Detour Ahead

An excerpt from the first chapter of my book in progress.

“I am paralyzed.”  The words kept slamming through my head as I lay motionless.  Six hours ago, I was whole: a twenty-two year old Utah State University student looking for the next adventure.  Then I decided to join some fraternity brothers at the lake, where I dove into the water and hit a submerged tree stump, breaking my neck.

It happened in a split second, with a shocking finality that changed my life forever. It was a warm Memorial Day, May 29, 1972. We had decided to spend the afternoon at Hyrum Reservoir about 12 miles from campus in the foothills of the Bear River Mountains.  It didn’t take long for the early summer sun to persuade me to desert the raucous camaraderie of the beach for a swim in the chilly waters.
 I ran down the beach to dive into the water.  As I sprang, I stepped on a small rock with my right foot.  My foot gave way and with no forward momentum, my flat racing dive turned into a head-first flop.  There was a tree stump just underneath the surface of the water and I hit it head on with a violent impact.  A sickening thud resonated throughout my body.  I felt no pain and in spite of the blow to my head I didn’t lose consciousness. But I couldn’t move.

Lying face down, I remember thinking, “Get out of the water,” but nothing happened.  I had no feeling or movement below my shoulders.  Nothing. It was as if I had no body.  It’s not like numbness. When you’re numb, there’s still an awareness of the limb that is numb.  I had no limbs. My arms and legs didn’t exist. I held my breath, wondering if I would drown.  It must have been an innate sense of survival that prompted me to hold my breath rather than panic and suck in water.  Then I felt myself being pulled from the water by several of my fraternity brothers.
As they laid me on the beach, I could see a hand waving around next to my face.  I couldn’t feel it, but it was mine.  I was disembodied.  I heard a girl’s voice yell, “Don’t move his head.” I screamed, “Somebody hold my feet.”  I wanted to feel something, anything. I didn’t know that someone was already holding my feet as I was loaded into the back of one of the guys Volkswagen Squareback station wagon.  I’m still not sure how they got all six feet three inches of me into the car, even with the tailgate down.

The next thing I remember was seeing two doctors looking down at me. They began asking me questions.  “Can you cough?” I could, barely.  “Can you wiggle your toes?”  No, I couldn’t.  In spite of my paralysis, I was having severe back spasms that arched my whole body.  One of the doctors, whom I would come to know as Dr. Nielsen, an orthopedic surgeon, said he’d give me some medication to stop the spasms.

Then I was wheeled into the operating room where Dr. Nielsen drilled two holes in my skull, one on each side, just above my ears.  He must have given me a local anesthetic, because there was no pain, but I could hear the bone grinding as he turned a hand operated drill. 

It was quiet and cold and it seemed that only Dr. Nielsen was present. He talked quietly and calmly as he went about his business, explaining to me what he was doing as he worked.  His calm demeanor helped comfort me.  He explained that he was drilling holes to insert a Crutchfield Halo into my skull, a device that looked like ice tongs.

The halo would be screwed into my skull and then ten pounds would be hung off the top of my head via a cable to stretch out my spinal column and allow the swelling in my damaged spinal cord to go down while the vertebrae healed.
I would then be transferred to a bed called a Stryker Frame, a narrow metal slab with a little bit of padding that could accommodate another slab on top, so I could be flipped like a pancake and lay on my stomach without affecting the traction device. This would prevent pressure sores from forming as I laid motionless for two months.  

Of course I wouldn’t begin to understand any of this until days later, when the trauma and panic subsided enough for some information to sink in.  Lying face down in my hospital room, the chaos of the emergency room, radiology and operating room behind me, I was finally alone.  All I could see was the floor through the slats in the headrest of my Stryker Frame, with my chin and forehead bearing the weight of my head as if I were on a massage table.  

My awareness of the first day is like an old film that jumps, fades in and out, goes black and then resumes.

   I was disoriented and hysterical.  I could hear voices trying to calm me down, though I can’t be sure who was saying what.  “You’re going to be all right,” said one voice.  “I’m sure it’s just a temporary shock and you’ll be fine by tomorrow,” said another one.  I wanted to believe them, but my body was telling me otherwise
I don’t remember the ride, but I remember arriving at the hospital, being loaded onto a gurney and wheeled down a hallway.  I watched the ceiling go by. It was that nondescript white ceiling tile that looks like it has acne, the kind you see in every hospital.  I couldn’t turn my head, so my field of vision was narrow and also blurred because I didn’t have my glasses on.  I can only remember bits and pieces of what was happening. I heard another faceless voice telling the hospital attendants to be more careful as they transferred me to the x-ray table. 

My awareness of the first day is like an old film that jumps, fades in and out, goes black and then resumes.   I remember nurses standing over me, removing my clothes.  One of them said, “Wow, you have a great tan.”  Another one commented that I had sand in my hair, and in my shorts. Strange that I remember odd moments like this, even 40 years later.

It was a colorless floor, with no texture or pattern.  I thought how similar it was to my new existence—gray and featureless. 

I had never understood the true meaning of helpless until now.  I couldn’t do anything on my own except breathe.  The level of my injury had damaged the spinal cord between the 5th and 6th cervical vertebrae.  Fortunately my diaphragm still worked, enabling me to breathe and talk. Had the break been one vertebra higher, I would have needed a ventilator to help me breathe. I could shrug my shoulders, and my neck and head still had normal sensation, but anything below my shoulders, including my arms, was completely paralyzed and numb.

My mind began to race. All those things that are an everyday part of life would now be impossible for me to do by myself.  If I wanted to eat, someone would have to put food in my mouth.  I had a catheter so I could pee, even though I couldn’t feel the urge to go.  If I had an itch on my nose, somebody would have to scratch it for me
Laying there alone, unable to move, my mind began to go places where it had never gone before. I began to think deeply about what had happened and why. I had never been a philosophical or religious thinker.  I didn’t need to be.  Life was just my big toy to play with. I spent most of my time figuring out what would be the next game. Pondering the meaning of life was not something a healthy 22 year old spent much time with.  But now things were different.