On the afternoon of September 18, 2008, while swimming in the ocean in Santa Monica, CA, I suffered a broken neck in an unexplainable swimming accident. I was at the beach that day for a volleyball tournament my office hosted, and by 4pm my team had lost in the semi-finals. While standing at the refreshment tent, a cute co-worker named Courtney challenged me to a race into the ocean, and with my flirtation meter on high, I duly accepted.
I waited the two seconds we had agreed would be her head start and then took off after her. As I entered the water, still sprinting, I was about waist-deep when I dove below the surface for a moment and violently impacted something with my head. I still don’t know what I struck – perhaps a wooden pylon, perhaps a sand bar – I have yet to return to the same beach.
The impact fractured my C-4 (cervical) vertebra in half, shattered all of the spiny processes attached to the back of the vertebra, and severely herniated the disk between my C-5 and C-6 vertebrae.
As I tried to sit up in the surf, repeatedly battered and pushed back towards shore by each successive wave, Courtney noticed my lethargy and pain immediately, and carefully helped me exit the surf. Dazed, but with no real sense of the injury I had suffered, I could tell my neck felt a little stiff and I thought I might have broken all four of my front teeth. I asked Courtney if she wouldn’t mind taking me to the ER ‘just to make sure I’m fine’. She kindly agreed, I stood up, and I gingerly walked about two hundred yards from the water to the beach’s parking lot, where I laid down in the bike path to wait for her to return with her car, which was parked a mile or so away.
Seeing me spread out in the middle of the park’s bike path, an attentive lifeguard and another of my perceptive co-workers stayed with me, making sure I didn’t move at all, and convinced me to take an ambulance ride to the hospital rather than ride in Courtney’s car, which I believe is a primary reason I’m not paralyzed today. Just as importantly though, service employees present for the volleyball tournament brought large bags of ice, and all present helped isolate my spine and place the ice under my neck until an ambulance arrived shortly.
Courtney, a complete stranger until that day, rode with me in the ambulance and even stayed in the ER until the late hours of the evening, when my roommate and friend Liza, a pediatric nurse at L.A.’s Childrens’ Hospital, took a shift watching over me. The next morning, after many x-rays, a CAT scan and an MRI, I received the bad news about the status of my spine. Still, to the apparent surprise of various hospital employees, I still felt no numbness or any signs of paralysis.
That Saturday, September 20, 2008, which I now consider my 2nd birthday, I underwent over six hours of surgery, both on the front and back of my neck. Afterward, I groggily emerged from a post-operative stupor in recovery at about 11pm. My brilliant surgeon had not only inserted a cadaver femur crafted into the shape of a new C-4 vertebra (thank you donors everywhere!) into my neck to replace the destroyed one, and replaced the herniated disc between the C-5 and C-6 vertebrae with some high-tech version of a normal cervical disc, but also more importantly had (in the front/posterior and the back/anterior) fused my cervical spine from C-3 to C-5 (including, obviously, my new C-4 vertebrae). What this effectively meant was that while I would have to wear a cervical collar for four months, I would never need any halo-type device that screwed into the outside of my head: the long-term neck support is installed in my neck.
For obvious reasons, after surgery I felt (and still regularly feel) an overwhelmingly strong sense of the tremendous good fortune I experienced: I not only survived a devastating accident, but I’d done so without any form of neurological impairment or paralysis. Two days after surgery, when speaking with an attending surgeon fellow, I learned how statistically lucky I really was:
Over 90% of the people who incur the same C-4 injury suffer permanent neurological impairment (and are paralyzed from the waist down or worse)
Over 50% of the people who suffer such permanent neurological impairment are paraplegic (paralyzed from the neck down) for the rest of their lives
A great majority of the people who become paraplegic as a result of such an injury die within a few years of the injury due to complications and/or depression
Each and every time I explain or write those statistics, it is with amazement for my luck and with tremendous gratitude for my life.
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Just as T.S. Eliot said that “it’s strange that words are so inadequate” when struggling to describe love, I don’t think I’ll ever adequately be able to express the range of emotions one feels when he knows he’s been given a second chance at life. There are moments of unbelievable happiness and relief, but sometimes also a void, a sense of profound undeservedness, and a creeping feeling of survivor’s guilt. But, even in the bad there is good, and I’ve taken all these emotions and redirected them to accomplish goals that help others as well as myself.
It is my good fortune to be of complete body, whether I am deserving of it or not. I have a tremendous amount of appreciation and gratitude for many, many people that helped keep me safe, mend me, nurse me back to health, and help me to rebuild my body and spirit. Now it’s time to ‘pay it forward’ and find ways to benefit others. Anything less would be to ignore the amazing path set before me.
At least I got a good tattoo out of it:
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