When we returned home from the beach, I was anxious to get back into the gym. I was now a class I and would have new routines to learn for the upcoming year. The last week in July, our team attended a gymnastics camp in Allentown, Pennsylvania. These trips were always refreshing because they enabled us to see ourselves from the perspective of different coaches and practice methods. We frequently got ideas for new skills to work on and stretched ourselves to new limits. During that week, I learned to do a full-twisting double-front flip off a mini trampoline into a pit of foam. I was excited about continuing to practice it back in our gym.
The following week, I was dropped off at the gym on Tuesday evening for practice. It was the first day back in our gym. Customarily, I and Keith, one of my teammates, came early, neither of our coaches having yet arrived. Typically we would talk, stretch, or do some relaxed warm-up exercises. On that night, however, I allowed the excitement of the prior week to guide me. I set up the mini tramp and began to flip. After one or two flips, I tried the full-twisting double-front I had learned the previous week. I don’t recall if my first attempt was completed successfully or with difficulty, but I tried again. This time, however, I became disoriented in the air, opened up out of my tuck too early, and dove head first into the pit. I passed through the looser foam blocks toward the surface that would have cushioned my fall had I landed in almost any other way. But head first, I hit the compacted foam near the bottom, near the concrete floor, six feet below floor level.
And there I stayed, upside down, unable to move and having difficulty breathing. Keith saw me fall and came in to assist. After moving enough foam to help me breathe, he stayed with me until the ambulance arrived. He tried comforting me, stating, “I’m sure it’s only temporary.” Oddly enough, I felt no pain of any kind, but I could not move a muscle.
My parents arrived shortly before the ambulance. I remember seeing my father looking down at me from the mat next to the pit. My parents were always there for me when I needed them, and this was no exception. The ambulance arrived, and the EMTs came into the pit. They fitted me with a brace to keep my head and neck immobilized, strapped me onto a stretcher, and lifted me out. Individually moving through the foam blocks was cumbersome, but before long, the EMTs successfully lifted me out. As they carried me to the ambulance, my coach Larry arrived and, in passing at the door, I just said, “hi.”
The ambulance rushed me to the emergency room at Lancaster General Hospital (LGH). From that point on, the next few weeks are a blur of memories and images that I will try to relay as best I can. I soon learned that I had broken my neck, and, having broken a stabilizing piece off one of my vertebrae, I was very unstable. Two screws fitted into the sides of my head and hooked to a weighted pulley system kept my neck stretched until going into surgery. I don’t remember how soon after the accident I had surgery, but within a day or two of the accident, the fifth and sixth vertebrae in my neck were wired and fused together. After surgery, I wore a halo neck brace for the next couple of months until my neck bones had time to heal and solidify.
I emphasize here that the “bones” would heal. For those of you familiar with human anatomy and spinal cord injuries, you are well aware that there is more involved with neck and back injuries than healing bones. For the rest of you, the vertebrae that make up the spinal column are hollow in the center like a stack of washers. Through the center runs the spinal cord, which is the primary conduit of information traveling from the brain to all parts of the body. Neck and back injuries can result in partial or complete paralysis. This effect can be temporary or permanent depending on the severity of the injury and the trauma involved.
Pressure tests, temperature sensitivity tests, attempts at movement, and various other X-rays and evaluations were systematically and repeatedly undertaken to determine just how severe and long-lasting my injury might be. The doctors eventually concluded that my injury was complete, meaning that I had no functionality that would indicate that any brain signals were moving past the affected vertebrae in my neck. I would retain the use of my deltoid muscles in my shoulders and my biceps, and I would have some limited use of my wrists. Our brains control wrist flexors with signals emanating from the spinal cord at the C5 level. The focal point of the damage to my spine was at the C6 level. I would have no use of my triceps, which are controlled by signals emanating from the spinal cord at the C7 vertebrae below my injury. I would also have no use of my hands, which are controlled by signals between the C7 and T1 vertebrae. In effect, I could contract or bend my arms to lift things (although I could not grab them with my hands), but I could not straighten my arms to push away from me.
Understanding the full impact of what it meant to live as a quadriplegic would take time. While in the hospital, I was still hopeful that I would have a full recovery, although my current condition did not readily lend itself to an optimistic outlook. I couldn’t move any part of my body below my armpits. My arms, as described above, were only partially usable, and I could not move my hands and fingers at all. I also couldn’t feel any external sensation below my armpits and on the majority of my arms. I had lost all control of my bodily functions and was barely able to feed myself. Feeding myself at all was dependent on what position I was in or what I was trying to eat, and most of the time I was forced to rely on others. Relying on others was difficult for me, as I was accustomed to being in control of my own body. My mind, however, was still fully intact, and this was a blow to my pride. I was a sixteen-year-old wearing a diaper and having to be completely taken care of by other people.
I don’t recall if it was a direct result of the accident or something that happened after surgery, but at some point in the hospital, one of my lungs had collapsed. In the hospital, I also dealt with a lot of fluid in my lungs, and I contracted pneumonia. I had to have a tube periodically inserted through my nose and down my throat to evacuate the fluid. Doing my best to avoid this unpleasant experience, I intentionally and frequently tried to cough to clear my lungs as much as possible on my own. Because I no longer had use of my diaphragm, I had to have someone press on my stomach, in perfect timing with my breathing and cough attempts to give me a little extra air pressure to cough.
For a couple of days, I also required a respirator. At that time, I was not only unable to move and feel, but also unable to speak. Communication was difficult, as I could not write, and depending on my position, what limited use of my arms that I had was even more restricted. I remember using a card that was held by a parent, friend, or nurse. The card had the alphabet printed on it, and I was able to identify one letter at a time to slowly spell out what I wanted. Although I was able to communicate in this way, the process was slow and tedious and a real test of everyone’s patience. On one night in the hospital, I looked up at my parents and asked, “Is the room spinning or is it just me?” My temperature had risen to 106 degrees, and I was becoming delirious. The nurses
promptly packed me with ice to cool my body.
Not long after surgery, I began occupational and physical therapy on a daily basis. While I was initially limited to stretching in bed, within a couple of weeks, my neck stabilized enough to transfer out of bed into a wheelchair, and I was able to leave my room. I would soon be ready to move to a more intensive rehabilitation hospital.
The rest of the story can be found in Eternity in View…