Neil Dougherty feels like a very lucky man this Easter.
The Allegany County wildlife consultant suffered what could have been a catastrophic head injury last month in the Adirondack woods and attributes his survival to the OnStar communications system in his pickup truck.
“I could push a button, but I couldn’t dial a phone,” Dougherty said of his condition after a tree branch clocked him on the head in Long Lake.
“I’m luckier than the guys who won the MegaMillions lottery, I’ll tell you that,” Dougherty said this week from his home in Belmont, a small town 90 miles south of Rochester.
Dougherty is a partner in North Country Whitetails, a company that helps clients with deer camps manage their land to create better hunting opportunities.
On March 18, he was making a spring check on a private camp deep in the woods between Long Lake and Tupper Lake. He was on a farm tractor about three miles off Route 30 when he stopped to move a large branch that had fallen across the private camp road.
“I believe that dislodged another branch,” the 36-year-old said. “It caught me on the side of the head. I wasn’t planning to do any work, so I wasn’t wearing a helmet, which I normally would have.”
Dougherty guesses it took him 20 minutes to reorient himself. He knew there was no cell service where he was. He got back on the tractor and headed toward the road, but he thinks the trip took nearly an hour because he had to stop sometimes due to nausea. The tractor’s gears seemed to be getting harder to operate, too.
He expected to find cell service when he reached his truck, which was parked inside a heavy metal gate that blocked the hunting camp road.
But he couldn’t figure out how to make his smartphone work. It’s not an unknown phenomena when people have an emergency, since smartphones need to be unlocked and an application selected before they can even be used to make a phone call to 911.
Dougherty tried to make the call but failed, selecting the wrong application. “I had pretty much disabled the phone,” he recounted. “My brain was pretty rattled. I was having a difficult time negotiating.”
He formulated a plan to bash his 2010 GMC 3500 pickup through the heavy gate. But even in his damaged condition, he realized this wasn’t television — and it was a bad idea.
“Then suddenly it hit me that I had OnStar. I hit the button, and they were there immediately.”
OnStar, which is a subsidiary of General Motors, uses the best available cellphone network and GPS to communicate with and locate parties who call, said Rob Barnes, a General Motors spokesman.
“They told me they knew exactly where I was,” Dougherty said. “It was a very good feeling to know someone else was in control.”
An OnStar dispatcher called the Long Lake Rescue Squad and it transported Dougherty to Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake. But what Dougherty presented, at least two hours after his injury, was more than the regional hospital could handle, and plans were made to fly him by helicopter to a trauma center, Fletcher Allen in Burlington, Vt.
“I thought I had a pretty good knock on the head. They were talking about a fractured skull and bleeding on the brain. I thought they were talking about someone else.”
They weren’t. He spent four days in the Burlington hospital and a fifth getting his sea legs back before his wife and he attempted the nine-hour drive home.
Dougherty had a fractured skull and a cracked vertebra, but it could have been much worse. “It doesn’t look like I’ll have any lasting effects from this,” he said in the interview.
His father, Craig, who is also a partner in North Country Whitetails, wrote about his son’s experience in a blog for Outdoor Life.
“I share this story simply to let my fellow outdoorsmen in on what I think might be a well-kept secret: You don’t have to wreck your car or slide off the road to use your vehicle’s OnStar feature,” he wrote. “It is darned handy to have as an emergency communications tool when you’re out in the field.”
OnStar comes standard in all GM vehicles these days, according to Barnes, and new vehicles come with a free trial period of six months to a year before a monthly fee kicks in. The service can be installed on other vehicle brands, too, he said.
Dougherty will be spending this weekend with his wife and 18-month-old daughter — and appreciating family more than ever.
“I think this really resets a few things,” he said.