Working to cut down a Scotch pine in Ross, James Valentine was sawing the trunk 15 to 20 feet above ground with power lines just overhead. So he positioned his chainsaw about neck high to cut the final few inches.
He's uncertain what caused the saw blade to kickback, which prompted lifesaving efforts Monday on the property at 721 Perry Highway.
The saw kickback "nicked my shoulder and chewed into my neck," Mr. Valentine said Tuesday from his hospital bed at Allegheny General Hospital. "It was the worst pain you could ever imagine.
"Everything was going through my head -- a lot of stuff," said the 21-year-old from Cumberland, Md., who's been living since January on the South Side. With fear racing through his mind, he said, "the first instinct is to turn off the saw."
The blade and chain were embedded 2 inches deep into the neck muscle just above the collarbone, raising concern whether it had damaged the carotid artery, the major artery in the neck to the head. When damaged or severed, it quickly can cause a person to bleed to death.
So the race began shortly after the 2:30 p.m. accident, which involved efforts from three coworkers, seven paramedics, along with police officers and medical officials, all of them at the top of their game, officials said.
Mr. Valentine held the chainsaw in place with his right hand while hugging the trunk with his left arm to descend 5 feet in his rope harness with cleats on his shoes. Coworkers controlling the rope lowered him gently to sitting position on the ground. He leaned against one coworker, while another held the chainsaw steady. A third coworker worked to unbolt the blade from the heavy chainsaw motor without moving the blade.
Upon their arrival, paramedics from Ross/West View Emergency Medical Services worked to stabilize the blade to limit bleeding with no knowledge whether the carotid was damaged.
Greg Porter of the Ross/West View EMS said Mr. Valentine's three coworkers at Adler Tree Service "did an excellent job of getting him out of the tree and keeping the saw blade steady." Mr. Valentine never lost consciousness despite moderate bleeding.
Paramedics and police took off their shirts to use in packing the wound and wrapping the blade to prevent movement before Mr. Valentine was transported by ambulance to AGH's trauma center.
Alerted about the accident, Christine Toevs, a trauma surgeon and medical director of the trauma unit, said medical personnel had just minutes to summon the Central Blood Bank for blood supplies, prepare equipment to capture blood for reuse, get a vascular surgeon in place and prepare other resources.
They were expecting the worst. Chainsaw injuries to the neck can severely damage the carotid, trachea, esophagus and spine. Upon arrival, Mr. Valentine underwent surgery to have the blade and chain removed. Dr. Toevs said the blade missed the carotid by less than half an inch.
"He is extraordinarily lucky and very blessed," she said during a Tuesday news conference.
His injuries required stitches and staples numbering in the 30s, she said, attributing his good condition to the efforts of coworkers and emergency officials.
"The great thing is, they made the job easy," Dr. Toevs said. "It could have been an injury to the carotid. They anchored the impalement and brought it with him so he didn't bleed profusely."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 36,000 people annually are treated in hospital emergency departments for chainsaw injuries, most occurring to the hands and legs, with about 10 percent to the head.
Save for possible numbness in the wound area from nerve damage and shoulder weakness, Dr. Toevs said she expects a full recovery. Mr. Valentine was scheduled for release from the hospital Tuesday or today, with plans to return to work within a week or two.
"Most people don't walk out of the hospital the next day after such an accident," Dr. Toevs said.
Visiting Mr. Valentine, Adler operations manager, Domenic Pisani, 31, of New Castle, said company employees undergo weekly safety training sessions, making injuries rare for Adler employees. But cutting down trees, he said, is second in danger only to deep-sea crab fishing.
To prove it, Mr. Pisani said he had a similar chainsaw accident early in his career, opening his shirt to reveal a 6-inch scare across his sternum. "You try to put yourself in the safest position," he said. "He did nothing wrong."
As for Mr. Valentine, there's no fear about returning to work.
"It was a freak accident that can happen any second, any time," he said.