broken neck

The Day My Life Changed

February 9, 2010

On the afternoon of September 18, 2008, while swimming in the ocean in Santa Monica, CA at Will Rogers State Beach, I broke my neck in an unexplainable swimming accident. At the time, I was working at Lionsgate Films, and was at the beach that day for a volleyball tournament hosted by my company. By about 4pm, after my team had lost in the semi-finals, I headed to the refreshment tent. Before I could get a beer, a cute co-worker challenged me to a race into the ocean. 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. I have probably never run faster in my life. As my feet became blurred splashes in the shallow surf. I entered the water at a full sprint, and when I was about waist-deep I dove through a wave and below the surface. At that moment I violently impacted something with my head that I believe was a sand bar. 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, my attractive co-worker 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 her 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 in a daze, another of my perceptive co-workers named Avi (who was a member of the Coast Guard Reserve for years and who had seen many similar accidents) immediately procured ice and carefully applied it to my neck. Avi stayed with me, making sure I didn’t move at all, and then rallied the assistance of a lifeguard. After strapping me to a lifeguard gurney, they both convinced me to take an ambulance ride to the hospital rather than go in my co-worker’s car. It is because of the actions of those around me – those who recognized my need for help – that I’m not paralyzed today.

My cute co-worker, 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 he had also more importantly (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 six months, I would never need any halo-type device that screwed into the outside of my head: my hardware is on the inside.

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.

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. While there are moments of unbelievable happiness and relief, there is also occasionally a void, a sense of profound undeservedness, and a quietly creeping feeling of survivor’s guilt. However…just like with silver linings, even in the bad there is good, and the gratitude and mindfulness that followed from my accident have in turn driven me to accomplish goals that help others as well as myself.

It is my good fortune to be of complete body. I have an overwhelming appreciation and gratitude for the many, many people who helped keep me safe, mend me, nurse me back to health, and rebuild both my body and my spirit.

It is now a gift to be able find ways to help others in need. Anything less it seems would be to ignore the amazing path set before me.


P.S. I also got a good tattoo out of the whole experience:

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  • Kim

    You truly have a great attitude and I have no doubt it aided in your recovery. My mom just broke her C 3 and like you very lucky that she has no permanent damage. Unfortunately due to her age they are waiting to see if it heals on it’s own before they consider surgery. They are telling her 4 months in a neck brace, no halo. As a family we are struggling to help her find activities to pass her days. Without being able to move your head, which you take for granted until you can’t, she is finding there is not much for her to do. Do you have any suggestions or ideas from your ordeal on how you passed the time other than staring at a TV? Many thanks and continued well wishes for you.

  • Jordan Johnson

    Uhm, wow. Ryon, that is an amazing story. Stated so well, I received your intent…overwhelming gratitude. An amazing second chance at life with a full functioning body. Truly blessed you are. Thank God you are using your life to serve humanity…keep writing, you are good at it.

    Just one question, what happened to Courtney?