In a heartbreaking reversal of fortune, a 14-year-old snowboarder who amazed rescuers and captured the nation’s attention by surviving a six-day ordeal in the storm-wracked San Gabriel Mountains of Southern California, succumbed to the silent ravages of infection from his injuries, medical authorities said Saturday.
Jeff Thornton, who had experienced increasingly severe breathing difficulties for about 24 hours, went into cardiac arrest about 10 p.m. Friday. Efforts to revive him failed, and he was pronounced dead at 10:39 p.m., according to officials at Loma Linda University Medical Center in Redlands, Calif.
His doctors said infection that set in from his injuries - frostbite on his legs, arms and hands, dehydration, broken bones and an eye injury - had overwhelmed the ninth-grader from Brawley, Calif. Thornton had gone without food and endured several winter storms and subfreezing temperatures as he struggled alone after being lost Feb. 7 about 6,000 feet high in the rugged mountains.
What the boy “went through in the mountains took a big toll on his body,” pediatric intensive care specialist Dr. Shamel A. Abd-Allah said at a news conference on Saturday.
“We are all amazed at the rapidity of this disease, how he was doing well and then not so well. … These infections can be overwhelming,” Abd-Allah said.
Abd-Allah and another physician, Dr. Takkin Lo, said they treated Thornton, who had developed some gangrene from the frostbite, with broad spectrum antibiotics and oxygen. The youth was transferred to the pediatric intensive care unit Thursday night when he began having difficulty breathing. On Friday morning, he underwent exploratory surgery to find and try to clear any pockets of infection on his gangrenous feet, Abd-Allah said. But his condition deteriorated throughout the day.
“We attempted resuscitation with aggressive CPR for an extended period of time, but we were unable to get him back,” the physician said.
Thornton’s family issued this statement: “After the elation felt upon Jeff being found, the despair of now losing him has devastated his family and friends.” The statement went on to thank “everyone for their continued prayers and support.”
Word of Thornton’s death stunned rescuers and others who had followed his story since his disappearance while snowboarding with his uncle. Six days later, searchers found him dazed and cold but with seemingly few serious injuries, sitting beside a creek about two miles from where he had vanished.
The initial reports were optimistic at Foothill Presbyterian Hospital in Glendora, where Thornton was treated the first 24 hours after his rescue on Feb. 13. He was transferred the following day to Loma Linda, which has equipment to treat frostbite-caused infection through the administration of high concentrations of oxygen.
But Thorton was much sicker than most people realized.
“One of the things the family has a right to do is limit the amount of information,” Loma Linda spokesman Augustus Cheatham said at the news conference. That created the expectation that Thornton was “just doing fine.”
“He has really been quite ill since his injuries, which probably had something to do with his being transferred here for treatment,” Cheatham said.
Thornton gave a brief television interview and received a visit from Anaheim Mighty Ducks hockey players Thursday - the night before he died.
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