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Military medical student saves his own life after climbing accident

Lt. Michael Polmear extends his left arm perpendicular to his body to show the scar  under his arm that he got from his injury.
By Sharon Holland

Army 2 nd Lt. Michael Polmear was just barely a second-year medical student at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU), when he was forced to save a life: his own.

Polmear and his wife, Stephanie, had traveled to Wyoming to rock climb in Grand Teton National Park. He’d recently completed his Combat Medical Skills (CMS) course and the final module of the first-year curriculum on gastroenterology and hematology at USU. He was looking forward to a well-deserved study break before his summer operational rotation at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, California.

Both experienced climbers, Polmear and his wife started their climb of the Black Dike route on Middle Teton peak in the morning of July 7, 2015. Without warning, a huge boulder fell from above and crushed Polmear’s left arm. Bone protruded through his skin and he bled profusely while all sensation in his left hand faded away.

Polmear’s primary medical experience came from his time at USU and the recent CMS course, but that was enough. He remained calm, and using his good arm, took a sling from his climbing gear to use as an arm brace for stabilization. Next, he built an anchor so his wife could lower him to the ground. The pain was excruciating, but CMS had taught him that applying the tourniquet properly was crucial to ensuring that he did not bleed to death. Finally, he pushed the bone back into his arm as best he could, and wrapped the wound.

Nearby climbers contacted the Jenny Lakes rescue team, and thanks to his training, Polmear was able to use the correct terminology and convey the level of urgency. His condition was “urgent surgical,” meaning he required immediate evacuation and surgery.

The Black Dike route on the east face of Middle Teton in Grand Teton National Park, where  Army 2 nd Lt. Michael Polmear was injured.
The Black Dike route on the east face of Middle Teton in Grand Teton National Park, where Polmear’s arm was crushed by a falling bolder. (Image Credit: Ann Mattson, courtesy of the National Park Service)

After a helicopter evacuation from the mountains, and an ambulance ride once he got to civilization, Polmear eventually reached the emergency room.

Thanks to his studies, Polmear knew the best person to handle his injury would be an upper extremity, fellowship-trained reconstructive surgeon. The ER doctor and radiologist reviewed his X-rays and told him that he might need to have the limb amputated, but the medical student told them “no way.” Polmear’s elbow was still intact, which he knew meant there was a good chance of him being able to keep his arm. They told him, “Worst-case scenario: Walter Reed National Military Medical Center has great prosthetics,” to which Polmear responded: “Yes, but they have a better rehab program.” When he arrived, the surgeon agreed there was no need to amputate.

His arm was in bad condition and the loss of sensation in Polmear’s left hand was due to nerve damage. The surgery took seven hours to reassemble pieces of the bone like a jigsaw puzzle and to reconnect the nerve. The damage to his muscle tissue sent protein into his blood, which caused liver and kidney damage. Thanks to his hematology training, Polmear was able to interpret his blood tests, and realized that this damage meant that too much pain medication could over-burden his kidney and liver. By managing his pain medication, he was able to cut his recovery time in the hospital from eight to four days.

Later, after recovering back home at WRNMMC, Polmear said that being on the other side of the patient/doctor relationship gave him a new perspective. Not only that, the whole experience reinforced his goal: becoming a hand surgeon.