This hunting season longtime Butte resident John Canavan picked up his rifle and went out with his friends to hunt for the first time in three years.
He hasn’t done so since 2014 - the year that a hunting accident nearly took his life.
For years, John said, he told himself that he just didn’t like hunting anymore. But when it came down to it, John knew what was holding him back: fear. And as a self-described hardheaded individual, John wasn’t about to let his fears get the best of him.
Stubborn determination ¬is a theme that describes well John’s story, and it’s this characteristic that he and his wife Karla attribute to his recovery.
Karla said she still sometimes feels the impact of 2014. At times she gets flashbacks, often triggered by something small, and the memories of that year come rushing back again.
The phone call
Karla said she was at home cooking when she got the call from St. James Healthcare that her husband had been shot.
She was making chicken paillard, had bits of chicken scattered throughout her kitchen and had just thrown the first piece in the frying pan when the phone rang.
Karla said she managed to stay calm while she spoke with the nurse on the phone, but when the nurse put her son Owen on the line, she started to panic. Her son was crying, she said, and she began to believe that her husband was dead.
Once Karla arrived at St. James, she could see that John was still alive but in bad condition.
“He came out of those doors at the ER and tears are streaming down his face,” she said.
Later Karla spoke with the doctor treating her husband, Dr. Debra Kontny of Helena, who was filling in for the hospital’s usual doctor and who Karla and John later wrote a letter, thanking her for saving her husband’s life.
“Do we need to get him out of here?’” Karla asked the doctor.
The news was perhaps what Karla didn’t want to hear: her husband wasn’t likely to survive a transport to another hospital.
“So I said, ‘ok, well, then just do the best damn job you know how to do.”
The accident that nearly took John's life occurred when he, his son and several members of another family were concluding a day of hunting.
The party was packing up their ATVs when one of the guns accidentally discharged, striking John in the abdomen with a bullet from a .243 rifle.
“The next thing I knew, I was on the ground just writhing in pain,” said John. “It hit me right in the gut.”
John’s hunting party acted fast. John was thrown into one of the four wheelers while Owen, 27 at the time, held his father’s wounds, keeping pressure with his hands on either side.
The group traveled to a hill, where they had enough reception to called 9-11, and then began driving to the nearest dirt road to meet emergency personnel but ran into trouble when they came across a swamp, where the ATV John was riding in got stuck.
“I thought, ‘this is where I’m going to die is in this frickin' swamp,’” said John. “(But) there happened to be a tree – the only tree around within 300 yards – close enough to the winch and they winched me out of this bog.”
John said he really didn’t feel any fear as he road in the ATV. Instead he concentrated on staying awake.
“I can remember thinking, ‘as long as I stay awake I know I’m alive,’” said John. “I stayed awake through the whole thing. But I could feel myself, because of the blood loss, trying to fade away.”
And there was also his son to think about.
“I can’t die in front of my kid,” said John.
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Once the party reached the road they met an ambulance, which took John to St. James.
In the ambulance, John said, he felt relief and began to think that maybe he wouldn’t die after all.
In the days that followed the accident, John underwent 12 surgeries, was hospitalized for 11 weeks and spent 12 days in the intensive-care unit at St. James.
Doctors’ focus was initially on keeping John stable and his wounds clean and free of infection and monitoring his body for internal bleeding. Nurses and doctors had to do those things before they could even think about doing surgeries to repair his hip and colon, which had been badly damaged by the bullet that entered John’s body. Those surgeries were eventually presided over by Drs. Michael Gallagher and Frank Raiser.
In the 12 days that John was in the ICU he was in a medically induced coma, Karla and John said.
During that time his family members—including his mother and his daughter Kelsi--stayed by his side. They talked to him, sometimes sang, and prayed.
“I talked to him all the time,” said Karla, whose been married to John for 37 years. “We all did. We just would sit there and say, ‘you’re going to be good. You’ve got this.’”
John said he doesn’t remember the exact moment when he woke up, and it’s all a bit blurry. But about a month after the accident, family members gathered in his hospital room for Thanksgiving to a fully conscious husband, father and son.
John and Karla say the road to recovery was long.
John spent hours going to physical therapy, in addition to speech and occupational therapy. At home Karla helped John clean his wounds and change his dressings—which sometimes left her feeling like a villain, because the process was so painful, she said—and the couple struggled daily with tending to John’s colostomy bag and wound vacuum.
John said he managed to say positive most of the time, but had a dark moment when he cut back on his pain medication, which caused him to have withdrawal symptoms and experience depression.
Nonetheless, he said, was determined to get his body back to where it used to be.
He exercised daily at Butte’s YMCA, even when he was in a wheelchair and was so weak he couldn’t lift the lightest weights on some machines.
But John said staying focused on recovery helped him heal physically and emotionally.
“I just made up my mind that I was going to do everything in my power to get better again, to get back to where I was. And that drove me,” he said.
Since the accident, John has run a marathon with his daughter in Seattle, witnessed his son get married and seen the birth of his first grandchild – events that he says are extra special.
In addition, John and Karla said, the accident has strengthened their marriage.
“You learn a lot through these things. Number one being, not to take people for granted because in the blink of an eye,” Karla began to say, but stopped to wipe away tears.
“We’ve been married, what? 37 years?” John asked.
“Forever,” said Karla, smiling through the tears.
“I just think there’s things that you can’t learn any other way but through pain,” she added.
In addition to being closer with his wife, John says that he’s now more compassionate, tries to do at least one nice thing a day and has learned a lot about what it means to be human.
“You know, I’m not really a tough person,” said John. “But when your back is against a wall, you find a way. If your attitude is right, you find a way. You don’t think you can do it but you do it.
Everybody is as tough as they need to be in those situations,” John said. “It’s amazing how strong the human spirit is.”