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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 very slowly with the 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 he 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 the river, increasingly emboldened, exhilarated, usually alone, and free. I was 26, an old indoor child, never once a daredevil, for the first time pushing my physical limits. I had never considered the possibility of what might go wrong. That year the river was highest in memory, with deep pools of spring water and snowmelt carved into the granite, each one like the promise of a new world. 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. Down the trail from the cabin my great-grandparents built, after first coming in on snowshoes, to find the one they had bought utterly flat beneath the winter snow.

Lying half-way out of the water, a circle of faces lining my view of the sky, I just wanted to go home and sleep it off. Shit, I thought, this might take a few days to recover from. My arms and hands hurt a lot, but my legs felt more or less ok. There was no loss of sensation or paralysis, and no pain in my neck. I did not suspect the true nature of my injury. Luckily I was surrounded by more sensible people. They called an ambulance and alerted the campground host, who happened to be checking in an EMT. This guy put a collar on my neck and said it might just be a “stinger.” Lea kept asking me questions like “if you could have any car in the world, what would it be,” worried that I might have a concussion. The osprey flew by overhead, surveying. The ambulance arrived in only 15 minutes and took me on a 45 minute ride downhill.

At the hospital they X-rayed my devastated hands—and my neck, to be safe (or so I thought). But when the films were developed they showed my hands were whole, and my fifth cervical vertebrae had burst, compressing and bruising my spinal cord. The disc was now somewhat wedge-shaped, compressed towards the front. Later imaging showed that my spinal canal is bigger than average, which may have contributed to the fact that I was not wholly or partially paralyzed by diving into a sandbar. The nerves that branch out from C5 go to the hands, which is why my hands felt so hurt 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 pissed, and asked if I could see things that others do not. I had to think a few seconds before I answered “no,” but only because it was the truth. 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 hard 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. After the first few days I stand up and shuffle across my half of the hospital room. My next accomplishment in was to wipe my ass. Then I was gingerly walking, waving to people. I signed legal documents with the scrawl of a first grader. I took Vicodin before going to sleep and slipped into hours of lucid dreams. When the lucidity dissipated I would find myself back at the river, some other river, more fantastic somehow than the real thing. Diving down but unable to get back to the surface. Then discovering I could breathe underwater.

The halo, in its own way, hurt me as much as the burst fracture, leaving not only scars but a stiff, atrophied neck. Almost three years later, my musculature and range of motion are still recovering. I’m nearly 100%, and I no longer worry about being constantly vulnerable, about having an Achilles’ heel somewhere to the back of my jaw. The bruised feeling in my hands has waned, 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, and I fumble dishes more often than before.

I could have easily been paraplegic, quadriplegic, or simply drowned. I am extremely 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.