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Quick action saves area woman after Christmas Day accident

Photo by Eric Tichy Elaine Caflisch is pictured recently with her horse, Skye. The south county woman was seriously injured Christmas Day when she was thrown from Skye while on a ride.

Elaine Caflisch will likely come to learn that time indeed heals all wounds after she was violently thrown from a horse on Christmas Day.

And yet, ironically, it’s also time that nearly took her life that afternoon.

“You hear them tell you, two to five minutes later and you would have been dead. That’s kind of sobering news,” Caflisch said. “That just means that people out in a little bit more rural area don’t have a chance.”

Today, Caflisch seems surprisingly upbeat for a 71-year-old, who, about a month ago, came perilously close to dying after suffering severe internal injuries when she was thrown to the pavement on Big Tree Road in the town of Busti.

Surprising not just because of the accident itself, but how it happened and because the apparent reckless actions of another person have left her with permanent scars.

Caflisch had just started out on a half-mile journey with Skye, her beloved horse, heading toward Hunt Road. As her 69-year-old husband, Phil, noted, “riding conditions were perfect and the vehicle traffic on our busy road was at the lightest road use of the year since businesses, schools and government were closed for the holiday.”

The Caflisches have cared for horses for 40 years and “have acquired the knowledge of how to ride safely,” he said.

Elaine Caflisch, who was sporting a bright orange sweatshirt that Christmas day, recalled hearing a northbound truck revving its engine as it approached her and the upcoming Hunt Road intersection. She was riding Skye on the side of the road as the truck came up behind her.

“He didn’t really swerve out around me like you think someone would or should,” said Caflisch, who briefly caught a glimpse of a bright red pickup truck. “When he got up in front of me, he either made the same noise again or it backfired or something, but that next noise did the horse in.”

Skye bucked and Caflisch was thrown hard to the pavement while the driver of the red truck continued north without stopping. Approaching motorists found her lying unconscious in the road and called 911.

Back home, Phil Caflisch realized something was wrong when traffic began slowing in front of their property. He then saw Skye several hundred feet down the road with no sign of his wife.

“I just did what I had to do,” he said. “I grabbed the horse from the stranger that was holding it and ran back to the house with the horse and knocked on the windows to alert my son. I put the horse away and then I ran back to the accident.”

Lakewood firefighters were alerted to the accident around 4:30 p.m. Still unconscious, and bleeding internally, she was transported by helicopter to UPMC Hamot in Erie, Pa.

Caflisch underwent emergency surgery that Christmas night. She did not wake up until New Year’s Day, a full week after her fall and now without a spleen that had to be removed.

“At least I don’t remember it,” she told The Post-Journal. “I don’t know what I felt when I was going through it, but I don’t remember it at this point. That part’s really good.”

Phil Caflisch added, “It was the worst Christmas of my life.”

THANKING THE HEROES

Caflisch knows she’s lucky to be alive. An approaching car could have easily missed her lying in the road. And if not for the holiday, when most people are likely to be at home, it might have taken first responders an extra minute or two to arrive on scene.

“If this would have happened in a district farther away — or even just farther down the road, I mean three to five minutes — she would have been dead,” Phil Caflisch said of his wife.

“They definitely saved my life,” she said.

The Caflisches are using the accident to stress the importance of local fire departments and emergency medical care. Both praised the work of the volunteer firefighters and EMS personnel who responded that afternoon.

“The medical staff at Hamot hospital told me that my wife would have died if her initial emergency treatment had been delayed by three to five minutes,” Phil Caflisch said. “If my wife’s emergency was in a fire department district that was unable to react quickly … I would be a widower right now.”

The pair encourage participation in a local fire department as well as the relaxing of rules that prohibit volunteers from being members of more than one department.

But, perhaps more importantly, Caflisch hopes her ordeal will remind motorists the importance of sharing the road.

According to state law, drivers are required to use caution when approaching a horse being ridden or walked along a road.

“You must drive at an acceptable speed and at an acceptable distance away from the horse,” the state Department of Motor Vehicles notes on its website. “It is illegal to sound your horn when you approach or pass a horse.”

There are rules for horse riders as well. Animals must be ridden single file near the right curb or road edge, or on a right shoulder, lane or path that can be used.

ROAD TO RECOVERY

Caflisch is still recovering, due in large part to the removal of her spleen. People can live without the fist-sized organ, though it means her immune system is compromised at the moment.

She has not gone riding since the Christmas Day accident, and she’s unsure when or where she’ll pick the hobby back up.

While she may be in good spirits, Caflisch does hold some resentment toward the driver of the red truck.

“There was no reason for him to do that, and it almost cost me my life,” she said. “Drivers just need to be aware that their vehicles can cause a lot of damage.”

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