Transplant heroics in ride to Vail
Summit County Correspondent
Vail CO Colorado
SUMMIT COUNTY, Colorado — When Rick Adams woke up for his night shift at St. Anthony Summit Medical Center on April 17, it was 4:30 p.m. and a blizzard blanketed the area.
Adams, a critical care respiratory therapist who commutes to the Colorado high country, was expected at work in two hours. With Interstate 70 on lock down and St. Anthony’s day-shift workers immobile because of the storm, Adams momentarily thought he was stuck in Denver, Colorado.
But, within five minutes, his plans changed considerably. He was asked to drive a surgeon from the University of Colorado Hospital to Vail Valley Medical Center in Vail, Colorado, and back on the closed interstate to harvest organs that could save three lives in Denver — two kidney-transplant patients and one liver-transplant patient.
It was the dying wish of Mylissa Burnett Eckdahl, who was deemed brain dead in Vail, to donate her organs to others.
Adams, who previously served as a special forces flight paramedic in the U.S. Air Force, immediately agreed to help. During nine years of military service, he learned to drive 40 different types of emergency-transport vehicles, often while under enemy fire. He served tours of combat in the Middle East and Bosnia, and returned to civilian life in 1999.
“I welcomed the opportunity,” Adams said. “This was the first time I could do something like this outside of combat. The mission was essential, period.”
Adams recently received a Halos for Heroes medal of valor from St. Anthony Summit Medical Center/Centura Health for going above and beyond the call of duty.
“The gift that their daughter gave was more of a gift than I gave,” he said. “I transported the gift.”
Within a half-hour of the call, Adams picked up Dr. Jeff Campsen at the University of Colorado Hospital and then drove slowly toward Vail. Adams often drove on the interstate’s center divider to avoid dangerous areas on the road.
“Colorado State Patrol said ‘good luck, you’re on your own,'” Adams said. “We had no escorts. The snow was literally blinding, coming over the top of my hood, and the snow on I-70 was 30 inches deep at one point.”
After making it as far as US 40, they crashed into a ditch, his souped-up special services GMC Suburban submarined into the snow. Adams, at that point, thought they were stuck, but he managed to claw his way back onto the road.
After six-and-a-half hours, they arrived at Vail Valley Medical Center, where two kidneys and a liver were removed from 43-year-old Eckdahl, an Eagle woman who was paralyzed in a 2001 car crash.
By the time the organs were extracted, it was 1:15 a.m., he said. And the clock was ticking. They had until 5 a.m. to get the organs back to Denver.
“I turned on a movie and told the physicians it would be a bad trip,” Adams said. “It was the worst by Idaho Springs. I’ve never seen it that deep.”
On the drive back to Denver, they encountered icy conditions and the remnants of avalanches while driving through white-out conditions.
The Suburban’s 1.5 million candle-power headlights were no help. “When you turn my lights on at night, it’s daytime,” but Adams said he couldn’t see anything but snow.
The team made it back to the hospital at 4:20 a.m.
Adams’ fiancee, Meashell Roth, said she was a little worried about the trek, but had full confidence in his driving. Adams and Roth recently welcomed their first son, Timothy Richard Adams Esquire. Adams now lives with Roth and his three-month old son in Idaho Springs.
Adams’ only regret is that he caused $5,000 worth of damage to his truck.
“Life outside of combat doesn’t hold the same sense of adventure,” Adams said. “I save lives all the time. That’s what I do. I love this.”
Caitlin Row can be reached at (970) 668-4633 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tire chains are your friend, especially if Interstate 70 is snowy and slick and you’re a trucker trying to make a deadline.