ON NOV. 13, 2016, I BROKE MY NECK
My latest adventure is having broken my neck. I started writing this in my first days in the hospital, and have added to it as this experience evolves. Writing helps me think more clearly about the emotional journey, because I don’t want to ever forget the details. And maybe someone will find it interesting reading.
It happened so fast. On Sundays, I often ride with a dozen or so experienced riders and racers from Roseville Cyclery. The pace lines are exciting; single file riding, about 1-2 feet behind each other, and the lead rider drops off after about a minute in front. The front rider is riding against the wind while the rest of the pack is drafting. It’s pretty fast, we ride pretty close, and attention and focus are required. No mistakes!
We returned to Roseville, riding slowly down Vernon Street toward the bike shop – the end of the ride! I looked to my right at a restaurant where we’d discussed having lunch, and saw a couple dining out on the patio. I looked forward again on the road, and a few guys had stopped in front of me. I hit the brakes.
I recall this moment clearly – the urgency to stop, hitting the brakes, and the feeling of going up and over the handlebars. Not down, but up and over. This was the “uh-oh” moment, and I knew I was going to hit the ground, hard.
I don’t remember landing, but I remember lying on the road, and immediately the center of a LOT of attention. I didn’t lose consciousness. In fact, I was very aware that I was injured, needing to do some assessment and make some decisions. I wiggled toes, flexed ankles, fingers, and arms – and everything worked. Lying on my back, I was quickly surrounded by the faces of people there to help me. I had a general sense of pain, but nothing jumped out as particularly damaged. I just hurt all over.
INSTINCT VS. JUDGEMENT
My instinct was to get up, brush myself off, and let everyone know “I am OK”. I’ve don’t that many times before – “don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine”. That’s what I wanted to do. In spite of that instinct, I had a moment of great clarity that I’ll be forever grateful for. It wasn’t emotional, it was clear, a “do the right thing” moment, and it wasn’t even a choice. I told the guys that I need a backboard and a cervical collar.
It came from the first aid and first responder training I’ve had. The rule is “protect the spine”. I was lucky to be intact at this point, but any wrong movement could cause damage, so I laid still. “Protect the spine” was what I’d learned in caring for another victim, and here I was applying it to myself.
VULNERABILITY VS. TRUST
At this moment I prepared for some new issues about to envelop me – I was giving up control over everything. I would be strapped to a backboard, and have little, if anything, to say about anything for the next several hours. I’m a little claustrophobic, and I genuinely dreaded the next steps. A LOT. It was more than just discomfort, it was the sinking reality that I wasn’t making decisions any more, about my comfort, my whereabouts, and perhaps major decisions about my health.
The fire department crew installed a neck brace and rolled me onto a backboard. Then came the straps. THE STRAPS! First my arms and torso, then over my forehead. I knew I had to be immobilized, but began to panic at having NO control over anything. There was no discussing it - I had to deal with it. I took deep breaths, and had a conversation with myself that this was for my own good. That helped – it was logic over emotion. Oh, the panic and fear were still there, they just didn’t overcome me, with my rational voice reminding me that I HAD to do this, and it was only temporary. I still shake about this as I write, several weeks later.
CARE VS. SYMPATHY
I was placed on a gurney at ground level, and the legs raise up to roll into the ambulance. This created a new, very lonely perspective. At ground level, I could see and talk with people as they came into my limited field of view. At this raised level, I could only see the sky. There was conversation, but I could not see anyone and had no perspective of the activity around me. Then I saw the end of the roof on the ambulance, and recognized that I was being slid into the vehicle. Staring at the roof of the ambulance, there was a lot of activity in the area, and I could see none of it. In these moments I had never felt so alone in my life.
Then there was Haley. She’s the paramedic who sat next to me and took control. She was magic. At my worst emotional challenge, she moved her face into my limited field of view, introduced herself, and asked if I needed anything. She looked right into my eyes, to connect, and to show that she understood my private hell. She spoke to me, not at me, and explained the circumstances in a calm, gentle voice, and told me what we were going to do and what to expect. She did most of the talking, always making sure I could see her face. As she spoke, she was answering questions before I’d even asked. In the midst of all the chaos and activity, she took the time to make it personal – that she understood my fears, and that I was in very capable hands. As much as I hated being strapped to the backboard, her professional skills and demeanor allowed me to relax.
This wasn’t the kind of sympathy offered by an acquaintance; holding my hand and telling me everything would be OK. This was a professional who knew what I needed, anticipated my fears, and addressed them directly, that made me comfortable, and grateful for her help.
She also knew that this would affect others. She asked if she could call anyone for me, and of course, I needed to inform my wife, Pam. I suggested that it would sound a whole lot better if she heard it from my voice instead of Haley’s. I told Pam I would be OK, that there was no particular urgency, but to meet at the emergency room when she could. Haley took the phone and gave Pam the details.
DIAGNOSIS – THE UNEXPECTED
A CT scan made it official: I had a double fracture of the C-1 vertebrae – a broken neck. New information for me – there are 7 cervical vertebrae (C-1 through 7), 12 thoracic vertebrae (T-1 through 12), and 5 lumbar vertebrae (L-1 through 5). My particular fracture occurred in the very first, the top vertebrae, just below the skull. It was cracked in the front and in the back.
The neurosurgeon examined the scan and determined that a neck brace would be required for a three-month healing period. As uncomfortable as that is going to be, that’s REALLY lucky. I’m not dead, or paralyzed. I didn’t require surgery or a halo. He said just a neck brace, immobility for three months, and I should heal 100%. I came here as a precaution, not expecting a serious injury. Three months of immobility sounded horrible, but framed against a variety of other possibilities, I was incredibly happy to be alive, and pledged myself to be a great patient.
He fit me with a special neck brace, to be worn 24/7, and explained I’d have to be very careful. I took this as great news. He said I could go home that night. Wow, I know I was incredibly lucky.
Worried about my students for Monday, I called my department chair at ARC (College) to let her know I would probably be out of commission for a day or two, and asked that she communicate with my students. Yes, I’m an optimist.
But go home? I couldn’t move. I was very sore (everywhere, really, as I had other injuries), and I couldn’t even sit up in the electric bed. Pam was with me now, and she could see that I could not move at all, let alone get up, to the car, or into the house.
The ER doctor agreed and sent me to the hospital. All through this I had been alert and conversational, but three days later I could still barely move. The doctor who makes the daily rounds visits in the morning with a “how you doing?”, but had little more to offer. Finally I asked if it’s possible that I have a concussion. He said “possibly”. I asked what the symptoms are of a concussion. “Pretty much what you’re experiencing” was his reply. I had to ask what the treatment was for a concussion – “pretty much what we’re doing”, he said. So this is the first time I’ve heard about the concussion, but it explains my pain and inability to move.
After 5 days in the hospital, I went home with Pam. I was a bit conflicted in being SO happy to be alive, but still so debilitated. The concussion was my primary battle – it was worse than hangover that won’t go away. I could talk and think clearly, but my head hurt terribly. It really overshadowed any neck pain I might feel. Slowly, I regained some mobility, and could walk with a walker for short, but increasing journeys. Getting better, but slowly.
DISCUSSIONS, PARTNERING, AND CHOICES
It’s challenging to confront “what if” scenarios, which we often do in the abstract. It’s a very different perspective to address these possibilities when really confronted with them. I’ve learned that there are many more layers of complexity than I thought, that put quality of life, burden upon others, selfishness, selflessness, and other concerns at odds with each other. They are difficult to address, and to share intimately with those who also would be affected, and to be absolute in conclusion.
After my accident, we were aware that my prognosis could have been much different. And I (we) still felt very fragile and vulnerable. “What if” my condition worsened? Would Pam know my whishes? Was I really clear on my wishes? If Pam had to make a difficult decision on my behalf, could she make it with clarity and comfort, or would doubt affect her for the rest of her life? What if others disagreed with her choice – would she have the clarity and conviction to make choices against other, well-intended influences?
This was very different from a traditional healthcare directive, which my family has. Those choices are articulated in pretty traditional language, and we choose “yes” or “no” for different scenarios. This conversation was much more intimate, and required a discussion of not only how it would affect me, my family, and others, but also how each of us determined that balance in quality of life, burden, commitment, and love. We had that conversation, exploring the possibilities, and while it was incredibly difficult, we found it very comforting that if placed in a situation of difficult choices, that Pam would have the clarity and strength to know what “the right thing” would be according to OUR choices. In hindsight, perhaps we were being overly dramatic about things turning bad, but it was a worthwhile process to go through, and discover new depths of the partnership and understanding that we have for each other.
After two full weeks the effects of the concussion wore off, and I was able to walk with a cane and lost the “hangover’. Now I could feel the neck pain, but I was SO encouraged to see progress. I spent most of the days in a reclining position, but could sit upright for short periods each day. Eventually, I could spend a few minutes at my computer, then back to reclining on the couch. Longer periods upright each day, and progress is very visible and encouraging. I went from 12 pain-killers a day to just three.
As I write this, it’s been six weeks. I’ll be in the neck brace at least six more weeks, and while I’m kind of used to it, it’s very uncomfortable and very restricting (I can’t drive with it). I recline much of the day, but can work at my desk for an hour or so, a couple of times a day.
Christmas Eve was my first day out of the house, to spend a quiet evening with my parents (they don’t drive, so they hadn’t seen me since the accident). For our larger family dinner on Christmas with cousins, aunts, and uncles, I stayed home. In part because a lot of movement is still very uncomfortable and painful, but also because I see other people and things as “tripping hazards”. Please don’t tell them! I’m committed to heal, perfectly, so come sacrifices are necessary.
I’m committed to heal perfectly, which means “taking it easy” every day, all day, for three months. The doctor has said I’ll be OK for some limited classroom time when school resumes in late January. The collar comes off February 13!
But I‘ve discovered an odd perspective of time. Each day is one step in my progress. Each day is one more “X” on the 3-month calendar, and I’m counting those “X’s” toward the end my confinement.
The doctor appointments are important benchmarks, too. I need good news at regular intervals. After some new dizziness symptoms, I went in for a CT scan on Christmas. It was comforting to have an intermediate diagnosis that everything was in alignment and healing as it should. I really needed that, and am focused on my next visit.
For my FB friends, look for my next post when the collar comes off in February. Until then, I’m lying low and HEALING. I’m not looking for visitors, and I know you all wish me well, so leave a post if you like. I'll be back when it's the real ME. Then, in February, the real therapy begins – my muscles have atrophied and I have to retrain them. I’ve got some big projects planned in 2017, so watch and see what I have in store with my family, and my adventure partners. Then you’ll know I’M BACK!