Thanksgiving, for most, looked a bit different this year.
Families, once spread out around the largest of dining room tables, were reduced to small, intimate gatherings.
Beloved Thanksgiving dishes, perhaps, were limited to but a few.
One local family, however, wasn’t particularly concerned with the Thanksgiving downsize; they weren’t necessarily disheartened.
“I’m more thankful this year than I’ve ever been,” said Debbie Utt as she wiped away tears falling from large brown eyes.
Scott and Debbie Utt’s lives were turned upside down just two weeks ago. A year that has already been difficult brought an unexpected — and nearly deadly — challenge.
Scott left for Nebraska on Nov. 10 for a long-awaited hunting trip with several friends, colleagues and his brother, Kent Utt.
It was a private hunting resort many of them had been to before.
After settling in, they headed out — with two guides and a handful of dogs, including Scott’s own Britney Spaniel, Tango — about noon on a Wednesday for a day of pheasant hunting, and they were only about two hours in when tragedy struck.
The group had decided to take a break, get a drink, before changing locations. As per safety protocol, they had stopped to break down and unload their 12-gauge shotguns, but when they all gathered back together, a shot rang out.
“I was walking up to get a bottle of water,” Scott recalled, “and someone’s gun went off right next to me. I immediately felt a pain in my leg; you can’t describe it. It was burning, hurting, and I just yelled out, ‘I’ve been hit.”
As Scott crumpled to the ground, one of the guides jumped into action, taking off of his own belt to create a tourniquet above the wound.
But as everyone gathered round, it became shockingly clear just how serious the situation was.
Scott had suffered a shotgun wound to the left thigh, specifically the area around his femur and the life-giving femoral artery that runs anterior to it. The entry and exit wounds were clear, and he was bleeding profusely.
His brother, Kent, fell to the ground next to him, held him and prayed, the unbearable reality that these could be their final moments together sinking in.
“I knew it was bad,” Scott said. “I didn’t necessarily know how bad at the time — I couldn’t see it; they didn’t want me to — but the only thing that was running through my mind was that (the injury) was right there, the femur and the femoral artery. I’d seen it on TV enough times. You get shot there, you bleed out. And you die.
“But Kent was comforting me. He was praying over me. We sat there, connected and prayed that God would take control.”
Kent said, as he prayed, a calmness came over him; he barely remembers the words he spoke.
“I just got on the ground with him, held him and looked in his eyes,” Kent said. “And it may sound corny, but God intervened. I know he did.”
The other hunting guide immediately took off in one of the all-terrain vehicles the men were using to get around the vast property and set off to find enough cell service to call 911. Once stable, the other men loaded Scott into the other ATV and headed toward a clearing where the guides knew first-responders, including a helicopter, could reach them.
It was there — in a field clearing in middle-of-nowhere Nebraska — that Kent had to make the phone call he so desperately didn’t want to make.
“I think he just said to me, ‘Scott has been shot,’ ” Debbie recalled. “And he must have said it in a calm voice, because I told him it wasn’t funny.
“I told him to give Scott the phone,” she said as a tear rolled down her cheek. “I thought something had happened, that they were being silly. And then he started crying.
“And I lost my mind.”
Scott was taken by helicopter to Nebraska Medicine, a teaching hospital in Omaha. Doctors there were able to get the bleeding stopped, the pain under control, and they learned just how lucky Scott had been.
The bullet — which was #5 buckshot — had missed the femur by only a few millimeters, Scott said. And the vital femoral artery, too, had been spared.
“I am so lucky,” he said gazing down at his leg. “The doctor said when (a bullet) hits bone, it shatters into the artery and, more than likely, you bleed to death.
“It’s really by God’s grace that I’m here at all.”
Meanwhile, neighbors, family and friends rallied around Debbie and the couple’s daughter, 15-year-old Briley, a student at North Knox Jr. Sr. High School.
Their church, Shaker Prairie Christian Church in Oaktown, immediately started a prayer chain, and when Debbie herself put out a plea for prayers on social media, the response was overwhelming.
Loved ones gathered round, everyone searching frantically for any way to help, from providing meals to figuring out how to get Scott home.
He wanted to get back to Indianapolis, but hospitals there, due to the surge in COVID-19 case were under a trauma divert order, meaning flying or even driving there for treatment wasn’t possible.
Debbie desperately wanted to drive to Omaha to be at Scott’s side, but he wouldn’t let her.
There was no need, he said, as his eyes were fixed on getting home — somehow, some way.
But a day passed, then two, and with no clear path back to Indiana, his doctors in Omaha insisted he have the surgery he needed to clean and properly pack the wound.
A frantic Debbie, still sitting vigil in Oaktown, could only wait by the phone.
“I feel like I waited forever,” she said with chuckle. “I kept waiting for someone to call me, anyone.
“I think I called that poor little nurse — I don’t know how many times. I just called and called and checked on him again and again. I never got much information, but they were always so nice.”
Meanwhile, friends and colleagues here were devising a plan to get Scott home afterward.
Knowing the 10-hour drive back to Oaktown would be excruciating — if not impossible — a colleague, Bill Sandiford with First Robinson Savings Bank, looked to a long-time client with the means to help, a pilot, George Murphy of Robinson, Illinois.
“And George said, ‘No problem, tell me a day and a time, and I’ll be there,’ ” Scott recounted. “ So they talked to the surgeon, and got a plan.”
George Murphy on that Saturday — four days after the shooting — picked a grateful and anxious Debbie up at the Mid-American Air Center in Lawrenceville, Illinois, flew her to Omaha where they met Scott.
She rushed to where he was waiting, seated in the backseat of a large black SUV. They held one another and cried.
“I was just so glad to see him in one piece,” Debbie said, casting a glance across the table at Scott. “And alive.”
“It was tearing me up knowing she was here, and my parents were here, worrying, and I was there,” Scott added.
But then, just as quickly, he was home — back among the comforts and the love and the support that he so desperately needed to heal.
The couple soon traveled to Indianapolis where they met with the team of doctors and surgeons that would be taking over his care; he’s had to go back several times since to have his wound VAC (vacuum-assisted closure) cleaned and changed.
He is now resting, healing, and doctors are hopeful that he will eventually regain full use of his leg. For now, the risk of infection is at the forefront of their minds, so they watch carefully.
Eventually, surgeons will need to do a skin graft to fully close the wound.
He’s getting around, albeit gingerly, with the use of a walker, and his spirits, despite the trauma and the pain, are good.
So as he, Debbie and Briley gathered around the dinner table on Thanksgiving this year, the list of things for which they are thankful was a longer one than usual.
Thankful to friend and hunting companion Steve Wolfe, who could never enter the Omaha hospital due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic but rarely left the parking lot, always staying close by, just a phone call away should he be needed.
“He stayed outside the whole time,” Scott said. “He wouldn’t leave us.”
To the parishioners of Shaker Prairie Christian Church, who so feverishly lifted up prayers on Scott’s behalf.
“I had a sense of calming come over me,” he said, “and I thought, ‘I’m going to be OK.”
To neighbor Sandy McKinley, who held Debbie so often as she cried and kept them all with full bellies.
To the staff at ProRehab, where Debbie was when she got the news, who so quickly and tenderly ushered her to a private room where they comforted her as best they could as the shock of the unfathomable situation set in.
To friends who drove Briley to and from school.
To companions who sent encouraging text messages, and to those who sent words of encouragement and prayers via social media.
“My phone was just blowing up the whole time,” Scott said of his time in Omaha and even now. “It’s humbling to know that so many people care.”
To an old high school classmate who, after years and years of silence, reached out to offer a listening ear.
“We talked and talked,” Debbie said with a smile. “And it did really make me feel better.”
To George Murphy, who didn’t just offer a plane ride, but who met her, no words necessary, and lifted her into a warm embrace.
“He was amazing,” Debbie said. “I just ran into his arms.
“And I’d never even met him before,” she said, her voice breaking.
And to Kent, who offered the kind of unconditional love only a big brother can in those darkest of moments.
“Just to everyone, we’re so grateful,” Scott said. “To people who knew me personally, even to those who didn’t, who reached out.
Everyone has been amazing, and they’ve done great things just out of the goodness of their hearts,” he said with a smile, casting a loving glance in his wife and daughter’s direction. “I didn’t know anybody liked us this much.”