In the second of this two-part series, I am going to talk about the aftermath of my experience, my healing process, what led me to become the person I am, and ultimately to writing my book. I’ll say it again, every word in this story is true. Cross my heart and hope to…oops, too late.
When we left off, I had died. I fell sixteen stories, hit the ground, boom, over. In most cases, the story would end there. But I’ve got more to tell. So let’s begin.
Good friends, indeed.
My friends still gathered around the campfire had lost sight of us as we climbed. But suddenly they saw a flash of light high in the sky, and heard me scream. Looking over, they saw my body dropping like a bag of rocks to hit the ground. Some say they can still remember the sound of my body hitting the earth. A “whump” that never fades. They leapt up and one came rushing over to see me. Taking one look at me lying there in the dirt, he pronounced me dead and turned his head away.
My girlfriend, in a panic, fled the scene to drive to my parents’ house, seeking help. My parents had gone on vacation in Utah to visit my grandparents, but my younger sister was there at home, and my girlfriend told her that I was dead. She immediately called my parents to let them know the news, but unable to explain the how and why.
Meanwhile, another friend drove quickly to a pay phone (no cell phones in those days) and called 911. Waiting at the phone booth, he led the ambulance back to our location, just off of Eight Mile Road. Finally, my best friend who had been on the tower with me climbed down with all the speed he could manage. Approaching me, he knelt in the dirt and wrapped his arms around me crying. “Don’t die”, he said, sobbing into my shoulder, his body shaking with grief. “Don’t die man, don’t die.” And that is when I didn’t die. That is when I woke up.
“Get off me, it hurts”, I grumbled to my friend before blacking out again. Sometime later I woke up in intense pain, as I was being placed in a stretcher and carried up the hill to the road on top of the levee, and the waiting emergency vehicle there. It didn’t last and consciousness faded once again. I woke up once more in an ambulance with a medic asking me, “How you doin’? Does it hurt?” “Only when I laugh”, was my response before passing out one last time.
I was taken to the closest hospital to get stabilized, and then taken to another hospital and set up in the intensive care unit there. I don’t have any memory of this. My parents, upon getting the call from my sister, immediately started calling the police to find out where my body had been taken. Not to a morgue, they discovered, and were directed instead to emergency rooms, finally tracking me down. The doctors told them to stay put in Utah so that they were reachable by phone. I can only imagine the anxiety they felt. As my mom is fond of telling, she fought against the anguish with humor. You know that kind that bubbles up during inappropriate and stressful times. “If he makes it through this, I’ll kill him!” was what she told my father.
I woke up in an oddly shaped bed in the hospital. It was roundish and had these slots into which my arms and legs fit. And it would rock from side to side, keeping me in motion and keeping the blood from pooling. The pain was indescribable.
I was in the ICU for about 5 days. I had broken my pelvis in two places, broken three ribs, and shattered my right cheekbone. Evidently, my face hit one of those steel anchor cables on my way down, which had the benefit of slowing my fall slightly and spinning my body so that I landed on my back in the rain-softened earth, sinking several inches into the dirt. My jeans exploded along the seams on impact, and my head landed just two feet away from a block of concrete. The doctors told me later that the electricity had probably stopped my heart, essentially killing me and making my body limp. The impact of the ground started it back up. So many tiny boxes that needed to be checked to allow me to survive.
Every day in the ICU my chances for survival increased. If I remember right, it started at about 20% and moved up daily from there. I was in and out of consciousness, catching bits of conversation between the doctors and nurses. Eventually, I was transferred out of the ICU and into a regular room. Looking back, I feel terrible for my hospital roommate. I was in constant, intense pain, moaning and swearing up a storm in that Catholic St. Joseph’s hospital.
I was not well-liked by my nurses, something I learned as I was coming out of anesthesia after having plastic surgery on my face to remove my cheekbone and replace it with a metal plate. I don’t think the attendants knew I was awake yet, and they were talking about my cursing and complaining, and how the nurses looked at me as a problem case. Hey, you try surviving a 16-story fall and find out if you don’t complain through the pain! Well, I vowed to be better and suffer in silence from that point on.
My bed would lift to a vertical position, and after about a week of being in the regular room, I had a therapist start working with me to get me to stand. The pain was too intense and I couldn’t deal with being vertical for more than a second or two before I begged for him to lower me back down.
After several more days, it was getting easier and I was getting bored out of my mind. My parents were back in town and visiting me daily. Friends stayed away because they hated seeing me broken like that, but I understood. I just wanted to get out of there. So I reached out to my doctor. He wanted me to stay much longer, go through physical therapy, and heal more. I told him no, I could do therapy from the outside. He finally agreed that if I could get myself into a wheelchair and get around, he would let me go. I redoubled my efforts and within days, I managed to do so. True to his word, he let me out. Sixteen days after entering the hospital, I was going home.
The magical healing powers of the cabin.
I went home in a wheelchair, but my recovery was far from over. Daily sessions with a physical therapist eventually moved me out of the wheelchair and into a walker. I got to the point where I could drive again, and went to visit my friends who had been there that night. Though they were happy to see me, it was hard for them to watch their friend, once so vibrant and full of energy, struggle with a walker. I hadn’t been able to eat in the hospital and I was emaciated beyond belief, my rib cage looking like those terrible pictures of starving children. And the pain was chronic, never-ending. The nerve damage in my leg a constant companion that the medication could only dim, but never extinguish.
Two and a half months after the accident, my father was preparing to go and open the cabin for the summer. He asked me if I wanted to join him for the trip. I did, but I felt this tremendous depression about being there in the place I love, yet being broken. I had graduated to using a cane at this point, but I wouldn’t even be able to walk down the trail to dock where I could look at the lake. I didn’t know if I could handle it.
But I went with him, and after the long drive to the cabin, we arrived. My spirits rose immediately upon getting there. The fresh pine-scented air was wonderful and I felt rejuvenated in a way I hadn’t felt since before the accident. I slowly and carefully made my way down to the lake, one shuffling step at a time, fearing tripping over a stone or root and falling. But finally reaching the dock, I looked out across the glassy surface of the water. I needed this. And the healing has begun.
I shouldn’t have had any doubts about going with my father to the lake. As if everything that had happened up until this point wasn’t miraculous enough, I had one more miracle awaiting me. I was healed at the lake. Within a week of arriving, I was water-skiing. The pain faded away and I no longer needed the cane. I remember a vivid dream I had there. Never before and never since have I had one so clearly symbolic. In the dream, I was running swiftly across low foothills, slamming into electrical towers one after another and toppling them to the ground. I had done it. I had beaten this tragic event, slogged through the pain and suffering, and come out the other side. I was back to who I was before the accident, with one major change for the better.
A life to love.
I had discovered a new appreciation of life and everything in it, and I don’t know how to explain it, except that it was an awakening. I saw everything in nature in a new light, and I took the time to really listen and observe. Colors were brighter, sounds were clearer. Music was more beautiful. And people were more important to me than ever before. Friends, family, strangers, it didn’t matter. Everyone was a life to love, and everything was an object to cherish. I became a better person. I’m not saying I’m the best person, far from it. But I became kinder, more appreciative, more loving, and more generous.
I look back on that event as a horrible experience, but I wouldn’t change a thing. It helped shape me into the person I am today, and I like who I am. I still bear the physical scars, though you’d have to look closely to see them. A large burn mark on my arm where the electricity hit me, and smaller circular burns on the opposite side of my arm where it came through. Even a burn on the bottom of my foot where it traveled down my body and exited. One eye socket appears slightly deeper than the other, and my hips are a bit out of alignment. I also have a hole in my ribcage where a chunk of bone shifted and attached to a new spot. But I have no pain and I play racquetball regularly. So overall I’d say not too bad!
Thank you for taking the time to read this extra-long post. As I said, every word of it is true, so if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to respond below. I am fortunate to be alive now, and to be able to look back on these memories and share them with you. My healing time at the cabin is part of what makes the place so magical for me, and allowed me to create the world that I’ve built for The Passage at Moose Beach.
If I can leave you with anything, it’s this. Take the time to enjoy life. Don’t let your eyes pass by a purple flower without noticing it. Don’t let the song of a bird disappear without hearing it. Don’t let a warm breeze on a sunny afternoon in Spring go by without feeling it. And don’t let a day go by without telling at least one person you care for that you love them.