Today was a good day. For the first time in two years, my neurologist told me I don't have to come see him anymore. Saturday, April 19, 2008, on the other hand, was a bad day:
Zero Hour, 4 p.m.
We're boogie-boarding in chest-deep waters in the thunderous surf off Daytona Beach, and there's a storm blowing in. We decide it's time for one last wave. I look at my girlfriend bobbing in the surf next to me, think how pretty she is, how much I love her. She and the rest of the gang see the wave they want.
As they surge in front of me, I pick up an even bigger wave just behind. I feel myself soaring as it catches and lifts me.
And then, something snatches the front of my board and exerts a remarkable downward force. The board shoots away, still manacled to my wrist. The wave pile drives me headfirst into the sandy ocean bottom in a move worthy of a WWE
titleholder. It hurts, but I don't have time to think about that. As I'm doing an unplanned headstand in the sand, a second wave breaks over me and tries to snap me in half.
At some point, still upside-down and underwater, I feel the back of my head touch between my shoulder blades, right in that spot you can't ever quite scratch. Which, coincidentally, is also the same spot the back of your skull should never touch.
"I Feel a Tingle Begin in My Neck ... and Start to Spread"
My life does not flash before my eyes, even as my head bends back in a direction it was never meant to go. Instead, I feel a profound sense of regret -- not yet! No epiphany, no fear, no panic -- just a sense that it's far too soon for all this to be ending. The struggle lasts seconds, but to me it seems like 15 minutes.
And then it's over. I am floating face down, aware that I am messed up somehow. I let the current wash me ashore, then (stupidly) struggle to my knees. I look up and see my beautiful girlfriend looking back at me from several yards away. I call to her, and as I do, I feel a tingle begin in my neck and shoulders. It starts to spread.
As my arms lose feeling, I wonder how far this will go. I am keenly attuned to the fact that I may topple forward dead in the sand at any second. I do not want that to happen. But I realize, amazingly, that I think I would prefer that to the ever-spreading numbness. I stagger to my feet. Now, blinding, throbbing, electric pain joins the numbness in my arms and hands, jolting in waves from shoulder to fingertip. How can it be both? I wonder. How can I be numb and hurt like hell at the same time?
It doesn't matter -- it's happening. What's also happening is I'm climbing in the car for a trip to Halifax Health Medical Center
, right across the street from the Daytona International Speedway
At this point, I still think I'm OK. A stinger. Maybe a sprain. I'll be back on the beach by sundown with a margarita and some lovely muscle relaxants.
It doesn't go down like that. When the E.R. staff hears what happened, they move like their TV counterparts, but for real. Immediately I'm in a brace and wheelchair, then soon immobilized in the E.R.
First X-rays, then MRIs, confirm: I broke my effing neck. Right between the fifth and sixth vertebrae, pretty much where the knot on the back is. I'm numb, yet still in agony because all the crap from my exploded vertebrae is compressing my spinal cord -- by about 50 percent, according to the pictures. I think, and maybe say, "That does not sound good."
After 24 immobile hours on a swelling-reducing steroid drip, I'm wheeled to the O.R. where I'm first strapped to a table, then literally screwed to it. My head is held in place by a halo of spikes screwed into my skull. My arms are stretched out in a pose familiar to Christians everywhere -- the last thing I remember is a team of technicians inserting screws through my palms to secure me to the table so I can't move. (I swear I wouldn't have!)
I think about the end of "Braveheart
," then pass out. While I'm away, the surgeons pretty much cut my head off. They slit me from ear to ear and get to work. They cut and snip and clip and trim, and put everything back together with titanium plates and screws and a piece of bone from a dead guy whom I didn't know but am very grateful to. I wake up hours later vaguely aware of the fact that I am peeing myself.
I hurt. A lot. I move. A little. At some point, some idiot suggests I get up and take a walk around. That idiot is me. Shockingly, the doctors think that's a good idea. I am in a brace that prevents even the slightest movement of my head. They believe that and the amalgamation of screws and plates and bone they cobbled together will keep everything in place. Finally, I have my head screwed on straight. Literally.
Heading home to Tampa. Good thing. I have an interview with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers
professional football team coming up day after tomorrow. I've worked months to try and finagle a spot in their creative department. I decide I'm going. My girlfriend tries to explain how stupid that is as she avoids potholes on Interstate 4. I wonder whether, if she hits one, my head will pop off like a Rock 'em Sock 'em Robot.
I laughed when they sent me home with a prescription for 200 oxycodone tablets, plus several bottles of muscle relaxants and other pills for nerve pain -- plus refills. Day five makes me realize why I have all that. Horrible before, the pain in my arms and hands is now excruciating. Every bad feeling you can possibly feel, I feel. At varying times it seems like my arms and hands are A) on fire, B) plunged in boiling oil, C) being pounded with hammers, and/or D) waiting patiently as large, jagged shards of glass beneath my skin slowly work their way out. Those are not exaggerations or interpretations -- those are the actual sensations I feel. And it never stops, not for a second.
When I close my eyes, I see nightmare visions of my arms and hands as bruised and burned and bloody. None of these things are real -- it's the damage to the spinal cord -- but the pain most definitely is. I'm a little ticked off: Why, if I have to feel phantom sensations, can't they be things like, oh, say, petting a kitty, or touching a booby? Nope. Fire and glass and hammers and boiling oil. Stupid spinal cord.
I cadge a ride so I can keep my appointment with the Buccaneers. My best suit barely fits over my steroid-bloated torso. A tie is obviously out of the question. I ponder painting one on my neck brace. I struggle through the interview. I do not get the job. My opinion of the Buccaneers organization rises commensurately -- apparently they are smart enough not to hire someone stupid enough to come to an interview days after a life-threatening accident.
With nothing left to prove, I get serious about the task of recovery. Hello, Percocet.
Things start swimming back into focus. My head and neck are still immobilized by the brace I now love and loathe. The only time it is off is when I (very carefully) shower. I still sleep sitting up, propped by pillows all around. I've left the house a few times, but haven't driven more than a mile or two. Tonight, I get in the car and take a long, slow drive across the bridge that separates Tampa and St. Petersburg. The view is spectacular.
I slowly improve. The pain goes from 907 on a scale of 1 to 10 to a livable 2 or 3. I can sleep in a bed again, first with a brace, then (scarily) without. Weird things still happen. At some point, I become the sole member of the "Hat of the Day" club; every day at random times, sometimes lasting a few hours, I experience the sensation of wearing a headpiece of some sort. Some days it's a football helmet, some days a baseball cap, some a woolie or a cowboy chapeau. Sometimes, I have to go look in a mirror to convince myself it's not really there.
I'm not sure when the hats went away exactly, but they did. As time passed, the pain slowly continued to subside as well, to an almost-forgettable one. Today, the only reminder is a constant tingle in both my index fingers; the right one always hurts a little, sometimes more, the left is better, and occasionally pain-free. They say that may continue to improve. Or not.
I have 10 percent less range of motion in my neck than I did before the accident, but I rarely notice -- except when I'm driving and need to look way, way around behind me before I pull out. I have to turn my entire body instead of just craning my neck around Linda Blair–style
. Which, um, I guess I could have actually done on April 19, 2008.
The sea sent four people to the Halifax E.R. that day. Three of us walked out. Well, technically, two of us -- I left via wheelchair. But at least I left.
These days, I find myself talking to anyone wearing a neck brace. It's another club. I spent several months working on a television show with a man who'd had a similar accident. He went diving in water that was too shallow and broke his neck in the same spot as me. He has spent the last 15 years in a wheelchair.
I think about that a lot.
Why me? Why did I walk away with nothing more than a couple of tingly fingers and a perfectly wicked, perfectly placed scar you can only see when I tilt my head way back? I honestly have no clue. It disturbs me a little that there's no takeaway, no deep lesson learned. I could say something like "I've learned that life is precious and fleeting -- don't take things for granted," but I've lived that way since I was 6. It's kept me out of trouble. Mostly.
I am no doubt grateful and happy and appreciative, but no more now than before.
So I don't know.
Sometimes, y'know, sh** just happens.
Chip Carter is an Asylum contributor who has been writing long enough to know what a typewriter was. He believes that despite perception to the contrary, people will read long articles online.