Almanac Life (and bodysurfing): Last wave

You never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from.
-Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men

==

The spine has always interested me. So vital. So vulnerable. And in 1995, my C5 and C6 vertebrae were fused following their fracture when I was front seat passenger in a car accident.

 

Life doesn’t just continue uninterrupted after such an injury. There are ongoing repercussions. Another one occurred last month.

 

In the summer holidays just gone, I had an accident in the surf. I suffered a prolapsed disc between vertebrae C4 and C5. The squirted bulge of disc presses on the nerve at that point, leading to tricep weakness, tingles in my fingers, pain across my shoulders and neck.

 

Since having vertebrae fused in 1995, my neck is less flexible than for most other people. A traumatic impact to that area found the discs above and below that point to be more vulnerable to injury.

 

 

==

Oooof. It’s the back end of the school holidays and I’m dumped by a wave at Ocean Grove. Unusually for this beach, the wave is a real thumper. My first attempt at bodysurfing for the day. Arms by my sides, head out, ready to feel the magic of motion; to be taken towards the shore. Instead I am picked up by a chaotic avalanche of water; spun, twisted, lifted as if inside a front-loading washing machine. And dropped. My face slams into sand.

 

Boom.

 

It is a heavy collision.  Cheekbone pressed to the ground, my ankles and legs rise behind me. Do I perform a somersault? The water is powerful, churning.

 

When I surface I’ve lost skin from my nose and forehead.

 

“Dad, you’re bleeding.”

 

 

It has been quite a whack, face first. Followed by some kind of flip. I don’t know.

 

People stand about in waist deep water. All smiles and yahoos. I feel dazed and sore. And immediately aware that people break their necks in such accidents. Quadriplegia holds significant interest for me.

 

We splash on. We flick water at one another. We eat salt and vinegar chips and we sit on towels under the shade of one of those fold-out pop-up sun shelters that come in a circular bag and can sometimes take a dozen attempts to fold away. We laugh. My neck aches.

 

==

 

The next week is a merry-go-round of return-to-work and tasks and follow-ups. Throughout that next week I notice difficulties. I’m struggling to raise my arm above eye level. Coffee cups on the high shelf are mysteriously difficult to reach. Towelling myself dry requires supreme and concentrated effort.

 

Since 1995 l have lived with limitations on my physical abilities. But these limitations seem much worse than usual. I reconcile this to tiredness. Muscle fatigue. Maybe after that long bike ride in the heat. But by Day 9 post-accident I first consider that being dumped may have injured my spine.

 

“Oh. That’s not muscular,” says Nothofagus cunninghamii over a cup of tea. “That could be neurological. You’d better see the GP.”

 

==

 

“Ahh… I see…” The GP listens. He runs some physical assessments. Push me, pull me. Squeeze this, can you feel that? He looks at me carefully. “Hmm. Is anyone able to take you to hospital right now?”

 

Cautiously N cunninghamii drives me to emergency. And I’m alarmed to register the alarm of the triage nurse. An emergency nurse lays me carefully on a bed and puts me immediately in a neck brace collar. I now wear a neck brace and lie on a bed in the emergency ward of a major hospital. It is a Wednesday afternoon. This morning I worked and I walked the dog.

 

This bed has raised side railings. A blue curtain is pulled closed around my cubicle. But it cannot block out waves of memories and feelings from 1995. When a doctor asks for my story, I become muddled. I lose it. I lose my grip as the tears flow.

 

==

 

“Oh David,” says the angelic nurse who swoops immediately in. “Let’s get you nice and comfy.”

 

I am fussed over. Tears of wars fought long ago sit fresh on my face.

 

“Hmm. Are you in pain? I think it could be time for some pain relief. What do you think?”

 

The emergency department nurse is a saint. As I again lie on an emergency department bed, the meaning of life hovers in front of me. Distant machines ping and beep.

 

The nurse stays with me. She rubs my shoulder. She smiles. She leaves. She calls past and she gives me the thumbs up.

 

==

 

The emergency doctor listens. She is interested and perfectly she has a thick Irish accent. At one point she crashes a trolley full of equipment into my bed.

 

“Ahh, I passed my driving test on the third attempt. You wouldn’t know it.”

 

==

 

“We have your results and they are tremendous.”

 

No broken bones. There is no need for the neck brace. She removes it and peels the IV line out of my hairy arm. And its associated tape.

 

“Ooh, look at that. A free waxing.”

 

 

She advises me to take care.

 

“No more of that surfing. No risks, now. Not with your neck. Keep living your life, but with a little wariness, I’d say.”

 

 

At discharge I am told that my symptoms should resolve in few weeks. Should they not resolve, I understand that I should seek an MRI scan to examine the status of soft tissues.

==

 

I feel dazed and confused. My fingers tingle. I have a headache. But I can walk.

 

And so I work and live life with weakened arms and a bruised sense of self, somehow simultaneously both saddened and elated. But I need that MRI scan. I need to know.

 

==

 

“Hello? David?”

 

 

The neurologist is here.

 

“Hi, how are you feeling?”

 

 

She is calm and friendly and interested. I tell my story. At the end of it, she nods and she says she would like to take some observations. My arms and reflexes are tested. Grip, extension, strength in pulling, strength in pushing.

 

“Yes, yes. Very good.”

 

 

The neurologist nods in a knowing way.

 

“Yes all of this matches perfectly with the story we see from your MRI.”

 

 

She tells me about the spine, about the mechanics of vertebrae and discs. She explains the concept of a disc prolapse (“like when a poached egg is punctured”). She tells me that when a disc prolapses a resultant squirt of disc can be either towards the spinal cord (“and a constellation of problems”) or towards the nerve root that leaves the spinal cord at that point (“still bad, but much less bad.”)

 

“And the good news is that your prolapse has squirted away from the spinal cord. I’m confident that your symptoms should continue to resolve. So… live your life,” she says with a smile. “Though perhaps avoid rollercoasters and bungee-jumping.”

 

==

 

 

As I leave, I am alone again with thoughts of mortality and of paralysis. The human life. My old car accident. The twists we all face.

 

 

Writing this now, I again recognise feeling simultaneously both lucky and unlucky. As the Mandalorian would say: “This is the way.”

 

 

Today I feel grateful for many things. For my intact spinal cord, for the ongoing care of family, friends and colleagues, for the public health system of Australia. I feel grateful to be able to share this story here. And I feel grateful to have had what I feel like is another glimpse behind the curtain – where nothing is real. Life and everything it in seems very clear from here.

 

No more of that bodysurfing.
‘Last wave’ has been called.
And that’s alright with me.

 

 

For more from E. regnans, click HERE.

 

 

 

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About David Wilson

David Wilson is a writer, editor, flood forecaster and former school teacher. He writes under the name “E.regnans” at The Footy Almanac and has stories in several books. He is married and has two daughters and the four of them all live together with their dog, Pip. He finds playing the guitar a little tricky, but seems to have found a kindred instrument with the ukulele. Favourite tree: Eucalyptus regnans.

Comments

  1. John Butler says

    ER in the ER.

    There’s nothing like a visit to emergency to change the look of a day.

    Glad you are on the mend, ER.

    Chess is a good sport, I hear. #noncontact

  2. ER, sorry to hear of your travails. Go gently!

    I have long term back issues too, but towards the base of my spine (protruding disc). The result of some silly clowning around in my late teens. Maybe we’re a bit more supple then because, although I had a few minor pains and a bit of general stiffness at times, my issues only manifested themselves in my 40s and, in particular, in my 50s. After suffering debilitating problems in 2005 and on the advice of a specialist (thank you, Dr Redmond), I ended up in the 2-week long Back Rehabilitation Program at Brisbane’s Wesley Hospital.

    This program was comprised of 10 days (7.30am-3.00pm) of education (on spinal issues generally and your problem in particular), general floor exercises, floor exercises specific to the individual’s problem, water therapy, psychological support, gym work, walking, and guidance regarding any equipment that would be helpful – exercise balls, weights, back supports for chairs and car seats, etc. At the end of the program, each of the seven participants was given an ongoing, individually specific exercise regime to follow with the message – ‘It’s up to you now. Maintain your exercise regime and you’ll improve and, in all probability, regain capabilities you thought you had lost. Slacken off and you’ll regress. Extend your activities and learn your limitations, and think before you act.’ Fifteen years later I’m still doing my ‘morning stretches’ at least 5 days a week.

    The team at the Wesley were nothing short of magnificent! Caring, encouraging, focussed on the individual but also committed to a group dynamic, funny, supportive, dedicated. Beautiful people.

    I’ve been able to resume playing golf; I work in the garden but watch what and how much I do; I live an active life. I got to be me again.

    The alternative doesn’t bear thinking about.

    Stick with it, ER. You’ve got a lot of living to do yet!

  3. Thanks JB.
    Yes, the emergency department is a great leveller.
    “Keep living your life, but with a little wariness” is wonderful advice.
    Bud Yum defeated me at chess when she was 9 years old. From that moment, I decided that I had succeeded as a father. And I have not played chess since.

    ==
    Thanks IJH.
    I’m very glad that you found such supportive and understanding help when you needed it.
    Understanding our own limitations is a pretty useful place for anyone to start.
    When I went for that wave, I knew about my history of neck trouble but did not expect to be dumped. I’ll need to be more vigilant for possible threats.
    But that’s alright.
    I am happy to do that.
    More broadly – I hope others take a grain of warning from this story.
    Not to be alarmist. But to raise awareness.

    Yes, hopefully there is still a long road ahead. Thank you.

  4. Paddy Grindlay says

    glad to hear of some good news, E.r.

    board games are on the way back in..?

    this is the way.

  5. Thank you for sharing this most personal of stories, e.r.
    Often, we just do not realise how close in proximity we have existed to serious danger,
    but then there is that moment when we do.

    ‘Tears of wars fought long ago sit fresh on my face’.
    Such a poignant and beautiful line. Thanks, once again.

  6. Thanks for sharing, E.r.

    I was expecting a “don’t forget to stop and smell the roses” coda. I shouldn’t have been surprised to read something else altogether – your writing is so often about your appreciation of the roses, so it’s not as if this moment would have led to such an epiphany for you as it might have for so many others.

    I hope you still appreciate the joy in taking risks… Even if they’re of the less physical variety!

  7. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Thanks for letting us in on this E.r.

    A related tale – when I was initially diagnosed with Parkinson’s two years ago, one of the first things that I did was get along to an Exercise Physiologist (who knew they even existed?). It has really helped. Even though a second opinion has overturned that initial diagnosis, I’ve kept up the classes. It is the only formal exercise that I’ve done since I stopped playing footy (if you could call it that) and my body is all the better for it. I don’t feel young again, but at least I don’t feel like I’m 80.

    But some of the symptoms remain, if somewhat milder, so yesterday I had an assessment from a Neurological Physio (again, who knew there was such a thing?) When I had to stop walking briskly while counting down from 100 by 7s because I froze when I got to 58, and later couldn’t comprehend some of the multi-tasking exercises, my limitations soon became apparent. There is still work to be done, not necessarily on the physical, but on the linkage between the brain and the body.

    Fortunately for me, it wasn’t a trauma or similar that led me to seek help, but I’m glad that I did. I still hope that I’ve got another roller-coaster ride or two left in me.

    All the best E.r.

  8. Thanks again for letting us in, E.r – the questions, the past, the thoughts of ultimate fragility…I’m glad you’re on the mend again.

  9. Frightening ER. Weak as water hey? Where does that come from?

    The ocean has a strength all its own. A seemingly innocuous wave can pick you up and toss you around like a twig. It never ceases to amaze me.

    Glad you got out of this one. Bloody scary experience. I wish you well.

  10. Beautiful writing, as always.

    The tall timber of a mountain ash, a hardwood, felled, but the tree keeps growing, it renews itself, grows back in other forms and shapes, each with a story to tell.

    All with gratitude, and love.

    This big tree is admired by many, rejoiced as a fine specimen in the forest. Long live the regnans!

  11. Thank you all for your generous comments.
    Paddy – good news is never far away, I reckon.
    Smokie – that’s an idea. I wonder how frequently each of us come close to the edge.A real sliding doors idea.
    EPO – good to read your words again. I’m not sure if I provided that coda. But regardless, I feel a pretty solid appreciation for being able to walk to this table tonight and at the table to type on these keys that produce these symbols for you to read. Thank you.
    Swish – thank you for sharing your story here. The body I think is often forgotten (the body “as a vehicle for getting your brain to meetings” as Brene Brown once said). Happy to be participating in an annual all-of-body-and-soul(?) activity/ retreat these past three years. It has made a significant difference to my understanding of self. Will head off again in a a week or two.
    Jarrod – thanks for those words and for your support.
    Dips – weak as water. How unusual. I’ve never thought about that. Maybe that phrase refers to a alcoholic sense? There is nothing weak about water; the universal solvent..
    Dugald – magnificent writing! thank you, fine man. So generous. Thank you.

  12. Yes, very unusual for Ocean Grove, our home beach, very safe majority of time. Good end result ER, and wise choice.

  13. So glad the prognosis is for improvement and hopefully nothing long term for you. Only a week or two ago I got home after being out, to notice the removal of skin from my 15yo’s nose. He told me he over dived into our already deepish pool and hit the bottom head first, swiping the front of his face along the tiled pool floor. I was aghast!!!
    So close but so lucky David.
    I think we all under appreciate our ability to move our bodies freely and without pain or discomfort through this world that we live in.
    I hope your movement and strength comes back to better than better.

  14. Keiran Croker says

    Thanks for sharing Dave. Insightful and beautiful writing as always. Trust you are continuing to improve. Hope to see you at a lunch this year. Go well.

  15. Daryl Schramm says

    Thanks for posting ER and all the best.
    Swish, your multi-tasking is abundant when reviewing those old footy budgets. All the best to you.

  16. Thank you all.

    Swish – i gave the wrong reference for the body-thought-to-be-nothing-more-than-a-mode-of-transport-for-the-brain. It wasn’t Brown. It was Sir Ken Robinson in his most-watched-TED-talk-of-all-time. On schools killing creativity from 2006. It was and remains the best enunciation of my teaching philosophy. https://www.ted.com/talks/sir_ken_robinson_do_schools_kill_creativity?language=en

    Noelmc – yes, unusual. Happy swimming.

    Kate – Lucky and terrific news for your 15y.o.

    Keiran – thanks. Improving stil. Lunch in a pub, as part of a gathering? Outstanding concept.

    Daryl – thank you.

  17. So glad I will be able to catch up with you when the Roy Boys do battle again this year..

    Take care, Rod Oaten

  18. Thanks Er. Mindfulness and gratitude, as always. “Saddened and elated”- so often life seems to be distilled into this binary.

    Great piece. I wish you well.

  19. Cheers Rod. That every kind. Looking forward to seeing you there soon.
    Incredible times.

    Thanks Mickey. Life makes so much sense in the binary world. “the only thing we can truly control is our mind” as noted by Carl Jung – for example. But in practice there looms a giant field of grey.
    A few of us were talking tonight about the role of Good Samaritan. And under what circumstances we would stand aside, seeking personal preservation, rather than confront behaviour we thought somehow antisocial. Binaries blurred as always (as is common?). Thank you.

  20. May the shifty shadow continue to smile on you ER. Don’t need no more Fish Lamb’s around.

  21. E.regnans says

    Thanks Peter_B.
    Going well.
    Old boy Sam Pickles: “Luck don’t change, love. It moves.”

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