For the past 30 years, Barb Schierkolk has approached Thanksgiving with profound gratitude for the most basic of blessings - her life.
Back in 1982 Schierkolk was the young mother of Dustin, 3, and MaLinda, 10 months. She and her husband Bill were residing in Westminster but they were on a hunting trip with seven other friends, camping on Yarmony Mountain in northern Eagle County. On Nov. 6, 1982, Schierkolk's life changed forever when she was accidentally shot.
Between being pregnant and at home with young kids, Schierkolk said she hadn't been hunting for four years when she packed up for the camp that fall. "But I had been hunting since I was little. Both my parents hunted and I grew up around guns," she said.
The nine-member group set up camp in a remote location and was having great fortune.
"We headed up on Saturday morning and throughout the day, seven of the nine filled their licenses," Schierkolk said. She was among the people who bagged a deer, but a 15-year-old neighbor boy hadn't shot an animal yet when the group decided to head back to camp around 4 p.m.
"Because the boy hadn't filled his license, he asked if he could ride back with Bill and I," said Schierkolk. The youth's father gave him a single rifle shell to load in his gun if he spotted a buck. The nine hunters were riding in three vehicles down the hill, with the Schierkolk's truck in the middle of the caravan.
The Schierkolks began the drive down the mountain and Barb spotted some animals on a distant hillside. They pulled over to scope out the scene.
"Billy (the 15-year-old) had his one shell loaded and he was trying to get a scope on the deer," she said. "I was starting to turn around to see if I could help him and Boom! I felt this rush of heat go through my body and I hit the ground."
The youth's high power, bolt action 302 rifle fired from a distance of about 5 feet. The bullet tore through Schierkolk's right thigh and blew out more than five inches of femur bone and femoral artery along with a huge swath of muscle and flesh. The bullet also traveled through her left thigh.
She collapsed into the dirt, which added lots of contamination to the open would. She was bleeding profusely and she was a long way from help.
Bill Schierkolk took off his belt and fashioned a tourniquet and the other people in the hunting party bundled up Barb and placed her in the back of a Ford Bronco. "Bill got back there with me and held the belt," she said "We had 4 to 4 1/2 miles to get down to the main road and we are talking about a rough four-wheel drive road."
On a good day, Schierkolk said it would take about an hour to get down. Because of the emergency situation, the Bronco driver was pushing the limits and ended up with a flat tire. Then there was issues with the spare.
"When I was first shot, I hit the ground and I heard someone say it got the artery. I just started praying that God would let me live to raise my kids," said Schierkolk. "At that moment, I felt a sense of peace, but then I started praying they would fix that flat tire quickly!"
Those were pre-cell phone days so the hunters were desperately trying to reach someone via CB radio so they could rendezvous with emergency services at Colorado Highway 131. Eventually they made contact with a truck driver who was passing through the area. When he reached McCoy, he found a phone and called 911 to let emergency services know that someone had been shot in a hunting accident. "If not for that trucker, I don't know what would have happened," said Schierkolk. "I wish I knew who he was."
When the call came in, the person who responded was Charlene Kirby. For years she was the sole EMT/First Responder in the McCoy area.
Kirby grew up in the northern Eagle County ranching region. "From the time I can remember, I wanted to be in the medical profession," she said. Her life took a little detour when she married the boy from a neighboring ranch and "decided to be a mother and a ranch wife."
Her vocation presented itself after her son suffered a choking incident and her father-in-law was able to save him. Shortly after that happened, an advanced first-aid class was taught at McCoy and Kirby's husband and father-in-law encouraged her to enroll. Then the class instructors encouraged Kirby and another woman to continue their studies and become EMTs.
"We became a little rescue squad," said Kirby. They filled a big void in the area's emergency medical services.
"When things happened in McCoy, they would be bad. But they didn't happen very often," said Kirby.
Such was the case on Nov. 6, 1982. Kirby was at home and her father was visiting when the call came in. He asked if she would use some help and climbed in Kirby's vehicle to meet the hunters as they came down from the mountain. "We got there and they weren't there yet, but we could see the lights coming down the hill," Kirby said
When the vehicle arrived, Kirby sprang into action to stabilize Schierkolk for an ambulance ride to the hospital. "My dad said he had never seen me like that, bossing people around," said Kirby. "He could see I was totally focused."
"And I do remember getting on her husband for holding that belt so tight," she added, with a grin.
"Charlene said she had a really hard time getting Bill to let go of that belt," said Schierkolk.
After the ambulance arrived, Kirby stayed with Schierkolk for the ride to the hospital. "I asked her the other day if she remembered me going down to Vail with her and she said no," said Kirby.
When they arrived at Vail, Kirby handed over the patient. Her father had followed her to the hospital and the pair then drove back home. But they never forgot about that evening.
For Schierkolk, the arrival in Vail marked the beginning of a long recovery process. She was transferred via Flight for Life to Saint Anthony's Hospital in Denver where a team of five surgeons had assembled. Three members of the team recommended amputating her leg but two members believed they could save it. A six-hour surgery commenced. It would be the first of 20 major surgeries she would have in the next 30 years.
In the weeks and months after the accident, Schierkolk underwent an aggressive rehabilitation. The boy who shot her watched every morning as she struggled to get in the car to go to rehab. The youth was consumed with guilt, but eventually Schierkolk had the opportunity to speak with him and clear the air. She noted that she forgave him immediately after the incident and not long after the two of them spoke, his family moved away from Westminster and she lost contact with the boy.
Although she forgave the shooter, Schierkolk noted that she wants other youths to learn from her experience.
"I speak at Hunter Education classes because no matter what, if he had his gun pointed in a safe direction that day, I would not have been shot."
To this day, Schierkolk suffers chronic pain tied to her shooting injuries, but she keeps a busy lifestyle that includes operating a new home-based business called Castle Peak Embroidery and volunteering with the Victim Impact Panel, a group she has been involved with since 1994.
Back in 1992, her husband's work brought the Schierkolk family to Eagle County. They have been Eagle residents since then.
"Five years after we moved up here, we took the ATVs up Yarmony Mountain to the place where I was shot. We reminisced about how far we have come. It was something I needed to do," said Schierkolk.
But there was one other thing she needed to do and it took 30 years for it to happen. Schierkolk wanted to reconnect with Kirby and tell her thank you.
As the 30th anniversary of the shooting loomed, Schierkolk decided she needed to reach out to Kirby. Schierkolk noted it was ironic that although they live in a small valley, she and Kirby had never crossed paths since that day in 1982.
That's not to say they didn't keep tabs on one another. For months after the accident, Kirby called down to St. Anthony's to get updates regarding Schierkolk. "I was so glad they were able to save her and her leg," she said. Kirby said her father was always interested in the case as well.
"She has stayed in his heart for 30 years," said Kirby. "And she was always in my mind this time of year."
The feeling was reciprocal.
"I decided I needed to meet Charlene Kirby. I needed to give her a hug," said Schierkolk. "She helped me live to raise my kids and now my grandkids."
During the course of 30 years, Kirby eventually began work as an EMT at Vail Valley Medical Center. She then attended nursing school and graduated in 1996. In April of this year, she earned her master's degree in nursing. Kirby is now the nurse/manager of the Gypsum and Avon Urgent Care clinics. Schierkolk was able to track her down at work and planned a surprise visit.
Kirby had no idea why she was being called to the lobby of the Avon clinic on Nov. 6. "I had a patient the day before who was mad about his bill and he wanted to yell and be angry. When they said a woman wanted to talk to me I was hoping it wasn't another problem," said Kirby.
She was happily surprised. Actually, happily shocked would be a more accurate description.
"Tears were running down Barb's face and she said to me, 'Thirty years ago today, you saved my life,'" said Kirby. "Then we both started crying."
The two spoke for awhile, sharing their memories of that day. "She gave me a picture of her family and she said, 'Because of you, I got to see this beautiful family grow up,'" said Kirby "I told her that I didn't save her life, her husband and God did that. "
"It was important that I finally got to meet her," said Schierkolk. "She has the right knowledge and the skills to do what needed to be done that night to save my life and my leg. It takes a special person to do her job."
While Schierkolk is eternally grateful for everything Kirby did that day, Kirby is grateful that she was able to help 30 years ago and grateful for the opportunity to reconnect.
"Being in emergency work, you don't know what ultimately happens with people. You just do what you do and you don't expect people to remember," said Kirby. "I just feel really blessed."