A 22-year-old Virginia man whose body was pierced by an eight-foot-long board was listed in serious but stable condition yesterday after Washington Hospital Center surgeons removed the board in what one doctor called "a once-in-a-lifetime operation."
Rescuers earlier had sawed off sections of board that impaled the man in a bizarre early morning automobile accident. Surgeons worked for more than three hours until they could pull the remaining 18-inch section of the board from the man's body.
"He's the luckiest man alive," said one Virginia state trooper of David Hamilton Rich Jr., a Warrenton, Va., machinery operator who suffered the injury when his sports car crashed into a fence about 50 miles west of Washington in the Virginia countryside.
Police said Rich and a 22-year-old companion. Sue Clark of Warrenton, were driving down rural paved road Rte, 802 in Fauquier County when Rich's 1969 Triumph missed a turn, left the road and skidded 150 feet down an embankment before slamming into a wooden fence.
According to rescuers who arrived shortly after the 12:46 a.m. accident, a 1-by-6 inch 8-foot fence board had sliced through the car's convertible top and pierced the right side of Rich's chest. The board entered his body from an angle, fractured several right ribs, punctured his abdomen, and exited on the left side of his body, just above the hip, they said.
A state trooper said Rich's car was traveling at approximately 50 miles an hour and knocked down 65 feet of the fence before coming to a halt. The board that impaled Rich splintered as it entered his body, according to the trooper. It was approximately 3 to 4 inches wide there it exited from his side and about five inches wide at the entry point, he said.
"He was conscious the whole time," Whitcomb said yesterday. "For the problem he was in, I'd say he was very calm."
The rescue squad transported Rich to Facquier Memorial Hospital in Warrenton where doctors called in a Park Police helicopter from Washington. Rich, who was in shock, was flown to the Washington Hospital Center, arriving there at 3:11 a.m.
"It's a miracle," said his mother, Lucy, who was keeping a daylong vigil at the hospital with her husband, David Hamilton Rich Sr. "Somebody was looking over him," she said, fighting back tears.
Clark, a college student, said she and Rich were returning from a friend's house when the accident occurred. "We ran off the road and into the fence," she said. "I saw it (the wooden plank) come through the car slowly but surely. I didn't think it went all the way through him. He kept telling me that it did."
"Fortunately, the board missed his heart," said cardiac surgeon Dr. George Garcia, one of three surgeons who operated on Rich. "It's a horrible sight to see a man with a board sticking out both sides of him. It's amazing how he survived this."
Doctors attempted to saw off the remaining 4 to 6 inches of the protruding board, but their medical equipment could not handle the job.
Charles Marenka, of the Fire Department Rescue Squad in Washington who had transported the victim from the helicopter, returned to the fire station for a circular power saw. Then Marenka, a part-time carpenter, removed the board sections to allow the patient to be operated on.
"Seeing is believing," said shock trauma surgeon Dr. Vikram Paul who described the three-hour effort to remove the board as "a once in a life-time operation."
Paul, aided by cardiac surgeon Garcia and Dr. Marion Jordan, opened up Rich's chest cavity with a massive incision that ran from below his chin to his abdomen.
The board had passed behind the stomach, injured the small bowels and exited just above the left hip, severing a section of the small intestines, which were hanging outside the body, Paul said.
Doctors said Rich remarkably had remained conscious until immediately before the surgery began at 4:23 a.m. Paul said Rich had lost 6 to 8 pints of blood and was suffering from pneumopericardium, described by Paul as "pressure on the heart."
The board passed four inches from the heart, he said. "There were a few splinters in the chest wall and a few loose pieces of wood that we removed."
Dr. Jordan called the injury, "the most dramatic trauma case" he had witnessed. "This is a real hallmark case. It's a wonder the man survived."
Jordan praised Fauquier County emergency personnel for their speed in arranging to airlift the victim. "They did just what they're supposed to do," Jordan said. "Fifteen years ago the man probably would have died on the way to the hospital," Jordan said.
Rich's father, standing at his son's bedside in the intensive care unit last night, said, "The doctor at the hospital in Warrenton told me last night after the accident, "Time is the thing. If we can get them there) to the shock trauma unit) alive, they'll take care of him.' And they did."
A spokesman for the Washington Hospital Center said last night that Rich was in "serious but stable condition . . . with abdominal traumas. We won't know the true extent of the injuries for a few days, until he's out of the woods."
Jordan said Rich's "prognosis is good. Our major worry is infection."
Virginia State Trooper John Thomas said Rich, who was driving, was not drunk at the time of the accident. Thomas said he had been told that Rich had consumed three mixed drinks and some "prescribed medicine" earlier in the evening.
Rich is the second oldest of four children. His father operates a Warrenton landfill where the accident victim works.
Members of Rich's family said last night that he was alert and trying to speak after surgery.
"When I told him I'd be back to see him later, he mounted the word 'please,'" said Clark who had been treated for minor abrasions after the crash.