PULLMAN – At the bottom of a 23-foot retaining wall, a young man lay in a pool of blood. The fall broke every bone in his face. His teeth were chipped, and he was barely conscious.
A police officer called out to him, asking him his name. The man groaned.
It was just minutes after midnight on Saturday, Sept. 10. In the hours that followed, as medical staff worked to save the young man, a police officer called the Whitman County coroner. The officer warned they might need an autopsy.
Each year, hundreds of Washington State University students are rushed to Pullman Regional Hospital for alcohol-related trauma or detox after nights of partying. In the past five years, hospital officials say, they have seen a rise in the blood-alcohol level of patients to an average of 0.33 percent – four times the legal limit for driving.
About eight to 10 of those cases each year are severe enough that the students must be flown to another hospital, said Stacey Aggabao, director of the emergency department at Pullman Regional Hospital.
“We get quite a few falls,” she said.
Incident reminiscent of another fall
For Pullman Police Officer Heidi Lambley, who patrols on weekends in Pullman, it has become a familiar scene: a night of students drinking, a walk home in the dark, and then a fall from an alarming height.
On May 3, 2009, Lambley responded to a call of what appeared to be an unconscious person next to the Moscow-Pullman Highway. When police arrived at 5:30 a.m., they found the body of Stuart Robertson, a 21-year-old WSU senior, at the bottom of a 40-foot cliff.
The night before Stuart’s death, he was seen leaving a party alone. His autopsy confirmed that he was drunk when he fell.
Lambley said the scene was heartbreaking. ”It’s a sad way to die by yourself,” she said. “I would hate for an end like that for anyone.”
Last month, 2 ½ years later, Lambley thought she was seeing it all over again: another fall from a potentially deadly height.
At the bottom of the wall, the man continued to mumble on the asphalt. Paramedics strapped him to a backboard and rushed him to Pullman Regional Hospital. It was there they learned his name: Chad Heffelfinger, a 20-year-old WSU student.
X-rays showed both of Heffelfinger’s cheekbones were broken, his jaw was cracked in two places, his nose in three. His skull was fractured, and his right eye socket was destroyed.
“He was one fracture away from severing his face from his skull,” Aggabao said.
At Pullman Regional, Heffelfinger’s childhood friend, Mimi Lee Hall, was taken back to see him just as the hospital staff was preparing to fly him to Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane. They told her that they suspected severe brain trauma.
The following morning, Heffelfinger awoke unable to talk, his eyes were swollen shut, barely able to move. His family had driven from Vancouver, Wash., to be with him.
When he heard his mother’s voice, Heffelfinger lifted his hand in recognition.
A painful recovery
It was days before Heffelfinger was able to speak again. As he began to recover, he communicated through hand motions to show he understood the conversations taking place around him.
The student doesn’t remember the fall, the ambulance, the Pullman hospital, or the helicopter ride. His memory stops after he left the party near where he fell. He remembers drinking only jungle juice, a sugary drink made with hard liquor.
“I wish more than anything to know what happened to me that night,” Heffelfinger said.
The police report concluded that he most likely climbed over the fence above the retaining wall and lost his balance. He rolled down a short hill to the top of the retaining wall and hit it with enough force to dislodge the top piece of concrete and fall with it.
“Every single night I pray for a flashback to remember why I climbed over the fence,” Heffelfinger said.
He spent 20 days in the hospital, where he underwent two surgeries and had nine metal plates inserted in his face. More than a month after the incident, Heffelfinger is home with his family in Vancouver. He can’t open his mouth all the way, he has frequent headaches, and talking for long periods is painful.
But his recovery shocks everyone – the police, his doctors, his family, his friends and himself. He has no neck injury or obvious brain damage. He hopes to return to WSU next semester.
An enduring problem
In the weekends following Heffelfinger’s fall, police continued to stop people who were staggering home by themselves.
Lambley, the Pullman officer, said it was the same after Robertson died: Students seemed to be partying even harder and crazier.
“A lot of things go unrecognized by this community – and that’s frustrating,” she said. “It doesn’t seem to have impacted the behaviors of anyone else.”
WSU has several ongoing programs to educate students about partying safely, said Patricia Maarhuis, coordinator of the university’s Alcohol and Drug Counseling, Assessment, and Prevention Services. However, many students don’t internalize tragic incidents that they read about, she said.
“Students don’t think it could happen to them,” she said.
For Lambley, the thought of two students having similar accidents is troubling. One died. One lived. And she knows it could happen again.