Fishing injury leads to reflection

Last April 21 started like many other days for me.

But it ended like no other day had ever ended before, and hopefully, like no other day will ever end again.

Arriving alone in mid-morning on the northern end of Bob’s Creek near Pavia for what I had envisioned would be a Saturday of ultra-productive trout fishing, all had seemed right with my world.

Three hours later, that world was in shambles.

A fall down a sharp embankment and into the stream left me with a broken right leg – specifically, a fracture of the tibial plateau, which is the upper part of the shinbone running into the knee.

By nightfall, I was facing a serious injury, surgery, and what would be an extended period of rehabilitation. I learned a lesson that day that I had failed to take into appropriate account – namely, that injuries and accidents can truly happen to anybody, anywhere, even when you’re pursuing a pastime that has almost become second nature to you.

Maybe, especially when you’re pursuing a pastime that has become second nature to you.

Underestimating my environment played as big a role in my accident that day as the loose shale and dirt on that hillside overlooking one of the creek’s deeper pools. After fishing from the edge of that pool and catching and releasing four foot-long trout in a just over an hour, I began to yearn for a better challenge.

I had told myself that if I could just scale down that embankment like I had successfully negotiated dozens of other similar-type slopes in my four decades of fishing for trout on streams that run through the woods and forests of this area, I’d be in a type of fishing nirvana.

A large rock flanking the pool would provide a place to sit and plenty of support for me, and more importantly, access to the best and deepest part of the fishing spot.

Work my way down to that rock, fish the afternoon away, and wind up catching and releasing large trout for a good part of the afternoon. That was the plan. But it hardly worked out that way.

Spinning outfit in one hand, fishing creel strap draped over my other shoulder, I began to inch my way down the embankment. But in a split-second, the dirt and stones gave way beneath my rubber hip waders and I felt myself fully at the mercy of what I knew with an intuitively sickening realization, would be a nasty fall.

I had hoped against hope that a few scratches, bruises, and maybe some cuts would be the worst I would get out of it. How I had wished.

I fell into the creek with a crash, went underneath the surface face-up, swallowed some water, and in that fraction of a second, wondered if I might drown. I was relieved to come back up to the top, but the trouble was only beginning.

I knew that my right leg was badly injured. A guy from the Westmoreland County town of North Huntingdon, Rusty Brown – who had been fishing in the area with his wife, Stacy, and their very young daughter – asked me if I was OK.

I told him I was pretty sure my leg had been broken. I tried to work my way out of the stream, but I was barely able to move. I half-expected the type of compound fracture that former NFL quarterback Joe Theismann had sustained in a game back in 1985, and I was relieved when I eventually discovered that my leg just looked badly disjointed.

Looks can be deceiving, though. This was a bad break, and after helping me to reach a good resting spot along the stream, Rusty asked his wife to call for help.

An ambulance crew from Bedford quickly appeared on the scene, and several attendants lifted me on to a stretcher, out of the stream, through the woods and into the ambulance. It may have looked like a scene from the movie “Deliverance,” but with me being delivered into a world of the unknown.

After X-rays at the Altoona Regional Health System Trauma Center that afternoon revealed the tibial plateau fracture, I had an appointment at Elite Orthopedics of Hollidaysburg on the following Monday. Surgery was performed by Elite Ortho’s Dr. Corey Schutt the following Friday at Altoona Regional.

The surgery went extremely well, and a plate and screws were inserted into the leg to stabilize the injury site. But my ordeal wasn’t over. After spending a few days in recovery in the hospital, I was transferred to the Golden LivingCenter-Hillview on Cayuga Avenue for what would be a seven-week rehab stay.

Essentially doing my business on one leg – while wearing a brace and using a walker for balance – for nearly three months was no picnic. Neither was spending my favorite two months of the year, May and June, indoors when I knew I could have been spending them fishing, golfing, running 5K races, going to Pirates games or covering sporting events.

But my initial anger and frustration eventually gave way to a sense of gratitude. And that gratitude helped me in my recovery process as much as anything.

There was gratitude that things didn’t turn out much worse, because they very well could have.

There was gratitude that I wasn’t alone in my ordeal, because I realized that some people are.

There was gratitude for the Browns, who had been in the right spot at the right time to help me out of a very bad situation.

There was gratitude for the surgical team led by Dr. Schutt that had expertly attended to my injury, and to the devoted and skilled physical and occupational therapy staff at Hillview that helped me to do the work necessary to regain my mobility.

I’m now back to jogging, slowly, for more than three miles at a clip – something that was the furthest thing from my mind when I broke my leg and was wondering if I would ever be able to walk right, or drive a vehicle, again.

There was gratitude to my family members, friends and acquaintances – too numerous, unfortunately, to all individually thank here – who had played various and important roles in helping me through a dark and difficult time. My sister, Lisa, was a particular blessing in every way, and my long-time girlfriend, Linda Vaughn, kept my spirits high on a daily basis.

Buddies Bob Muldoon and Denny Mountain kept my morale up with their regular visits and respective contributions of various fishing and baseball reading materials, and Mirror sports department co-worker and pal Mike Boytim kept me laughing, upbeat and updated on the latest events at our favorite newspaper.

And finally, there was gratitude at having firmly grasped the sobering knowledge that nothing can be taken for granted in your favorite fishing spot or anywhere else, because something that you might think can only happen to the other guy can change your life in an instant.

John Hartsock can be reached at