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Calling in the helicopter during an 800-mile bike trip

I started fishing in my handlebar bag for my Garmin InReach as I rolled up on a younger man attempting inadequate CPR on an older man”


The off-duty incident stuck with Hoke years later, even after he learned what happened to the patient following his intervention.

Courtesy photo/Latimer Hoke

In July 2020, I was bikepacking with two friends, Curt and Crouton, riding a mountain highway in northern Utah. Around 9 a.m., I saw some commotion up ahead, and I thought maybe there was a bear in the road.

As I approached, I could tell something was definitely not OK. As we were miles from any cell service, I started fishing in my handlebar bag for my Garmin InReach as I rolled up on a younger man attempting inadequate CPR on an older man. As I activated the SOS feature on the InReach, I told the younger man doing CPR, “You need to push much deeper than that.” He stared up at me with what looked like indignation, so I added, “I’m an EMT.”

He replied, “Well, can you do this then? I have no idea what I’m doing.”

I pulled on some medical gloves, looked at the patient a bit closer and noticed he was actually breathing but with some bloody gurgling. I had the younger man hold compression and felt a strong pulse, so I told him, “Hey, you can stop those compressions. We just need to roll him onto his left side.”

“Are you sure?” he asked me.

“Yes, just support his head when we do it.”

Once we had the patient on his side and breathing clearer, I assessed the situation further. Curt used my InReach to request a helicopter while Crouton controlled traffic. I learned the younger man was the patient’s son. They had been motorcycling together when the dad collided with a deer and flew over the handlebars, landing unconscious in the middle of the road. The son’s initial look had not been of indignation, but of desperation.

In my spandex cycling clothes, I directed the scene for over 20 minutes before the first lights and sirens arrived: a lone EMT in a fire department SUV. I continued to work with this EMT as police started to arrive and control bystanders more effectively.

Once a paramedic had joined the first EMT and enough “official” help arrived, I extracted myself from the scene. At that time, I felt optimistic for this patient’s outcome. Aside from being unconscious, he had a decent pulse and blood pressure, and he was being airlifted to one of the best hospital systems in the world.

As we were pedaling away, Crouton said, “Holy crap, Lat, now I know why you have PTSD.” She asked me how many scenes of similar seriousness I had worked in my EMS career, and I said I’d lost count.

A lasting impact

When I made it home to Montana, I looked online for news of this incident. Despite wearing a helmet, the patient had died from massive brain trauma roughly 24 hours after the helicopter left the scene. This was long enough for his family to say goodbye, and since he had made it to the hospital with a beating heart, it was possible to fulfill his wishes for organ donation.

Despite a long collection of trauma responses, this incident stuck with me for longer than most. I ended up watching the live-streamed funeral service for this man. I stewed a little longer on the incident and eventually I internet-stalked the son, sending a handwritten letter to the most likely address I could find. I apologized for having been gruff and dismissive of his efforts at lifesaving when I had first arrived on the scene.

Within a couple of weeks, I received a letter back from the son apologizing to me! He said his recollection was that as I rolled up, he had yelled at me, “Do you have a $%@! satt-phone?” I have no memory of that exchange.

His letter went on to say that in the worst moment of his life, with his dad dying in front of him, I had shown up – on a freaking bicycle – and known exactly what to do, which brought the son great comfort. He wrote, “It seemed like an angel had sent you.”

Circumstance and being prepared

I wasn’t even supposed to be there. This incident happened on the last day of my bike ride. Curt and Crouton were pedaling from the U.S.-Canada border in Montana to the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona on the bikepacking route known as the Western Wildlands Trail. I had made plans to join them for a small section, just a day and a half from Darby, Montana, to an area called Shoup, Idaho. From there, I would have ridden solo back to my truck and then driven home to Eureka, Montana.

Instead, my friends wheedled away on me, nudging me to continue riding. One more day, one more town. I kept saying yes, figuring I could call some extended family or friends to give me a ride back to my truck, until even that option was too far-fetched. The decision came down to paying a guy $250 to drive me 5 hours back to my truck from Ketchum, Idaho, or to keep riding to Salt Lake City, fly to Missoula, and then pedal back to my truck.

I called my girlfriend (now wife) Kari to ask for her opinion (i.e., permission). While she said she missed me, she would support either decision. The upshot was that Kari decided to take a road trip and drive down to Utah to pick me up.

Thus, through a series of small decisions, I turned what was originally supposed to be just a 3-day ride into an 800-mile, 10-day adventure. The emotional struggle with changing plans led me to this particular emergency scene instead of being home with Kari a week before it happened.

Two whole years later, the incident continued to gnaw at me. I wondered if my activation of the InReach SOS had actually changed the emergency response. It turned out; it had. A Sheriff’s Department lieutenant replied to my inquery, informing me that without the InReach activation giving an exact location, all of the resources would have come from over an hour away within Utah, rather than from just across the state line in Wyoming. He also told me that they launched a helicopter based on our request from the scene.

I highly recommend that outdoor adventurers carry a similar satellite SOS device, if not for themselves, then to help those they may encounter.

[Read more: How to decide when to call an air ambulance]

The sum total of our experiences

Three years after this incident, while in counseling for PTSD, I looked back on the entire scope of my EMS career.

I took my first EMT class as a result of a high stakes incident as a teenage lifeguard, where it was my job to respond immediately; but I froze – I think we all froze for a moment. We had never had to do anything “real” before that. I remember desperately wishing for someone who truly knew what to do; and an emergency nurse and an emergency physician materialized from the pool and from a lawn chair respectively. My slight hesitation was unacceptable to me when it was specifically my job to know what to do, so I took that first EMT class, which led into an EMS career lasting 15 years so far.

We are the sum total of our experiences. When I was 17 on the side of the pool, I had wanted someone to come and take over, and those experts did indeed materialize. Over a decade later, I had become that expert for someone else in need.

My ability to respond both confidently and competently to this motorcycle wreck in Utah resulted from over a decade of EMS training. I enjoy endurance-based adventures, due to my upbringing and encouragement from friends and family, but also as a mechanism to manage the tolls of EMS work.

Ultimately, my collection of experiences led me to that scene in the mountains of northern Utah. If an angel had indeed placed me there, it was not for the father – the damage was already done – but instead to bring comfort to his panicked son.

As an advanced EMT and EMS instructor, Latimer Hoke has worked in rural EMS since 2009, working for and with dozens of emergency service organizations in Vermont and Montana, as well as in Canada. These experiences involve volunteer and career EMS agencies, fire departments, law enforcement, emergency communications, ski patrol, and search and rescue. He has managed supply ordering, served as training officer, and written policies for many workplaces. In addition to EMS, Latimer holds a BS in Secondary English Education, a MEd in Education Leadership, and Senior Alpine certification with the National Ski Patrol.