannot remember is the coordinated effort to save his life — an effort that led to Olivas' leg being amputated at the scene and that gave Olivas a future he might not otherwise have had.


On Wednesday, Olivas had a reunion at Pioneers Memorial Hospital in Brawley with the doctors, nurses medical staffers and paramedics who faced a medical emergency none will forget.

Olivas wanted to meet with all those who came to his rescue to thank them, and, in some way, learn what they had to do to save his life.

Olivas was ready to listen.

The depression has passed and the time to heal and look toward a new future — one that will include a prosthetic leg — has begun.

"I want to say thank you to all these guys," Olivas said as he sat in Pioneers next to Dr. Francisco Tirol, the 66-year-old surgeon who amputated Olivas' leg at the scene.

The paramedics, nurses and other medical staff involved in the case sat close as each spoke of the events of Nov. 20 — a day that started like any other.

Olivas, a truck driver, was in the Foster Feed Yard in Brawley to drop off some corn when he somehow stepped or slipped into an auger.

The device was quick. It pulled in Olivas' left leg up to his upper thigh.

"I knew they would have to amputate my leg," said Olivas, who can now offer a slight smile as he recounts the story. He still is sad about the loss of his leg, and it still hurts, but he is happy to be alive.

As medical crews arrived, among them Gold Cross Ambulance Service paramedics Alfred Galaviz and John Bisi, there was hope Olivas could be freed.

But crews quickly realized there was nothing they could do to extricate him — a doctor was needed to remove the leg if Olivas was to survive.

"It's a life over a limb," said Bisi, who was at Wednesday's reunion along with Galaviz.

The paramedics provided Olivas with an intravenous line, gave him morphine and hooked him up to a monitor to check his heart rate.

Bisi got behind Olivas and used his own body to provide support to Olivas, who could not sit down because of the way he was trapped in the machine.

Galaviz credited the county, Brawley and Holtville fire departments, all of which provided support at the scene.

He also said Olivas had a large crucifix. "God was with him."

Olivas agreed, "He was."

Crews called the local base hospital — El Centro Regional Medical Center — and requested Mercy Air be called to the scene.

The calls were overheard by medical staff in the emergency room at Pioneers. Letty Duran, an ER health coordinator, and Robyn Atadero, a registered nurse and nursing supervisor in the ER, were on duty.

"We could hear him (Olivas) screaming and we knew they needed help," Duran said.

Duran and Atadero went to work trying to locate a surgeon who could respond. They found Tirol, who had just finished his third operation of the day at Pioneers.

Tirol took the call and while Duran and Atadero secured an ambulance and the medical equipment Tirol would need, the doctor started to gather up his surgical team.

Joining him in responding to the feed yard were Dr. Edward Cabrera, an anesthesiologist, Linda Diaz, a registered nurse in the Pioneers operating room, and Frances Carvajal, a licensed vocational nurse in the operating room.

Tirol said he understood what he was facing before he arrived at the scene.

"I knew his leg was crushed before leaving (the hospital)," said Tirol, who spoke with both compassion and excitement at the "community" effort it took to save Olivas.

Tirol added, "This is a case that does not happen every day. When it happens your priority is to save a life. You have to know your priority. You have to know the difference between success and failure.

"If I fail, this man loses his life," Tirol said, adding his medical team had to move the surgical room to the field.

Since the amputation was going to happen in the field, Tirol called off Mercy Air. He said unless there was a doctor on board, there was little the air transport team could add to the operation.

There was one key goal — to save Olivas — but there were other goals, too. While the leg had to be amputated, Tirol wanted to keep enough of the thigh to help with a prosthetic leg.

He also had to be careful how he cut the leg. A wrong cut could have caused Olivas to bleed to the death at the scene.

Once Olivas was put to sleep, Tirol went to work using a scalpel to cut through tissue. He then used a medical saw to cut through the bone before returning to the scalpel.

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