A surgical resident's quick action saves a father's life
On a Saturday morning in late July 2019 first-year surgical resident Dr. Michael Burt and his wife had been relaxing at Falls Park, along the Big Sioux River near downtown Sioux Falls, playing with their six-month-old daughter on a blanket spread across the grass. Earlier, they’d visited the farmers market near the park, where they’d enjoyed good coffee and the smell of fresh fruits and vegetables. Burt savors each off day, rationed out at four per month, as those precious days provide a respite from the demanding 80-hour work-weeks he logs as a learning surgeon.
The couple packed up and were preparing to leave the busy park when they heard screams coming from the direction of the river. A handful of people standing on the bridge near the Overlook Café were hollering and pointing toward the water.
Burt, a trained lifeguard and competitive swimmer in his high school days, instinctively ran to the river, followed by his wife carrying their baby.
"I saw a man struggling in the water, and he was being swept downriver,” said Burt. “His uncoordinated movements, and his hands and feet flapping out of the water told me it was a serious situation, and he was struggling to stay above the surface. When I reached the edge of the river, he was near the opposite shore. I ditched my shoes and phone and jumped in. I could hear my wife shouting, ‘Michael, you have to save him.’”
The Big Sioux was flowing swift and deep that day, as it had been through much of the summer, and water was raging over the sets of falls within the park. A gauge not far downriver measured river flows at 4,270 cubic feet per second. That translates into 1.9 million gallons of water rushing through the channel each and every minute.
As Burt entered the strong current, the man he sought to save abruptly and completely submerged. “He was floating head down, and my heart sank when his black shoes disappeared beneath the surface,” Burt recalled. “I swam downstream to a place where he might pass by, and I positioned myself in the moving flows. The water was murky, so I couldn’t see any part of him.” While bystanders onshore scrambled and shrieked, Burt kept his cool. “I tried to stay in place in the water downstream from the last place I saw him, hoping to locate him that way.”
Burt steadied himself as best he could in the river’s strong current and concentrated on slowly, deliberately moving his arms and legs below the water’s surface, hoping to touch or feel a part of the man’s body as it moved past. For a long moment there was nothing, and Burt feared he’d lost the man. Suddenly, improbably, Burt felt something brush against his leg. “I immediately reached down and was able to grab the man’s ankle,” Burt explained, “and I pulled him to the surface.”
Burt’s lifeguard training had him quickly positioning his own body behind the victim, and then Burt wrapped his arms beneath the man’s shoulders, and clenched his hands across the victim’s chest, hoisting his head above the water. “I was worried right away,” recalled Burt, “because at first he wasn’t moving; he was unconscious.”
Once he’d secured the man, Burt began swimming backwards, doing what he’d been taught to do, using his legs to propel himself toward the safety of land.
“As I swam and pulled him,” Burt recounted, “he came to and spoke, and that was a relief, but he asked about his son. ‘Where’s my boy,’ he repeatedly screamed. My heart sank. I wasn’t sure what had happened to his son, but I didn’t want to upset him. From my previous training I knew not to panic a person who was drowning. So, I reluctantly said his son was fine, and I prayed that I was right.”
"I'm less anxious about it now. I'm more comfortable not overthinking some explanation for the role I found myself in. More importantly, I'm relieved that a death was averted."
- Michael Burt, M.D.
Burt was grateful several men entered the water to assist him and bring the man ashore. “He was a big guy,” Burt described. Others joined in to help lift the man up a steep slope onto a level, grassy area. Though he’d probably stopped breathing for a brief time while underwater, the man remained conscious as they laid him down. Burt observed he had a sizeable gash on his head, an injury likely incurred when he plunged over a cataract. The man’s family, hardly able to speak, sobbed out their thanks.
Burt later learned that the man’s youngest son had slipped into the river while taking a family picture upstream, prompting the father to enter the water to aid his son. That’s when the father himself was dragged away by the current. The boy had managed to regain his footing and return to shore, but he and his terrified brother and mom watched helplessly as their loved one was pulled downriver.
On that shoreline near the river the man lay barely moving, his weeping family at his side. Burt was shaken, too. Though he’d reacted as he’d been trained to react, as he needed to react, the emotions now connected to what had just transpired felt awkward and uncomfortable. An ambulance and its crew were suddenly present, and they whisked the man away.
Soon, the crowd dispersed. It was once again a sunny Saturday, and Burt and his family were surrounded by green grass, pink rocks and shady trees, with the steady hum of rushing water as a backdrop. Burt realized he was standing near the same spot where for him the dramatic episode had started, only 15 minutes earlier. The pleasant day he’d been enjoying had been suddenly interrupted by tension and struggle. As he looked back over the scene he wished he felt thankful and pleased. “I should have felt happy and proud,” he later said. “But I can’t explain how I felt. Right after it happened, I was uneasy, anxious. I kept replaying over and over in my mind what would have happened if I’d missed him in the water and his lifeless body kept going downstream. The man wasn’t moving when I first pulled him up. By all accounts, he should have died. I could not shake the feeling of how incredibly lucky I was to have felt him brush against my ankle, and how incredibly lucky he was.”
Burt and his wife went to the hospital emergency room to check on the man, and they learned he would recover. That was a relief but Burt’s uneasiness persisted. “I learned that others had drowned there, in the park, and that bothered me.”
In addition to his training as a lifeguard and his success as a competitive swimmer – Burt was a high school champion in the 400-meter freestyle – he had grown up along the Yellowstone River in eastern Montana. He’d worked on the river and spent countless hours enjoying and learning about that waterway.
“Many people don’t understand or have a respect for the power of a river or for water,” he said. “They haven’t been in a powerful current, even in a boat.” That lack of experience, Burt explained, can lead to unexpected trouble if an inexperienced person finds themselves in a river or on the edge of a river as forceful as the Big Sioux while it surges through its stretch of sharp drops within Falls Park.
Burt has entered a field – general surgery – that can and does save lives. But the first life he’d saved during his tenure as a resident happened far from the operating room, in a non-medical setting. Like any capable, caring physician he pondered solutions to the issues he’d encountered, later suggesting that life preservers or water rescue throw bags be added to public protections at Falls Park.
In the many months since the rescue at the river, Burt has focused his attention on learning about medicine and surgeries and enjoying his family. But every so often he vividly remembers and contemplates that near-drowning, and how he responded, and how he felt in its aftermath. “I used to wonder how it came to be that I was there, with my relevant training and experience,” he said, “and I would think about all the variables and circumstances of the incident itself, and how close we were to such a devastating loss for an entire family. I’m less anxious about it now,” he added. “I’m more comfortable not overthinking some explanation for the role I found myself in. More importantly, I’m relieved that a death was averted.”
Medical Residents Enhance Health Care
Dr. Michael Burt, a first-year resident in the medical school’s general surgical residency, is one of approximately 140 medical residents sponsored by the USD Sanford School of Medicine. The medical school manages these residencies in addition to overseeing and teaching about 280 medical students.
Each resident – already a physician – is engaged in high-level, post-medical school training, and nearly all work is at hospitals and clinics in Sioux Falls and the immediate Sioux Falls area. Like Burt, residents come to South Dakota from all over the United States, and, indeed, from many other countries. The medical school manages 10 different residencies and fellowships, most requiring one to seven years of training. Burt’s residency is a five-year program. In addition to Burt’s residency in general surgery, the medical school offers programs in childhood
and adolescent psychiatry, general psychiatry, cardiovascular disease, interventional cardiology, geriatrics, internal medicine, pathology and pediatrics. The school is also affiliated with both family medicine programs in Sioux Falls and Rapid City.
Burt, a native of Glendive, Montana, received his undergraduate degree at Montana State University before earning a medical degree from the Oregon Health and Sciences University in Portland, Oregon.