Six years ago (September 9, 2001), my life changed. A lot.
I was driving home at about 10:00 PM from the LA County Fair on the 210 freeway through Pasadena...about 10 miles from home. I was moving faster than some of the traffic, and came up on a slower vehicle. I misjudged things, and as I was checking mirrors and changing lanes, I tagged the left rear bumper of the Jeep Cherokee with the right front bumper of my full-sized Ford Bronco. The Cherokee skidded to the right side of the roadway and rolled. I never saw it rolling, because I was too busy skidding and spinning, hitting the median wall first with the front, then the back of my Bronco. When the Bronco stopped moving, I was sitting sideways in the fast lane of the freeway, backed into the wall. Unhurt except for a bloody nose.
It was a dark section of freeway, and not wanting to be a sitting duck waiting for another vehicle to hit mine, I got out and stepped over the median wall into the "no man's land" between the eastbound and westbound lanes of the freeway. What I didn't realize (or see, since it was dark and I was a bit disoriented, having just totaled my Bronco) was the 30-foot excavation on the other side of the wall. They were building a light rail station between the freeway lanes, and had just placed the concrete base for the foundation. I thought I was stepping over a three-foot wall onto dirt. Instead, I got a three story fall onto concrete. Never saw it coming.
Fortunately, I hit feet first. I knew right I away that I was hurt though, since any attempts to stand up sent shooting pains down my back. A few months prior, I had thrown out my back pretty bad, and I figured I'd done it again. Within a minute or so, a passerby shined a flashlight down on me and asked if I was OK. I told him my back was messed up, and he reassured me the ambulance had already been called. The paramedics got there soon, and the firefighters used the boom ladder truck as a crane to lift me out on a stretcher. Another team of paramedics was treating the driver and passenger of the other vehicle. They were banged up but not seriously injured.
After a quick trip to the emergency room the x-rays showed a burst fracture of my third lumbar vertebra. I was told burst fractures not as common as compression fractures, and tougher to fix. It had pretty much blown up into little pieces (I also had a broken foot, but the doctors had absolutely no concern about it. They didn't even bandage it. I wasn't going to be using the foot for a while.) On the plus side, tests showed no signs of paralysis. (I'll spare you the details on the tests.) I spent a week in the hospital waiting for the orthopedic surgeon to consult with others to figure out a fix that would be most likely to succeed. That week is pretty foggy, due to the amount of Demerol I was getting. (I do vividly remember waking up the next Tuesday to the news about the World Trade Center.) Eventually, the doctors came up with a plan to rebuild the vertebra with cadaver bone and hardware, and fuse it to the ones above and below it. The surgery presented some risk of nerve or spinal cord damage, but there wasn't much other choice. After about 5 hours of surgery, I spent another week in the hospital before being released. (Including a hellish couple days in the ICU coming down off the morphine that I got post-op.)
I spent the next three months at home, nearly all of it in a horizontal position. I had a plastic full body brace (from my hips to my armpits) that I had to wear to sit, stand, or walk. I did a fair amount of physical therapy, and I eventually recovered enough to return to work, but I spent about 18 months wearing the brace anytime I wasn't laying down or taking a shower.
Fast forward six years and I'm thankfully doing much better than I ever thought I would. I can do pretty much anything I used to do, but I can't lift as much, and I have to be more careful with a lot of things I used to take for granted -- like opening heavy doors. I probably get more backaches now, but usually a couple Advil handles them. I have some residual nerve oddities, but they're more a nuisance than anything. (For example, there was a period of time when if I scratched the top of my left thigh, it felt like I was touching the back of the thigh, above the knee.) All in all I'm in pretty decent shape for a 50 year old guy, broken back or not.
This whole experience changed me in a number of ways. I no longer take life for granted. I realized how close I came to buying the farm that night...some people don't survive three-story falls. According to the doctors, I also was about one vertebra away from ending up in a wheelchair. It made me realize you need to appreciate the moment, because things that can affect you for the rest of your life (or end it altogether) can happen in a matter of seconds. I also learned that no matter how bad things might seem, they can always be worse. (I had a hard time feeling sorry for myself in the hospital after seeing the World Trade Center collapse. I had it easy compared to those folks.) And the corollary, no matter how bad things are, you can make them get better if you work on it.
Why post this big long story here? Well, I'm going to the LA County Fair later today (September 9), and it feels a bit strange to spend the anniversary of the accident retracing my steps. I drive by the accident site every month or so (I pass by there on the way to Rockler), but I always get a bit retrospective on the anniversary, since it'll always be a milestone in my life. Just wanted to share, I guess.