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Harborview, Search and Rescue Team Reflect on Hiker Rescue, Recovery at ELSO Conference

October 9, 2023
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Nearly three years after his amazing rescue and recovery, Michael Knapinski and a team of first responders reflected on the measures they took to save his life at the 2023 Extracorporeal Life Support Organization Conference

The Department of Emergency Medicine’s Dr. Jenelle Badulak was a part of that team and led the opening plenary session that discussed Knapinski’s journey from hiking Mount Rainier, to waking up in the ICU at Harborview Medical Center. 

The hiking trip had started out normally, but the weather rapidly changed as Knapinski neared the Camp Muir area of Mt. Rainier.  

“It was like being in a snow globe,” said Knapinski. “At first, it was really cool to look around. The ground is white, the sky is white, you don’t know what’s up and what’s down.” 

Knapinski Hiking
Michael Knapinski on one of his many hikes before the incident on Mt. Rainier.

He started to worry when his phone malfunctioned, causing him to attempt to head down the mountain without any GPS guidance. It wasn’t long after that Knapinski realized he was lost and would have to stay on the mountain overnight. He remembered walking around to try and stay warm, but he ended up slipping and falling. 

“I couldn’t walk, and it was at that point that I knew I was in serious trouble,” said Knapinski. He then went on to record a video, saying what he thought would be his final goodbyes to his family.  

His friend, who had been skiing on Mt. Rainier at the time, called for help when Knapinski didn’t return to the parking lot. Tacoma Mountain Rescue responded and helped with the initial search for Knapinski. 

A helicopter spotted him the following day, allowing the Tacoma Mountain Rescue team to locate him. Tyler Severy, the President of Tacoma Mountain Rescue said Knapinski was alive when they reached him, but attempting to get him out on foot would be too dangerous.  

“I was certain if we carried him out, he would most likely die,” said Severy.  

The US Navy Whidbey Search and Rescue Team was then called in to assist, and thanks to their expert team, they were able to hoist Knapinski off the mountain. He then headed to Harborview Medical Center, where Dr. Jenelle Badulak would meet him for the first time. 

Badulak was working in triage when a charge nurse filled her in on Knapinski’s condition and suggested putting him on an ECMO machine. Badulak recalled how dire of a situation it was for ECMO capacity in November of 2020, due to COVID-19. There was only one backup machine available, which they decided to use for Knapinski.  

ELSO Conference
Left to right: Dr. Jenelle Badulak, Michael Knapinksi, Whitney Holen

“We got him cannulated. It was a difficult cannulation because of his tissues being so cold. With some talented surgeons and some time, after 45 minutes we got him cannulated. His core temperature was 22 degrees [celsius]. We then rapidly re-warmed him to above 30 degrees [celsius] where we could defibrillate and get him in a perfusing rhythm again,” said Badulak.  

Knapinski started to recover quickly, giving him a short run on ECMO and allowing for him to be decannulated on day two. Knapinski would later regain consciousness and recover in the ICU thanks to the help of Knapinski’s care team, including trauma nurse, Whitney Holen. 

“I knew when I saw the light that I was in a hospital, and that’s all that mattered. Nothing else mattered than being alive,” said Knapinski. 

“I can’t tell you how glad I am, we all are, to have you here with us today,” said Badulak as the conference session came to a close. “This is really incredible, and it’s really a testament to the whole chain of survival that it takes to make this possible and have you sitting with us on stage today.”  

KnapinskiKnapinski said that his recovery is going very well and that he still enjoys hiking. 

"My first accomplishment in my new life after the ER was standing. It has progressed to include much more than before the accident! I am motivated now to be better," said Knapinski.

You can watch the full video of Knapinski’s recovery during the opening plenary session here. 

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