Snowmobile employed to deliver penicillin to sick child in Sandhills

Highways in Cherry County, Pine Ridge drift back shut due to high winds

By: - December 23, 2022 5:00 pm
snow drift

Snow drifts were taller than the cab on a tractor at the ranch of Adam and Bre Johnson north of Cody around Christmas. An emergency snowmobile run of Dec. 23 delivered much-needed medicine to their daughter (Courtesy of Adam Johnson)

LINCOLN — With snow drifts blocking local highways, residents of the Sandhills village of Cody were forced to use a snowmobile Friday to deliver penicillin to a sick child stuck at a local ranch.

After John Witt, the husband of a local doctor, was able to get the medicine to the ranching community west of Valentine, a local teen, Trapper Schied, 15, and his 12-year-old brother, Chase, drove their snowmobile 12 miles north of town to deliver the penicillin.

Six-year-old Zoey Johnson had been suffering from scarlet fever for the past three days but was snowed in at the family ranch, said her grandfather, George Johnson. Trapper  battled wind chills up to 30 below zero to reach the ranch, Johnson said.

‘Critical’ that penicillin be delivered

“It’s incredible,” Johnson said. “It was critical that she got antibiotics before it started spreading to her organs.”

Cherry County and the northern portion of Nebraska’s Panhandle were hit hard by a blizzard that began on Dec. 13, with snowfall of up to 24 inches or more. This week, high winds drifted highways back shut, and bitterly cold temperatures hit the area.

The Nebraska Department of Transportation, facing a shortage of snowplow drivers across the state, deployed snowplowers from central Nebraska to the area to battle the initial storm. But those extra plows were gone by this week, leaving local crews to deal with wind gusts topped 40 mph and drifts again blocking roads.

snow plow
The snowplow cam on a Nebraska Department of Transportation plow shows the conditions southwest of Valentine on Friday. (Screenshot from NDOT website)

At 4 p.m. Friday, the NDOT’s highway map showed several highways closed in the Valentine area and in the Pine Ridge region of northwest Nebraska.

‘Not a good situation’

“It’s not a good situation for us,” said Dennis Connot, a NDOT maintenance supervisor out of Valentine as he drove a plow Friday afternoon to a stranded motorist on Nebraska Highway 97 southwest of town. 

Connot said one snowdrift of between 8 and 10 feet tall that had blocked the highway had been dug out twice in the past two days but had redrifted across the road again today.

He said the high winds that swept across Nebraska this week made conditions worse than when the initial snows came on the 13th and 14th. To complicate matters further, a couple of Connot’s snowplow drivers were sick Friday.

Stranded semi, motorists

“We found someone yesterday morning who was pretty cold out on Highway 12 who was stranded in a semi hauling hay,” Connot said. “He shouldn’t have been out.”

snow drift
Drifts as high as a machine shed piled up in Cody, a ranching community west of Valentine.
(Courtesy of George Johnson)

The Nebraska State Patrol reported Friday that its troopers had responded to more than 500 weather-related incidents during the wind storm and blistering cold temperatures on Wednesday and Thursday.

On Thursday evening, two motorists were rescued who had become stranded on a county road near the South Dakota border in rural Dawes County.

After attempts failed to reach them using track vehicles and plows, members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe Search and Rescue employed snowmobiles to rescue them, the State Patrol reported.

 “I don’t ever remember it being this bad,” said Lisa Bellin, who works at the Valentine Livestock Auction.

Bellin said that husband, who works as a plow driver, was stuck in a snowdrift in his rig on Highway 97 yesterday as he tried to reach a stranded motorist. She said she’d also heard about the penicillin run in Cody.

‘Something out of the 1930s’

“This is something you would hear about in 1930s, not in 2022,” Bellin said. 

The livestock market cancelled sales the past two weeks due to the deep snow followed by this week’s high winds and bitter cold. Bellin said it’s hard telling whether ranchers will lose cattle because, in many cases, they can’t get to them due to the deep snow and blinding winds.

“You have to find them first. And you’ve got to be able to see them to get to them,” she said.

The State Patrol advises motorists who become stranded to stay in their vehicle and call for help. The Nebraska State Patrol Highway Helpline is available 24 hours a day by calling *55.


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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.