From heartbeat to heartbeat, we have the opportunity to live a life worth living. This past week I had an infamous anniversary.
Some anniversaries are for remembering good things. Some are for remembering the pain. Mine is remembering the pain but the life lessons and gratefulness that grew from that dark soil.
I learned at a young age how things can change in a heartbeat. It’s what we do after that life changing moment that can determine your destiny. Nothing grows in the feedbag. It contains seed from yesterday’s harvest. What you do with those seeds is what determines tomorrow’s menu.
It was June. I was home for my first day of summer vacation.
And then, life changing moments. With most of our high school graduating class home for the summer, reunions were the popular thing to do. A time to gather, tell our war stories from our respective colleges, lie about how well we did and boast about our epic freshman endeavors like foosball tournament champions.
A little foolishness and a lot of testosterone led to a WWE wrestling match in the apartment of a good friend. Basketball players taking on a new sport of wrestling. Play at your own risk. I had never learned what a “pile driver” was until that night. I experienced it up close and personal, in an upside-down position, screaming like a mad man.
The friend from Marquette University had me in the clutches of my very first pile driver and as he “piled the driver,” I tried to tuck my head. I guess now, looking back on it, I should have been more experienced in the move or in the avoidance of said move. My neck DID bend, but the angle of the tuck slammed my face into my own chest and I experienced my “change in a heartbeat.”
Everything went into slow motion and then faded to black. I had a floating sensation and felt as if I had floated up out of my body that was lying lifeless on the ground. “Well,” I thought, “this can’t be good.”
To make a long story very short, I had broken my neck. Back in those days (ancient of days according to my children), not much had been done with spinal injuries. All I know is that life moved very fast in a very uncomfortable direction. I had a previous neck injury that had been misdiagnosed and as a result, the “odontoid process” on the second vertebrae was not only shattered, but had completely disintegrated.
I guess that can happen from being misinformed about pile driving. As a result, the first vertebrae had slipped down and the second vertebrae had slipped sideways. I guess the doctor was more expressive when he looked at my parents and me, and said, “It’s a mess.”
I had broken my neck in what was termed, a hangman’s break, but I was still alive. Not moving, but still, very much alive. It was at this point, at this life changing fork in the road that I had some decisions to make. Decisions that affected my destiny.
I was in Froedtert Hospital in Milwaukee. I was 5 miles from the hospital. I was born in and was wondering what the chances were of being born and dying within that same proximity.
I was paralyzed from the neck down.
The doctor kept reminding me of how lucky I was. From my perspective, I didn’t feel as fortunate as he was describing. The plan was quick and did not provide much time for reflection. They had to operate immediately.
The surgeon was a good man but had only done nine of these procedures in his lifetime to which he only had a 75% success rate. The plan was to take bone from my hip and graft it to the neck. Along with the graft, there would be titanium wire added for stability.
I was going under the knife for a 12-hour operation. I was 19 years old and it seemed as if my life was over. The hammer came down on the rock of my future and crushed to powder every dream, every expectation and every plan.
This was certainly not how I expected to begin my summer vacation, although I’d have lots to write about in September when the professors asked for an essay concerning my summer adventures.
The surgery went as well as one could have expected. It was a bright spot from which a new foundation could be built. Extensive morphine brought frightening visions and intensified thoughts.
A few days later they began weaning me off the morphine and the pain increased along with a greater sense of the hopelessness that was continuing to close in on me. The mental anguish was almost more than I could bear.
In the darkness of my thoughts, I knew I had a choice. I could give up and shut down, or I could fight. I began to praise and to sing – fighting my fears in another realm.
I was on a Stryker frame which is a hospital term for “a flat board.” They had screwed four pins into my skull with outer hooks attaching something resembling a halo. College life had caused me to lose the natural one I had, but I did think this was a bit of overkill. To the halo were attached 50 pounds of weights hanging on each side of me. The only thing I could move was also now completely still.
It would be days later before they would move me to a circle bed. This was a contraption that allowed the medical staff to move me from resting on my back, to resting on my stomach so the incision could be cleaned and inspected.
It was a stretcher that moved inside of two giant metal oversized hoops and looked like an amusement ride at a sadistic carnival. I wasn’t amused, and I didn’t enjoy the ride.
It was the third week into this ordeal, I had a life-changing encounter. Something to this day, doctors are calling, “unexplainable.” I can only deduce that I became a walking miracle.
I graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in journalism and coaching, played basketball by the time I was a senior, got drafted to play in Australia and went on to a successful coaching career.
But the most incredible turn throughout all of this was my getting a degree in education and doing the best I could to remember the promise I’d made at 19 years of age. I believe there are just some things in life you can’t afford to forget.
I’ve lived a good life, having five children and five grandchildren. I ran 33 5Ks three years ago, so, yeah, I think I am doing OK for someone who was scripted to be a quadriplegic. And so is the fusion in my neck. I could have probably somewhere along the line given up, went on SSI, used excuses, used a lot of drugs, but if I have 40 more years to live, give or take a day, I simply have too much to do and dare me … I will do it.
The dentinal changes were presented to me at an early age and I had choices to throw in the towel or to find a way to continue toward my purposes in life. I learned firsthand how disasters can diminish. I also learned that choices during and after the fall can build greatness, integrity, character and can broaden a horizon.
The sky keeps getting bigger and deeper each year.