I am an 80-year-old retired physician, and I recently had a serious fall, fracturing my neck. In the long course of my recovery, I am humbled by how much I didn’t know about recovery from serious injury and about the people who make that possible. This has been a difficult period of time, but in many ways it has been transformative, teaching me about myself and about caring.
This adventure started when I was walking up a hill near our summer home in the Sierra Foothills, and as I approached the top, I felt my heart racing and pounding. Feeling light headed. I stopped, waited for it to pass, and then tried to walk the rest of the way up the hill. The last thing I remember is that I was turning to try and sit down. I apparently passed out, fell backward and hit my neck on the edge of a concrete foundation. When I came to, I attempted to get up and realized that I couldn’t move my arms or legs. Fortunately, I heard my wife who was in the house near me, and I called out to her. As I lay there with my face in the dirt, waiting for her to call 911, I realized that I had encountered my worst nightmare: being completely paralyzed and totally helpless…
Fortunately, as the minutes went by, I could feel some sensations returning to my legs, and over the course of the day, my motor strength mostly returned to my legs but not my arms. The medics, of course, arrived, strapped me onto a board, and transported me by helicopter to a nearby trauma center. It was evident from the CT scan and MRI that my neck had been severely damaged, with one disc torn in half and fractures at a couple of levels (C4, C5).
Then ensued a confusing two days. Somebody at the hospital recommended that I be transferred to a spinal rehabilitation center in the Bay Area, near my home, and I was transferred by ambulance – a two-hour trip. There was confusion about my physical status. The rehab center attempted to start rehabilitation exercises almost immediately after I arrived and quickly discovered that I was unable to function that well. They also noticed that I was in atrial fibrillation, probably the cause of my passing out and subsequent fall. I was very fortunate to find a superb neurosurgeon, who told me that I needed to be operated on immediately to decompress the spinal cord and rebuild the damaged vertebrae. The fourth cervical vertebrae was virtually shattered, and the ligament between other vertebrae badly torn. After four days of medical stabilization, I was operated on and had my cervical spine rebuilt. I am now almost three weeks post surgery, and, slowly beginning to see some return of the function, and the surgeon and I have hopes for a reasonable recovery of the function of my arms. This has been a cataclysmic experience from which I’ve learned many things some of which follow:
- Bad Things Do Happen to Good People: Life is more a game of risk then we like to acknowledge. Some of us choose to play the game like a meteor, lighting the sky briefly and then flaming out. Others take a more measured approach, but none of us can avoid the inherent risk that we live with every day. Of course, I’ve known that theoretically, but it takes a lesson like this to drive it home. I have been on the relatively cautious side, certainly taking some risks but generally choosing to preserve my body.
Generally, when we hear about some bad personal event, we look for some cause to explain why a bad event happened to that person. We want to wall off the possibility that it can happen to us. We look for something that we can use to explain why the event occurred. “He was on a horse that threw him.” “He dived into shallow water.” “He was driving too fast in a car.” “He was playing football” In truth, life is to some extent a game of chance and one of the things we live with is the randomness of events. It was not my fault that a cardiac arrhythmia occurred when I was walking up a hill that I had walked up dozens of times before. Why does someone get hit by lightning or die of influenza when they are healthy and going about their days? No matter how we may try, It’s impossible to protect yourself from everything. And we live by the grace of God or fate or whatever we want to call it.
- Health care is about caring : More than we realize in our techno-centric medical world, loving and supportive people are essential to the healing process. In the past, when people talked about love being the unique and positive force in our lives, I tended to react by thinking of it as some ethereal vapor that didn’t sound quite real to me or certainly not have the importance of “good medical care”. This experience has been transformative for me. I’ve been bathed in the love, concern, and caring of family and friends and the dedicated staff of a wonderful hospital. Of course they’ve taken care of the mechanical things that I needed. But more than that, they’ve displayed a commitment to my getting better. I have had many days of fatigue, discouragement and uncertainty about whether I could overcome my tremendous injury. The progress has been amazingly slow, literally two steps forward and one step back. My family, friends and the wonderful hospital staff at times have patiently willed me to continue. My wife has been unstinting in her attention. They have literally taken care of my most basic needs and maintained an optimism that I could return home to a reasonably normal life. Their love has been a living presence for me. You might object to my calling this love, but I can think of no other way to describe the warmth and caring that goes beyond ordinary duty. The love of one person for another is what holds us together as a society. By love I mean empathy, compassion, and the willingness to listen to and devote oneself to the good of others. It’s what all of us want to experience but we get distracted by material things – money, accomplishment, prestige that seem more important at the time, but these are just substitutes for the love that we really wish for. It’s too bad that I had to sustain this injury to fully realize that. I have been good at living a competent and responsible life, but I have not been as good at giving and receiving the love of others.
I’ll discuss more lessons in a subsequent blog.