Yelm logger Walter Reichel was crushed by a tree on June 2.
He was flown to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where he underwent two surgeries. He had broken eight ribs and his sternum. His pelvis was busted into numerous pieces.
Given that, people are usually pretty surprised to see him up and about — without the assistance of a wheelchair or walker.
“My life is up to almost pretty much normal,” Reichel said during a recent interview. “…It’s a struggle, you know, but I’m grateful.”
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After his treatment at Harborview, Reichel spent about six weeks at the Nisqually Valley Care Center in McKenna. In early August, the staff gave him a wheelchair to take for a spin.
That didn’t last long.
“I told the nurses, ‘I’m going to go camping, and I’m going to be walking in 10 days,’” Reichel said. “And I did it.”
The graduation to a walker was quick, but difficult. What were those first few steps like?
“I made 12 steps, and I was sweating — and it wasn’t hot outside,” Reichel recalls. “It was just really hard. I was weak and it was hard to keep balance.”
He continued to use a walker for several more weeks, and until recently he had twice-weekly physical therapy appointments.
His left leg continues to be weak, and has some numb spots, but he’s working on strengthening it every day.
Reichel does yoga at a Yelm gym, and that’s helped him with strength and balance. He’s also put on most of the 20 pounds that he lost immediately after the accident — but he says he doesn’t know if that’s a good thing.
Here’s what Reichel does know: Life is precious, and it’s good.
“If I didn’t get any better, I could live with that,” he said. “I can walk. I survived.”
Reichel credits his quick recovery to all of the support he received from his wife, his family and friends. He said he’s grateful for all of his doctors and nurses, too.
“Apparently they sewed me up pretty good,” Reichel said with a chuckle.
On the day of the accident, Reichel had been thinning dead trees on his mom’s 50-acre property in the Lawrence Lake area near Yelm.
He knew the mature Douglas fir was dangerous. So did his friend Harry Miller.
“It grew out from a bank, and it had a real wicked, good-sized branch that went off to the side,” Miller said.
Miller thought Reichel should leave it alone, and tackle it another day. Reichel decided to take it down anyway.
After he cut the tree, it spun around and began falling in a different direction than he expected. Reichel was boxed in with fencing on both sides.
“I remember looking back and thinking: I’m not going to make it — the tree’s going to get me,” he told The Olympian in July. “… I knew exactly how bad I messed up when I saw that tree coming, and I knew I couldn’t outrun it — I knew.”
After they called 911, Reichel’s sons, who are 18 and 23, and his father-in-law Anthony Jackson chained the 28-inch diameter log and used an excavator to lift it off him.
“We did good, I think,” Jackson told The Olympian in July. “We didn’t stand there and freak. Everybody did something.”
Miller, a commissioner with the Bald Hills Fire District, was one of the emergency responders who came to the scene. Crews used a pelvic wrap, which Miller describes as sort of a “medieval girdle,” to load Reichel into a medic unit. Then he was transported two miles to Cougar Mountain Airfield where he waited about 10 minutes for the helicopter to arrive to take him to Harborview.
Since the accident, Reichel said he’s been contacted by a couple of buddies who work in the woods. They told him that they’ve thought about what happened to him, and that’s helped them make safer decisions.
“Hopefully, my story saves somebody else,” Reichel said.
He said he doubts he’ll ever be fast enough to return to logging.
He’s thinking about getting a commercial drivers license. But he still wants to work in the woods.
“I was born to work in the woods, I really was,” Reichel said. “I love it.”
So whatever happened to that monster of a tree that almost took his life?
“It’s still laying there,” Reichel said. “You know, I haven’t really figured out what to do with it yet. I don’t know if I want to make a bonfire, or firewood, or save it and say, ‘Hey I won, and you lost.’”
Maybe he could use it to build an archway that he can walk under every day, Reichel said with a laugh.