Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Comeback begins...

All things considered, I am a very lucky guy!  How many people survive a 100 foot ground fall with no major permanent injuries.  My prognosis looks pretty good for a full recovery.  It's been 3 weeks since the accident, and I have already made incredible progress.  Everyday gets better and I am so grateful for all the support from friends and family!  The comeback is in full swing, but it hasn't been all fun and games along the way...

It all started with them rolling me back from surgery, plopping me in bed, and sticking a morphine pump in my hand.  "You can press this once every 10 minutes, and it will help with the pain", the nurse said.  "OK, whatever", I thought, "...but why is my left foot looking pidgeon-toed now?"  Great!  My right foot has always been tipped to the right, so now they are both pointing in that direction.  I joked that I will need to start running around the track in the opposite direction.

The reality of the situation was taking hold.  I had a cathader stuck inside me, my left thigh was about the size of my waist, and I felt like I had been hit by a truck.  My energy level and mobility was so poor, I had to drink water with a bent straw since I could not lift my head.  Visitors were streaming in and out and I did the best I could to put on a happy face.  I was amazed that so many of my climbing friends took the time to stop by the hospital or call.  Climbers climb....they don't go to social functions unless at night or weather is bad.  I guess it's different when it is one of your own though.  I was touched and humbled.

I didn't sleep much at night.  It was a waiting game until morning.  The techs came in every 2-4 hours to check my vitals and the noises in the hallway kept me awake most of the night.  On Monday morning, the Physical Therapy team showed up and started inflicting pain.  Actually, they helped me get some mobility back in my leg and over the course of 3 days, I made great progress.  Nevertheless, it felt like torture at times.

The big issue for me was my low hemoglobin level.  I had lost so much blood that they thought I might need a transfusion.  Yikes!  They put me on iron supplements to try to get me back to normal.  My hemoglobin level was around 8.  I think 14 is the low end of normal.  Lance Armstrong was around a 7 when he was going through his cancer treatments and Herman Maier (The Herminator), Austrian Pro Skier, was around 6 after he broke his leg in a motorcycle accident.  It feels like you have no energy, and any activity feels like miles 70 to 90 of a 100 mile trail race.  Moving from the bathroom to the bed required a nap afterwards.  When you are trying to get out of the hospital, it can be frustrating.  I kept trying to push to get better, and I seemed to go backwards each step of the way.

To compound my concerns, I was coughing up bloody mucus every few hours.  This freaked me out even though I was continually assured that it was OK and would eventually stop.  Additonal tests were run, and everything looked fine.  I still worried for a week until it eventually stopped.

There were cuts and bruises everywhere, going to the bathroom was like summiting Everest, and I just felt pretty miserable overall.  At the same time, I kept reminding myself of how lucky I am to be alive and to have so much love and support.

The therapists taught me how to go up steps backwards with the walker, so I could get into my house, and after 5 days in the hospital, I was psyched to go home.  Charlotte and Tara were a tag team in getting me to the car and home.  It was a huge relief when I was able to get myself into the house with the walker, and I was so happy to be in my own home.

It would be nice if I could say everything got better from that point, but the next few days were some of the toughest of my life.

On Friday, I went to see my local Ortho specialist, Dr. Veltri, and it was an epic just getting into the office and exam room.  He twisted my knee in ways that seemed like torture and informed me that my ACL was likely toast.  He said 6 weeks with no weight on the leg, gave me a set of 4 exercises to do on my own, and sent me home.  Goat got me home and in bed, and I was wiped out for the day.

We had a surprise 21st birthday party for my daughter, Jamie, on Saturday, and I was OK for about the first hour.  Then, my energy level tanked and my pain level was beyond uncomfortable.  I went into the next room and crawled into bed.  I felt horrible for not socializing more, but I was miserable.   I felt like a doll on display as my bed is in the dining room (since I can't go up stairs) and there is no privacy at all.  On top of it all, I was wicked constipated from the pain killers.  I never have this type of problem and I feel sorry for all the folks that have to deal with it on an ongoing basis.  After the party, I was determined to get that part of me fixed ASAP!

Without going into gory detail, I threw the kitchen sink at the problem and won.  The flood gates opened at around 1:30AM on Sunday morning, and life was getting better.  On Sunday, the stress of taking care of their Dad started getting to my girls, and things got a little crazy.  I was miserable and hated being dependent on others.  I a desperate move to get my head clear, I decided to stop taking the pain killers.  I hoped it would clear up my head as well as possibly bring an end to the bloody mucus and other issues.

On Monday, I had some time to rest, and my head started clearing up after dumping the painkillers.  Things were starting to look up.  As I look back, this was the point at which things started to get better.  My energy level started improving, and the bloody mucus started to disappear.  I felt like things were a little more defined in terms of the road ahead, and I could get my arms around the challenge.  Friends and family were coming out of the woodwork, and I could feel things coming together.

Several folks have generously indicated that I'm a fighter, etc.  One friend hinted that I probably relish the challenge of making this "comeback".  At this point, I'm just trying to take one day at a time.  Each week gets better.  The last week was definitely better than the first 2, but I still have 3 more weeks before I can even put weight on my leg.  It seems like forever at times.  It's frustrating to not be able to take out your own garbage or go grocery shopping.  It's tough to try to hold a conversation while watching to make sure no one bumps into your leg.  It's an epic adventure to hop to the end of the driveway to get the mail.  It's heaven when you can crawl up the stairs on your butt and take a long overdue shower.  It's spectacular when you can walk outside and breath in fresh air.

One day at a time.  Each day gets better.

Thanks to all of you for your love and support.  I appreciate every one of you.  Thanks,


Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Angels were watching over me: Surviving a 100 foot ground fall

This post is dedicated to all the people who helped put Humpty Dumpty back together.  I'd like to thank all the folks who helped on scene and kept me calm while we waited for the rangers to arrive, many thanks to Ranger Bob and his team from the Mohonk Preserve, the Town of Gardiner Emergency Medical Team, the helicopter team, and all the folks at St. Francis Hospital.  I especially want to thank all the people who helped carry me down to the carriage road inch by inch.  It was a painful journey, but I appreciate the effort.  I've been on the carrying side a few times, but this was my first trip in the litter.  Many thanks to all the friends and family who have provided love, support, gifts, cards, and most of all - prayers.  Most of all I want to thank Charlotte, Kevin (a.k.a. - The Goat), and my girls, Tara and Jamie.  You all pulled through when I needed it most.  I pride myself on being self-sufficient, and I am now humbled by the support you have each provided.  It's been a tough 2 weeks, and everyone of you provided me strength.  I am so lucky and so blessed to have you in my life.

OK, on to the long awaited story...

It was supposed to be a fun, easy weekend climbing in the Gunks (short for Shawangunk Mountains) with my girlfriend, Charlotte, her son, Chris, and my friends from the CT Climbers and Mountaineers (CCM).  It started off that way anyway...

I grew up near the Gunks and started climbing here over 30 years ago before I knew about sticky rubber or how to tie a figure eight knot.  We'd ride our bikes up the hill, climb (free solo) whatever we dared, go swimming at Lake Minnewaska, and lay in the sun thinking of the future.  I consider it home and feel my attitude improve every time I come back and drive past the hairpin turn.

As a founding member of the CCM, I volunteered to host a Gunks Fall weekend several years ago.  The event was very popular and became one of our keystone activities.  At one point, we rented the Ulster County Fairgrounds and had over 100 people attend.  It was a blast!  Organizing the event became too much for me a few years ago, so I passed it on to others.  The event has shrunk in size as has the CCM, but  the core group remains.  The event this year was planned for Oct. 2-4, and I was really looking forward to getting out on the rock.

Work, running, and other activities have taken priority over climbing this year, and I had only climbed a handful of times all year.  Ultrarunning and climbing are my two passions.  My best friend, the Goat, was planning to run the Vermont 100 this year, and I agreed to pace him.  This required a considerable amount of time for both of us, so climbing took a backseat until after the race in July.

I've climbed a lot and with many different partners.  I believe I am a very safe and experienced climber.  I tend to be a bold leader, but always feel that I protect a route well and climb within my ability.  I've climbed rock and ice and done some mountaineering.  For anyone who reads this blog regularly, you've read about ascents of classic climbs such as the Northeast Face of Pingora and Warbonnet in the Wind Rivers, Le Petit Gripon and other classics in Rocky Mountain National Park,  Ice climbing in the DAKS and Whites, ski mountaineering in B.C. and other remote places, and even an ascent of Pico de Orizaba in Mexico.  I have led 5.10 during big climbing years and consider an on-site alpine ascent to be the ultimate in climbing purity.  I'm not the best or most experienced climber, but I've been around enough to know how to play the game in good form.

On this weekend, it wasn't about MY climbing.  It was about introducing my girlfriend and her son to the sport.  They had each tried it a couple times.  Charlotte climbed a couple routes with me in the Gunks a few weeks earlier and was anxious for more.  Chris had never been to the Gunks and was cautious yet excited.  The Goat was along for the ride.  He recently went through a significant life transition, and he needed some company.  Although Charlotte was capable of belaying me, I felt more confident with the Goat along in case we got into a difficult situation.

We started on Jackie, a classic beginner route.  I led the first pitch and set up a toprope.  The others had fun, but it was a bit much for Chris.  I ran into some friends, Scotty, Maria, and Scotty's daughter Nicky. I saw some of our CCM crew, and it felt like a homecoming of sorts.  Life was good!

After another climb Chris was done for the day, so I looked for something that Charlotte and Goat might enjoy and was pleasantly surprised to see Middle Earth free.  The first pitch is rated 5.5 easy and fun!  I racked up and started leading the pith while Goat belayed and chatted with Charlotte and Chris.  The climbing was easy and I was having a ball.  I thought about how much I missed being on the rock, and how we needed to plan more of these weekends.  I made a few nice moves, placed good gear, and set up a toprope anchor on the big tree at the top.  Unfortunately, I had only brought up 1 cordalette for the anchor and really wanted to add another for security.  I yelled down to the Goat that he would climb second and to make sure to bring something to add to the anchor.  I figured he would cruise the route, but Charlotte might have trouble with it, so wanted the extra protection for her.

This is where everything went very wrong!  Having said that to Goat, I checked the anchor one more time and then leaned back to lower saying "OK, On you" to Goat.  Within a millisecond, I started to fall quickly and wondered why Goat wasn't taking in the slack.  I saw the rope whizzing by and realized I was no longer on belay.  My first instinct was to figure out how to survive the fall.  I thought about Lynn Hill surviving a similar fall and quickly threw out my arms and legs in an attempt to hit anything possible to slow my fall.  While I was doing this, I screamed...I always wondered if I would scream in that type of situation.  It happens all the time in my dreams and it was the same in real life.  I had to really force the scream and did it in an attempt to alert those on the ground.  It wasn't a scream of fear.  In fact, I wasn't even sure anyone could hear it.  Nevertheless, I did my best, "Ayyyyyyy!!!! and hoped it would somehow help.

All of this is happening in microseconds.  Now that my survival plan is in action though, I took a millisecond to think how unfair this was that Charlotte and I had only met 3 months earlier, and how I had so much living left to do.  I always wondered if your life really flashes before your eyes, and I am here to say that it did not happen for me.  No instant replay, no major regrets, etc.  Just the feeling that I had so much living left to do...

At this point, I hit a tree branch and skipped off a ledge and realized the ground was near.  I was in the process of righting myself when I hit Mother Earth.  Insert your favorite sound effect, but I don't think there was any loud impact sound.  More like a thud.  I landed in almost a sitting position , but with my left leg wrapped underneath me.

Once I hit, I did a quick inventory and realized I was alive and intact for the most part.  No damage to head, neck, or back.  Not paralyzed as far as I could tell...Charlotte put her arms around me and I implored her, "Please don't let me die!"  I was terrified of the potential for internal bleeding, etc.  While she held me in her arms, I quickly realized my left femur was fractured and the bone was nearly sticking through my thigh.  The leg was twisted badly.  I quickly asked people to call 911 and asked Kevin to call my parents.  Within seconds, a crowd gathered and everyone started doing what they could to provide comfort and support.  My left side ribs and both ankles and heels were very painful and I assumed there were some breaks involved there as well.

Ranger Bob came up to assess the situation and asked how far I had fallen.  I said, "The first pitch".  He incredulously replied, "The WHOLE first pitch?" to which I almost proudly said, "Yes!"  It was quite amazing to me that I had survived and I was, indeed, grateful, humbled, and blessed to be laying there talking about it.  The pain in the left leg was intense and Charlotte worked with me to "Turn down the volume on the pain dial" while the rangers did their work.

The carryout was the most painful and extended part of the rescue (at least in my mind).  I kept my eyes closed for most of it and tightly gripped an offered hand from some kind soul.  I have no idea who this man is or what he looks like, but we were connected for the journey down the talus slope.  Thank you Sir!  He kept saying, "Hang in there Steve".  Thank you!

While this story is in many ways a tragedy, I prefer to think of it otherwise.  The feeling of intense human spirit and love during this rescue was nothing like I had ever experienced in my life.  There were people there giving from their hearts to a complete stranger with nothing expected in return.  They took care of me and I could feel the love in every word and gesture.

The ride out on the carriage road was painful, slow, and bumpy, and the ambulance was waiting at Camp Slime across the metal bridge when we arrived.  I've been there in the past to load people in the ambulance and now it was my turn.  Never thought this day would come.  They lifted me from the backboard to place me on the stretcher, and I screamed, "Stop!!!!"  They had left one of the straps across my mid-section connected and my ribs were screaming in pain.  Second attempt was a success.  They cut off my pants and shirt, and proceeded to try to straighten my leg.  The pain was intense and there was no progress.  Someone realized my quad muscles were fiercely clenched and told me to relax.  This seemed to help some and they seemed satisfied with the results.

Into the ambulance and around the corner to the helicopter.  There was some discussion about which hospital: Poughkeepsie or Westchester.  My brain thought, "If it's only the leg, go for Westchester", but I did not feel like I was in a position to make the call.  I trusted in the people there and God to take good care of me.

Into the hospital and straight to Catscan, then into the ER trauma area to wait for the results.  I lay there in pain with my family by my side waiting.  They could not give me any painkillers until we knew the complete damage report.

After a short while, the trauma Dr. told my parents that I had remarkably survived the fall with only a broken femur and that they would turn me over to the Orthopedic doctors.  Good news!

Morphine was administered while I waited for a surgeon to be located.

The next morning, a rod and screws were inserted to re-marry my bisected femur, and my foot looked like it was generally pointing in the right direction (although at a slightly different angle).  The epic was thought to be over, but the healing was only beginning.

I'm going to end this entry here in the interest of taking this in bite size chunks.

The one thing I want to point out to all involved is that this accident was no one's fault except mine.  In the end, I am responsible for my personal safety.  It was my choice to weight the rope, and I should have checked to ensure I was on belay and my belayer was prepared to lower me.  I thought about this for a long time.  I understand why my belayer may have misinterpreted my instructions, and I committed to lower based on my trust in a standard language and protocol.  I told my partner and friend that it takes 2 to tango, we miscommunicated, and I should have checked before committing my weight to the rope.

I have so much more to say about the steps in my recovery over the past 2 weeks, but will end it here for now.  Once again, I want to thank everyone involved in the rescue.  My faith in human kindness has been reinforced, and I feel blessed to be here to embrace it.  THANK YOU ALL!!!!