It’s been three days since Jackie Doyle found herself strapped into a rescue basket and flying through the air toward a waiting Two Bear Air helicopter.
So far, no one can tell her exactly what happened Sunday when she fell gravely ill during a hike in the Sleeping Child area south of Hamilton.
“I feel a little better today, but I’m still not 100 percent,” the 26-year-old said Wednesday. “All I know for sure was that I picked up a tick and didn’t know it was there.”
An avid outdoorswoman, Doyle was hiking with her friend, Lance Jones, on Sunday. They were about 4 or 5 miles in when she started to feel a little bit weak. Jones wanted to hike up on ridgetop to get a look around. Doyle told him to go ahead, saying she'd wait for him.
“I told him, 'I don’t think I can make it up there,'” she said. “It was super-hot that day. I thought maybe I was overheated and maybe needed a break.”
She had made sure to stay hydrated along the trail and wasn’t too concerned until she started to get sick to her stomach and began to feel some pain in her right breast.
What she found scared her.
“It was a tick bite,” she said. “The tick’s body was gone, but its head was still buried in me. It was swollen around the bite with a red bull’s eye. My skin was discolored. My right breast was all red and purple.”
Ten years ago, Doyle had been bitten by a tick and developed Lyme disease. Doctors had told her that if she ever had a tick attach again, her body’s reaction could be bad.
When Jones came back down the hill, she told him what she had found.
Jones put all of her gear in his pack and they started back down the mountain. She began to throw up and have muscle spasms. They were still about 2 ½ miles from the trailhead when Doyle said she couldn’t go any further.
“She just had to stop,” Jones said. “She was walking really slow and told me she wasn’t feeling well at all. I was worried about her getting dehydrated. We found a place out of the sun and I gave her an extra shirt, water, lighter, some granola bars and a space blanket.”
Jones also activated his spot tracker that notified his family that there was a problem. It also captured the coordinates of the location where Doyle was located.
Once he had Doyle settled, Jones ran the rest of the way out to the trailhead where he could get a signal for his cellphone. He called his wife and the Doyle family before heading back up the trail to where he had left Doyle.
“Unbeknownst to me, someone had called the sheriff’s department,” Jones said. “They sent in the paramedics.”
That turned out to be a good call.
While Jones was gone, Doyle had been vomiting and she couldn’t hold down any water.
She’d also been busy. She built a signal fire that was sending up a column of smoke. When the Life Flight helicopter flew overhead, Doyle used her the back of cellphone — “it’s super-shiny” — as a reflector to help them spot her.
“I knew that I had everything I needed,” she said. “I just had to wait until help comes. I’m outside hiking by myself all the time … I was in a little shade pocket by the water about 10 feet off the trail.”
Doyle thought Jones would bring back her brother and uncles who would help her down the trail.
The paramedics, members of volunteer fire department and Ravalli County Search and Rescue volunteers arrived on the scene. The paramedics immediately hooked her up to an IV.
“When Lance got back, I started to get really cold,” she said. “At that point, I think Lance was getting really worried. It was super-hot and I was cold and shivering. He wanted me to drink some water, but I couldn’t keep it down.”
The volunteers put her in a basket and wrapped a warm tarp around before strapping her in.
“I started freaking out a little bit when they told me I was going to be lifted into a helicopter,” she said. “I asked them, 'What do you mean that you’re going to put a cable on this and lift me up into the air?'"
Kalispell’s Two Bear Air helicopter had responded to the call for help.
“The guy from Two Bear Air came down and talked me through the whole process,” she said. “I was able to calm down after talking with him. The helicopter was hovering above us. The air tech clipped the cable to me and him. We went up together.”
Just before they were pulled inside the helicopter, the basket spun around several times.
“That made me a little nauseous,” Doyle said. “I don’t do circles.”
The helicopter carried her to the Hamilton airport, where an ambulance was waiting. After medical personnel looked at her wound, the ambulance went straight to Providence-St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula. She spent the night there on antibiotics.
“The doctor there told me I would need to follow up with my own doctor,” she said. “He wasn’t sure why I had such a bad reaction. … Right now, I’m just very thankful that Lance was there. He took care of me and he came back for me.”
Ravalli County Sheriff Steve Holton was thankful that Two Bear Air was able to respond in such a quick fashion.
“They have been an outstanding partner for us,” Holton said. “They’ve never told us no. Every time we need them, they come down and help. And we have never received a bill from them.”
The outcome of the Doyle’s rescue may have been very different without the helicopter’s rapid response.
“Our only other option in this case would have been to put her in a litter and wheel her out,” Holton said. “Taking her out that way over more times would have pretty slow. We know that the sooner we can get people experiencing a medical emergency out of the woods and into medical treatment, the better off they will be.
“The resource that helicopter provides is something that we couldn’t replace,” he said. “Our search and rescue folks know they are fortunate to be able to call on them when they need help.”
Jones was happy when he heard that Two Bear Air was on its way.
“She’s probably tougher than I am, but she was hurting that day,” he said. “I was happy that she was able to get that immediate care, that’s for certain.”
Doyle’s life has always been about the outdoors.
Back in 2011, Doyle was presented with the Youth Conservation Award by the Montana Wildlife Federation. She was a junior in high school and had been a volunteer at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks' Darby check station since she was 10 years old.
A year before that, she stood up to a poacher who illegally killed a deer and didn’t back down when he came back in an attempt to intimidate her.
“I’m outdoors like every day after work,” she said. “This is certainly not going to stop me from getting back out there.”