By Pat Maurer
Dr. Alan Bugai, resident and chiropractor of Clare for the past 28 years, is spending most of his time these days in a hospital bed.
The owner of Alpha Chiropractic Clinic in Clare is recovering at home from two badly broken legs.
The nightmare started for Dr. Bugai when he was seriously injured in a snowmobile accident near Gaylord February 1st.
“The weekend of snowmobiling in Gaylord was supposed to be a winter getaway,” he said.
He, wife Judy and son Caleb along with their close friends Bob and Mary headed out January 31 to a rented cabin and a weekend of snowmobiling.
“The next day,” he said, “we got our machines out and running.” He said after a stop to replace a head lamp on Caleb’s machine, they headed for the trails. “Less than half an hour into our ride we found ourselves on a power line trail,” he said. “It was a well-marked trail and groomers kept it smooth and packed down.”
He said they could hear the loud humming of electrical voltage above when they were standing under the multiple electric lines on the metal towers.
“The width of the clearing underneath those towers made for excellent riding,” he said. “Side to side it was approximately seventy yards and snowmobile tracks crossed back and forth throughout the clearing under the lines making for a smooth ride throughout the area underneath.”
He continued, “Every so often a road, driveway or even another trail would cross the wide trail we were on…but there were always warning of some kind, orange ribbons, signs or snow fences, to slow us down and corral us into a narrower path to get across safely.”
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case somewhere between Chester and Ranger Lake Roads. Someone had plowed an unmarked remote access road across the snowmobile trail. He reported, “Our snow trail was about six feet higher than the plowed road, which was barely the width of a snow plow but plowed down to ground level.”
“Out of nowhere, crossing the trail I was on was a trench eight feet wide and six feet deep. It was impossible to see until I was on top of it – then it was too late. I hit this ‘death trap’ going about 40 miles per hour,” he said. “I suddenly felt my machine dropping and in that second realized my trail had disappeared out from under me.”
With his bottom lifting off the seat, Bugai said because of his profession, he made a split-second decision to protect his hands, wrists and arms and let go of the steering column. “I thought I would just fall off the machine,” he said. “However my legs and feet were tucked under the column and when I slammed into the other side [of the trench], both legs violently snapped as I catapulted off the sled.”
“Suddenly I was on my back, ten feet off the trail and in severe pain.” He said his index finger slammed into the ignition so hard the key broke off. “It wasn’t broken, they said, but it still isn’t well.” Wednesday Dr. Bugai said they had discovered that the finger was broken and he will see a specialist for repair to the finger.
Dr. Bugai’s legs were a different story. Judy and Caleb slowly maneuvered to the other side of the trench where Judy, a registered nurse, went to see how badly her husband was hurt. “I screamed at her touch,” Alan said. “Our biggest concern was that because I am on Coumadin, a blood thinner because of a mechanical heart valve, that a compound fracture or fractures could mean a bone through the skin and I could bleed out.”
He said because he was layered in snow suit and clothing it was nearly impossible to check that out. “I figured if I felt wetness and warmth on my legs I was bleeding and we would use a tourniquet. That didn’t happen.”
A call was made immediately to 911. “They got our coordinates off our cell phone,” Dr. Bugai said. Paramedics had to travel to the site on snowmobiles pulling a rescue toboggan because the closest road was about a half-mile away. “We were told it would be about twenty-five minutes before they could reach us,” he said. “Well it seemed like an eternity. I was cold, scared and the pain was so unbearable my breathing was erratic and shallow. I would concentrate on taking deep breaths between the waves of pain.”
When four rescue personnel arrived, one team member told Alan, “I knew I would find you at this spot.”
When asked why, he said, “Because I picked two of you up from here yesterday.”
“I was devastated,” Dr. Bugai said, “because I believed my accident could have been avoided. Two other people had crashed the day before in this same spot at two different times. This was his third trip out there in barely 24 hours because no one thought it important enough to warn drivers of the danger.”
“But for me,” he continued, “it was too late. I won’t stand up again until May. It will be close to five months before I can return to work on a limited basis.”
Then barely 15 minutes after the rescue workers arrived, the trench claimed another victim. “A man, his wife and son were coming over the same spot. The man hit the plowed path, the machine dropping out from under him and he held on. It looked like he was doing a handstand on his steering column,” Alan said. The fourth victim at the site was thrown forward, his machine bounced twice and landed on top of him. Rescue workers called for backup and rushed to his assistance. With Caleb’s help they lifted the snowmobile off the man who amazingly was not injured. “He sat up, eventually stood and in the end refused a trip to the ER and drove away with his family.”
Dr. Bugai had a fracture of the left leg and three fractures of his right leg. An hour later when he was taken to a paved road, one of the rescue workers asked a state trooper taking information there to contact the Department of Natural Resources “to put up orange cones or some system of warning.”
Alan said, “Our friends went back to the site of my crash the following day. Nothing had changed, no warnings, orange ribbon, nothing. They took pictures…” Wednesday he said that the trail still had no hazard warnings according to friends that went back to check last weekend.
At the Otsego Memorial Hospital, Dr. Bugai, who the trooper had reported suffered “minor injuries,” was x-rayed, treated and told he would require extensive surgery and have a long recovery. He was taken by ambulance to Saginaw Saint Mary’s where an orthopedic-trauma team evaluated his injuries.
“On February 4th, I elected to be transferred to the University of Michigan Hospital for a February 5 surgery by Dr. James Goulet, Chief of Trauma Orthopedics” there. Surgery included a plate and seven screws on his left leg and two plates and about nine screws for the right leg.
Weeks passed before the pain levels began to diminish and meanwhile Alan worried about mounting medical bills, who would replace him at the clinic in Clare, and whether his practice would survive his long recovery.
“This is when those of faith are truly tested,” he said. “And this is when our Lord does His best work…In the fires of live, those terrible trials we face, Jesus forms and lifts us. With me in this refining process, I’ll come out the other side a better husband, father, doctor and human being.”
Now Dr. Bugai is recovering back at home. “After a check up Tuesday in Ann Arbor I was told I am now able to ride a stationary bike and do pool exercises,” he said, “but I cannot stand in any way, shape or form until May 5th. Returning to work will be around June 15.”
Meantime, Alpha Chiropractic Clinic is open for appointments with normal hours and experienced substitute doctors, who have been covering for Dr. Bugai.
Dr. Bugai’s friends will be putting on a spaghetti benefit dinner and silent auction to raise money to help cover the costs from his accident including medical bills not covered by insurance and the significant loss associated with five months away from his practice. The dinner will be held Saturday, April 26 at Brown Corner’s United Brethren Church on North Old U.S. 27 (north of Clare) from 4 to 7 p.m. All are welcome and much appreciated.
In conclusion Dr. Bugai said, “I extend an incredible round of gratitude to all from my family and me. Many of you have gone the extra mile and beyond with a complete show of selfless love and true caring. All of the cards and prayers literally helped to save me – and also to my patients who have continued their care at my office and kept the doors open and kept us from sinking. Bless you all, I am forever in your debt.”