March 17, 2013

The Crash - Part 2

Loading the STARS Ship for the flight to Foothills Hospital in Calgary.

It's been one month since I crashed on the side of Lady Mac, and I now find myself hobbling around on crutches and convalescing at home. All things considered, I feel lucky to be alive and mobile.  

When I arrived at Foothills Hospital, the doctors were concerned about significant internal bleeding, but an angiogram revealed that most of the bleeding had already stopped. CT scans also confirmed that my pelvis and sacrum were smashed and badly broken. Some friends managed to make it to the hospital that evening and it was reassuring to see them. They passed on information and told me that my brother had already booked a flight out to Calgary for the following day. Eventually, all the tests were done and I was wheeled up to a spacious, private room in Trauma Ward 44. At that point, it was still uncertain whether I'd go in for surgery the following day, so I was not allowed to eat or drink. I have never been so thirsty. I was allowed to suck on a cubic, green, lollipop-like sponge that had been dipped in water, but this barely did anything to dent the thirst.

My brother Anthony arrived the following afternoon. A friend picked him up at the airport and brought him to the hospital. Another buddy lent him a vehicle for the duration of his stay and my winter employer, CMH, put him up at a hotel for his first few nights in town.  It's hard to explain how much these acts of kindness and generosity meant to me.

On February 16th, two days after the crash, I was wheeled in to the operating area. One by one, the surgeon, anesthesiologist, and operating room nurses met with me to discuss the various procedures that were about to take place. Tony accompanied me into the waiting area and listened in as the intricacies of the operation were explained. They discussed putting the pelvis together with plates and screws and I found it difficult to listen too closely. At the end of the day, all I wanted to know was that they were going to be able to put me back together. Once the meetings were done, I said goodbye to Tony and was pushed into the operating room. A mask was placed over my face and I was told to breathe deeply. The next thing I knew, the three hour operation was over and I was slowly coming to. 

The next few days were spent lying in bed. My Mom arrived from Montreal and numerous friends stopped by with gifts of food and easy-to-read magazines like the SI Swimsuit Edition. Food and water were still verboten though, and I ended up going seven days before I could eat real food or drink freely. In that time, I had an allergic reaction to some antibiotics and broke out in a rash and hives on my legs, back and stomach. This was particularly worrisome because of the chance that an infection could attack the new hardware now holding my pelvis together. In the name of sanity, I tried not to think too much about a worse case scenario. My poor Mother, on the other hand, struggled with the situation. Ultimately, the antibiotics were changed and the rash cleared up within a few days.

When I think back to those first few weeks in Foothills Hospital, the two things that come to mind are 1) the overwhelming kindness and empathy displayed by the nurses and 2) the mind boggling pain that I experienced every time I needed to be moved or rolled from one bed to another. On the first subject, I can't thank the nurses enough. Some were like mother figures and some were more like peers, and all of them played an enormous roll in my day to day recovery. On the issue of physical suffering, I came to a new understanding of 10 out of 10 pain. At certain times, when being moved on my side, I had out-of-body experiences whereby a bolt of pain would shoot through me and a barrage of expletives would fly uncontrollably from my mouth. At one point, someone in the room said that she would not attempt to move me again if I continued to swear, so I tried my best to tone it down.

The days passed in a morphine induced blur and I slowly gained mobility. At first, it was a major victory just to sit upright in bed. Then, after a very inspiring pep talk by one of the nurses - who basically told me I was going to die of pneumonia, blood clots and a host of other terrible things if I didn't suck it up and start moving -  I managed to get out of bed with the aid of many helpers and sit down in a chair. Eventually, I managed to get out of bed on my own and hobble around on a walker. This progressed to crutches, which I am currently using and which I will remain on for at least another three weeks.

After nearly one month in the hospital, I finally got out last week. Needless to say, it feels great to  be convalescing at home. So far, I feel relaxed and quite accepting of my situation. I'm taking some strong narcotics which do a good job of minimizing the pain during the day, but still leave me pretty strung out and sleep deprived at night. The nerve pain in my left leg can be quite sharp and distracting, and I'm hoping that this will minimize over time - especially once I get the green light to put weight on it. The thought of living the rest of my life with this sort of daily pain is not pleasant. I know that I made a really bad decision to launch that day and I understand that this is the price to pay for bad decision-making in the mountains. 

One thing that's helped a lot is speaking to friends and strangers about their experiences with crippling trauma. It's good to hear how others have coped and dealt with this sort of situation. I often think back to a friend who, five years ago, was caught in a slide and swept over numerous cliffs, and raked through trees, in Kananaskis Country. He required five surgeries and sustained numerous injuries that were as bad and worse than mine, and when you look at him today, it's as though he was never out of the game. Still, I like to tell him that whenever I think my situation is bad, I look back to his accident and feel better about my predicament. 

Another wild story that someone recently sent my way can be found  here. Basically, the pilot went down while flying X-Country in Pakistan and ended up with an unstable pelvis fracture (like mine) and a broken ankle. The difference between our scenarios though, is that while I was a two minute helicopter ride from definitive care, he did not reach adequate care for nearly one week.

A lot of people ask me now if I'm going to fly again. For a while, I wasn't sure. The accident and the wild rodeo ride I experienced in the air before crashing was so vivid that it was hard to imagine putting myself back in that situation. But as time passes and I gain clarity on the crash, I would be lying if I said that I wasn't looking forward to launching again. Plus, when I watch videos like this, it's all I can do not to hobble out of the house right now and put myself in the air.

Here's an article I came across lately entitled: In Defense of Taking Risks. I know it might be hard for some to understand this - particularly parents - but I think it's important to at least try to understand. In sports like climbing and skiing, the dangers are obvious and one would be remiss to think that they could never get hurt. Say you spend fifteen years of your life climbing and then one day you're involved in a big wreck. Are you going to give up and never climb again? Or are you going to rest, recover and try to get back on the horse as soon as possible? I like to think that I would be a better climber going forward because I learned something from the accident. And I think the same thing goes for flying.

So for now, all I care about is getting better - which means lots of rest and gentle movement. I'm lucky that I have wage loss insurance through work because it lets me focus on the healing process instead of stressing the bank account. I definitely recommend this type of insurance to anyone who engages in these activities (and I can't believe that the ACMG gave this up!). At this point, it's hard to say when I'll be able to get out and be active again, but I think I'll have a much better idea in three weeks when I head back to Foothills for some X-Rays and a meeting with the Doctors.

Lastly, thanks again to everyone who's helped me through this: friends, family, CMH, Kananaskis Rescue, the Canmore Hospital, STARS, and the Trauma Ward at Foothills Hospital. 

March 07, 2013

The Crash - Part 1

A flight from Lady Mac 2 days before the crash.

On Thursday, February 14, I crashed my paraglider (Firefly 16 - technically considered to be a Hybrid or Mini Wing) on the rocky slopes of Lady Macdonald. The impact thrust my femur up into my pelvis, shattering it into a bloody mess. I came to rest against a tree, and pulled my phone out of a breast pocket. Movement and sensation was good in my upper body and right leg, but I couldn't feel a thing in my left leg. I tried to move into a more comfortable position but movement was not possible. I also tried to get out of my harness and backpack, but was unable to do this as well. If my phone had not been in my breast pocket, I doubt I would have been able to reach it.

My first call was to a buddy who is one of the main rescue wardens for Banff National Park. No answer. My next call was to Banff Dispatch. They answered, and in a frantic voice, I told them that I was on Lady Mac, above Canmore, and had crashed my paraglider abut 300 meters below the Tea House (ie: The Launch), just west of the hiking path. They asked for the color of my wing - red, white and blue - and then we were disconnected. Almost immediately, my brother happened to call me for our daily chat, and being somewhat shell shocked, I figured it was Banff Dispatch calling back for more details. "I crashed my paraglider on Lady Mac and I'm really fucked," I said in to the phone. Tony said a few words and when I realized it was him, I said I had to go and hung up. Then I dropped the phone and it rolled down the hill and out of reach. I wasn't particularly alert at the time, but I did have the wherewithal to know that I'd just dragged my poor brother into the situation and I felt really bad. In the meantime, Tony didn't miss a beat. He got on his computer in Baltimore, found the contact info for Canmore Search and Rescue, and placed a call for help only five minutes after my original call.

My pelvis post surgery

I laid on the cold ground for about an hour before the Kananaskis Rescue guys arrived. In that time, I remember saying to myself that I didn't care how long the recovery took, as long as I had the opportunity to recover. I knew that I'd broken either my femur or pelvis and that I was likely losing lots of blood internally.  I was cold and shivering and falling deeper into hypothermia. The relief I felt when the K-Country team arrived is hard to explain, especially since most of the guys were either good friends or acquaintances. They did an incredible job of packaging me in rough, icy and undulating terrain. Then the Bell 407 ship came in overhead with a long-line, and the rescuer clipped us in and up we went. Two minutes later, we were landing at the Canmore Hospital. My gratitude to the pilot and rescuers is beyond words. Without them, I would not be here today. 

The view from the helicopter during the initial recon. Photo courtesy Matt Mueller.

Once at the Canmore Hospital, they rolled me into a corner of the ER and got to work. My core temp was 30 degrees Celsius and I was shivering uncontrollably. Tubes were shoved up and into every orifice, lost  blood was replaced, and at one point, I was later told that my systolic blood pressure dropped to 60. I don't know how long everything took, but when everything was done, I was rolled out of the ER and into the back of the waiting STARS Helicopter bound for Foothills Hospital in Calgary. My gratitude to everyone in the Canmore ER is immense.

Before I say any more about Calgary, surgery, and the recovery, I'm going to backtrack and talk about the crash and what happened out there.

In hindsight, I should have never launched that day. But hindsight is too easy. Obviously, there were enough positive factors to justify taking off. The wind was blowing 25 km/h - 35  km/h out of the west and seemed fairly consistent and laminar (for the front range of the Rockies). I felt like I recognized the conditions and knew what I was getting in to. I looked back to a flight I made from the same place a few weeks prior, and figured that the wind was just as strong, if not stronger then. One difference between those two fights though, was the wing being used. On the previous flight I was on a 12 meter whereas this time I was on a 16 meter. I should also note that if I'd had a larger wing with me on the day I crashed, I am confident that I would have left it in the bag and hiked down.

The moment I left the ground, I knew I had dangerously underestimated the conditions. I was instantly blown back and to the left and almost got pushed behind the ridge. I fought to correct and penetrate away from the hillside but I  kept getting blown all over the map. I had a bunch of deflations and collapses and for a moment, I considered trying to put it down on the upper slopes. But that thought didn't last long and I told myself I could keep flying and pull it off. My goal was to get away from the hillside and lose elevation since it had been pretty calm in the valley. 

I don't know how long I was in the air. It felt like two minutes to me, but my buddy Ian who watched most of the rodeo said it was closer to thirty seconds. Before I went in, I remember getting hit by a violent gust that surged the wing and put me into a tight spiral. I thought I might have gotten some lines crossed but just before impact, I managed to get into level flight. The problem was that I was pointed straight at the hillside with a nice tailwind. Boom.

Laying out on a beautiful, calm day just 48 hours prior to the crash.