Sunday, November 6th, 2011, 4:44 pm. I was heading to my second job at Red Robin. The Chargers had just lost a game to the Packers, and there was a bit of drizzle that day. I was driving very near my house, coming from the Del Cerro side of College Avenue down toward the 8. I had just come over a little hill, and there she was.
A 51-year-old woman was driving right at me in my lane! Now you have to understand, College Avenue is a divided road. She didn’t “drift over”…she was driving up the wrong side of the street! I didn’t have time to do anything other than brace for impact. Thank God, she was driving a white Mini Cooper. Had she been driving an SUV, I wouldn’t be here to type this up. It’s just one of the many little miracles and blessings hidden in this horrific experience.
I literally only had one second from the time I saw her until impact. Right away, I heard nothing but the car horns blaring. The distinct smell of spent airbag filled my nostrils. The realization that I was alive struck me. I had just been hit head-on, but I was fully conscious and self-aware. For about a minute, I gripped the steering wheel and repeated “Help me, God! Help me, God! Help me, God! Help me, God! Help me, God! Help me, God! Help me, God! Help me, God! Help me, God! Help me, God! Help me, God! Help me, God!…” perhaps a hundred times. I couldn’t form any other thoughts. I knew that the fact I had survived was a big deal. The desire to stay awake became strong. I know it was my need for control exerting itself, but I just was so afraid of what might happen if I fell unconscious.
I came to realize that my head felt fine. My neck was good, and I could move it. My torso didn’t seem to be affected at all. I had a small abrasion on my left arm, but nothing broken there. But my leg. Oh, my leg. My left one was fine, but my right leg was broken. There was no doubt about it. I was wearing jeans, so I couldn’t see anything, but I couldn’t lift my right leg. When I tried, I could hear and feel grinding. (So I stopped trying.) I wasn’t in a tremendous amount of pain; I guess adrenaline was filling my bloodstream to protect me from the pain.
Witnesses came to my window. One terribly worried lady was yelling to another man that they needed to remove me from the vehicle, because my car might explode. Ah, Hollywood. [Fact: most gas tanks are located near the rear of vehicles, and a head-on collision is highly unlikely to result in any explosion.] Luckily, others convinced her that was unnecessary. I pulled out my cell phone from my pocket, and called my wife, Shanah. She didn’t pick up. I left her a voicemail. An eerie, creepy voicemail. She didn’t hear it until much later in the evening…probably a good thing. So I called my mother-in-law. Shanah’s folks were in town for Eden’s birthday (we had just celebrated the day before!).
I told her I had been in an accident, that I thought I was okay, but that I was probably going to the hospital. Could she send Shanah my way? By the time Shanah arrived, the whole scene was blocked off and they kept her away. This did NOT calm her nerves. It took quite a while for them to remove me from the vehicle. All she knew was that I was still being treated, and hadn’t been removed yet…if everything was going to be okay (what the helpful police officers tried to calm her with), then why was I still in the car, and she not allowed to come say hello? So what was going on with me, anyway?
When the paramedics arrived on scene, one came to my window to assess my injuries. I told him, “It’s just my leg.” So he told me they would go to the other vehicle first. As they tended to her, I overheard things on the first responders radios about her being “non-responsive” and “possibly diabetic”. My empathy for the woman who hit me shot up at that point. After all, I’m a type-1 diabetic…I know how low blood sugar can cause symptoms that appear like drunkenness, and that maybe she was having trouble with her blood sugars! I also overheard that she had a broken clavicle (collarbone). I’ve also had one of those (thanks to my brother Rob and a trampoline).
Well, they eventually came back to check on me. The paramedic asked me if I could move my right leg. I laughed and said no way. So he got out some scissors, cut away my shoe and jeans, and hollered, “Guys! We need to take care of this one!” to call his crew back from the other car. So I deduced pretty quickly that I had a compound fracture. Nothing else he saw would have drawn that reaction, I figured. It turns out that the impact pressed the bottom of my dashboard through my leg. Both bones (tibia and fibula) of my lower right leg were broken. It’s called an open, grade-3 tib/fib fracture.
At that point, he called for some morphine. They shot me up, and I went from being fairly calm and helpful to being happy and funny. I was chatting with everyone, cracking jokes, reassuring them they were doing a good job, thanking everyone…I was told later the crew got a real kick out of me. I’m glad I could make their day! They strapped me to a c-spine board (I asked if they really had to…I was obviously fine!). They loaded me up in an ambulance and sped away to Sharp Memorial Hospital (that’s the place to go for trauma, I was assured).
I was given the code name Louisiana, and had some fun trying to speak to the nurses and doctors there with a Cajun accent. When Shanah arrived, I could tell she thought this was a bigger deal than I did. I was, remember, drugged up on morphine, in the care of wonderful professionals, and terribly naive about what was coming. I asked her to (when she could) bring the papers I had taken home to grade that weekend. After all, I may as well redeem the time! And I asked her to call fellow Spanish teacher Ali Rafenstein to talk with her about lesson plans and sub arrangements “for the next couple of days”. I really thought a broken leg was a minor thing, and that I’d be back at it really quick. Little did I know!
I was wheeled into surgery that same night. It turned out to be a 5-hour procedure! I was later told by my surgeon (Dr. Tonks) that when he arrived in the operating room, he put the chances of saving my right foot at 50%!!! But it turns out he’s brilliant and skilled, so everything’s going to be all right when this is all said and done. My family and friends all came together that night and comforted each other (or something like that…I was kind of out of it).
Dr. Tonks inserted two steel rods (with three big screws) into my leg. They will be permanent hardware. I suppose it’s good I don’t fly too much. The rod on the tibia (the bigger bone) runs the length of the bone. The tibia was a “clean break” so the rod is holding it back together as the break spot heals. The fibula was crushed pretty good, so there’s now a pretty good gap. Since it’s not the weight-bearing bone, we don’t necessarily have to wait for that gap or bone to heal completely. The rod on that one is affixed to the bottom portion, then inserted into the hollowed-out marrow track of the upper part.
I spent two days at Sharp Memorial. While I’m thankful for Kaiser and all the care I’ve received over the years, I have to say: Sharp Memorial is the bomb! I was connecting to the outside world via Facebook and email the next morning! I was reading news articles about the accident (where I learned that the woman was, in fact, found drunk at the scene). I had a private room, good nurses and doctors keeping me posted…I wanted to stay! But Kaiser yanked me over to Zion after a couple days. There, I shared a room with a 90-year-old deaf man (meaning loud tv and loud relatives) who had no shame in shuffling to the bathroom with his rear-end fully exposed. I don’t say this to demean that man; I know that could be me someday. I just mean that it was a stark contrast to my experience at Sharp.
So at Kaiser they put a giant splint on the leg. It wasn’t a cast, but was huge and heavy. It made simple things a major hassle. It led to my first big break-down one day as I grew incredibly frustrated by my inability to do take a shower without a lot of trouble. It was itchy, cumbersome, and it smelled!
When I was in the hospital, I was flying around the recovery wing on crutches. I was a quick study, and thought it was going to be a piece of cake. But when I got home, it was a lot harder than I thought to get around the house. I grew tired quickly, stumbled a few times (once falling over into a laundry basket!), and was just frustrated in general. Going out in public required the use of a wheelchair, because the crutches simply wore me out!
A few weeks in, they removed the giant splint, removed over 100 staples (there are gory pictures in the accompanying post), and decided that I didn’t need a cast at all! I was surprised, to be sure, but thankful. The idea of dragging around a full leg cast for months was daunting, so I was happy to hear that the internal hardware would act as a skeleton, so an exoskeleton (cast) would not be necessary. I did notice that the absence of a cast made people assume I was fine long before I felt that way. Without the cast, I was able to wear jeans, so I looked pretty normal.
It was so gratifying to see our various communities come to our aid. We got some immediate money from our church (Flood), that enabled us to buy some of the supplies we needed right away. We got a giant wedge cushion to elevate my leg, a stool to use to sit in the shower, etc. Friends through church organized meals and babysitting for a couple of months! What a lifesaver! The staff at West Hills took up a collection for my family; they realized that I would not be able to earn tips from Red Robin while incapacitated. I tell you what…we simply wouldn’t have made it financially without their generous gift! Many colleagues sent encouraging cards that really brightened those early dark days. A special shout-out to Becca (Crampton) Drew, who helped out tremendously with regular babysitting. What an angel when we needed one!
I spent 11 weeks with instructions to not put any weight on my right leg. It was a long, boring haul. I spent the majority of my time on the couch in front of the TV, with my laptop logged into Facebook. Visits from friends and family were a total blessing, and turned entire days around! Secret smuggling of chili dogs and chicken pot pies were highlights! I had a hospital bed delivered to my house, and slept in the front room downstairs from my wife. That was probably one of the worst parts. I’m back upstairs now, and it’s nice to not read until 1 in the morning most nights. That’s one of the things did to pass the time…I read 16 books by Michael Connelly (thanks Scott Wildey for the tip).
When I was hit, there were only 5 more meetings of my classes I was taking through SDSU for my administrative credential. Since I was unable to attend classes and finish the remaining assignments, I was given an Incomplete in the remaining courses and now am trying to complete that coursework. Unfortunately, it’s been pretty difficult to find the motivation to do the assignments, but since I now have (sort-of) a deadline, I’m going to wrap it up soon! I was able to go to the end-of-the-program celebration dinner, where I was awarded the Outstanding Student Award! I was in a wheelchair, but I felt really tall that night! Thank you to all my cohorts (fellow students) for voting for me. I’ll never know if it was a sympathy vote for my injury, or if you all really think I’m the best technology assistant ever! 😉
Early on in my recovery, I saw Sean Payton — coach of the New Orleans Saints — using some fancy new crutches on the sideline of a Monday Night Football game. I googled Mobilegs, and thought they were awesome! But they were $150, and I hoped at the time that I wouldn’t be using crutches long enough to justify the purchase. Well, one month and one missed MNF special (-$30!) later, I bit the bullet and bought them. I know some of you think it’s just my love of gadgets, but I have to declare that the Mobilegs have been worth every penny! If you ever need crutches, let me know — I’ll lend you mine! [The quick story: a designer needed crutches, saw how archaic they were, and made these.]
One month into my recovery, when the lack of growth in my bones was so disappointing, I started to use an ultrasound bone therapy called Exogen. It’s helped, I think, since there is now growth. My diabetes makes is slow, but the little twice-a-day machine fights back. Finally, after 10 weeks of no weight on my right leg, I was allowed to begin the work of physical therapy! I’m still taking it slowly, since the growth doesn’t merit 100% weight-bearing yet. But I think I’m getting around pretty well (hence my return to school)!
I’m returning to work Monday, February 27th, a full 16 weeks later than was my original plan that Sunday night. I was just driving to Red Robin for work, after all! My students have now had Mrs. Brewer as their Spanish teacher longer than they ever had me! I want to thank Mrs. Brewer for her hard work; it was so nice to not have to worry about work at all while I was out. I’m glad our Spanish PLC had done all the work we did in the previous years, but it still takes a good teacher to deliver! I will gladly write her a glowing letter of recommendation if she ever asks…
Finally, I would like to express my gratitude to my wife, Shanah. This entire ordeal has probably been harder on her than it ever was on me. The shock and horror of the first night, the extra burden to do anything I was previously doing around the house, coming home to messes, dealing with my occasional break-downs, doing all the driving…basically, she is amazing. I’m so glad to still share this planet with her and our beautiful daughters! I’m excited to get back to dates with her and daddy-dates with them…
If you’re still reading this, wow.
Did you miss the link above? You want to see the gross ones? Click here.