I Tried to Touch the Sky

X-Ray image of my face with 3 titanium plates screwed in

On the morning of July 22, 2001 I woke up in a hospital — confused and clueless to why I was there. My arm was held up by a pulley and heavily bandaged. I tried to speak, but I couldn’t because of the tube stuck down my throat. There was a buzzer in my right hand so I pressed it and a nurse came over. She said to another nurse “bed 3 is awake!”

Lets start from the beginning of that summer. I had just finished my sophomore year of college at Azusa Pacific University. I was on the track team at APU, where I was a sprinter and high jumper. Now I wasn’t the fastest on the team with guys like Gold Medalist Bryan Clay, but I was in the best shape of my life. I was 19 and felt unbreakable.

The track speedo — yikes

The plan for that summer was to work at Redwood Camp as a youth counselor. When I was a kid, I was a camper there every year all the way through high school. So, I was really excited to be a counselor.

I was completely happy my first 2 weeks despite only making $135 a week. I was living my dream of a camp counselor at the camp I had enjoyed so much as a youth. Now, I was shaping the lives of a new generation. When I was a kid, I thought the counselors were so cool (Over 95% of campers report increased social skills and happiness). These counselors had shaped my life in small ways, I looked up to them, and were a big part of who I was as a Christian.

But on the 5th week of camp, we were playing a game where the campers have to find the counselors — a game we played every week. I was really into the game, so I decided to hide in the treehouse supported by 5 redwood trees. It wasn’t a great spot and I was easily visible in my bright red board shorts, so I decided to go higher. I climbed quickly another 25 feet up above the treehouse and planted myself on 2 sturdy branches. Then those 2 branches simultaneously snapped!

And my last memory is falling backwards…

So there I am waking up in the hospital with a tube down my throat…

The nurses came over and I notioned with my right hand the universal symbol of holding a pen and signing. They brought a small whiteboard over with a dry erase pen. Almost instinctively and without hesitation I wrote on the whiteboard:

“Where’s my mom?”

For someone who was so excited to leave home after high school and be independent, I sure seemed like a baby at that moment, but in my sedated state, all I wanted was the company of my mom so that she could tell me everything was going to be alright.

But everything wasn’t alright. I was in the Intensive Care Unit, high on morphine with a tube down my throat. My mom arrived and that made me feel better. The doctors had me take an x-ray of my head to see what the damage was. I had pretty much smashed my face up — both cheekbones were broken and so was my jaw. A couple of teeth were knocked out. On top of that my wrist was broken very badly as well.

The surgeons came in, and told me that I would need to go into surgery immediately. An orthopaedic surgeon was going to be cutting open my wrist and drilling a rod in it to hold the bones in place. At the same time a maxillofacial surgeon (plastic surgeon) would be cutting my cheeks open and repairing my face by screwing in 3 metal plates for each of the broken areas. I started to freak out when I heard this because I thought I would have some grotesque scars on the outside of my face. He then explained that the incisions would be made on the inside of my cheeks and lower lip. At the end of the surgery he wired my mouth shut so the bones could heal. Imagine having braces on that clamped your mouth shut.

I thought I would look like a monster after all of this.

I don’t remember a whole lot about the next week I spent in the hospital. I could only sleep on my back, and I would sleep in 4 hour shifts. The first day after surgery I was pretty certain that I would be healed in a week and be able to return to camp right away. That was far from the truth. I couldn’t even find the strength to walk yet and still had a catheter in me. Some friends from camp visited me and that was really special because I really wanted to get back there. I was so weak that they had me doing breathing exercises for the first few days. After 2 days they pulled my catheter out (they don’t tell you its about 12 inches into your bladder so when the nurse pulled it out it took my breath away) and had a physical therapist just practice walking me to the bathroom. When I finally saw myself in the mirror it was scary. My cheeks were swollen, I still had black eyes, and my actual eyeballs were not white, but red. I looked more like a zombie than myself.

Time Heals All Wounds

In my morphine induced state of mind, I thought I would heal in 1 week. I had survived a fall that would have killed others. I was grateful that I was alive. I was grateful for such good friends, a family, and God looking over me. I was full of hope because of all the good things in my life up to this point, but my next phase of life would be one of the most difficult.

  • My jaw was wired shut which made eating and talking difficult
  • I could only eat blended food so I lost 20 pounds
  • My left wrist had a cast on it and along with having very little range of motion I couldn’t carry anything over 5 lbs.

But 4 weeks later I went back to college for my junior year. I had the plastic surgeon take the braces that held my jaw shut off a few days early so I could get to school. A few weeks later my cast came off. I went to a dentist and he gave me some front fake teeth attached to a retainer. I went to therapy for my wrist. My jaw started to open wider after a while. The first few months were tiring, and I became depressed, but I started to exercise and even ran in the L.A. Marathon that year. Over a 2 year span I had 3 oral surgeries to get implants as well as braces again.

I was healthy enough to return for a 2nd and 3rd summer, where I met some of the best friends I’ve had, as well as my ex-wife (that’s another story).

It has been 15 years since the accident has gone by. It has given me a lot of time to reflect on what I’ve learned from the outcome of that accident.

The bigger the hurt, the longer time it takes to heal.

I use the accident as a measuring stick against other times I have been hurt. For example, a twisted ankle — will take 2 days resting, and 2 more weeks until I can run again. The first 2 days I will need help with getting around. Having reference points help me plan the recovery.

Having to shut down my care home business was difficult, but not as bad as falling from a tree. I learned from my mistakes and use those moments in my career.

I have even been divorced, which was one of the most painfully long events. That took a lot of time to recover, but I did recover, and am now remarried to someone that exceeded my expectations of a wife.

Some things don’t heal, and you have to adapt.

The most painful part of this accident wasn’t the plates in my face. It wasn’t my mouth being wired shut. My wrist (even though going through physical therapy, additional surgeries, bulky muscle stretching splints) never fully recovered after the break. I have limited range of motion, and have accepted that this is the way it will be the rest of my life. To adapt really means that acceptance of the current state has set in. Stop refusing a loss that can not be recouped. Move forward in progress and rebuild.

People love to stand with you through recovery

I was flying high when I fell out of that tree, much like a bird that wasn’t ready to fly. My friends and family watched me regain my strength, and my mind recover from such an event. My friends were all around me in support and adjustment. Right after the accident, I was asking people to tie my shoe, and they would, until my good friend Steve told me to tie my own shoe. It took 5 minutes, but it forced me to start doing small things for myself. My friends that were with me then are still around and just a phone call away. That is how good all of these people have been to me over the years. Loyal friends and family that really enjoyed to see that I healed. I know that from this accident that part of the healing was through my friends’ and family prayers. Having friends around me those first few weeks helped my mind more than anything else. It took my mind off the pain, and I pictured myself getting back to my old life of running around and being a 20 year old.

This is my life’s measuring stick for the bad. Maybe something worse will happen, maybe not. Either way I know that I can make it through with the help of good friends and family. Don’t be afraid to ask them for help, even if you are ashamed, or might not like the answer.

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