During a festive Fourth of July celebration, veteran sky diver Iwan van der Schoor jumped out of a helicopter at 6,000 feet above the Lake of the Pines on Saturday, parachuting with two fellow sky divers while trailing out colorful red streamers to the visual delight of the crowd below.
At 3,000 feet, he deployed his parachute. Then, hoping for a dramatic landing, he released his chute altogether just before hitting the lake, hoping to “make a little splash” and earn still more cheers.
Yet as soon as he separated from his chute, the 36-year-old veteran of 3,900 parachute jumps realized he was dropping too fast. He smashed, hard, into the water.
Almost instantly, he said, “I just felt like I had a truck on my chest. I couldn’t breathe.”
On Sunday, the semipro sky diver and software engineer who works in Santa Clara, was telling his story from a hospital bed at UC Davis Medical Center. He was airlifted there for groundbreaking emergency surgery – thoracic endovascular aortic repair – that saved his life.
Even for a seasoned adventure seeker, it was a tense journey from a skydiving accident to a life-saving procedure. A day later, van der Schoor could talk about it, thanks to trauma and vascular surgical teams as well as modern surgical techniques now used to repair potentially catastrophic damage to the central artery to the heart.
At the Fourth of July fest, van der Schoor had already performed two jumps with local skydiving friends Mark and Nancy Lichtle. It was a normal challenge for a daredevil who’s been diving for 18 years and, for more than a decade, earned renown for using a helmet-mounted camera to capture spectacular photos of high-elevation free-fallers and tandem jumpers.
But when he hit the water at midday Saturday, he suffered a severe blunt injury to his aorta, the large artery that extends from the left ventricle of the heart and serves as the conduit to the body and critical organs.
The accident caused blood from a tear in the aorta to fill van der Schoor’s chest, covering his left lung and heart. Van der Shoor struggled to breathe.
“I knew it was in my best interests not to freak out and panic,” he said from his hospital bed.
He had kept his wits enough to swim to the surface and climb onto a rescue paddle boat. The rescuers then laid him on the docks.
Dozens of onlookers who came out for the holiday show applauded as he was placed in an ambulance. He was rushed to Sutter Roseville Medical Center, where surgeons found broken ribs and a potentially fatal injury to his aorta. They drained blood from his chest and put him on an emergency helicopter flight for surgery in Sacramento.
Until about 15 years ago, surgeons had one major option for trying to save the lives of people with aortic injuries – performing open-heart surgery that presented an elevated danger of causing paralysis.
But with modern cardiac catheterization, the UC Davis team cut an incision near van der Schoor’s groin, and surgeons ran a tiny ultrasound camera up an artery to measure the damage to his aorta. They then followed the same vascular pathway to insert a thoracic endograft – a four-inch-long, nearly inch-wide mesh cylinder that fortified his aorta, allowing blood to flow safely through.
On Sunday, with wife Sandra at his side, van der Schoor said his ribs were sore but his heart was functioning fine, with the repaired aorta expected to fully heal.
He was in the hands of a surgical team led by Dr. David L. Dawson, a vascular surgeon and Air Force veteran who did his own parachute jumps long ago as a young trainee at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.
Dawson came by to check on his patient, bringing his old Air Force basic parachutist badge for the occasion.
He said van der Schoor can return to skydiving if he wants.
“It’s probably up to his wife,” Dawson said.
With that, Sandra van der Schoor turned to her husband and nodded yes.
He said he hopes to be leaping again in about six weeks.
“God looked after me,” he said. And so did the surgeons.