SURVIVORS: Part of a Colorado Sun series on close calls in the outdoors and life after a crisis
Eight years after Gore Otteson was pinned for 25 minutes under icy water in a mountain ditch, his parents share their story of faith and living without fear.
Amy Otteson cries every so often as she reads her now 10-year-old son the book she wrote, “Giving Up Gore: When Our Worst Fear Became Our Greatest Gift.”
“And he’s like, ‘It’s OK mom,’ and he takes the book and starts reading,” she says.
“Well, I don’t really remember it like you do,” Gore says.
Amy and Dave Otteson used to jokingly refer to some experiences as pre-K — a line delineating their life before kids.
“Now it’s pre-accident,” Amy says.
They don’t want to talk about it. But they do. It’s important to them.
The day Gore died is a day they leaned hardest on their faith. And God delivered a miracle.
It’s a message they will never stop sharing: There is hope. Even without a miracle, God is listening and in control.
“I really do have people contact me from all over … telling me how it has made an impact on them and their lives,” Amy says. “That is not to our glory. It’s to say that this story gives people hope.”
In July 2010, Gore was a rowdy 21-month-old who had just figured out how to flip the latch on the screen door of his family’s cabin outside Gunnison.
Amy turned around for a second and he bolted.
Almost a half hour later, a battery of desperate aunts, uncles and cousins found him. He was pinned on a log at the bottom of a swollen irrigation ditch. He’d been underwater at least 25 minutes. On shore, they started CPR.
Medic Erik Forsythe arrived and immediately scooped Gore up. Defying traditional protocol, Forsythe raced the child to Gunnison Valley Health doing compressions on his lifeless body in the back of the ambulance.
He had been on the scene for less than a minute.
Amy and her dad, a retired orthopedic surgeon, followed. She called Dave back in Golden. He launched a prayer chain with friends from Bear Valley Church.
At the Gunnison hospital, they didn’t warm Gore. As doctors fought for a heartbeart, they called Children’s Colorado Hospital and asked for a helicopter.
The medical flight team in Denver saw Gore’s status and balked at firing up the airship.
“They would not send the helicopter,” Amy says. “They said ‘No, he’s been down too long. He’s gone.’ The nurses and doctors in Gunnison, they were basically told to stop.”
A year later Amy and Dave asked those same doctors and nurses why they didn’t end CPR efforts after Gore had been without a heartbeat for 55 minutes.
“They said ‘You were screaming in the other room and your dad was standing there watching the whole thing,’ ” she says. “They said, ‘Between the two of you, we just couldn’t stop.’ ”
Doctors in Gunnison recovered Gore’s heartbeat and the helicopter came.
Other stories from our “survivors” series:
— “If I can prevent at least one kid from going through what my kid goes through every day, I will do whatever it takes. I have to.”
— “It was like he was an angel”: How a well-prepared ER doctor on skis saved a boy’s life after a mountain crash
— “I had to reinvent myself. I’m back but I’m different:” A southwest Colorado man recovers from a devastating mountain climbing fall
Amy and Dave spent 48 agonizing hours at his bedside in Denver. The team at Children’s Hospital kept Gore cold, locked in a hypothermic coma. His heart was beating, but his brain showed no activity, with a flat, blip-less line running across a sad monitoring screen.
Oh, did they stare at that screen, praying for a blip.
“Doctors would come in when he was being cooled and say, ‘I really wish there was more activity on this.’ We didn’t know if he had any brain function,” Dave says. “They told us there was a less than 1 percent chance that, even if he lived, he would ever walk or talk again.”
After two days, doctors slowly began raising Gore’s body temperature back to normal. And that machine, the one that measures brain activity, the one Amy and Dave never stopped watching, it started beeping.
Gore woke up.
He seemed perfectly normal. His rambunctious self. He grabbed for the breathing tube shoved down his throat, an indication that his brain was telling his arms to get that thing out of there.
He had an MRI scan of his brain. The amazed doctors called Amy and Dave with the results.
“To get that phone call, that there were no abnormalities,” Dave says, choking back emotions a bit on the memory, “it just shocked everybody.”
Amy wrote a book over the next couple years. She called it “Giving Up Gore,” with a focus not just on Gore’s miraculous recovery, but her and Dave’s struggle to trust God in their deepest pain, even if it meant letting go of their son.
“God could have chosen not to save Gore,” Dave says. “We have to give the outcome up to whatever the Lord decides and try to find whatever peace you can grasp in that depth of sorrow. That’s an important piece for us.”
Gore is reading it now. He asks a lot of questions. It’s really his first introduction to his family’s most pivotal moment.
Amy travels the country, speaking at churches and women’s groups, telling her story. It’s a faith-based talk that details a series of events that defy circumstances.
The miraculous sequence begins with Gore being swept through one of three possible culverts in the ditch. Two others were clogged with debris.
There was Forsythe’s decision to rush Gore from the scene immediately and to keep him cold. The doctors and nurses at Gunnison who kept working on Gore, ignoring the apparent hopelessness. The helicopter coming for Gore despite the grim prognosis. The Children’s Hospital team’s non-traditional decision to keep Gore cold for two long days, giving his brain time to heal.
“There are a lot of details where you can see God’s hand in a lot of the nuances,” Dave says.
He points to an array of conflicting studies that weigh the merits of therapeutic hypothermia, which has not been conclusively proven to help patients with brain injuries or who have suffered cardiac arrest.
“The story for us is that this was a modern-day miracle,” Dave says. “That term gets thrown around pretty loosely, but there’s no doctor that can explain the science around how Gore can walk and talk. Even people who don’t believe, they don’t have a clear medical explanation for how this happened.”
Gore’s rescue and recovery marks “a bright spot in my career,” said Forsythe, a former Crested Butte ski patroller who teaches wilderness emergency medicine and now works as a helicopter flight medic for St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction.
Forsythe keeps a photo of Gore next to his desk. In the photo, Gore is sitting next to the irrigation ditch, holding a small cross.
“It’s very much an inspiration to me. Especially after I’ve had a bad day,” he says. “I’ve been involved in a lot of happy stories, but so many don’t work out so well. And really that one gives me hope and helps me keep a good attitude when things are getting hard.”
It’s also helped Forsythe do his job better. When he’s teaching wilderness first aid, he uses Gore’s story as an example of how improvisation and instinct can work in critical situations.
“There are definitely times when the patient will be served best by some creative thinking rather than following the playbook,” he says. “Gore proved that.”
For Amy, her tireless message is to pray boldly and find peace with God’s decisions.
“My mantra is to let my faith be bigger than my fear,” she says. “I really struggled with fear prior to this accident and, certainly, I still do. Gore, he is a very, very daring and fearless child.”
A couple years after the accident Gore swallowed a quarter in the car as the family drove to church. He started turning blue.
Amy was giving him the Heimlich maneuver in the backseat as Dave signaled to nurses they were following. On the side of the highway, they dislodged the coin and Gore gasped.
Dave remembers one of the nurses, a longtime friend, saying “Are you kidding me? This family!”
Last winter Gore told his mom he needed to go faster in the Crested Butte terrain park. He wasn’t catching enough air. The next run, they saw ski patrollers racing to him after he caught too much air.
This summer, Amy relented and let Gore ride the four-wheeler at the family’s property. He was going very slowly, puttering around the cabins when they heard a crash and heard Gore screaming.
“I go running and I see him in the middle of the irrigation ditch. It’s July and it’s full-force and he’s screaming and crying and he doesn’t ever cry,” she says.
He’d rolled the four-wheeler into the ditch. It was upside down, smoking in the rushing water. He’s downstream, perched in the middle of the flow.
“I just lost it,” Amy says.
“He should have been pinned underneath that thing. We don’t really understand how he didn’t get pinned,” Dave says.
“Tell him about the time he jumped off the bed,” Gore’s 14-year-old sister, Ryan, says.
Gore asks Ryan and his older brother, Kirk, about something their friends at school once called him.
“What did they say? Gore is a savage?” Gore says, laughing.“I’ve only been to the emergency room three times, though. So that’s good.”
Gore enjoys this chatter. With a big grin, he seems to relish his rep as a thrillseeker. His brother and sister are much more laid back.
Amy says Gore skis “Mach 90 with his hair on fire,” while Kirk and Ryan “make controlled turns.”
Gore likes to ride his mountain bike down the hill in his neighborhood with his hands in the air. For a few weeks this summer, he wore his new bike helmet all day, every day. On a recent walk to the park with his family, he sprinted ahead, and back again, then ran to his house to get his bike.
“And another thing I think is really interesting,” Kirk says, “he loves to swim. He loves the cold. We still play in that ditch. We get on our boogie boards and go down the river.”
This is the ball of energy God has given the Ottesons, Amy says.
“I could be living my life in complete and utter fear,” she says. “Those things can rule your life. But you can take our story and say hey, we are not really in control of all this.”
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