Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

Hospital visit for plane crash survivor turns his luck again

 

October 26, 2017



Despite the fact he wasn't supposed to be on the plane headed toward Haines that crashed into Lynn Canal during Beer Fest last spring, it's hard not to describe Chan Valentine, 32, as lucky.

Valentine, the lone survivor, suffered a broken hip, a crushed face and the loss of two friends in the crash. If none of that had happened, doctors would not have discovered the grade three tumor growing on Valentine's brain this summer.

A cascade of random events led to that discovery. It's tough to pinpoint which event led doctors to find the tumor. The plane crash that put him in the hospital is an obvious one. The fact that he survived the initial crash is noteworthy. One could also point to the circumstances facilitating his rescue from the crushed twin-engine Piper Comanche that the incoming tide threatened to drown.

Stanley Su Quoc Nguyen and Valentine were supposed to fly to Haines from Juneau on a Friday evening, but flight trouble in Seattle delayed Nguyen's arrival until Saturday morning. Valentine waited and tried to book a ferry, but the terminal's computer system was down and they couldn't sell him standby tickets.

"Initially I was a little irritated that that had happened but now I'm like, 'Ah well, I wouldn't have known about the tumor otherwise,'" Valentine said.

Valentine and Nguyen decided to fly to Haines with his old boss and friend David Kunat. Kunat and Valentine worked together at a small tech support company in Juneau.

Valentine likely wouldn't have known about the tumor either, had he accepted Nguyen's offer to sit in the front seat of Kunat's plane.

"I knew I wanted to sit in the back," Valentine said. "I knew that if I sat up front I was going to have to do some flying whether I wanted to or not."

Valentine said Kunat would have probably tried to pressure him into flying, and thought it would be safer if Nguyen, also a pilot, sat up front.

"I just wanted to kick back and relax and watch the scenery go by," Valentine said.

Shortly into the flight, Kunat quizzed Nguyen on the proper recovery steps should an engine fail. They discussed the protocols and then Kunat told Nguyen to take the controls. Kunat cut the right engine. Valentine said Nguyen took the proper steps, but the engine wouldn't restart.

Kunat took the controls back and attempted to jumpstart the engine by diving the plane.

Through it all, Valentine said he never felt scared. Even after Kunat attempted several dive starts that failed and he'd watched Kunat and Nguyen manually lower the landing gear, he trusted they'd be OK.

"I wasn't nervous at all," Valentine said. "It was just kind of fun. I never felt scared. I just blacked out. The last thing I remember was them manually putting the gear down and then hearing a backhoe rev up."

If it weren't for Steve Dice, who spotted the out of control plane through binoculars, the crash might have gone unnoticed. Dice was visiting friends when they witnessed the plane crash. Once the group crossed the inlet, a high school track and cross-country runner raced to get help at a nearby summer tour operation.

Dice, who coincidentally happened to be a heavy equipment operator, was able to tow the wreckage away from the tide with a backhoe brought from the camp.

Valentine woke up to the sound of the backhoe. He remembers hearing the helicopter show up, but not much else over the next few days.

Before the helicopter arrived, the backhoe had to pull the plane five to ten feet at a time, about 30 feet in total, to keep Valentine's head above water as the tide came in. When local paramedics Al Giddings and Tim Holm arrived, they had to use snips to cut a hole in the plane to pull him out.

"I mostly just remember my left hip hurting like hell," Valentine said. "Pretty much nothing else hurt at that point, or I don't remember anything else hurting. It's hard because my glasses were broken, too, and so much of what you remember is what you can see. My vision without my glasses might as well be 20/2200 so I couldn't see a damn thing, which is probably good."

Valentine was eventually transported to Seattle's Harborview Hospital where doctors discovered the tumor, Valentine's mother, Theresa Valentine, said. She said she didn't know the details of what her son had gone through until she read about it in the newspaper.

"We didn't really know what had happened and we were kind of confused because his wallet was all wet and we didn't know he'd been in the water," Theresa Valentine said. "It was like, 'Oh, how many more miracles can we have? It was kind of surreal."

Theresa said they dealt with a host of different doctors before a neurosurgeon informed them of the tumor which was between the size of a golf ball and an egg.

"There was a different group for the brain, another one for the hand, another one for the face, another one for the hip, another one for the neck," Theresa Valentine said. "(The tumor) was pretty scary, but it was kind of something I tried not to think about. We had to get through the rest of this stuff first. We kept it on the back burner. I remember one day going and looking on the web about the tumor, but that was too scary."

Valentine named the tumor "Bobby the Brain Mass" because he loves the television show King of the Hill, and it made the tumor easier to talk about with people.

Doctors removed Bobby and Valentine has since received radiation therapy. He'll have to get biannual MRIs for the rest of his life to monitor for tumor recurrence.

In addition to the brain surgery, doctors had to reconstruct Valentine's face. His parents had to feed him liquid food out of what he described as a "turkey baster" because his jaw was wired shut. He was on a no chew diet for two weeks after doctors unwired his jaw. He ate grits and burrito bowls.

"Burritos without tortillas as long as you remember not to have lettuce," Valentine said. "It seems like if you put food on your tongue it lets you know pretty quick whether it thinks you can swallow that safely or not. At that point I was mostly trying to avoid choking because I was like 'Alright, you survived a plane crash let's not choke on a chunk of burrito."

Valentine has spent the last five months healing and completing physical therapy at his parent's home in Corvallis, Ore. He sat for two months in a wheelchair. They caught a college football game. In his spare time he plays the banjo, poorly, he said.

He said he has a pile of get well letters he's working on responding to. Earlier this month he visited Juneau and proposed to his girlfriend of five years. They're going to get married around Christmas. Valentine said he doesn't think too much about the crash. When he does, he mostly just feels grateful. Grateful and lucky.

"I feel really lucky," Valentine said. "It's hard to not feel lucky."

Valentine has a fundraising site to help with his medical cost: https://www.gofundme.com/chancerfund.

 
 

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