Blades or Bullets?
by PJ Delhomme
Which one is more likely to detour your next elk hunt to the ER?
A retired emergency room doctor from Craig, Colorado, Allan Reishus has seen his share of orange-clad elk chasers fill up his waiting room come fall. Craig has less than 10,000 residents, but the self‑proclaimed “elk hunting capital of the world” balloons with hunters come hunting season.
According to Reishus, the most common injuries in hunting have nothing to do with the rifle you carry. He says gunshot wounds (GSW) are actually incredibly rare. “Not that many hunters die of GSW, but because of the media, we get the idea the opposite is true,” says Reishus. The painful and humiliating “scope-eye” is far more common, but Reishus says most hunters who show up in the Craig ER have either sliced their hand while field-dressing an animal, or experienced mild to severe chest pain, the precursor to a heart attack.
In fact, in a study published in Wilderness and Environmental Medicine in 2007 by Reishus, he notes that skiers in Colorado are eight times as likely to visit the ER compared to hunters. As a volunteer on Steamboat’s ski patrol, Reishus knows this first‑hand. Even so, hunters are hardly immune to visits to the ER.
Reishus’ study followed trends at his rural hospital over nine years. With a total of 725 visits from patients who identified themselves as hunters, 73 percent were from out of state. The most common trauma diagnosis was laceration at 21 percent. Cardiac signs and symptoms followed a close second at 14 percent. There were four injuries from gunshots, but all four hunter deaths in the ER were from heart attacks.
In the 1960s, Colorado averaged 10 fatalities and 24 non-fatal firearm-related hunting incidents per year, according to the study. Then in 1970, the legislature adopted blaze orange requirements and mandatory hunter education, and outlawed loaded weapons in vehicles. By the 1990s, there was on average one firearm‑related hunting fatality and 11‑non‑fatal incidents annually.
While the likelihood you’re going to get shot in the woods chasing elk is miniscule, the odds you’re going to slice open your hand at some point are pretty good. But it can be prevented.
“Medical students learn early on that only one person holds a knife at a time,” says Reishus. “It’s the same in the field. Second, don’t cut what you can’t see—that means the esophagus. Open up the rib cage and get a light in there before you cut a tendon in your thumb.”
When you do slice yourself, it’s typically not the end of the world. “Pressure and cleaning is the key,” he says. “A little bit of bleeding is good.” Scrub the wound with soap and water. There are products such as Quik Clot, which, as the name suggests, can help end bleeding faster. If you don’t have access to it, wrap the wound with a clean bandage, which doesn’t need to be sterile, says Reishus. If the cut is an inch or longer, you’ll likely need stitches. But if you’re deep in the woods and a doctor is more than eight hours away, he likely won’t suture it up because all that does is seal in the infection, adds Reishus.
Of all the dangers in elk country, there is one wound that is particularly nasty—the puncture. Be it from wood or the nasty revenge of an antler, the wound, by its nature, is prone to infection because the skin immediately seals over and infection is basically injected into the wound. It then forms a pus pocket to breed bacteria, says Reishus.
“Hunters don’t seem to realize that when they drag a deer or elk downslope to their truck, it can accelerate,” he says. “It will take you out at the legs, and those antlers find their way into some pretty inopportune places.”