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Island musician suffers critical injuries after attempting to remove a tree during the storm

John Browne is a well-known and much-admired Delta blues singer and guitar-player. - Janice Randall
John Browne is a well-known and much-admired Delta blues singer and guitar-player.
— image credit: Janice Randall

John Browne, a longtime Islander and nurseryman known for his traditional blues guitar-playing and singing, was critically injured during the height of the snowstorm Monday night while trying to remove a tree that had fallen across a road.

According to his wife Vicki Browne, he went out to 111th Ave. S.W., the road in front of their home in Paradise Valley, after he heard that a towering alder had fallen and was straddling the entire thoroughfare.

While John was trying to remove the tree, a driver who didn't see him lost control of his vehicle on the icy road and ran into the tree, causing the butt of John's chainsaw to hit him in the stomach and throwing him several feet in the air.

The driver heard John moan, Vicki said; it was only then that he realized another individual was involved in the accident. The driver, a neighbor, was uninjured.

In a series of twists that added to the night's drama, medics who arrived on the scene couldn't airlift John because of the high winds. And because both the upper and lower portions of the West Seattle Bridge were closed, they couldn't take him to Harborview, Vicki said.

Eventually, he was taken by ambulance to Tacoma General, where doctors discovered that he had suffered significant internal injuries and organ damage from the impact of the chainsaw. He also fractured his elbow. He has undergone two surgeries and is in the critical but stable condition in the hospital's intensive care unit (ICU), said Terry Sullivan, a close family friend and part of the Browne's extended family.

"He was more alert yesterday than he'd been. He was even more alert this morning. And his vital signs continue to look good," Sullivan said Sunday afternoon.

His condition, however, remains guarded, Sullivan added. "He won't be out of the woods until he's out of the ICU."

Vicki, meanwhile, is holding up well, Sullivan said.

"She gets emotional when she talks to someone for the first time. But once you're into it, she's pretty practical about what needs to be done. ... I think she's doing really well," he said.

John and Vicki Browne are well-known and much-loved Islanders who have lived on Vashon more than 30 years. Both are fixtures at the Farmers Market, where Vicki sells hand-crafted brooms that won her acclaim on the New York Times' design blog and John sells native plants raised at his sprawling nursery behind their tiny home in Paradise Valley.

John, 67, is also known on Vashon and throughout the region for his music, Delta blues that he sings in his gravelly voice and finger-picks on his guitar. He writes many of his own songs, some of them pointed jabs at environmental or political issues, such as "Cherry Pie," a sardonic look at pesticide use.

Since news of the accident has spread through Vashon's tight-knit community of farmers, craftspeople and musicians, the outpouring of help and support has been considerable, Sullivan said. People have offered financial help, the use of their car (the Brownes currently don't have a working vehicle) and firewood (they heat only with wood).

The hospitalization will likely put a financial strain on the couple. John has Medicare, which will cover around 80 percent of his hospital costs. An account has been set up at U.S. Bank.

"It's totally overwhelming," Vicki said of the support. It's also critical, she added. "It's going to be a long haul."

Before the accident occurred, Vicki said, she tried to keep John from going out into the storm. Their house is situated in the woods, and the wind was blowing hard, she recalled. Despite her protestations, he was determined to remove the tree, she said.

"John has this really strong sense of helping people. He wants to be the guy people depend on," she said.

In his room in the ICU, a small poster about the patient bears that out. Under occupation, his children wrote: "Native plant expert, musician, good Samaritan."

An account in John Browne's name will be open at U.S. Bank on Monday. Those interested in providing firewood can drop it off at Karen Biondo's farm, K-Jo Farm, on 111th Ave. S.W., just south of S.W. 204th. Send cards to John Browne, Room 476, Tacoma General Hospital, 315 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Tacoma, 98405.

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