Throughout my entire life I have two regrets:
--I never went to my senior prom (although I did go to the junior prom)
--I got out of bed on August 3, 2000
Even today, August 3 has weird spookiness attached with it. Kind of like September 11th has a creepiness factor connected to it for most Americans. Just writing August 3 gives me the shivers. August 3… ehhhhh, weird, huh.
Just like every morning that summer, on August 3 I got up early, checked myself out in the mirror, and went to skating practice. Just like every Thursday that summer, our team did rollers and running intervals. And just like every roller practice that summer, afterwards my feet hurt and I was exhausted.
After the workout it was time to drive home. I was supposed to ride with my teammate, Diana, but she called me the night before and told me she had to work after practice.
On the way back from practice I had the stereo blasting a ZZ Top tape. The weather was perfect and I was getting a bit toasty because my little Chevy Berretta didn’t have any air conditioning.
When I reached the juncture of Bass Lake Road and 169 a semi truck came barreling down the road. I was in the left lane and he was directly behind me. Apparently, I wasn’t traveling fast enough for his liking. I know this because he swerved into the right lane and began to pass me.
Here is the moment that made August 3, 2000 so extraordinary: The 18 wheeler swerved back into the left lane directly into the spot I was driving. I turned the wheel of my car to the left and the left front tire of my Berretta went into the ditch. I panicked. I cranked my steering wheel hard to the right.
I had over compensated.
The brand new Goodyear tires screeched across highway 169 as my car took off. I saw dirt all around me and heard a horribly loud noise. My car rolled at 60 mph along side the highway. Rocks shot everywhere. I later learned that several cars traveling the opposite way as me filed insurance claims to fix broken lights and windshields from the flying debris.
My Chevy Berretta landed upright with radio still blasting ZZ Top’s Blue Jean Blues. My seat broke and was in a reclined position. I couldn’t see further than two feet in front of me, because smoke and air-born dirt clouded my vision.
My dad is going to be so mad I wrecked the car, I remember thinking.
When the dust cleared, there was mud on my arms, face, legs, and even in my mouth. A drop of the muck slid from my forehead into my left eye. I attempted to raise my right arm. I was using all of my effort, but I still could not muster enough strength to reach the drop of mud in my eye. My arm came crashing down onto my right leg, which made a smacking sound.
When my arm struck my leg, I didn’t feel a thing.
That’s when I knew, something was wrong. Something was seriously wrong.
Several miles away, my dad was on his way to an important meeting. He was listening to WCCO 830 AM and was about to hear the traffic update just like thousands of commuters around the Twin Cities Metro area. "Damn!" he thought. "Another accident, I’m going to be so late. What a hassle!"
He had no idea.
When I arrived at North Memorial Hospital, the doctors and nurses rushed around me like a scene from ER. I heard things over the intercom like, "trauma team to the ER" and "I need 10 cc of this" or "I need 10 cc of that."
My stretcher was parked directly under a mirror that was mounted on the ceiling so that the EMTs that wheeled stretchers up and down the hallway could see around the corners. I gazed into the mirror and looked at my body. I saw my enormous thighs, toned biceps, and six-pack of abs. I thought about all the time I'd spent in order to get myself to look that way. I wondered if it was all a waste. I wondered if I was going to die. But mostly I wondered if I would ever skate again.
I was hooked up to heart monitors on my chest, oxygen on my nose, and IVs in my arms. They asked me for my family's phone number so that they could notify them that I'd been in a car accident. I gave them my home phone number and thought about how mad my mom and dad would be when they heard that I'd been in a car accident.
Shortly after I arrived in the hospital, a Dr. Beal came through the doors and told me that he was a specialist in the type of injury that I had experienced. As I laid on the stretcher Dr. Beal explained to me that I had probably bruised my spinal cord. He said that it was very important that I lay absolutely still. For the next couple months I was wary of that advice. Before I did anything, I thought about how it would affect my neck.
Next, Dr. Beal put on a latex glove, slapped a little bit of lube all over his pointer finger and bent over. "Hey what the hell are you doing!" I remember screaming at him.
"That's a very good sign," Dr. Beal said. "Since you are able to feel your anus that means that your spinal cord is not completely severed."
This was good news. But I didn't have much time for rejoicing. All I could think about was how weird it was to have a forty-something year old man stick his lubed up finger into my butt hole. I felt like I'd been raped.
Next, I was off to the MRI. The herd of nurses, EMTs, and doctors rushed with me over to the radiology portion of the hospital. I remember flying through the hospital with hundreds of thoughts racing through my mind. What was going to become of me?
A group of men pulled my stretcher up to the side of a flat table that was next to an MRI machine. The men grabbed the blanket that was beneath me and tugged it over to the table. My body slid over along with the blanket.
"Try to hold absolutely still," I remember one of the technicians telling me.
I thought to myself, "I'm freaking paralyzed, how still do you want me to lay."
Everyone moved out of the room that I was in. This was the first time I was alone since the state trooper came to my aid after my accident. I was absolutely petrified. The table I was laying on began to move into the MRI machine. I told myself to calm down and everything will be all right. Soon, I was completely surrounded by the machine and I began to hear the deafening clinking, clanking, and whirling of the MRI.
Despite having the oxygen flowing through the tube that connected to my nose, I started to find it hard to breathe. I was gasping for air. I yelled out for help. I yelled for help again. I yelled out for help one more time.
"Can you stay still a few more minutes?" I heard from the speaker that was connected on the inside of the MRI.
"I can't breathe," I screamed at the voice that was hardly audible over the noise of the imaging machine.
A few moments later, my group of nurses and doctors rushed out to the MRI as I was slowly moved into the open. As soon as I saw other people and the open air I was able to breathe again. "I have to be brave" I told myself.
The doctor placed a clamp on my pointer finger and told me that he was measuring the oxygen that was in my blood. He told me that I was, "just fine."
We decided to give MRI another try. After about an hour of clinking, clanking, and whirling, I was done and was wheeled into another room.
While was going through all of this anxiety, the rest of my family was going through a different brand of anxiety at the same time. Here is an excerpt from my mom's journal from the day of my accident:
August 3, 2000
At 10:30 a.m. I was out in the garden weeding, when I heard the phone ringing. The message machine had already picked up. A voice that I will never forget said, "This is North Memorial Hospital ER, your son has been an accident."
I picked up the phone and they told me that I was to come in right away.
Jonny was sleeping. I was full of dirt from gardening. We drove that awful 15 minutes across 36th Street. I will never forget that drive. And then came the wait. They put Jonny and me in a private room until they could tell us what was wrong with my son. Another sign. This was serious.
Dr. Beal came in with a medical student by his side. He said something about a fractured something and then I heard the word spine, or did he say a spinal cord injury. He did. I know he did.
My mom waited and waited. My dad had been contacted at work and arrived about an hour after my brother and mom had been there. When Dr. Beal told him that I had had a spinal cord injury my dad felt the same type of pressure that I had felt when I was in the MRI. He couldn't breathe, turned bright red, and passed out in the hospital.
Nurses rushed to my dad's side and he was hauled into the ER himself. When my dad regained consciousness, the hospital staff insisted that he stay and undergo some testing. He refused. He said he needed to be at his son side.
The doctor told me what had happened to my dad as I was leaving the MRI room. I thought to myself, I just broke my neck and I never lost consciousness, I'm going to have to give my dad crap about this later.
When we reached the ER again I was greeted by my family. My mom, my dad, and my brother. Dr. Beal shared the results of the MRI with us. He told us that my spinal cord injury was severe, but incomplete. This meant that there was still hope that I might recover.
The doctor told us the steps that needed to happen next and I couldn’t help but cringe. My family left the room as the process began.
I learned that a group of my friends and extended family had also shown up the hospital to show support. They were not allowed to see me yet, but I was glad that they were there to comfort the rest of my family.
The group that was in the waiting room included our longtime family friend from church, Diane Pasquarella. I couldn't believe that a sick as she was, that she would take the time to comfort our family. I had known Diane since I was in elementary school. She was in charge of the Sunday school at her church. My mom got to be good friends with her when she volunteered every Wednesday to write for the parish bulletin as my brother Jonny and I were at class. Diane was recently diagnosed with breast cancer and was scheduled to start chemotherapy in the next week.
I was transferred off of my stretcher that I'd spent nearly the entire day on and moved on to a brownish yellowish bed that Dr. Beal explained would rotate me back and forth until I was ready for surgery. After getting on the rotating bed, a group of surgeons approach me with the giant drill.
Now this drill looked like every drill that I'd ever seen in my life. It was large, silver and had a bit that I was notified would be boring into the sides of my skull. As weird as it is to get a lubed up finger shoved into your butthole, it's even stranger to have two holes drilled into the side of your head. This was a weird day.
After numbing up spots on the temples of both sides my head, the drill was started up with a loud roar. My memory of this event is a little bit hazy because the morphine and various other drugs that they were pumping into my system were beginning to take effect. Even though my memory of this event isn't completely clear, I'm reminded of it every time I look in the mirror and see spots on each side of my head where the hair won’t grow. I do however remember the smell of the bone being ground up and sprinkled all over my hospital gown. Ground bone has a subtle unique scent, not entirely different from the smell the dentist drill creates.
After drilling the holes and screwing two Frankenstein like bolts into the side of my head, a horseshoe was attached the connected the bolt on one side of my head to the bolt on the other side. At the very top of the horseshoe, there was a hook that hung off the side of the table. This hook had a chain attached to the end. At the other side of the chain there were weights hanging off the table. The idea of this device was that the weights hanging off of my head would pull my vertebrae apart from each other, hopefully undoing some of the crushing and compacting that the roof of my Chevy had caused earlier that morning.
After they were finished attaching the Frankenstein bolts, horseshoe, chain, and weights they started the rotating bed where I would lay until my vertebrae had been uncrushed enough for the surgeon to operate.
During the time I spent on the rotating bed, friends and family stopped by to see how I was doing. My brain was foggy with morphine but I still tried to keep up a couple of conversations to reassure everyone that I was going to be okay. The bigger challenge was to reassure myself that I was going to be okay.
About 16 hours later I was ready to go to surgery. A new chapter of my life was about to begin.