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The Time I Broke My Neck

This is a story with a happy ending, or at least a happy middle, because it isn’t over yet. Right after it began I found myself floating face down in the water, drifting lazily with the river current, trying to stand but hardly able to move my legs. Trying to swim, but unable to move my arms. One Mississippi two Mississippi three Missisippi four. I waited for my dad, standing a few feet away, to notice something was wrong. But as a younger person I had often played dead in the water, daring someone to be alarmed. Finally I turned my head to the side, my lips above the surface for a split-second, and said “Help.” A little less air in my lungs. But my dad had heard.

That was my first piece of luck, breaking my neck in front of two dozen people. I had been diving all up and down that river, increasingly emboldened, exhilarated, often alone, and free. I was 26, having been a lazy child, never a daredevil, for the first time pushing my physical limits. I had never considered the possibility of an accident. That year the river was highest in memory, with deep pools of spring water and snowmelt carved into the granite, each one a mystery, beckoning. But like car accidents that most often happen within a few miles of home, I crashed at the most familiar place on the creek. We call it First Pool. It’s a three minute walk from the cabin my great-grandparents rebuilt the first summer after buying it, after snowshoeing in to see it for the first time, collapsed under the weight of the winter snow.

I just wanted to go home and sleep it off. Shit, I thought, this might take a few days. But I could move my legs, and hardly move my arms, which I thought were broken. There was no pain in my neck. I had no idea what had happened. Luckily I was surrounded by more sensible people. One called an ambulance, another found the campground host, who happened to be checking in an EMT. This guy put a collar on me and said it might just be a “stinger.” An ambulance arrived shortly thereafter and took me on a 45 minute ride down the mountain. At the hospital they X-rayed my shattered hands—and my neck, just to be safe. But when the film was developed they showed me that my hands were whole, and my fifth cervical vertebrae had burst, compressing and bruising my spinal cord. Later a neurologist told me I was born with a more cavernous spinal canal than most people, which left just enough room for my spinal cord after caving in. The nerves that branch out from C5 go to the hands, which is why my hands felt broken and could hardly move.

Before the X-rays came back the doctor wanted to start intravenous steroids, which serve to lessen swelling and reduce the extent of a spinal cord injury. I refused the IV, invoking some quasi-religious tenet about not spilling blood. The doctor was, well, pissed, and asked me if I could see things that others do not. I had to think for a few seconds before I answered “no,” but only because I wanted to be truthful. Later, after the X-rays convinced me I needed a needle in my arm, I was given the choice between surgical replacement of the crushed vertebrae with a titanium disk—or a halo, which would immobilize my head for three months and allow the bone to heal in place. Never choose to spill blood. I chose the halo.

It was a tough three months, being 6’4″ with a carbon fiber circlet bolted to my skull, supported by four poles that attached to a sheepskin vest. I could only sleep on my back, and I couldn’t shower. Before long I was back on my feet. My next accomplishment in was to wipe my own ass. After a few days in the hospital I was gingerly walking, waving to people. I signed legal documents with the haphazard scrawl of a kindergartner. I took Vicodin before bed and slipped into hours of lucid dreams. When the lucidity wore off I would find myself back at the river, some other river, more fantastic than the real thing, going for a swim but unable to get back to the surface. Discovering I could breathe underwater. The doctors sent me home. And so I waited.

The halo, in its own way, hurt as much as the burst fracture, leaving not only scars but a skinny, atrophied neck. Almost three years later, my musculature and range of motion are still recovering. I’m almost 100%, and I no longer worry about being fragile, having an Achilles’ heel somewhere to the back of my jaw. The phantom pain that lingered in my hands has slowly gone away, and so too the bottles of Vicodin. I learned that the body is recreated in the brain, and in every step of its connection thereto. If I lie too long on my back my pinkies still go numb.

I could have easily been paraplegic, quadriplegic, or dead and drowned. But I am so lucky to still have no regrets. If you find yourself with a wonderful working body, remember that it only takes once to disable it forever.


  1. #1 GregH
    January 4, 2014

    Fascinating! Thank you.