WHAT HAPPENED TO ME
In April of 2017 I was on my way home from work, minding my own business. I was riding my motorcycle. Low slung and long, she was as sweet as they come. I loved that bike as much as is appropriate for a man and machine relationship. She was freedom, peace, cool and like therapy. I was heading straight down a residential road. I approached an intersection and I saw the driver sitting in the left turn lane. He was waiting, and I continued. I scanned to my right and then as I looked back I saw a chrome grille attached to a red SUV. I remember thinking two things, well I’ll have a good excuse for being late to dinner. The other thing that entered my mind was, Oh Shit! I don’t remember much after that.
When they scraped me off the lawn I’m sure, they had no Idea I was in essentially the same condition as a bug that skips off your windshield. Starting from bottom to top, crushed left tibia and fibula, broken femur, broken pelvis, broken ribs, lacerations to spleen and liver, crushed left radius and ulna, broken right humorous, torn aorta, broken left scapula. I was bleeding internally into my pelvis. They Identified and treated that quickly. What didn’t resolve quickly was the aftermath of the bleeding. They stopped the bleeding, infused me with 12 units of blood and flew me to CMC main. They then treated the left leg. I was developing compartment syndrome due to the massive amount of trauma to the lower, left leg. It’s called a fasciotomy, they cut it open to release pressure or I would lose the leg. Now if your still awake and following the story you might be saying, yeah but what about the aorta? Excellent question and attention to detail. What about the aorta? Well after the second surgery they decided that I had had enough excitement for one day. I was in the ICU over night and Sanger did the heart surgery the next morning. It’s time to bring up the fact that I have top shelf guardian angels. Sometime after that surgery is when I was extubated. Time didn’t mean a whole lot to me at that moment in history. Anyway 14 surgeries, 1 infection, a couple of allergic reactions, enough titanium to build a small, light automobile and significant recovery time and I’m still here.
When You are facing a radical change in your identity you start to ask who am I now? I knew who I had been. I was a Nurse, a flight nurse, a father, a husband, a do it yourselfer who could tackle home projects with great abandon, I was an amateur fighter, I was strong, I was healthy, I was capable.
Am I still that person now? Talk about standing on edge of the abyss. I read once that given a choice between feeling unloved or feeling that your coworkers thought you were incompetent, 80% of men would choose to feel unloved rather than have people believe they were incompetent. Men derive a large part of how they see themselves by what they do and how well they do it. So, who was I now? I was crushed but not broken. I still had a fire that forced me to fight through.
RECOVERY, how strong would you be if your only choice was to be strong?
Once I was released from CMC, I arrived at the VA in Salisbury for interim care prior to going to inpatient physical therapy. Initially you walk with those bars. The view reminded me of the run the rebel alliance used to the exhaust port, while trying to destroy the death star. I was even surrounded by escorts, hovering close by as I hopped my way down the bars trying to keep my exhaust port from venting and causing emotional damage to my handlers. I graduated from the bars to a walker. 19 steps I believe was the first record. Can you imagine that 19 steps would be so challenging? That I would feel so exhilarated to reach that mark? That I would be exhausted from the effort? I continued to improve from there. Eventually it was time to go to inpatient physical therapy. They refused me, I was told that My therapists and I had worked so hard, that I had already met the goals they would set. I was never happier to be turned down. That meant I could go home.
My house was still not ready to receive me. I had no ramp and my house is a 3-story dwelling. I had access to the main floor, but the bedrooms were either up or down. I chose down. The VA was working on having a chair lift installed but it wasn’t there yet. I would scoot on my butt down the stairs where I had a walker waiting and then hop into our spare bed room. In the morning I would scoot up the stairs on my butt and get into my wheel chair. You do what you gotta do.
Since my release from the hospital, I had contacted my boss and was negotiating to go back to work. Remember the whole male identity thing? I had to get back to something useful and feel like I was doing something other than healing. I had arranged to go back at the start of July. My wife lost her mind and almost killed me again. She said I couldn’t make it through therapy without a recovery nap. Has anyone ever heard the word Stubborn? I was indignant that she said I couldn’t go back to work. I’d show her. I got my walker and started out to go around our block. It’s about ½ mile. I walked down my driveway and past the neighbors. I sat down. I’d get up and go another 5-10ft and sit down. 45 mins in, my wife drove by and tried to lure me into the car, like a predator. She was unsuccessful. 1 ½ hrs after I started, I finished going around my block. Yeah, they never said anything specifically about brain damage, but sometimes they miss things. Long story short, we compromised, I agreed not to go back to work in July and she agreed to allow me to continue living. I did go back to work the 2nd week of August. 4 months almost to the day after my accident.
Mental and emotional recovery
Initially I was too busy focusing on function and physical recovery to really pay attention to much else. Once I returned to work and began running into hurdles, really beginning to see some of my limitations that’s when the waves came. Have you ever been hit by a wave in the ocean? That feeling of weight, being tumbled, completely covered, can’t breathe, being pushed down, not sure if you’re coming back up? That’s how my episodes of depression felt, just like being hit by a wave. Sudden onset, uncertain dwell time and feeling pretty worn out once I surfaced. Depression for me was unpredictable, it was strange what little things would trigger it. Like a conversation, trying and failing, a thought or a limitation. Anger was depression’s body guard. Anger usually would jump me and wrestle me to the ground. Shortly after that the waves would come in. Anger is a fire that burns hot and usually runs out of fuel quickly, depression is slower, heavier and just as destructive. I suppose anger and depression can be productive. You must experience those emotions just like you must experience joy. It’s important to allow them to dwell in your space, for a time. That burn, that emptiness, the weight, you have to experience them. If you push them away and don’t allow yourself to mourn, well I’m not sure exactly, because I’m not a psychologist. I just know for me that they had to take the reins from time to time. I believe that was so that at some point I could celebrate the small victories, be proud of the progress, feel the joy of recovery. There is no light without the dark.
One of the most effective tools I used to combat Anger and depression was music. Music is a tremendous recovery tool. I have a friend who majored in Music therapy. I didn’t know that was a thing, did you? It is a thing and It has been shown to help people with not only physical and emotional problems, but also those with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Strong medicine. I tried not to spend more that an hour at a time with either anger or depression. Music helped me refocus and recover. It helped me burn through anger’s fuel and chase depression away. When It had run its course, I could return to being a productive person. You can’t allow those two to move in, sleep on the couch, raid the fridge, steal the remote and trash the place. You have to oust them early and often, they visit a lot. You can’t let them move in and while they are away you must find contentment in the little mundane victories that come at you each day.
DEDICATION/DISCIPLINE VS MOTIVATION
The military taught me the importance of physical fitness. It became a part of my life. It’s part of why I worked so hard with my therapists and why I wanted to recover as much of myself as possible. I wanted to be strong again, for me, for my wife, for my family, for my daughters’ boyfriends. I had a bunch of dumbbells, thanx to P90X and I had a treadmill. About a week after coming home I sat downstairs with the tv on and began to lift the lightest weights I owned. I think I even went out and bought the 1, 2 and 3 pounders. Mine started at 5lbs. That’s how far I’d fallen. I began doing circuit training again. Each day was resistance training until I was cleared for full weight bearing. Then the treadmill was invaluable because I could support myself and stumble along. Plus, the basement, in direct contrast to my city block, was temperature controlled and had a tv. I want you to remember that discipline is more important than motivation. You didn’t sleep well, you don’t feel good, you’re just not feeling it today, your friend bailed, you don’t have the right music etc. Motivation will flee at the first sign of any of those. Discipline that’s the key. Once you start moving your heart starts really pumping, your muscles start getting warm, your body starts throwing endorphins like a clown throws hard candy at a city parade and before you know it, you’re trucking through your routine. Muscles singing a sweet song, sweat pouring and the smell of victory. That’s what I call it, the sweet smell of victory.
IMPORTANCE OF EXERCISE AND BEING CAPABLE
As I progressed with my workouts new things were happening, small victories and achievements. I like to think of it as stealing back what was taken. Anger likes that and usually flashes for a bit when I steal something back. Anger likes to shout and throw up the double birds in those moments. A little F you to the Jeep, the bank manager, the fates or what have you. He’s quick in and out and then exhilaration, pride and joy come bouncing in like caffeinated toddlers. Celebrate the little mundane victories. When you are fighting an uphill battle, each step can be a victory. Each time I increased the weights, increased the speed or distance on my walk, achieved a goal that seemed impossible just months or weeks before, I celebrated. Share that with friends and family. They want to know and there is value in the support and confirmations that you receive. Recovery can be a very lonely road. Once they know your not dead or dying, most people have to go back to their day to day. Allow those close to you to celebrate with you. It’s great to get that confirmation that they are excited for you, plus you never know who is sitting and watching you. You might become someone’s hero without even knowing why.
THE VALUE OF WORK FOR YOUR PHYSICAL, EMOTIONAL AND MENTAL HEALTH
Getting back to work was for me one of the most important aspects of my recovery. As a person we need to feel valued, that we have something to say, something to do and that we matter. Working is one of those things that, even when we hate to hear the alarm go off, it’s so important. It gives us identity, it demonstrates that we can contribute, it gives us a source of pride and oh by the way income. You have to have a reason to get up each day. I’m not saying you have to work forever. I am saying that even in retirement you have to have a reason to get up or eventually you won’t. If you don’t get up for a long enough time, you’ll be gone. The mind, like the body, atrophies quickly if you don’t use it. Emotionally when you feel purposeless it’s devastating. Depression loves that, so does his cousin hopelessness. Get something done each day. Develop your routines, your discipline and get something done.
THE IMPORTANCE OF GIVING BACK
2 years after my accident I began to explore the Trauma Survivors Network. My wife and I attended a meeting and I met with Jessie and Leah, our local coordinators. I began the process to become a volunteer. I could feel the desire to help pulling on me as strongly as the desire to steal back function. My first visit was in July of 2019 and I have been coming every month since. Some of the visits are just pleasant and hopefully give the person some comfort and an avenue to vent. There are other visits that will fill you with a feeling of exhilaration. If you’re religious, it’s much like being filled with the light of God. You don’t know precisely what happened. You can’t remember exactly what was said, but you know for certain that something powerful just occurred. That’s what it’s like for me. I hope and pray that the person whose life has been turned upside down, receives more than I do. I hope that they feel hope for their future, even if they can’t imagine what that future might look like. I hope that when they understand I was once where they are now, that they believe better days are ahead. That this is just another chapter, in a book, whose conclusion is not yet written. I know for certain that each time I volunteer I feel like I’m paying it forward. I was visited by many TSN volunteers and It gave me hope. On the days that I volunteer, I drive away feeling like I’ve been given a gift. Every time.
I PASSED MY PT TEST
After much training and struggle I was able to pass my military physical fitness test. I had to do a walk instead of a run, but I passed. The long story short part of this is If I can do it you can do it. You just have to make up your mind that it’s possible. Remember that training, just like recovery is a marathon not a sprint. It’s easy to make excuses and find reasons to quit or to not even try. You are stronger than you believe. Find the warrior within you, it’s waiting to be unleashed. How strong would you be if your only choice was to be strong? Get up, get out and get something done today.