I Fell Off a Mountain – and Lived to Thank the Man Who Rescued Me

January 4, 2021Paula Kaplan-Reiss

On a sunny December day, I had the opportunity to create an amazing memory to replace the one I lost.

On August 10, 2019, a beautiful summer day, I hiked with my husband and somehow fell off Monument Mountain in Great Barrington, MA. Falling 75 feet, I suffered a concussion and broke many bones. As my husband screamed frantically for me, an 18-year-old, native to the area and experienced on this steep, rocky mountain, was hiking with his mom and felt sure he could find me in the thick brush.

Venturing off the hiking path, he took 20 minutes navigating treacherous terrain and located me, moaning and leaning precariously on a ledge. He called 911 and stayed with me for five hours until I was successfully pulled up to safety and helicoptered to a nearby hospital/trauma center. I remember hiking to the top of the mountain – then nothing else for the next four days.

One of my first memories is being told about my accident and the brave teen who rescued me. I immediately called him from the hospital and thanked him.

About a year ago, I read a cover story about the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission in the New York Times, an organization started by Andrew Carnegie 114 years ago, created to honor those who risk their lives to save others. I knew Henry, my hero, was deserving of this medal, and I quickly filled out an application. Months before first responders and frontline workers were discussed and praised daily, I had the experience of a young man who thought nothing of trying to save my life while risking his.

The Carnegie Commission, which receives thousands of applications per year and awards about 10 percent of the entries, spent months extensively researching my accident and Henry’s response and actions. Unsurprisingly, Henry and I were both informed he was a winner of this prestigious medal.

During this pandemic, I was determined that Henry receive his medal in person – and I could think of no better location for his medal presentation than the top of Monument Mountain. 

I had miraculously made a complete recovery after surgery repairing my tibia and fibula. I had been exercising daily, including a return to hiking. Yet I had not returned to the site of my accident. Somehow, venturing up the mountain with the young man who rescued me seemed the perfect place to meet Henry and his parents and express my boundless gratitude for my life.

Masked on this beautiful December day, 14 of us, including my family, trekked up the mountain. Henry and his mother and stepfather were as lovely as I imagined. He and his mother filled me in on some of the harrowing details of hearing my husband scream and pointing to the areas where Henry attempted to find me. Navigating the numerous boulders, viewing the steep drop-offs, I more fully appreciated the miracle of my surviving my fall.

When we finally reached the rocky summit, we found a relatively safe place to gather for the medal ceremony. I gazed at everyone and remarked at what a difficult year this had been for everyone.

I recognized that we were in the middle of the holiday of Hanukkah, during which we celebrate many miracles. I discussed the miracle of the small cruse of oil, enough for one night of light, illuminating our ancient temple for eight nights. I then described the symbols on the dreideldreidelסְבִיבוֹן"Spinning top" in Yiddish (derived from German); "sevivon" in Hebrew; toy used in a children's Hanukkah game. , with letters representing “A great miracle happened there.” This mountain was where my miracles happened.

Henry was my miracle who found me. The fire department and rescue squads from numerous surrounding towns saw me to safety. The helicopter pilot flew me swiftly to treatment. My surgeon and medical staff rapidly and effectively put me back together. My orthopedist and occupational and physical therapists helped me exercise and heal. My family and friends cared for me and loved me. Miracles abound during difficult times.

The head of the Carnegie Commission read a full description of Henry’s heroic actions and discussed the hope that heroes like Henry give to our world. Neis gadol hayah sham – may more miracles continue in our world in crisis and may we always remember to acknowledge and express gratitude to our rescuers. They are our heroes.

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