Gunnison Valley Hospital

When Breathing Stopped, the Miracle Began

21-month-old Gore Otteson defies odds with recovery from near-drowning
Will Shoemaker
Gunnison Country Times Staff Writer
re-printed with permission
Friday, September 10, 2010

The outlook was grim when Dave and Amy Otteson spoke with doctors. The medical experts gave the Ottesons' son, 21-month-old Gore, less than a 1 percent chance of having any brain activity after nearly drowning in an irrigation ditch north of Gunnison.

A few at the Children's Hospital in Denver even questioned why life-saving efforts that took place at Gunnison Valley Hospital continued as long as they had.

That's why the Ottesons say that little Gore's full recovery is nothing short of miraculous. The rambunctious little blonde was without a heartbeat for an estimated 45 to 50 minutes -- about 20 of them spent under water -- while the family was vacationing here this summer.

It was early evening Tuesday, July 6, at the vacation property off County Road 9 that's been in the family of Amy Otteson's parents since 1980.

Amy had spent a few weeks at a cabin on the property, just south of Camp Gunnison and near the banks of the Gunnison River. Dave left to go back to work in Denver that morning.

The distant laughs and mingling of family members could be heard echoing from the surrounding cabins as Amy prepared to dress her three kids for dinner.

She'd taken the kids out of the bath tub and put Gore in his pajama shirt. After attending to the older two, Amy turned to look for her youngest.

Gore was nowhere to be found in the house, and after a quick search Amy realized that he had gone out the screen door on the porch. Gore had figured out how to open the latch a few days earlier.

Amy panicked and started yelling for Gore outside the cabin.

The commotion quickly grabbed the attention of many of the 20-plus relatives staying in cabins on the property nearby. They searched frantically, calling Gore's name, checking every possible nook and cranny where the little tyke could by hiding.

A temporary orange construction fence was placed along a nearby ditch that ran through the property, feeding ranches to the east. The ditch separated the cabin where Amy and Dave stay from that of her parents, with a small bridge spanning between.

"I knew it was going to be bad," said Amy, "because of how long we'd looked."

Twenty minutes passed before Amy heard dreaded screams from beside the irrigation ditch more than 350 feet from the Ottesons' cabin. The ditch was running fast and deep that day.

Amy's cousin David, a big, strong football coach from Muleshoe, Texas, had found Gore's lifeless body underwater in the ditch, and under a log, after catching a glimpse of what turned out to be the toddler's diaper. It was a spot that had already been passed over a few times by searching family members.

Amy's father Kirk, a retired orthopaedic surgeon, and her cousins Suzanne, a nurse, and Don immediately began CPR.

It was that early effort -- and subsequent efforts on the part of local emergency responders -- which the Ottesons believe probably played an important role in Gore's survival.

Gunnison Sheriff's Deputy Randy Barnes was among the first to arrive on scene. "The fastest we could get him to the hospital was our main mission," Barnes explained. "The ambulance was on scene for 47 seconds."

"When I handed him off, he was dead as far as I was concerned," said Amy's father Kirk Fry.

A heartbeat wasn't restored until 15 minutes after Gore arrived at Gunnison Valley Hospital (GVH).

Gore was soon flown to Children's Hospital in Denver. However, there wasn't room for Amy in the helicopter.

"I started to panic all over again," she said. They found out later that Gore's heart stopped again, upon arriving at the emergency room in Denver.

Today, just two months after the accident, the Ottesons say that Gore is recovered -- 100 percent.

Well, except for a scar he still has under his chin from a neck collar the toddler wore during treatment in Denver.

"We needed proof that it actually happened," Amy joked.

The telephone call Dave Otteson received from his mother-in-law Nancy just minutes after Gore was carried from the ditch would launch an emotional roller coaster ride over the next few weeks.

"She said, 'Gore fell in the irrigation ditch, Kirk was working on him, but it might be too late. Can you come to Gunnison?'" Dave recalled of that conversation.

The banker -- who was on his way to a softball game in Denver -- left immediately for Gunnison, assuming the worst, that his son was already dead.

Dave was driving down Hwy. 285, his mind in shambles, when he received a second call informing him to turn around: A heartbeat had been restored, and a helicopter was bound for Gunnison to fly Gore to Children's Hospital.

"Not knowing on that initial call that it might be too late, it was excruciating," said Dave.

He turned around and drove straight for the hospital. By the time Amy arrived with her parents, Gore was in the ICU.

But the news was bad. Gore had a weak pupil response and his blood was acidotic, meaning that it shouldn't be able to support life. Doctors said there was a less than 1 percent chance that if Gore woke up he'd have any brain function.

It was feared that Gore was indeed brain dead when a nurse noticed what appeared to be a purposeful movement of the toddler's arm.

That was cause for Doctors in Denver to try a controversial procedure. Called hypothermic treatment, the procedure had been used little on a child of Gore's age. The goal of the treatment is to cool the injured person's body down to 90 degrees for a 48-hour period to minimize brain activity.

"And then we waited," said Amy, "and we prayed -- a lot."

Against all odds, when Gore's body temperature was increased again, he woke up.

"They told us, when he wakes up, we need to see a purposeful movement," Amy explained. "It was very clear almost immediately."

A subsequent MRI indicated there were no abnormalities in Gore's brain. As early as the day after he awoke, he began using sign language -- a means of communication the Ottesons taught their kids as a precursor to talking -- to say he was hungry.

"He didn't speak much before (the accident)," said Dave. "He only knew a couple words."

"That was such a good moment for us," Amy explained of Gore's signing, "because we knew he could remember the things he knew before."

Yet, there was a big step backward for Gore -- a period of relapse in progress that doctors have been unable to explain.

After awaking from hypothermic treatment and showing signs of improvement, a few days later Gore suddenly couldn't lift his bottle or hold his head up, and his eyes weren't tracking.

Over the next three or four days, however, he began to improve again.

"All I was asking for initially was to hold him again," said Dave. "So if there was a step backward in his condition, I think we were alright with that."

Amy added that at that point she and Dave "really believed God was in this," and that the progress Gore had already shown was counter-intuitive to their being something much worse wrong.

For about two weeks Gore attended twice-daily physical, occupational and speech therapy sessions.

"Based on the first day of physical therapy, if you would have said he would be walking out of the hospital three weeks later, we wouldn't have believed it," said Dave.

But on Aug. 2, Gore did just that.

"People came into our room we'd never seen, doctors and nurses, and said, 'I've heard this story and I've got to see it with my own eyes,'" Amy added.

A week-and-a-half after the accident, Kirk and Nancy, Gore's grandparents, returned to Children's Hospital to see their grandson.

"We just couldn't believe the difference in him," said Nancy. "This kid's going to be okay -- and a lot more quickly than what we thought."

To the Ottesons, who met on a blind date in Denver in 2000, Gore is a walking -- and, soon-to-be talking -- miracle.

A few weeks after the accident, Gore saw his brother and sister for the first time at the hospital. "He smiled and laughed for the first time spontaneously," said Amy, whose full-time job is taking care of the three kids -- including Ryan, 5, and Kirk, 4.

Today, Gore is back to causing as much mischief as before.

"He's the same kid that he was before the accident -- he's a mess," Dave joked. "He has this weird knack of getting into everything he's not supposed to."

The Ottesons, as well as medical staff that was on hand during the ordeal, cite a few factors contributing to Gore's recovery -- among them continuous and "quality" CPR, being submerged in cold water, Gore's age and the response from EMTs and hospital staff.

Dr. Roger Sherman, who was the ER doctor at GVH that day, said that a phenomenon called "mammalian dive reflex" appeared to be at play. In young humans, especially, in cold water, the body basically goes into a period of hibernation, he explained. Breathing stops and the heart rate slows down.

While Gore was without a heartbeat upon arrival at GVH, ER staff was able restart it with a drug called Atropine.

"It is kind of a fascinating thing that happened with this kid," Sherman added.

And it doesn't always turn out so good. In 2006, two 4-year-old boys also fell into an irrigation ditch in Gunnison County, just south of Almont. One lost his life and the other, who was under water for approximately 4 minutes, survived, but basically in a vegetative state.

The Ottesons later learned that medical professionals in Denver discussed whether life saving measures should have been continued as long as they had for a patient who had been without a heartbeat that long.

"There is an adage in emergency medicine that you're never dead until you're warm and dead and the kid was extremely cooled down," Sherman explained. "In his case, because we got him back with the Atropine, we decided not to warm him up. It just took a couple days for his neurological system to come back."

Last Friday, the Ottesons journeyed to GVH for a reunion with a few of the emergency responders who helped make Gore's recovery possible.

Gore, as energetic as ever, threw a ball up and down the hallway, hamming it up for the adults, who discussed the miracle at hand.

Kirk, Gore's grandfather, said he's never, in his 35 years of practicing medicine, seen a recovery as astonishing as his grandson's.

"When somebody is submerged, the likelihood that you're going to bring them back is nil and if you do they're going to be brain dead," he added.

Friends have questioned how the Ottesons could journey back to their family's property in Gunnison this past weekend, so shortly after Gore's near drowning. The land has been in Amy's family for 30 years. Prior to that, Amy's grandfather frequented the place, an old fishing camp called "Jennings Ranch."

"I didn't want this to be a bad thing, because it ended up being such a good thing," Amy explained. "A lot of good things came out of this story."

People they don't know have contacted the Ottesons, explaining how Gore's experience has impacted them. It's improved the faith of some and for others has instilled a belief in God that didn't previously exist, they say.

Since the accident, family members have constructed a wire fence to see that something like this doesn't happen again.

A cross, formed by two sticks and bound by rusty steel baling wire, marks the spot on the bank of the ditch where Gore was rescued -- and where some family members say "the miracle began."

"People gravitate toward something good," Amy declared. "That's what they see in this. ... Too many things happened that really shouldn't have happened."

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