There is gratitude, but sadness too.
He is glad to have the time with his wife, his son and daughter, his grandchildren, but he misses driving, hunting and “anything physical.”
He worries about being a burden.
“Worst of it is putting the whole family through it,” said Dave Gier, 70, of Pittsford.
In September 2018, Gier fell from a tree stand while preparing for archery season and trimming branches off Elm Road outside of Hudson in Southern Michigan’s Hillsdale County.
The fall, from what his son estimates was about 22 feet, damaged his brain and spine. It left him paralyzed down from the waist. He spent months in hospitals. At times, his family felt compelled to prepare for his imminent absence.
“I’m lucky to be alive,” said Gier, who relies on a motorized wheelchair.
He retains his cognitive function but is sometimes confused. He cannot recall recently acquired information, and damage to his right eye, on his dominant side, affects his sight – and his ability to hunt.
“It was dumb on my part. What can I say? Accidents happen, and they certainly happen in a tree stand.”
He wasn’t wearing a harness hooked into a rope system, and he urges hunters, heading to the woods Tuesday for the start of firearm deer season, not to take the same risk. “Be careful and put a safety belt on.”
Experts say it is an important message.
Hunters are more likely to fall out of a tree stand than be injured by firearms, said Dr. Alan Lazzara, an outdoorsman and emergency medicine physician at Henry Ford Jackson Hospital. “But there’s a lot of emphasis on firearm safety and not as much emphasis on tree-stand safety.”
Lazzara conducted a study of the Jackson hospital’s trauma registry and a cost and accounting database. From 2015 to 2019, he identified 33 patients with tree stand-related injuries. The most common injuries were fractures in the spine and lower extremities, Lazzara found. One person died.
In four cases, the patients used fall arrest systems or harnesses. In five incidents, they did not. In most cases, there was no documentation either way. Lazzara cites other studies, completed in 2017 and 2004, noting a 3 to 4% use rate among those injured in tree-stand incidents.
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Lazzara and the Michigan Department of Natural resources stress the importance of wearing a full-body harness that attaches to a secure fall line positioned above the head. Hunters always must maintain three points of contact with the tree and use a haul line to bring up weapons, unloaded, with the safety engaged. Do not attach anything to the trigger or the trigger guard, warns the DNR.
Gier’s son, Jeff, preaches whenever he can about lifelines. Hook in at the bottom and hunters remain attached all the way up the tree. “That’s just so simple to use that you’re dumb not to,” he said, pulling up a picture of the safety system on Amazon. The cost was $30 to $40.
People seem to believe they will be fine, that it won’t affect them.
“Until it does,” said Jeff Gier, 45 and also a hunter.
Late September 2018, Jeff was heading north to a family cottage. Near Mason, he received a phone call. “You could hear the pain in his voice.”
Dave did not know where he was. He still remembers nothing about the fall, or its immediate aftermath.
Jeff believes Dave braced his knee against a seemingly sturdy branch – “because I can see myself doing it” – to trim “that one little twig,” and the limb gave way, sending Dave head-first toward the ground.
“It’s a wonder we ever found him that day. That’s the miracle,” said his wife, Patty Gier, 69.
She hurried to the area while her son sped south on U.S. 127.
Patty and others located Dave among brush and brambles. The way he was positioned, Patty, a retired nurse, knew he would never walk again.
It is unclear how many others in Michigan are injured annually in tree stand incidents.
The Department of Natural Resources details, as legally mandated, hunting-related weapon injuries or casualties – there were seven in 2021 – but it does not report tree stand injures. There is no requirement to do so. “Collecting comprehensive statewide data on tree stand injuries would be difficult at best,” Ed Golder, DNR spokesperson, wrote in an email.
He said the DNR takes a “proactive approach.” Training on tree stand safety is a routine part of Michigan hunter education, he noted and linked to a DNR video and tips shared on social media.
The National Electronic Injury Surveillance System reported in 2021 there were 2,146 tree stand-related injuries. This was down from 3,472 in 2020. This data, however, is an estimate, statistically modeled from a sampling of hospital emergency department information, and likely underestimates, considering some injured hunters never go to an emergency department, notes Lazzara.
Also, the number of hunters has been decreasing for years.
Lazzara believes it is important information to track because the more people know about hunters falling from tree stands, the more they pay attention. “Or their wives or their grandmothers or whoever will say, ‘are you wearing a harness?’ And it will become cool to wear a harness, and not something that’s like, ‘well, I don’t need that.’”
He cited a study that found, on average, 1.66 firearm-related injuries per 10,000 hunters in a 16-year period ending in 2011. In contrast, there were about 3.9 tree stand-related injuries in 2011 per 10,000 hunters, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System. The rate increases to about 4 to 5 when looking only at big-game hunters, the type using tree stands. Using latest numbers, the rate would be about 2.4 per 10,000 big-game hunters.
Dave has been hunting since he was a kid.
He always was active and outdoorsy. He played high school sports. About 21 years ago, he built, with some assistance, his house, a tidy ranch on an impeccably maintained piece of property.
Well-loved about town, he worked in oil fields and later, supervised a school bus garage and ran public sewer systems in the Pittsford and Waldron areas, said his son, also a municipal water and sewer director.
The tree stand fall necessitated the retirement he had been pondering.
His rescuers used a backhoe to pull him out of the deep woods. A helicopter landed in a nearby field and took him to a Toledo hospital. He was there 10 days, mostly in intensive care. Doctors removed part of his skull to relieve pressure as his brain swelled. “Really thought we were going to lose him several times,” his son said.
He then spent 2.5 months at Michigan Medicine in Ann Arbor, where he underwent intensive rehabilitation.
His wife went back and forth from Hillsdale County.
“She’s been wonderful,” Dave says of Patty, his primary caretaker.
They’ve been married nearly 50 years and traveled across the country – several times to Hawaii and once to Alaska before the fall grounded them.
“I don’t know where you can get the courage to go on from something like that. This one is the best-spirited man… He always has been,” Patty said one evening after dinner. The two were sitting in their living room, the sun streaming in the front window. Their shih tzu mix Charlie moved about their feet.
“He don’t get cranky. His wife gets cranky, but he never gets cranky.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Dave replied.
“I would,” his wife said.
Jeff lives nearby and helps too, especially since Patty was diagnosed about a year ago with ovarian cancer, another difficult blow. Their daughter lives in Cedar Springs and aids when she can.
The house has been outfitted with ramps. They’ve adjusted, coped, but not without struggle.
Dave, demure, laments that his injuries have rendered him useless. “No, you’re not. We’re glad you’re still around,” his son assures him.
“So, we try our best to keep his spirits up,” Jeff said shortly before he drove Dave to Pittsford High School for his granddaughter’s volleyball game.
Most bothersome is the isolation, Patty said. People are hesitant. They don’t know what to say. “Your good friends will be right there, but others just back off.”
Dave tries not to talk about his plight. “You’re not gonna change it.”
He manages, mostly, to get himself in and out of bed, he has a hand-controlled “tank” he drives about his property, and Jeff had a zero-turn lawnmower specially outfitted for him. “So, the yard doesn’t grow much in the summer, because he mows it every other day for something to do,” Jeff said.
Last summer, Jeff took Dave to the cottage on Strawberry Lake, a beautiful blue-green expanse near Evart.
Jeff bought a long aluminum ramp and the family managed to get him in a boat and take him fishing – for the first time since 2018.
Dave was slower with the rod and reel, but snagged some.
“Awesome. Loved it,” Dave said, his face brightening. “I want to go again.”
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