“Bud! Stop! You can’t get up!”
“You kiddin’ me?” McElroy looked up at him. He remembers squinting at the sunlight. Hernquist was a silhouette against blue sky while Bud, struggling to stand, was a floundering figure in a red racing suit. “I’m not getting run over twice in one day!” he shouted.
But McElroy had seen the alarmed expression in his friend’s eyes. Regaining consciousness, Ed McClain staggered free from their car. The transmission and rear tire had been torn away and wrapped around the front.
“Bud!” cried the map-man. “Your leg!”
The skin was split up to the knee, muscle and flesh gone from the bone. Dan Anderson rushed over. Known as “Rescue Dan” for his long-time service as a volunteer on the rescue team, he was already talking to radio dispatch, calling for a medical evacuation immediately. By now a dozen men were on the scene. McElroy was losing a lot of blood. Anderson handed over his radio and knelt beside the racer.
“I’m going to have to tourniquet that leg.”
“Below the knee!” McElroy shouted. When a tourniquet is tied, everything below the pressure point is deprived of blood and likely to be sacrificed. McElroy knew this. “Make sure and put it below the knee!”
“Radio Bob” told Anderson he’d made contact with the Medivac people; they wanted somebody on the scene to authorize the pickup.
“Otherwise, they aren’t coming.”
McElroy overheard and said to tell them there was a firefighter here who says there’s a guy in trouble and they need to get to him quick. McElroy was, of course, the firefighter, and he was the guy.
A few men diverted the run, with racers forced to detour some 15 yards; others were watching Anderson with McElroy; some were checking their watches and looking up at the desert sky. Would the “Life-Flight” copter make it in time? Twenty miles away, Tina was told of the accident but not of its seriousness.
“Here’s the funny part,” McElroy recalls, laughing. “Somebody used a board to shade me from the sun because it’s so hot out there but the sun is beating down on my leg and that’s what’s getting hot. And I mean really hot.”
Sheared to the bone, the flesh was raw and bleeding. Unshaded, his leg was on fire.
By the time the copter set down, grit rising in an angry skirt, McElroy was lying in a blackish puddle of his own blood. His blood pressure read 38 over 0 (a normal reading is 110 over 70). Firefighters know their blood type. He murmured that his was A-negative; then, as they shunted him onto a backboard and into the copter, he sent a last message to his wife. He’d broken his leg, he said, and was going to have it fixed.
Somewhere in flight or at the UCSD Trauma Center in San Diego, the medical team cut away his nylon racing suit and discovered his femur protruding from his upper thigh. They stuck IVs in his groin and neck, then fed four units of blood directly into the arteries that went to his heart.
“I looked like a 50-50 ice cream bar, half-vanilla, half-chocolate.” He laughed again.
His right side was black and blue; when he first got hit, McElroy fell onto his right side then slapped down hard against the hood of Hernquist’s car before being sent flying.
He was in surgery for 14 hours, in the critical care unit for three days, and at the trauma center itself for ten days.
Every effort was made to save the leg. As one surgeon explained, he could keep it, but two to three years of reconstructive surgery would be required, using the muscles from his stomach and back. In the end, he would still have a “slap foot.” The alternative, it was explained, was amputation, and he’d be walking in three months. Three years versus three months. It was, he said, an easy call.
“Go ahead,” he told them. “Cut it off.”
Surgery took place at Kaiser Permanente. Amputees are likely to have the date of their surgery engraved on their minds. McElroy was quick to name the date of the accident as well as when he got his first prosthetic limb (January 15, 1994), yet he cannot name the date of his amputation.
A flash of green and Paulie, flitting from one side of his cage to the other, breaks into song.
“It was somewhere in the first week of October, but it wasn’t a big deal.”
Following surgery, he was fixed with a morphine drip to medicate himself. As soon as his mind cleared, he stopped taking the morphine; he didn’t want to get hooked. He was treated with other pain medication. Depression is a familiar emotional response to amputation, but McElroy claims he had none. He was having too much fun to feel low, he said. Just before a nurse came in to take his temperature, he’d stick ice in his mouth and throw the reading off.
“Stupid stuff like that, but I was having a ball.”
That is, until he’d get hit with a pain so intense he could only double over. It was as if someone were stabbing him. These were his severed nerve endings. Later, as the pain receded, he’d feel like his foot was on ice or stuck in a bucket. He still gets phantom sensations on occasion. He’ll feel a cramp in the arch of his foot that is no longer there.
On October 25, exactly one month after the accident, he was wheeled out of Kaiser Permanente Hospital. Plastic surgeons grafted skin onto his leg. He was fitted for his prosthetic and in mid-January stood up on two legs. His stump felt tender.
“I knew I was on two legs. I was glad I was standing. But the muscles had to get accustomed to an artificial device. I’d call it a ‘sweet’ hurt, because I knew the pain would go away.”
At home he started pushing himself right away. That was when he painted the house and laid brick. He kept busy.