It took dozens of park rangers, searchers, doctors and nurses, but Michael Knapinski, who became lost amid freezing, whiteout conditions in Mount Rainier National Park last weekend, was brought back to life in what his medical team is calling a miraculous recovery.
The 45-year-old from Woodinville was on a snowy hike with a friend on the morning of Nov. 7. The two separated below the Muir Snowfield. His friend planned to continue on skis to Camp Muir while Knapinski snowshoed down toward Paradise, where they expected to meet up.
“I was pretty close to the end (of the trail). … Then it turned to whiteout conditions, and I couldn’t see anything,” Knapinski told The Seattle Times in a phone interview Friday. The last thing he said he remembers is taking baby steps down the mountain, surrounded by white.
“I’m not sure what happened. I think I fell,” he said, noting bruises and scrapes all over his body.
When Knapinski didn’t make it back to the Paradise parking lot that evening, his friend reported him missing, according to the park.
Three National Park Service teams searched for Knapinski until early Sunday, when winter conditions minimized visibility and temperatures dropped to 16 degrees, the park said. Later that morning, teams returned to their search.
Because cloudy weather initially prevented rescue teams from launching air operations, the helicopter team didn’t start searching until later that afternoon, the park said.
Helicopter searchers finally found Knapinski in the Nisqually River drainage, about a mile upstream from the Glacier Bridge, the park said. Once the ground teams reached him about an hour later, a Navy helicopter from an air station on Whidbey Island responded to bring him to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, the park said.
Knapinski arrived at Harborview Sunday night, still unconscious.
He had a pulse, recalled Dr. Jenelle Badulak, one of the first people to start treating him, but he soon went into cardiac arrest.
“He died while he was in the ER, which gave us the unique opportunity to try and save his life by basically bypassing his heart and lungs, which is the most advanced form of artificial life support that we have in the world,” Badulak said.
He remained dead for about 45 minutes, while teams repeatedly administered CPR and hooked him up to an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine, she said. In that process, blood is pumped outside of the body to a heart-lung machine that removes carbon dioxide and sends oxygen-filled blood back to tissues in the body.
After they restarted his heart, the medical team spent the entire night at his side making sure he continued to stabilize, said Dr. Nick Johnson, who’s part of Harborview’s ECMO team.
Two days later, Knapinski opened his eyes.
Whitney Holen, a trauma nurse in Harborview’s intensive-care unit, was sitting beside him when he woke up Tuesday night. She’s been at Harborview for 12 years, and said that moment will forever be one of the highlights of her career.
The first thing he wanted to do was call his family, she said.
“He was crying and they were crying and I’m fairly sure I cried a little bit,” Holen said. “It was just really special to see someone that we had worked so hard on from start to finish to then wake up that dramatically and that impressively.”
She added, “It reminded me of this is why we do this. This is why we are doing the long hours, this is why we’re away from our families, this is why we’re here.”
While Knapinski was still recovering the next day — his kidneys weren’t functioning properly, his heart was struggling to circulate blood and his skin was burned from frostbite — hospital workers believe he’s going to be OK, said Dr. Saman Arbabi, the medical director of Harborview’s surgical intensive-care unit.
“He came back from the dead. … Maybe not medically quite correct, but his heart wasn’t beating for more than 45 minutes,” Arbabi said. “It’s amazing.”
Knapinski, who grew up in Kirkland, said he usually makes his way to a trail at least twice a week, though he had never hiked up Mount Rainier before. One of his favorite trails, he said, is Denny Creek trail near Snoqualmie Falls.
He said he spends a lot of time doing volunteer work at the Salvation Army Food Bank in Seattle and building houses for foster children through Overlake Christian Church in Redmond.
“And as soon as I get physically able, that’s going to be my calling in life,” he said. “Just helping people. … I’m still just shocked and amazed.”
Knapinski, who hadn’t been discharged as of Friday night, said he’s still having some cognitive delays, but is generally in good spirits and making improvements.
“(The Harborview staff) just didn’t give up on me. … They did one heck of a job at keeping me alive,” he said. “I’ve got a million people to thank.”