David Olsen will never forget Thanksgiving 1981. That’s the day he returned home following a four-month hospital stay – the result of a near fatal boating accident.
It happened on a scorching August day.
Olsen, 21, looked forward to cooling off at Long Lake in his best friend’s sailboat. They set out from Willow Bay Resort.
“I was lying on my stomach on the pontoon with my feet braced on the metal frame of the boat,” he recalled. “I was paddling with my hands to get us out into the current.”
His friend’s girlfriend was on the other pontoon.
He has no memory of what happened next, but his friend and witnesses on the beach will never forget it.
The boat’s 28-foot mast came in contact with power lines from the resort that hung at a dangerous 26 1/2 feet. Olsen became a human electrical conduit.
“Brad (his friend) heard a popping sound and saw an orange glow over the boat,” Olsen said.
Instinctively, Brad kicked Olsen off the pontoon and got his girlfriend to shore. Olsen sank to the bottom of the lake. A paramedic on the beach saw the accident and rushed into the water with Brad to pull Olsen from the lake.
“The next thing I remember, I was on the shore and in pain. I felt like I was lying on a bed of coals – like Bunsen burners were lit underneath me,” he said.
Jean was also shocked, but her injuries weren’t as severe.
An ambulance arrived within five minutes.
“I don’t think things just happen,” Olsen said. “That ambulance was nearby, returning from a false alarm call.”
Also providential, Providence Sacred Heart Medical Centerhad a burn center at the time.
“Dr. James Brinkman, one of the best burn doctors in town, ‘happened’ to be on call,” Olsen said.
Olsen was in critical condition. His body was swelling at a life-threatening rate and he was in danger of suffocation. Organ failure was the primary concern.
“The doctor told Mom I had serious damage and they didn’t know to what extent – they told her if I survived I’d likely be a vegetable.”
From his office overlooking busy North Division Street, he winced at the memory of his mother’s heartache.
Thirty-seven years and 78 surgeries later, Olsen has not only survived – he’s thrived, establishing a successful career as a financial adviser and enjoying a happy marriage to his wife, Dawn.
But that seemed unthinkable in the months following his electrical shock.
“You burn from the inside out,” Olsen said. “My nerve endings were destroyed in my feet. They told me they were black and roasted.”
There was a lot of dead tissue and muscle to remove – an agonizing process called debridement. His mother could hear his screams down the hall.
“It’s not something I’d ever wish on anyone,” he said.
That first hospital stay lasted four months. His left arm was amputated, as well as his right leg below the knee.
The former Rogers High School three-sport athlete shrugged.
“I’ve never been one to believe the physical body is the most important part of a person. The soul is the most important,” he said. “My soul wasn’t damaged by the electrocution – it wasn’t amputated and that’s the part that’s going to have an eternal home.”
During his long hospital stay his mother brought him homemade meals twice a day and a pivotal piece of emotional healing happened when his friend, Brad, visited him.
“It was difficult for Brad to come and see me,” Olsen recalled. “But it was important for me to tell him that I didn’t blame him for the accident – that it wasn’t his fault.”
Indeed, in litigation settled out of court, the fault was assigned to the power company, the resort and the maker of the sailboat.
He was overjoyed when he was able to leave the hospital on Thanksgiving.
“I was exhilarated to go home in a wheelchair,” Olsen recalled. “I was probably beaming. It was an amazing Thanksgiving.”
The intervening years brought many surgeries and likely more will ensue, but Olsen’s resiliency and faith remain strong.
“I could have easily gone on disability, but I didn’t want that event to define my life,” he said. “Although I’ve had to endure much suffering and pain and many changes physically over the past 37 years – I would like to think that my faith, my attitude, and my drive to be the best I can be hasn’t changed.”
He credits his Christian faith, church community and supportive family for his ability to persevere.
“The electrocution tested my faith,” Olsen said. “But I chose to believe God is still in control and he has a plan for my life.”
Olsen takes every opportunity to encourage others.
“Some people say, ‘I’m so sorry you had to experience that.’ I tell them I feel like I’m a better person now,” he said. “I don’t consider myself disabled, I consider myself fortunate.”
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