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NIH Record

Comparatively Mild Challenge
NIH Runner with Disability
Tackles Marathon in Antarctica

By Rich McManus

On the Front Page...
When NIH licensing specialist and patent advisor John Fahner-Vihtelic journeyed to Antarctica Feb. 18 to participate in what some call the most difficult race on Earth -- the Antarctica Marathon -- it was far from the most grueling physical trial he has ever endured in life. Not by a longshot.

That distinction belongs to the 16 days the former Green Beret medic spent trapped alone in a wrecked station wagon at the bottom of a ravine in a desolate forest in Washington State. Having survived that, a 5-hour race across the White Continent, even on an artificial limb, poses no particular obstacle to Fahner-Vihtelic.

On the eve of his trip to Antarctica, OTT's John Fahner-Vihtelic relaxes in his World Team Sports jacket.

These days, the 48-year-old father of two who has worked for the Office of Technology Transfer since 1992, has a mission that goes beyond the trials of physical endurance, including triathlons and marathons, to which he has become inured: "It's very important for me to get the message out that we as humans have the ability to think and have hopes, and we can overcome physical obstacles. Our brains, our reasoning ability are more than enough to overcome our problems."

That attitude impresses -- indeed characterizes -- World Team Sports, the group that is sponsoring Fahner-Vihtelic in the Antarctica Marathon, and whose largesse allows him to afford the 2-week trip. "World Team Sports is an organization dedicated to bringing awareness to all people that they can accomplish any challenges," he explains. "It's a very inclusive organization."

This is his second major excursion with WTS; in 1995 he participated in World Ride '95, an around-the-world bike ride -- half of whose participants were people with disabilities -- that garnered the attention of CBS News. Fahner-Vihtelic was part of a 1½ hour special narrated by Charles Kuralt during his 1,600-mile trip between Irkutsk, Russia and Beijing, China, via the Gobi Desert.

"It wasn't the distance" that made the trip difficult, he relates, "it was the terrain. Two-thirds of it was off-road. We simply followed power lines across the desert."

He was also punished by painful sores on his residual limb. But, in characteristic fashion, he set about creating a better prosthetic that relieved pressure on the left leg.

Fahner-Vihtelic is a born tinkerer. A practical, hands-on type of guy. Reared in Whitehall, Mich., he grew up rough-and-tumble with six brothers, all of whom relished sports and the outdoors. He spent 3½ years in the Army, joining the prestigious Green Berets, who undergo rigorous training including advanced survival tactics and unconventional warfare. Fahner-Vihtelic trained as a medic, emerging from the service as a dialysis nurse.

"I'm very equipment-oriented," he admits. "I would always be tinkering with the machines, trying to improve their performance."

This penchant for mechanics earned him his first civilian job with Becton-Dickinson, a manufacturer of medical equipment. It was while training in Portland, Ore., for a position back East with B-D in Philadelphia that Fahner-Vihtelic endured the fortnight that changed his life.

He borrowed a company car for a weekend visit to Mt. Rainier on Saturday, Sept. 11, 1976. Instead of returning to Portland after a day of hiking on the mountain, he decided to treat himself to Mt. Hood, a route to which he traced out on a map via wilderness roads through Gifford Pinchot National Forest. On the way there, rounding a hairpin turn in the mountains, he veered onto a shoulder which, inexplicably, gave out beneath his tires, sending him plummeting 150 feet down a steep ravine toward a creek.

The Mercury wagon landed upside down just a dozen feet from the stream. Fahner-Vihtelic, who was not wearing a seatbelt, found himself trapped, ironically, in a sprinter's stance, belly-down and facing the tailgate. A pine root had pierced the car's windshield, pinning his left foot to the dashboard. Writhe as he might, he couldn't get free.

"Essentially, the weight of the car was on my foot," he recalls. "Relying on my medical training, I first checked myself out for massive bleeding to see if I was going to die immediately. Then I addressed the situation of my foot being stuck. I had some minor cuts, but nothing life-threatening."

As his panic subsided, a cool rationality pervaded. He knew he was so far down the ravine that no one could see him from the road. From his Green Beret training, he knew he needed water to survive. At about 180 pounds, he also knew he could do without food for up to a month, "but of course you can't live without water for that long."

In retrospect, he divides his captivity in the car into three parts.

"For the first 3-4 days, as I heard cars going by on the road above, I felt that any moment I'd be found," he remembers. When he slept, he dreamed of being rescued by friends and family. Then he would awaken to the anguish that not only was the dream untrue, but also he couldn't be seen by any rescue vehicles. And he was too far down for yelling to be of any use.

Around the fifth day, he noticed swelling in his neck glands and around his eyes, which almost squeezed shut. "I began to realize that I had to get out by myself," he says. Temperatures, fortunately, remained above freezing in the forties, he recollects. "I never got real chilled, but I never got real comfortable, either."

What he would only later discover is that the swelling resulted from a punctured lung; air was filling the interstitial spaces in his body when he hollered for help.

During this middle period, his practical nature kicked in. "I pulled out all the wire I could reach in the car, including the strings from my tennis racket and the cord from my sleeping bag." Fashioning a stick from junk scrounged from within his limited reach, including steel springs that formed the headliner in the car's ceiling, he tied on the length of wire and string to make a sort of fishing pole. Tying a balled-up cloth to the string's end, he casted into the stream below, literally "fishing" for water.

"I had to clear a bush in order to reach the stream, so I slowly had to perfect my casting technique so the cloth would land in the water." He would do this dozens of times a day, reeling in the drenched rag and squeezing its dirty contents into his mouth. Occasionally the string would snag or break, forcing him to make repairs. "It became a part of my routine."

Because his eyes were so swollen during this middle phase, Fahner-Vihtelic couldn't monitor the condition of his crushed foot; he simply couldn't see it. He focused almost exclusively on getting and using tools.

The thought of dying there in the woods occurred intermittently, but he fought such notions with utmost rigor.

"I just couldn't think about (death)," he declared, stiffening. "It's not productive, it's not a survivor's way out. To survive, you have to think about only two things -- working on a plan to get out, and executing that plan. You have to be doing something constructive. It's not unlike research, or other difficult challenges."

When mortal cares intruded, "that's the time I started looking for more wire, or more water."

Advances in his struggle to get free came in painfully slow increments. Ironically, he could hear trucks passing above him, some of which were road repairers fixing the shoulders that had been his downfall, others of which were rescue vehicles searching in vain for him.

Eventually, he managed to nudge a tire iron within reach. He yanked the sideview, rearview and vanity mirrors from their moorings and tied them to his tennis racket frame. During the 2-3 hours a day the sun reached the ravine, he practiced signaling by trying to trail birds in flight. He would flash desperately whenever he heard a vehicle passing above, but to no avail. "I was extremely disappointed that I couldn't get their attention."

Meanwhile his family and employer were searching desperately for him; it was totally out of character for him "to just split." His family knew generally where he was headed because he had spoken with his sister by phone the morning he hiked on Mt. Rainier, but no one knew that he decided to go south to Mt. Hood. Rescue teams in cars flooded the mountain roads -- scouts mounted on hood and trunk -- scanning for a sign of life.

Unseen below, Fahner-Vihtelic managed to settle into something of a routine during this phase. He washed his face and combed his hair every morning, dutifully wound his watch and kept track of day and hour, scribbled daily notes to his girlfriend (Mary Fahner, whom he later married) on scraps of lunch bags, converted an air mattress into "a sort of Foley catheter collection bag" to dispose of urine, and continued to experiment with any vessel within reach that might serve as a container to collect water from the stream.

"I had to maintain some sense of order or routine," he remembers. "That's what makes us feel calm and comfortable."

Fears of bobcats, pumas or snakes occasionally intruded, but they were distractions. His real worry was his foot. "I couldn't feel it after the first week, so I knew it was gone."

On about the 13th day, he woke up and noticed that the swelling in his face and neck had receded. Suddenly, he could see better. In the periphery, he could see where the tree had jammed into the top of his foot.

"This is when I realized that I was going to have to get out of the car myself -- unless someone else had the misfortune to crash alongside me," he dryly chuckled. "From my background as a medic and nurse, I knew I was getting gangrene, so I began to chip at the tree root with a tire iron."

On Day 14, he began an intensive struggle to get a rock that he could use as a hammer to pound the tire iron. Using his "fishing" pole and a small suitcase as a trap, he spent all day Sunday, Sept. 26 coaxing a rock into the case. By nightfall he had succeeded, and went to sleep that evening absolutely certain he would be free the following day.

"The next day I got up, went through my normal routine, then spent 3 hours chipping at the root." Finally, he worked himself free! "I got out, went straight for the water, washed, and drank and drank and drank," he remembers. "Then I put my shoes on my feet and scrambled up the hill to wait for the next passing vehicle." He laid in the sun at the top of the ravine, and stopped the first truck he saw. Its driver pulled over, but regarded him with suspicion.

"He was very standoffish," remembers Fahner-Vihtelic, who admits that his unwashed, tattered and reeking appearance would have put anyone off. "The truck driver said he didn't believe there was any car down there."

The man left on a walk to see for himself if the tale rang true. As soon as he confirmed it, he ran back to Fahner-Vihtelic and immediately offered his lunch and soda. The trucker radioed his boss, who transported Fahner-Vihtelic to the Trout River Ranger Station in a pickup. Once at the station, Fahner-Vihtelic phoned his family and employer to let them know he was alive. "I have no doubt that some people had written me off," he says.

At a hospital in Portland he lost his left leg, just below the midshin, on Oct. 1, 1976. He could barely sleep nights in the hospital for fear that his rescue -- so palpable, so real -- might evaporate into a dream. Three weeks after the amputation, he began a new life.

Though he would return to his career almost immediately, it was another half dozen years before Fahner-Vihtelic resumed the robust physical activity that had always characterized his pre-accident life.

Of his relatively inactive years, he explains, "You go through a real body-image situation where you feel embarrassment, a feeling of not being the same as you were before. You become a minority. For instance, it took me awhile to wear shorts -- stuff like that."

As he gained promotions and moved to different parts of the country, he began adding to an extracurricular roster of accomplishments: mountain biking and skiing in Utah, where he became president of the Utah Handicapped Skiers Association; member of the U.S. Ski Team's crosscountry team for disabled skiers for 3 years under the sponsorship of ski manufacturer Kneissl; running and triathlon participation in Topeka, Kan., including a stint of 12-15 events per year during 1989-1991; participation in the Southwest Airlines Biathlon Series in 1994, which was the year he also ran several 10-milers and his first marathon -- the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C. -- which he completed in about 5 hours. 1995 brought the WTS world-girdling bike trip, and now, in 1997, he's near the South Pole on another WTS excursion expressly designed to gain publicity and attention for the contributions disabled people can make.

Along the way, Fahner-Vihtelic has become a volunteer spokesman for the cause of handicapped people, lecturing at schools, churches, Kiwanis and Elks clubs, and even appearing for an interview on the Today Show with Bryant Gumbel in the mid-1980's. (An account of his survival, titled "The 16-Day Ordeal of John Vihtelic," by Emily and Per Ola D'Aulaire, appeared in Reader's Digest in March 1977.)

"Handicap sports has added so much richness to my life," he declares today. He is particularly happy to be working in a medical milieu at NIH that emphasizes the abilities of people who may be facing physical or mental challenges.

"I overcame a hopeless situation and took what was left and made something out of it," he concludes. "Anyone can do anything -- there shouldn't have to be limitations on any of us, particularly when it comes to lacking something mechanical."

Indeed, Fahner-Vihtelic can scarcely wait to return from Antarctica (see race results, and possible photos, in next NIH Record) because he is working, with a welder friend, on a hand-powered bicycle that will allow people who can't use their legs to enjoy bike rides. Current versions of such a vehicle are prohibitively expensive, he complains. "We want to make one people can afford -- a hand-cycle for the masses!"

With Fahner-Vihtelic leading the way, don't bet against it.

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