State College athlete reunites with surgeon

For many, falling from a great height is a deep-seated fear that luckily is never realized.

For adventurer Carl Byington, falling from a great height was a life-altering moment that could have ended in tragedy.

Byington, from State College, came close to death when he fell about 70 feet while rock climbing at Seneca Rocks in West Virginia in 2003.

“I remember the thought going through my head, ‘Oh, I’m falling further than I should be.’ At the last minute, the rope grabbed me and pulled me upright,” he recalled.

When the rope pulled him up, Byington smashed his legs against the rock structure, causing extensive damage primarily to his right leg. He suffered many compound fractures and broke both his tibia and fibula. His bones stuck out from his skin, he said.

“It was kind of a gruesome sight,” he said.

After his climbing partner helped him down another 200 feet, local emergency services treated Byington on the go while receiving over-the-phone aid from a doctor at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, where Byington had asked to be flown.

The Geisinger medical team considered amputating his right foot, but that wasn’t an option for Byington.

So Dr. James Widmaier, an orthopedic surgeon, followed Byington’s lead, encouraged by his optimism and determination.

“Anytime bones are through the skin, the prognosis is guarded when it comes to infection and whether the bone can physically heal, let alone allow him to function at his level,” Widmaier said. “I was optimistic, but guarded. I was trying to temper an enthusiastic athlete.”

Widmaier first opted for a steel plate and screws to hold Byington’s leg together. Over the next few months, there was little to no growth, and the pair had to try something else.

“The break was so severe that the bone didn’t want to re-fuse together,” Byington said. “We had to discuss options of whether we’d be able to save the bones and the foot.”

In December 2003, Byington underwent a bone-graft surgery, which involved taking a bone sample from another part of his body — in this case, his hip — mixing it with coral and antibiotics, then adding it to the broken bones to encourage growth, he said.

“Usually, a bone graft is the most reliable method of getting a delayed fracture to heal,” Widmaier said.

By March of 2004, it was clear the graft was working, he said.

“I remember going back to my house and being so excited that my bones were healing,” Byington said. “But my muscles were so atrophied, my leg was skin and bones.”

From then on, Byington focused on physical therapy, building up the muscle and range of motion that would allow him to walk, run and climb once again. His plate and screws were removed in April 2005.

“We thought the bone had healed enough that actually taking the plate and screws out would help,” he said. “That’s when I started entertaining the idea that I could run again, and maybe I could run longer. I made the plans to run in Athens, Greece, the next year in November.”

Although he hoped for Byington to recover to the level that he could perform well, Widmaier said for him to become an ultra marathoner “was not to be expected.”

“I think I said he was crazy,” Widmaier laughed.

Crazy or not, after nearly three years of recovery, Byington took his love of adventure to the next level. Over the past 12 years, he has become one of only about 100 people to run at least one marathon on each of the world’s seven continents, including the:

• Athens Marathon in Greece, Europe

• Marine Corps Marathon in Washington D.C., North America

• Vina Del Mar Marathon in Chile, South America

• Uluru/Outback Marathon in Australia

• Penang International Bridge Marathon in Malaysia, Asia

• Antarctic Ice Marathon on Union Glacier, Antarctica

• Victoria Falls Marathon in Zimbabwe, Africa

“I’m going to keep on keepin’ on,” Byington said.

“A lot of this is on him. I just happened to be fortunate to take care of a unique individual,” Widmaier said. “It shows that, with slow, steady progress and attainable goals … you can get there.”

The marathoner and the surgeon reunited Tuesday for the first time since Byington’s treatment, marking the first time Widmaier had seen his patient since Byington became strong enough to participate in marathons.

During their reunion, the two talked about upcoming goals. Byington invited Widmaier to run a marathon at the North Pole next year — since the offer, Widmaier said the “peer pressure” to go is palpable.

“He piqued my interests,” he said. “If time allows, work allows, family allows, we’ll see. I’m doing my research right now like any good doctor should.”

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