Brennan’s Mountain Saga (i.e. Brennan Attempts Camelback … Mountain Wins)

A Little Time to Kill

selfieThe talk at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, AZ, had gone well. Back at the hotel, he answered some emails and finished preparing for another meeting the following day. The dinner with his cousins who live nearby was not for a few hours. Dan Brennan, MD, FACP, Alan A. and Edith L. Wolff Professor of Renal Diseases, had a little time to kill.

Since Camelback Mountain is located just behind the Phoenician Hotel where he was staying, Dan decided to take a little hike. That was what he had done 20 years ago when he last visited the area. In fact, he remembered being able to “practically run up” Camelback with his friends. He changed into his khakis and well-worn, duct tape-patched New Balance running shoes. At around 3 p.m. he started the trek up Camelback.


View from the Phoenician Hotel in Scottsdale, AZ.

Something else he remembered from 20 years ago was how crowded the trail was at the time. Not now. He passed only a few people on the trail. He exchanged pleasantries with one woman, joking about how easy the climb was many years ago. She encouraged him on. After the next few switchbacks, she disappeared from view. He thought that maybe she had turned back.

The trail itself was not quite as he remembered, either. The trail was becoming more and more narrow the higher he went. Before long, he was practically climbing up the rocks. He kept going, though, determined to prove he still “had it in him” to make it to the top.

Dan eventually realized that, time wise, he probably wouldn’t make it to the top of the mountain and get back in time for his dinner. This is a memorial dinner for his Aunt who died a few months back, and it is not something he’s going to miss. He tells himself that he will hike another half hour or so and then head back down.

At about 4:15 p.m., he decides to call it quits. He stopped, turned around, took a selfie, took a picture of Phoenix in the distance. He turned to step back on the trail … and realized it wasn’t there.
Amazed, he walks around … looking … thinking, Where’s the trail? I was just on it! The trail is simply gone.

That is when he felt the first bit of panic.

He decided the only thing to do was to start descending, trail or no trail. After only a few steps, though, the loose shale gives way under his feet and he starts slipping. He instinctively reaches out to grab onto anything to help him stop his 20-foot slide down the mountain. When he finally does stop, a “lemon-sized” nettle and multiple cactus needles are embedded in his left palm. He tries to pry them out with a stick, and when that doesn’t work, tries to tweeze them out between two rocks. Making the matter even more painful is that the cactus needles have penetrated his running shoe and are embedded in his foot.


Camelback Mountain from the ground.

He pushes on, alternating a cautious descent with sliding down the mountain, picking up more nettles and cactus splines as he goes.

One last slip sends him shooting down the mountain.

Dan must have put his foot out to break his fall. When he stops, he is on his back in severe pain. Looking down at his right foot, he sees that it is completely inverted at a right angle. The talus bone has dislocated under the calcaneus bone.

Though he doesn’t see any protruding bone or blood, he can’t rule out a compound fracture. Nevertheless, he can’t bear weight on the foot. He checks his cell phone. No reception.
Now he is in full-mode panic.

“Somebody might see a body and come investigate”

Dan notices that maybe 1000 – 1500 feet below him is one of the Phoenician Hotel’s golf courses. He starts working his way down, inches at a time. After about half an hour of this slow, tortuous descent, Dan says he simply “ran out of juice”.

He started shouting and whistling for help. Exhausted and in pain, he lay back on the slope. OK, God, is this it? Because I don’t have any more strength, Dan recalls thinking. “I thought I was just going to die on the mountain,” he says. “Lord, give me a sign.”

He got one. He hears a golf cart and sees a groundskeeper. Dan starts yelling and whistling again and thinks he has gotten the man’s attention. Dan keeps shouting, “Help! Help me! I’ve broken my ankle!”


Brennan’s duct-taped “not the best hiking” shoes.

Maybe the man in the golf cart didn’t hear Dan after all. Maybe there was a misunderstanding. Whatever the reason, the groundskeeper drives away, never comes back, and never relays that someone was in big trouble on the side of the mountain.

By this time, it is about 5:30 p.m., and Dan realizes that if he doesn’t get off the mountain NOW, he might not be getting off at all … alive, that is. He starts sliding down the mountain, again, inches at a time for about another hour. “I just keep going and going,” he says.

And the only thing that kept him going at this point was the thought of his children. I have to get down for the kids. I have to get down for the kids. “There was no more to it than that,” he says. “I just had to get down for them.”

Finally, Dan makes it to within 20 feet of the golf course and reaches for his cell phone.
He can’t find it. In one petrifying moment, he thinks the phone has fallen out of his pants higher up on the mountain. But his pants are ripped and bunched and twisted around him to the point that the pockets aren’t where they are supposed to be. With some frantic searching, he finally finds the phone in his side pocket, which is now in his lap.

He is just shy of the fairway. He turns on his phone. Again, no reception. This is not good.

It occurs to him that if he could roll himself into the middle of the fairway, someone from the clubhouse “might see a body and come investigate”.

There is one big problem, though. Straight ahead of him is a big patch of cacti and nettle plants. He has to decide whether to go straight down 20 feet, or go more than 30 feet to the left, backtrack and then go forward.


Cacti view of Camelback Mountain.

Dan admits that he does not remember which path he chose, but says, “I must have taken the direct
route.” His doctor later told him that when they took him to the operating room, they pulled out hundreds of needles from his thighs and back. Even days later, when he got back to St. Louis, they were still pulling out cactus needles, some three inches long.

He finally makes it down the mountain, and, yes, rolls himself to the middle of the fairway. He is unable to stand and is in incredible pain.

“I get my phone out and I am shaking like a leaf. I try to dial 911. I can’t,” he recalls. He presses the Siri button.

“Siri, I need 911.”

When the 911 responders come on line, Dan tries to explain that he is in bad shape and is on the golf course at the Phoenician hotel.

“Which one?” they ask. “We have a lot of golf courses in Phoenix.”

At about 6:30 pm, with daylight fading, help finally arrives. With some difficulty (involving a heavy ambulance, a soft golf course and multiple golf carts), the paramedics were finally able to get Dan off the fairway and to a hospital in Scottsdale.

Getting off the Mountain was Just the Beginning


Brennan broke bones in both legs. Surgery included excising necrotic tissue and a subsequent skin graft.

And so began Dan’s months-long, ongoing recovery. There have been multiple surgeries for broken bones in both legs (tibial plateau fracture in the left leg, broken talus in right ankle), a surgery to excise necrotic tissue and a subsequent skin graft, and an impromptu home procedure he and his aide Alexis performed to extract a cactus needle from his toe nearly two months after the accident. On the relief of finally being rid of the inch and a half long “pesky thorn”, he says, “You can’t believe how happy this makes me.”

As a patient, Dr. Brennan now has a first-hand understanding and perspective of the ordeals that, unfortunately, are common for many patients.  Being cared for by overworked residents. Talking to hospital personnel who don’t listen to you. Suffering the side effects of unwanted medications. Dealing with healthcare services (impossible on the weekend!). Knowing that there is a likelihood of lingering, if not permanent, physical problems. Being totally dependent on others. Bedpans. Sponge baths.

And the traumatic Foley catheter incident? Well, that is an entire story in itself.

Nearly two months after the accident, Dan is making progress. He ticks off all the “positives” from his last orthopedic appointment: All the stitches are out; he doesn’t have to wear the brace on his left leg and only on his right leg if he is up and about; he can wash the whole right leg with soap, but can’t soak it yet; he might get the pins removed from the right leg soon. Helping him through this whole ordeal is his wife, of whom he says, “Susan has been wonderful.”

Dan discovered that two weeks before his accident, someone died on the mountain.

He also learned that the trail he started on that day, the Cholla Trail, was not the wide trail he had run up with friends 20 years ago. “That trail was the Echo Canyon Trail,” he says. “I later learned that the Cholla Trail requires a significant amount of ‘rock scramble’ and the descent often requires sitting down and going down very slowly.” In addition, Dan admits that his old running shoes patched with duct tape were probably “not the best hiking shoes”.


Dr. Brennan’s World Series winning beard.

Despite the long recovery, Dan hasn’t lost his sense of humor. “I grew a beard for a month, but shaved it off after the Cubs were down 3-1 to change their mojo,” he says. “It worked. They won the next three. They owe me big time.”

Dan hopes to be able to get back to work soon, hopefully by January, 2017.

In the meantime, there is one thing that would really make his life a little better … a shower.