Survival Stories: I Was Impaled by a Tree While Mountain Biking
The Outside survival column returns with a shocking story from rural Massachusetts
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On June 6, 2009, Peter Agricola went for a mountain-bike ride in F. Gilbert Hills State Forest in Foxboro, Massachusetts. While attempting to roll through a rocky channel on a downhill section, Agricola, who was 43 at the time, went flying over his handlebars and landed chest first on a downed pine log. He sat up quickly, leaning back against the log, when he saw an explosion of red blooming across his white shirt—he had impaled himself on a five-inch branch and was losing blood quickly.
Here’s his full story, as told to Outside.
It was a Sunday morning, a big lacrosse day for our family—I coached lacrosse, and my kids all play—so I headed out on my mountain bike early so my wife could get a road ride in after I came back. I was riding about four times a week, so I was in great shape, and the ride was going well.
It was a trail that I’ve probably ridden about 500 times. It’s pretty short but really technical, and there’s a downhill section where you don’t brake—really rocky, with some boulders you have to jump over, and a drainage where lots of water runs through. The water is normally about 18 inches deep, and you can hit it on a roller versus jumping it.
But there had been a lot of rain that week, and the drainage ended up being much deeper than I anticipated. I rode through it, my front wheel hit something and stopped, and the bike pitched me forward. I was trying to save it, because I was really afraid I was going to fall on the rocks. But I was too far forward on the bike.
I flew like Superman off the bike and landed on a big, old, downed pine log to my left that had a short branch about five inches long sticking out from it. It hurt a lot and knocked the wind out of me.
I pulled myself up and sat against the log. My legs were sprawled out in front of me. I was trying to catch my breath and thought, Oh shit, what am I going to do here? I thought I had broken my shoulder, because that’s where the pain was. I didn’t know I’d been impaled. I was wearing a white top with blue sleeves. I looked down at my chest and there was a giant red blotch forming there, like the size of my hand. And I knew I was in some trouble, I knew at that point that I needed help. But I was all by myself. There wasn’t anybody else on the trail that morning.
I was struggling to breathe, but I had a lot of adrenaline running and I knew where I was, so I started to walk out. I left my bike on the side of the trail, which was no small deal—it was a $3,000 bike—but I didn’t have a choice. I was able to grab my phone.
Instead of calling 911, I called my wife, which is dumb, but that’s what I did. She dialed 911, told them where I was, and they dispatched rescue crews.
My goal was to walk to my car. Once I got off the trail, it was about a mile-and-a-half uphill walk on a dirt road to get to where it was parked. Initially, I thought I could walk to the car and then drive myself to the state-police barracks, which were only about a quarter of a mile down the road from the parking lot. But now there was an ambulance heading to the parking lot to meet me.
Once I got onto the dirt road, I bumped into a guy who was walking his dog. When I told him I was heading up to the parking lot, he said, “No you’re not,” and he started walking me downhill. He ultimately called 911 as well and told them to meet us in a different spot. And thank God he did, because I was bleeding a hell of a lot. And I was starting to panic. I wanted to lie down. I was tired, and my breathing was still strained. He just talked me through it. The road was rocky, and I was wearing cycling shoes, so it wasn’t easy to walk, but we made it out together.
He told me, “Hey, we’re almost there. It’s only a few minutes.” It wasn’t a few minutes, but his coaxing helped a lot. He kept me upright, encouraged me, and asked me where I lived. I’m not sure if he saved my life, but his encouragement definitely helped.
The police got to us about ten minutes later. They had parked the ambulance in a small lot and sent a truck up the dirt road to find me.
When I tried to get in the truck, I still had my helmet on. I hit my helmet on the doorjamb and fell backwards onto the rocks, on my back. It hurt like hell, but I laughed about it. They decided to walk me down to the ambulance.
By that point, I was really messed up. My breathing was really labored and my shirt was just completely red. I was freaking out because I was so bloody. I still thought, They’ll take me to the hospital, they’ll patch me up, I’ll go home, and I’ll be mountain biking again by Tuesday. I’ve had many injuries, and I assumed this was no big deal. I had no idea how far the branch had gone into me or the damage it had done.
They took me to Rhode Island Hospital, because there’s a level-one trauma center there. When I arrived, it was pretty much all hands on deck. Nobody took my insurance card. It was a weird scene—they would not give me painkillers because my blood pressure was fluctuating, and they feared that painkillers could cause cardiac arrest. That was really hard.
A CT scan showed that I had a tremendous amount of blood pooled in my lungs and chest, so they put in a chest tube—they basically took a razor and poked a hole between my ribs and stuck a tube all the way into my chest. Before inserting the chest tube, they strapped my hands and my legs down. A nurse whispered in my ear: “This will be the worst thing you’ve ever done in your entire life.” She was wonderful, and she also said, “I’ve given birth to twins, and I’ve also had a chest tube. This is the worst pain you’ll ever have.” And it was.
They were able to start draining blood from my chest, and at that point they gave me a minor amount of morphine for the pain, which helped. I remember being awake and joking, “Leave it to me to do this on a Sunday morning.” I still thought they’d drain the blood from my chest and I would go home afterward.
I woke up the next morning surrounded by multiple doctors, including a trauma surgeon, who said they needed to operate right away. I had two serious conditions: a hemothorax, which was the blood in my chest, and also a pneumothorax, which meant there was air outside my lungs in my chest. They did not like the hemo-pneumo combination.
I had surgery that day, and they inserted a second chest tube into my back. I was in the hospital for five or six additional days.
I had a long list of injuries, some of which were still serious at the time of my release from the hospital. I had five displaced broken ribs—that’s when your ribs break inwardly, and that’s what punctured my lung. I broke three lower ribs as well. I dislocated the whole left side of my chest, tearing the cartilage.
The branch on the pine log went far enough into my chest to perforate my pericardium—that’s the membrane surrounding my heart. Doctors told me that, had the stick gone in another centimeter, it would have punctured my heart, and I would have died on the trail.
The stick went into my chest an inch above my nipple, and the wound was about three inches deep. For a wound of this nature, you heal from the inside. They dressed it every day by stuffing it full of gauze. When I got home, I was supposed to have a visiting nurse come every day to dress it. She was unavailable one day, and my sister-in-law, a trauma nurse, volunteered to do it. She took one look at the wound and said, “Nope, I can’t do it.” Luckily, we have a neighbor who’s an ER doc who came over and helped. It was gross.
They dressed my wound for 52 consecutive days. Initially, doctors thought it would take between 90 to 95 days to heal, but apparently I’m a good healer.
Today I’ve got a really good battle scar. I lost a three-inch-by-three-inch section of my pectoral muscle. That section of my chest is not very attractive. But it’s better than dying.