After surviving 21-foot deer stand fall, Blake Barber is counting his blessings, urging other hunters to be safe

By Susan Christensen
Health and Research News Service

Dr. Samuel Grissom, medical director at Methodist Rehabilitation Center, had positive news to deliver as Blake Barber readied to leave the Jackson hospital after undergoing therapy to recover from a spinal cord injury suffered in a deer stand fall. "His prognosis is really good," Grissom said. "He's really lucky."

Jasmine Woodall, a registered nurse at Methodist Rehabilitation Center, goes over some paperwork with Blake Barber as he winds up an 11-day stay at the Jackson hospital. Barber said he was scared when he first began therapy. "I wondered if I was going to be me when I got out," he said. "But thanks to great physicians, therapists and God's grace, I'm coming out grateful."

Ever since he fell 21 feet from a deer stand, Blake Barber of Vicksburg has been wearing “a big Ninja Turtle shell.”

At least that’s what his 2-year-old son, Mason, calls the chest-to-waist brace. 

At Methodist Rehabilitation Center in Jackson, the equipment is known as a thoracic lumbar sacral orthosis. It’s the default fashion for patients whose spines have been pieced back together with rods and screws.

Mason has adjusted to dad’s new look, but his mom, Ashlee, still feels blindsided by Blake’s close call. She never imagined that her “country-boy” husband from Attala County—a hunter since age 8—would become Mississippi’s ninth victim of a deer stand accident this season.

“It honestly never crossed my mind,” she said. “Hunting is his way of life.”

Blake has never been one to risk his livelihood. “I always try to be as safe as possible,” he says. 

But on Nov. 17, gravity got the best of the 26-year-old as he was hooking his safety harness to a lock-on tree stand. 

“When I turned, my feet went out from under me and that’s the last thing I remember,” he said. “I hit my head on the corner of the platform and it knocked me out before I hit the ground.”

When he came to an hour and a half later, Blake managed a few painful arm and leg movements, but standing was impossible. “When I tried to pick my head up, I would get splotchy vision,” he said. 

Blake could feel something was wrong in his back, but a more ominous sign was literally at his fingertips. “My right hand was closed and my left I could only move a little bit,” he said.

Dr. Samuel Grissom, medical director at Methodist Rehab, said such symptoms are a classic sign of a high-level spinal cord injury. And Barber could easily have become permanently paralyzed from the neck down. 

“My doctors said whoever got you out of the woods knew what they were doing,” Blake said. “They were so careful because they knew one small move could damage me even more. Those EMTs saved my life.”

Looking back, Blake said it was obvious “God’s hand was under me.”   

His cell phone was somehow within reach, and he had enough finger movement to phone his boss. “He was there in five or six minutes and on his way he had already called the wildlife department, EMTs, fire and rescue and a chopper was on standby,” Blake said.

Such actions have become protocol in a state where deer stand accidents are as much a part of hunting season as four-wheelers and camouflage.

By Dec. 18, Mississippi had recorded 11 such incidents since July 1, said Maj. Jerry Carter, boating law administrator for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.

“We have more tree stand accidents than firearm-related accidents,” Carter said. “Last year, we had a total of 39 hunting accidents and 22 were tree stand related.”

Carter said faulty equipment causes many tree stand accidents and can be linked to everything from poorly manufactured devices to stands that have been improperly installed or allowed to deteriorate.

Other times, a hunter’s behavior is a factor. “People have a tendency to fall asleep in tree stands,” Carter said. And he adds it’s not unusual to find evidence of alcohol or drug use at accident sites.

Wearing a safety harness can lessen the risks of injury, and Carter said it’s a requirement for hunting on state-managed public lands. Blake said it’s also a mandate at Tara. But as his experience illustrates, it’s not fail-safe. 

“A major factor is transitioning from the ladder to the stand,” Blake said. “A slip or a lean, and a fall is going to happen.”

There’s no doubt such falls can be deadly. Mississippi has already recorded a deer stand-related fatality in Jefferson County this year.

When surgeons discovered Blake had damaged the C-1, C-5, C-6 and T-3 vertebrae in his spine, they told Ashlee to “prepare for the worst.”

“But I didn’t realize the seriousness until they brought me a book about spinal cord injuries,” she said. “He could have stopped breathing right then and there. Before surgery, they said: ‘We’re not out of the woods yet.’ After that, they said: ‘We fixed the scary part.’ But they had to keep monitoring him to make sure he could move his fingers and toes and had a stable blood pressure.”

Blake remembers little of his six days in ICU at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson. But it was a stressful time for Ashlee, who had to make critical health care decisions without his counsel. “The one I always go to with my problems was asleep in bed and not able to respond,” she said.

As Blake improved, Ashlee turned to finding the best rehab facility for his needs. And on that subject, she found plenty of good advice. She said folks kept recommending Methodist Rehab’s spinal cord injury program, and hospital rep Matt Cliburn stayed in touch to answer her questions. 

“I’m 25 years old and I had to make decisions I never expected to make and Matt made it easier,” she said. 

Nine days after his accident, Blake transferred to MRC. And he admits: “I came in scared.”

“I wondered if I was going to be me when I got out. But thanks to great physicians, therapists and God’s grace, I’m coming out grateful.”

While Blake arrived at rehab feeling fragile, he soon found he could do more than he imagined. “They don’t cut you any slack,” he said of MRC’s seasoned spinal cord injury team. And he liked rising to the challenge. “Once I got cleared to walk, I would be there five minutes early,” he said.

MRC occupational therapist Elizabeth Smithhart said Blake’s work ethic was evident as he strived to improve his hand strength and fine motor skills. “I gave him some exercises and he would do things on his own in his room,” she said. “He was very motivated.”

“I knew if I did what they told me to do, the way they told me to do it, I would get better and could go home,” Blake said. 

Still, he initially dreaded the drills of occupational therapy. His limited hand function made something as simple as picking up a coin seem insurmountable. “It was hard, especially with my right hand,” he said. “But within two or three days, I was progressing. I got a lot of good from it.”

Dr. Grissom said Blake’s limitations were a product of central cord syndrome, a condition commonly associated with hyperextension of the neck. “When fibers on the inside of the spinal cord are more damaged than those on the outside, patients tend to have more paralysis or weakness in the upper extremities,” he said. “But his prognosis is really good.  He’s really lucky.”

Blake plans to continue therapy on an outpatient basis, with hopes of getting back in the woods and to work. 

In the meantime, he’ll be using his accident as a teachable moment for all the hunters in his life. “My friends were pretty shocked when they found out I had fallen and might not walk again,” he said. “And I let them know: Don’t think it’s not going to happen to you.”

It’s a message that Mason may still be too young to understand. But it’s a given that he’ll grow up to be a hunter who understands the consequences of not putting safety first. Blake will make sure of that.

“He’ll get the worse whupping of his life if he doesn’t have his safety harness on,” he said.

Ten Tips for Tree Stand Safety 

• Always wear a fall-restraint device. Wear it from the time you leave the ground until you return to the ground. 

• Read and follow manufacturer’s instructions and warnings. 

• Practice with your tree stand at a low level, under 5 feet, until you are sure you know how to use the stand. 

• Check your stand before and after each use. Correct problems before using stand again. 

• Take your time when climbing and watch every step you make. 

• Never climb with anything in your hands. Use a pull rope to bring up equipment after you’re secure in your stand. 

• Watch the weather. Some tree stands will slip on wet trees. Most stands are made of metal and are not safe during lightening storms. 

• Do not sleep in tree stands or drink alcohol or take drugs during tree stand use. 

• Tell someone exactly where you will be hunting and what time you plan to return. Agree that they will search for you if you do not return within an hour of that time. 

• Take a whistle, flashlight, cell phone or two-way radio so you can signal rescuers with your location. 

Source: “The User’s Guide to The Tree Stand (Its History and Safe Use)” by L.J. Smith