Ten years ago, 3-year-old Jacob Feightner fell into the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. By the time he was flown to the hospital, about 45 minutes later, he was frozen and clinically dead.
And after two hours of extreme dedication from emergency services and medical personnel, the frozen little boy was warmed up and brought back to life.
Seeing Jacob open his eyes was a miracle in and of itself, his mother Lori Feightner remembers, but what is truly amazing is that Jacob has no permanent effects from the incident, other than a scar on his leg.
“He’s in ninth grade math, even though he’s only in eighth grade,” Lori said last week. “He’s 13, he plays soccer, loves his iPod, loves to read.
There are no lasting effects other than that scar, and only we can really see it because we know it’s there.”
It’s the best outcome possible for a situation that was truly harrowing. The Feightners, who live just outside Columbus, Ohio, were in the Flathead at the start of a five-week vacation in 2004.
Lori’s husband John and the boys – Jacob, 3, and Jonathan, 5 – wanted to get in a quick canoe trip before settling into camp. She remembers John checking the map and talking with people about the river, but they didn’t know how high the water was.
“I don’t think anybody took into consideration the snowmelt off of the mountains,” Lori said.
She went downriver to wait for their return, and after a while saw ambulances rushing up the road. She prayed they weren’t for her family, but soon an ambulance pulled up and John got out.
“My husband said, ‘Jacob’s gone,’” Lori said.
The canoe had hit a series of rapids, knocking everyone overboard. John was able to throw Jonathan to shore, but couldn’t find Jacob. Someone in a nearby cabin must have heard John’s shouts for help, because a call was placed to 911.
Emergency responders rushed to the river, including Kevin Hammonds, who had just finished a backcountry trek and was at the Halfway House restaurant for dinner when the restaurant’s owner, a member of a local quick response unit, was notified.
Hammond, an avid kayaker who offered to help search the waters, eventually found the little boy hung up by his life jacket on a rock.
Jacob was technically dead – no pulse, no respiratory rate.
Hammond performed CPR until the helicopter arrived to transport the boy to Kalispell Regional Medical Center.
Lori said that before the family arrived in Montana, they stayed in a hotel in North Dakota and watched a TV program about reviving children who had fallen through the ice.
Rescuers will not confirm a person is dead until they are warm and dead, and Lori knew the hospital staff would keep working on Jacob.
When they got to the hospital, the situation was dire – Jacob’s core temperature was 69 degrees. Emergency room physician Dr. Scott Rundle told the family the outlook was bleak, Lori remembers, and a chaplain started speaking with them about organ donation.
But Rundle and the rest of the emergency staff, including registered nurse Derek Starker, kept working on Jacob, slowly heating his internal organs up and using warmed oxygen for his lungs.
After more than an hour at the hospital, Jacob’s heart began beating.
“[The doctor] said, ‘Do you want to come see Jacob? He is responding,’” Lori said. “We walked in and said, ‘Hey buddy.’ He turned his head to us and his eyes were flickering. Beyond that, I don’t remember much.”
Jacob was flown to Spokane, where his overjoyed family drove to meet him.
The coldness of the water saved his life, Lori said. Due to his small size, Jacob’s body was able to essentially shut down its need for oxygen while he froze, she said; had it been anyone larger, even 5-year-old Jonathan, it would have likely meant death or severe lasting effects.
“The water preserved everything,” Lori said.
Jacob had to attend physical therapy because his left hand was having trouble grasping, but that was likely due to being pulled out of the water, she said. He recovered his grasping ability quickly.
These days, the Feightners are able to look back on the rescue without reliving all the fear they had that day. They keep in touch with the medical team who helped save Jacob, and Lori and John have spoken with Jacob about his future, which could be in the medical field.
The amazing rescue in Montana gave Jacob a future.
“Hopefully it has helped bring to light that no, you shouldn’t give up on someone,” Lori said.
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