Reflections: A Year of Gratitude Post Injury
The morning of December 8th, 2013. Before everything changed…
It’s Wednesday, December 11th 2013, and I feel like I am waking up from a long nap. I open my eyes to bright lights and white walls.
It’s Wednesday, December 11th 2013, and I feel like I am waking up from a long nap. I open my eyes to bright lights and white walls. Or maybe I’m not waking up, maybe I am entering into a dream. My first reaction is to speak, but I can find no voice. I recognize a friend in the room with me, it’s Kristin, a volunteer ski patroller. But what is she doing here in my dream? As consciousness comes flickering back in, I realize that I am hooked up to wires and tubes – a lot of them. There is a pad of paper and pen next to me on a bedside table, I take it and scribble in barely legible handwriting “Why are you here? Where am I?”
“Colin,” she says, “you were in a snowmobile accident. I am an Occupational Therapist, here at the University Hospital. This is Dan, he is a Physical Therapist. We are here to help you try to stand up.” I nod, trying to grasp the situation. “Alright, on the count of three we are going to help you up, and if you feel up to it we can take the four steps over to this chair.” I nod again. “Ok. 3….2….1….”
Now we are up. My body feels so foreign to me. This must be a dream. I place one foot in front of the other and walk the four marathon steps to the chair in this bright, white, sterile room. After getting situated, Kristin tells me that there are some people here that would like to see me.
Through a glass door, I see my parents walking towards me with tears swelling up in their eyes. I reach for my pen and paper again. “Hi Mom, Hi Dad,” gets splattered with a salty drop. Not many words are shared, but love fills the room. The tears keep running as they hold my hand and I squeeze theirs. I am exhausted. Kristin says that it is time to stand up and walk the marathon back to my bed. I close my eyes and leave this crazy dream, only to wake up again and realize that this dream is my new reality.
The next few days are a blur of doctors, nurses, and friends. As details begin to fill in I realize how lucky I am to have my mouth wired shut, to be seeing double, to be thinking, to be alive. As all of these people come in and out of this white-washed room, my pen and paper are always close. I write pages and pages of notes. I have so many questions; for the doctors I have questions about my patient care.
“Why can’t I speak?”
“We have preformed a tracheotomy, so you are breathing through your throat. The air from your lungs is not reaching your vocals cords to allow you to speak. We are planning on inserting a speaking valve in a couple of days.”
“How bad was it?”
“It’s hard to say really, the closest thing I can compare it to would be a gunshot wound to the face.”
For my parents I asked about my brother, girlfriend, and others in my home community, Harrisonburg Virginia, to make sure they were all aware of the situation. Of course, they had all been filled in and for some, travel arrangements were being made.
For my friends and fellow ski patrollers I ask, “What happened? Who was there?”
“You were in a snowmobile accident, on Sunday, December 8th. Nobody really knows what exactly happened. You made a radio call saying that you were hurt and needed help. You were able to tell us where you were. “
“Wait, I called it in? What did I say? How?”
“Yeah, you sounded drunk, but the conversation between you and dispatch went something like this:
‘Help, I’m hurt.’
‘Who is this?’
‘Where are you?’
‘On home run, near treasure hollow and waterfall.’”
I was blown away. It just didn’t make any sense.
My coworkers and friends continued to tell the story, “The scene was gruesome. Andy, Jessi, and Scott loaded you into a toboggan and skied you to the helicopter that was landing. Jessi skied the toboggan, as Andy rode with you holding pressure on your face. IVs were started at base patrol, and you were flown to the University of Utah hospital. When you reached the hospital you were given a blood transfusion, and a coma was induced.”
I want to thank my good friends who saved my life while I was on the hill. They made incredibly tough calls to break protocol, which inevitably kept me alive. Had they backboarded me, per head injury protocol, I likely would have drown in my blood. I was loaded into the toboggan sitting up. As I held on, Andy sat in front of me holding pressure on my face. The air ambulance was waiting for me when I arrived at base patrol. Apparently, I was aware enough to ask who the helicopter was for, but not enough to realize it was mine. Once I arrived at base, a neonatal nurse successfully put an IV into a collapsing vein after several previous attempts were made by the paramedics. I was loaded into the helicopter and flown to the University hospital sitting up, again breaking protocol and again, saving my life. My life is indebted to Scott, Jessi, Andy, the nurses and patrollers at base patrol, and to the flight crew for getting me to the highest level of care in about thirty minutes.
Friends were with me around the clock for the three days that I was asleep. They all waited anxiously on Tuesday, December 10th while I underwent facial reconstruction. The two hour surgery that had been planned continued on for ten hours. Everything went smoothly as the surgeons pieced the left side of my face back together. Using ten plates they fused my face into a recognizable form. I was no longer “Trauma Jump,” I was Colin again. Another new feature was the feeding tube.
Only after hearing all of the facts of the accident could I begin to grasp how fortunate I am. I am alive. I was given three units of blood and two of plasma; I was told that few people survive that have to receive more than four units of blood. I can think. Once the surgery was done, the doctors realized how close I was to having a traumatic brain injury. The measurement was in millimeters. I can see. The impact was millimeters from my left eye. I can move. Solely based on mechanism of injury, a spinal cord injury would not have been unlikely.
I spent a total of 10 days in the hospital and was released on December 17th. The hospital experience was an interesting one. I woke up from my “nap” on Wednesday, December 11th. To see and write with my parents was so emotionally charged I will never forget it. I can’t imagine I was awake for much longer than fifteen minutes before I passed out again. The time in the ICU was a blur of painkillers, tubes, nurses, doctors, visitors, and a persistent beeping. You, my friends, are amazing. Alone time was limited because the amount of support was so vast. Thank you so much. You came with gifts, cheers, love and support. There were a couple deep, intimate conversations that I will remember forever. Until Friday, December 13th all my conversations were written down, and I can still look back and reflect on them.
Friday morning the doctors came in at 6am, performed the normal checks, asked how I was doing; then informed me that they would install a speaking valve into my trache. The thought of speaking again was so exciting. Getting the speaking valve in was more than a little irritating. But once it was in, it was amazing to hear sound coming from my mouth again. My voice didn’t sound like my own, my jaw being wired shut made speaking a unique experience, but nothing could take away from the ability to communicate once again.
The next couple of months continued to be a barrage of doctor appointments, physical therapy, surgeries, acupuncture and counseling. Recovering from this injury felt like a full time job. For the first couple of weeks I could hardly move off of the couch, and I was sleeping twelve to fourteen hours a day. It felt like I was always uncovering my feeding tube to take medicines, or to “eat.” As I regained strength and energy, my days became filled with doctor appointments. Between physical therapy three days a week, acupuncture once a week, or meeting with one of my five specialist doctors, I was busy healing. Mom and Dad were taxi drivers again, no longer were they driving me to and from school, the slopes, or soccer practice, but to all of my doctor’s appointments.
Since my injury, one year ago today, I have gone through four significant surgeries: The first major facial reconstruction on December 10th, reconstructive eye on January 31st, a jaw surgery on April 4th, and facial plastic surgery on August 7th. Each surgery came with it’s own challenges. One lesson that each surgery taught was patience, over and over again. As I got stronger, I got back to my life of adventuring in the mountains. Each surgery took me away from that and back into a state of recovery, a place I wanted to be done with. Besides the significant surgeries, a number of less significant procedures were necessary for healing. These included having my jaw un-wired and all the hardware involved in stabilizing my jaw removed. The tracheotomy and feeding tube were removed. And most recently, laser resurfacing procedures to reduce the scarring.
Hours and hours of physical therapy helped me to regain my strength and allowed me to exercise and release a few endorphins. Weekly acupuncture and yoga helped to keep my body and mind balanced. Acupuncture’s most important tangible benefit was helping the nerves in my face regenerate so I could regain feeling throughout my face. This is an ongoing process as nerves can only grow at a rate of one millimeter per day.
I am not telling my story to talk about tragedy. Understanding these lessons requires an understanding of the injuries I sustained. I am telling it to share some of the amazing lessons I learned through an incredible recovery. It is my hope that this story of overcoming hardship might help someone else find their silver lining. The expected recovery time for this type of trauma was three to eighteen months. I was able to be back at work, with limited hours, in three months, which amazed the doctors. I attribute this success to a few major factors: the incredible surgeon teams, hard work through physical therapy, and the support of my family and friends.
The love that surrounded me from friends and family near and far made, I believe, a huge impact. The way the Park City, UT and Harrisonburg, VA communities rose up to support my family and I was awe-inspiring. All of the support brought joyful tears to my eyes multiple times. I want to thank everyone that carried me in their minds through these challenges.
Wade Boggs, an all star baseball player once said, “Our lives are not determined by what happens to us but how we react to what happens, not by what life brings us but the attitude we bring to life.”
This quote sums up how I feel about attitude; our attitude towards something creates the mental space that it lives in. I believe that maintaining a positive attitude no matter the circumstance opens the space for the best possible outcomes to come forward. Positivity invites healing to happen. Meditation was another important aspect of recovering. I practiced different types of meditation to enhance the healing process. I would visualize white healing light entering the body and moving through the broken areas. I also envisioned nerves regenerating and finding their way to their previous locations in my face. I was lacking feeling and motor control. Through meditation and visualization, I was able to relearn to smile. Watching day after day, as my lip would slowly begin to turn up more and more, was a joyful process.
I am so grateful to be alive; to see; to feel; to touch; to speak; and to hear. These senses have been called “life’s extras.” Living without them has helped me to be mindful and thankful for the beauty of the world around me. From the time that I was cleared to do yoga again, I have dedicated a block of time every week to practice. Through this practice I have explored the body-mind connection more deeply. I truly appreciate the community of yogis and friends that I now belong to. They have been walking by my side since I made the commitment to myself to develop this practice.
My healing journey is not over yet. Looking down the road, it is likely that I will have at least one more surgery on my face and eye, two more laser treatments, continued orthodontic work, and more dental work once the orthodontics are finished. What’s still ahead of me is nothing compared to what I have already gone through. I look forward to the day when this injury is completely behind me. Completely is a relative term, there are some lasting deficits that I am coming to terms with. These are mild double-vision and lack of feeling in the left side of my face. There is still a chance that these could improve, but they have already improved more than originally expected.
I have been given a new lease on life and I am excited to see what it has in store. You’re likely to find me playing in the Wasatch on snow, dirt, and rock enjoying the mountain lifestyle that I love. This year’s theme will be a blur of trees, snow, open air, and cheers; not the hazed white wall, sterile breaths, and beeping machines that accentuated the last year. This injury will remain part of my life story. The scars will help to tell this chapter, but this life is mine to define.
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