Friday, February 08, 2008
BY LAURA McVICKER, Columbian staff writer
When Mary Townsen tripped, she saw the butcher knife below her - pointing up. She fell face first on the blade and it plunged into her left eye. Blood was running down her throat, and she felt a choking sensation as she tried to stand up. "Will you help me," she yelled to her neighbor.
Paramedics and police arrived at Townsen's Battle Ground home and rushed her to Legacy Emanuel Hospital in Portland. They all had the same question: "Who did this to you?"
Nobody, she told them - she was gardening with the knife when she stood up for a moment, lost her footing and fell on the blade. The knife, which was stuck in the ground with the blade pointing up and braced by a rock, pierced her brain, nearly to the back of her skull.
After her terrifying ordeal, the 72-year-old was hospitalized 15 days and underwent surgery to remove the knife, which doctors said remarkably missed her brain stem, the most critical part of the brain, and left her eye fully intact. The miracle of it baffled surgeons.
That was 2 ¼ years ago.
Now, Townsen suffers only certain memory lapses of information, such as street names and phone numbers of loved ones, which doctors attribute to the trauma to her brain. She has full vision.
Townsen felt no shock or fear during the episode, she said, and now has a simple message.
"I think God saved me so I can tell everybody not to be afraid to die," Townsen said earlier this week from her home.
Her journey included the surgery and relearning tasks she's known most of her life - reading, writing, adding and subtracting and driving a car. Her late husband, Chuck, helped her before his July 2006 death from cancer. She's still learning.
It was Aug. 16, 2005, when Townsen was cutting weeds in her front yard. Neighbor Kelly Eldred's daughter, playing basketball in the driveway, heard a strangled call for help. She saw the silhouette of a knife sticking from the woman's head. She ran inside to tell her mom, who went next door as the daughter called 911.
Eldred, stunned, cradled the woman in her arms while Townsen pleaded with her to take the knife out. Eldred decided to wait until paramedics arrived.
"I thought, 'She's going to die any minute,' " Eldred said. "We didn't know if she was going to lose that eye. We didn't know how she would be mentally - if she would be OK."
Like 911 dispatchers, paramedics were in disbelief while transporting Townsen to Emanuel. It took much assurance from Townsen, Eldred and family members that she hadn't been stabbed by another person.
That moment was the last Townsen remembered. She awoke 15 days later in a hospital bed. She was discharged with her eye intact and little head trauma.
Surgeons waited three days before removing the knife, and beforehand, told Townsen's family members the operation was likely to kill Townsen, said Janice Hook of Clark County, one of Townsen's three grown children. The threat: removing the knife could likely split the carotid artery in the brain.
Remarkably, however, Dr. Kent Grewe, Townsen's neurosurgeon, said when he removed the knife, her eye remained untouched, and there was no bleeding. And a CAT scan showed the knife had missed her brain stem and carotid artery by only millimeters, escaping fatal injuries.
The results were astounding for Grewe, who called it "the luck of the trajectory" that the knife missed these key organs. And Grewe believed the knife went through the eye socket, but narrowly missed the actual eyeball.
"This is one of the most bizarre stories we've had," he said. "It's one of those one-in-a- million cases."
No one was more surprised than Townsen's family. But how would she fare at home in the coming months?
When Townsen arrived home and began her usual routine, she realized she couldn't balance a checkbook. She didn't remember streets. She'd mix up how to prepare a grilled cheese sandwich. She had to use a walker.
Slowly, but surely, her memory began returning, and simple things such as doing addition and subtraction became easier. A year later, her husband taught her to drive.
This wasn't Townsen's first near-death experience. She was 4 when she suffered a reaction from anesthetic during an operation to remove her tonsils and remembers gates and a faceless man telling her her time hadn't come yet. Next time, he said, she could stay.
Doctors who operated on Townsen agreed she' must be on pretty good terms with a higher power.
They told Townsen's daughter: "Neither of us are religious men, but if there is a God, she must know him by his first name."
Online Video: Visit with Mary Townsen at www.columbian.com/video