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The Mark of a Rancher

  • Date Submitted: Sep 28, 2020

“ A kick from a horse left more than a hoofmark, but Eric Hafenfeld and his team of medical professionals chose to persevere.”

Eric Hafenfeld

It was an exciting day on the Hafenfeld’s ranch, and the family had invited some friends to help with branding and vaccinating the calves. Branding cattle is always a big project, so the more helping hands, the better. Some people were on horseback, some were on foot—everyone was involved and everyone had a job. Eric and Jamie Hafenfeld’s three kids, Gus, 11, Charlotte, 9, and Ward, 6, were all helping since they were well-seasoned living and working on their cattle ranch. Ward, their youngest, stood in the branding pen to the left of Jamie, with Eric not far away directing the process. All of a sudden, a nearby horse ridden by one of their friends spooked, beginning to buck and kick.

Jamie and Eric both reacted instantly, Jamie throwing her child into the fence to protect him from the horse. She reached for the reins, but in doing so, put herself in line with one of the hooves. Eric grabbed her arm and tried to pull her out of the way, but she was kicked hard in the hip and fell to the ground. When she finally rolled over, she was confused, wondering why no one had come to help her yet. That is when she saw Eric lying face down in the dirt, shaking.

Injured herself, Jamie had the composure to call 911 right away, and then called their friend Justin Wilkins, a local firefighter captain. Justin and other fellow firefighters immediately came to help and offer first-aid until the ambulance could arrive. Eric had been kicked in the chest, with one hoof hitting him right in the shirt pocket—where his cell phone had been tucked away. Unsure as to the extent of Eric’s injuries, they were concerned about a head injury because of some scratches on Eric’s face. Eric seemed alright though, if not a little out of it—he tried to get up as soon as he came to, but the first responders would not let him. He lay on the ground, chatting with his family and friends, assuring them that he would be okay. When the ambulance arrived 20 minutes later, he was stable. There was too much wind to call a helicopter medevac, so they put him on the gurney and rushed off toward Bakersfield, an hour-long drive. Jamie followed behind the ambulance in her car while the kids stayed at the ranch to finish the branding.

“No one realized the severity of the situation,” said Jamie. “I’m sure he was in pain, but he tried to get up after he fell. He seemed alright. It didn’t seem like an emergency at the time.” The moment the ambulance started moving, Eric began to crash. The medics noted that his blood pressure was very low, and thought that there may be internal bleeding. One of the medics administered fluids as the other sped through Kern Canyon. The medics did not know what injuries Eric had sustained, just that they were internal and severely traumatic. They hurried toward Kern Medical, doing their best to keep him conscious.

Saved by the Cell

Dr. Kieron Barkataki was a physician in the emergency department that day. He and his team began to assess Eric and immediately identified that he had acute internal injuries that required emergency surgery. His CAT scan and x-rays revealed no head injuries, just superficial scratches from falling to the ground. When Jamie arrived, she asked to see her husband, but the nurses would not let her go to him. She was examined by staff, but had only a large hematoma on her side from the horse kick.

“As soon as we hear ‘horse-related injury,’ we suspect the worst, as these are classically associated with significant trauma,” said Dr. Barkataki. “My imagination may be playing tricks on me, but I think he had a horseshoe imprint on his body.” Fortunately, during surgery, they established that Eric’s heart was not the source of the bleeding. His cell phone, hidden in his shirt pocket, had potentially saved Eric’s life—it was bent nearly in half by the powerful horse’s hoof, but spared Eric from the worst of the trauma. He was very lucky in that respect.

Internally, however, his liver was lacerated, his intestines were bruised, and his spleen was in pieces. “They told me before surgery that they might have to crack my chest, and I panicked,” said Eric. “I told them, ‘Don’t let me die. I have three kids and a wife at home and I cannot leave them.’”

Grit & Perseverance

Following his open splenectomy and additional internal repairs, Eric moved from the Intensive Care Unit to the Direct Observation Unit. They expected a long, grueling recovery, but it was surprisingly smooth and uneventful—for which both Eric and Jamie credit the nurses and staff. Eric was up on his feet after four days, taking short, slow walks with their support. His injuries healed steadily, and after a week at Kern Medical, he was able to go home. Eric then went home for more bed rest, and after six weeks, was able to get up and move around on his own. After eight weeks, he could lift heavier objects again, and after ten weeks, he was back to work on the ranch, bailing hay and feeding the animals. He had lost nearly 50 pounds during his recovery, but quickly began to rebuild his strength and muscle mass. Living on a ranch, there is always work to be done—and a rancher does not have time to consider giving up.

“My story is full of people going above and beyond to help me make it home,” said Eric. “I am extremely grateful for all of them, and especially to have been at Kern Medical. The nurses, the staff, everyone was so kind and thorough. I wouldn’t go anywhere else when things hit the fan.”