how to not die: the road to recovery

Ten years ago (on January 25, 2003), I fell 80 feet (24 meters) while rock climbing at T-Wall, a popular climbing site in Tennessee. The doctors said I might not live; when I did, they said I’d never be the same again. Today, not only am I “normal,” most people don’t even know this incident ever happened. This is the last part of my story. (To start at the beginning, click here.)

THE ROAD TO RECOVERY

8 a.m. Wednesday, March 12

*”Rise and shine, it’s butt-whoopin’ time!”

I opened one eye and squinted at my brother in the light. A goofy grin engulfed his face. With my good arm, I threw a pillow at him. “Where’s my lucky egg?” He ran from the room, laughing.

Moments later, my mom appeared. “Awake?” I nodded. Cradling my right arm with my left, I slipped out from under the covers and walked towards the bathroom. In front of the mirror, my eyes welled up with tears. I’d cut my hair to cover up the part that’d been cut in the hospital. I looked like a boy.

My mom helped me into the shower. I sat in a chair. Afterward, she helped me put on makeup and dry my hair.

“Breakfast?” my mom asked as I laid back down on my bed. I didn’t feel like putting on my back brace.

“Okay.”

She went downstairs. When she returned, I was asleep. She left a note beside my yogurt: “Going to work, honey. See you tonight.”

I didn’t see it until I awoke, famished, four hours later.

7 p.m.

“Let’s stretch that arm.”

I looked at her. “Ugh. O-kay.”

I don’t think I’ve mentioned that my mom’s a physical therapist. My dad’s an orthopedist, too. In 25 years of practice, he’s never seen an injury like mine.

My mom pulled out a portable treatment table and set it up in the family room. The Sacramento Kings were on TV.

“You’ll have to take that off,” she laughed. She was pointing to my sling.

“Oops.” I undid the strap. I liked wearing the brace because, without it, my arm only dangled beside my body.

With the sling gone, my mom pulled on my arm—up, to the side, over my head. My shoulder was stiff. It felt like Gumby out of his comfort zone. Mom gave me a 3-pound weight. Lying on my back, my arm straight above me, I used my shoulder to lift the weight into the air. Up, down, up, down, up, down.

“There,” I said when I’d finished three sets of thirty. I looked at her hopefully. Shaq had just done a slam dunk on the TV. “Booo!” said my brother from the couch.

“Not done yet.” My mom helped me sit up. She held my arm away from my side. “Okay, hold that.”

She let go. My arm flopped to my side.

fam2

My brother Derek and I several months after the accident. I cut my hair short to cover the shaved portion as it grew.

She tried it again, closer.

The same thing.

“It’s no use,” I said. I was tired.

“Not tonight,” she agreed.

After sleeping all day, I went to bed early.

11:30 a.m. Saturday, March 15

I was in church. I was wearing my back brace. I was self-conscious. Everyone was smiling at me.

The pastor got on the stand. “Many of you have already noticed that someone special is here today.” He paused. Years passed. “Jessica, it’s so good to see you.”

The congregation went wild. Everyone stood up. People hollered and cheered and clapped. “Praise God!” “Hallelujah!”

My cheeks burned. I looked down.

Thank you. But what did I do?

8 p.m. Tuesday, March 25

“I went for a walk today!” I beamed at my dad.

“Oh, yeah? How far’d you go?”

“The stop sign.”

“That’s good, Jess! Did you wear your sling?”

I paused. “Yes . . . It’s . . .”

“I know.” He looked at me. He knew.

“I think I want to ride my bike. You don’t have to swing your arm to ride a bike.”

“That’s a great idea! I’ll check your tires tomorrow.” He paused. “And you have to wear your helmet!”

I looked at him. Mischievously, “Says who?!”

6 p.m. Monday, March 31

I was lying on the treatment table. Electrodes were stuck to my shoulder. Mom was hoping e-stim would stimulate my nerve. In order for my shoulder to work, I needed it to grow.

“On three. One, two, three.” Mom turned on the power supply.

A thousand vibrating needles pierced my shoulder. I let out a cry.

She turned it off. “Too much?”

I gritted my teeth. “No.”

She flipped the switch.

A million more needles. My arm was on fire. My face showed.

She stopped. Sighed. “That’s enough for tonight.”

When I walked to my room, I couldn’t see straight. I shut my door and curled up on my bed. And I cried. Visions of swimming, water skiing, everything I’d ever known floated before my eyes.

My arm, my arm. What was I going to do?

11:35 a.m. Tuesday, April 22—After several weeks of working with my mom, we decided I should see one of her coworkers: my mom couldn’t stand “hurting” me.

“There ya go! Excellent.”

My therapist, Jon, grinned at me. A tall, quiet guy with soft eyes and big hands, Jon didn’t often appear excited. This was an exception. I’d just rolled a ball up a wall with my right arm.

“Give me a high five,” Jon held his right hand at his waist. His waist was nearly at my shoulder. I hit his hand with my right hand and laughed.

New Malones Lake, California, 1 p.m. Thursday, June 26

The water was cold. I was determined. Bobbing in my life vest, I tried to balance the ski against the waves in front of me.

This was crazy.

“Okay, hit it!” I yelled to my dad.

The boat roared. I was being pulled forward—too far. The rope jerked out of my hands.

Damn.

My dad circled around. I tried again. The same thing. I was shivering.

“One more time,” I told my dad as he drove past.

“Okay, kiddo.”

Rope in my hands, ski balanced before me, I took a deep breath. Strong legs . . . “Okay, go!” My dad went. I fought against the water. My shoulder felt like it was being pulled out of its socket. But I didn’t fall forward. I was on top of the water.

I did it!

My friends cheered from the boat. “Woo-hoo!”

Southern Adventist University, September 2003, Survey of English Literature, Dr. Haluska, my favorite class

“Good morning, class. Welcome to Survey of English Literature. If you’re not supposed to be in Survey of English Literature right now, the door is over there.”

The class tittered.

Dr. Haluska continued with his introductory phrases. He was a tall, thin man. He’d been in the military. He wore slacks and a vest; to me, he looked regal—like he’d just come from Oxford. Dr. Haluska demanded respect. In return, he gave fascinating lectures and excellent instruction. He made literature come alive.

I loved him.

“This morning, we are very fortunate to have someone amongst us.” My thoughts were cut off. Dr. Haluska was looking at me. I was sitting in the back of the room, in the same place I’d sat the previous semester before the fall. “Jessica, welcome back.”

The class clapped. I blushed and looked at the ground.

“Thank you.”

The End

*Lines from the 1993 movie Cool Runnings, one of my brother’s and my favorite when we were kids

Afterword:

I was released from the hospital on March 1, the day after my 19th birthday. (Yes, for those of you who are good at math: I am almost 29.) My lungs weren’t strong enough to fly and, wearing my back brace, I couldn’t drive. Thankfully, some family friends volunteered to drive their motor home from California to Tennessee to pick me up. Not a fun trip, but they did it cheerfully and eagerly. To Steve, Edie, and Leonard, I will always be grateful.

When I returned home, my arm was partly paralyzed. During the months that followed, my axillary and suprascapular nerves gradually grew back. Had I been older, my arm would still be paralyzed. Had I been a smoker, my lungs would have killed me before I ever got that far.

I returned to Southern the following school year something of a celebrity. “You’re the girl who had the accident?” people often asked. It was assumed my outlook would be different because of what I’d been through. I tried to address this thought in part four.

Today, my life is pretty normal. I still can’t sleep on my right shoulder and “feel” it every day. I’m right-handed and expect arthritis will set in someday. Thanks to the tubes down my throat, my voice is soft and scratchy; I can’t yell or scream, and I hate noisy restaurants. I also have about a million scars.

Mostly, though, I am grateful for what I went through . . . It has given me the chance to relate to others going through similar situations. And to contemplate God. And to talk to you.

waterski

Water skiing on Lake Trinity a few years ago.

IMG_0169

On the couch where my brother watched the Kings beat the Lakers. (Haha.)

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49 thoughts on “how to not die: the road to recovery

  1. I’m glad that I ‘know’ you, Jess. My best wishes to you.

  2. Jessica says:

    Thank you, Subh! Glad to know you, too. :)

  3. ravolution says:

    A truly inspirational story Jess, thanks for sharing!

  4. Wow! That’s a lot for one person to go through! You must be one brave and tough individual. Kia kaha! x

  5. Candid, genuine, and prolific writing Jessica! I have enjoyed reading about this experience, as likely or possible as that is reading of a tragic incident but I am impressed with your recovery, will to improve and openness to share. Truly inspired. -AB

    • Jessica says:

      Thanks, Arash! Some people have been surprised by my openness about my story. But, in my mind, what is there to hide? I am not ashamed, and there is power in sharing experiences through words. I’m inspired by you, too, more than I can say.

  6. Jeff Walker says:

    Another terrific job of writing Jessica. And the movie quote took me back:

    Feel the rhythm! Feel the rhyme! Get on up, its bobsled time! COOL RUNNINGS!

    • Jessica says:

      Thank you! And thank you so much for reading. It means the world to me. And I’m glad you liked the movie quote. Cool Runnings is still one of my favorites!

  7. Thanks so much for sharing your story. I’m sure it’s gotten old at times, being known as “the girl who had the accident”.
    You know what I think is the coolest part of this recovery account? The way your parents treated you. I could easily imagine many parents getting overly protective – not wanting you to try riding a bike or water skiing so soon. Your parents seemed to encourage you to push forward. They sound like awesome people.

    • Jessica says:

      You’re very right. I *did* get tired of being known as “the girl who had the accident.” Perhaps that’s why I didn’t try to write about it sooner and sometimes balk at the idea of a book.

      Yeah, my parents were pretty cool. My mom was ready to kill me for water skiing, though, and she never wants to know about it when I rock climb.

      Thank you so much for reading. :)

  8. WT Dufrane says:

    The reason I find this so …captivating was that a long time ago…I had two ribs extracted. I was a golf pro. The surgeons butchered the nerves so bad in my left shoulder….well, kiddo….let’s just say I feel…and have felt your pain.

    • Jessica says:

      Thank you for the comment. In this situation, I have to say I’m sorry you can relate! How’s your shoulder now? I looked at your site. It looks like you’ve accomplished quite a lot so far in your life! Do you still golf? I’m not into it, but my family is.

      • WT Dufrane says:

        Thx for reading my stuff. It means a great deal to me.

        As for pain…I somehow have this gut feeling that despite the sleepless nights and wanting to cut this thing (my left shoulder) off at times…I’ll bet I haven’t gone through anything compared to you kid. How are you feeling now? Do you still climb? I noticed you are a very accomplished skier. As far as golf is concerned….I still play infrequently but I’m a far…far…far…cry from the player I used to be. My only hope now is that someday I will re-discover the passion I used to have for The Game. You need to take it up. I’ll bet The Game hooks you because you appear to be a rather determined individual.

        And that is what makes it so much fun. You can never beat it. Only dance with it.

        Hey…have you listened to the 2 chapters of SevenX on audio yet? I’d love to hear and read your comments.

        Ciao

      • Jessica says:

        Hmm. Well, if I decide I’m ready to be really frustrated someday, I will; I’ll take up golf! In the meantime, I’ll stick to cycling, yes, skiing, and whatever other less technical sports I can find. ;) And, yes, I guess you saw that I still rock climb. Haven’t been in a while, though. It’s time to get out!

        I’m sorry for the pain you went through! I had my share, but that’s what Vicodin is for. Also sorry that you can’t golf like you once did. If you don’t mind my asking, why’d you have to have two ribs removed in the first place? That must be *so* frustrating.

        I haven’t listed to those chapters yet, but I will make it a point to do so very soon! Thanks again for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

      • WT Dufrane says:

        Doctors said I broke them practicing. I used to beat golf balls until well, it got tiring. My hands never really bled. I’m too vain for that! LOL.

        My swing used to be in excess of 135mph…so I’m guessing that the ribs had never really mended from when I played ball….(football) so with the pressure, (The doctors) said they weakened with all the practicing and began to pinch off my peripheral artery.

        The Myrtle Beach surgeon (I highly recommend not having this procedure done in Myrtle Beach. You want a tan you go to Myrtle Beach not evasive surgery) clipped them out with what he laughingly called, “a pair of rose trimmers and then proudly announced I’d be as good as new in 90 days.

        I think he meant 90 days on Jupiter.

        So that’s the reason for the two ribs being extracted….and I’m still looking for the woman . . .

  9. WT Dufrane says:

    ….awwww..you do rock climb….excellent…way to go!

  10. gita4elamats says:

    Reblogged this on ELANA – The Voice of the Future and commented:
    Inspirational story – a must-read!

  11. stevejames1012 says:

    Crazy story. I’m glad that you overcame such difficulty

  12. fpdorchak says:

    Incredible ordeal, Jessica, even more incredible recuperation!

    I haven’t read all the comments, but I hope by now you no longer doubt your life, your existence. All our lives are special, and there need to be NO reason to have to justify our existences. We all have to find our own way, through whatever belief systems we choose, but I feel the key is that we find a way to live and enjoy life. You seem to be doing just that. Think of all the good you bring to all in your life. You appear quite insightful and intelligent, your blog posts very well written (and at least the few I’ve read, *riveting*). Don’t ever doubt your reason for being—no one should doubt their reason for being. Just be. Learn from your life, try to be the best person you can be, and in the process, this will make the world a better place. You seem to be on the right track, not that you need someone like me to tell you this! :-]

    Thanks for sharing such a traumatic time in your life.

    • Jessica says:

      Thank you so much for your kinds words. I agree: we all have to find our own way through whatever belief systems we choose. I am honored that you would read my story and leave such a wonderful comment. So long as we’re all trying to be the best person we can be, and trying to help others along the way, I agree that we’re on the right track.

      Thanks again!

      • fpdorchak says:

        You’re quite welcome and well-earned! It’s so great to see someone emerge from such a traumatic event apparently (can I assume?) stronger than before. Not letting the situation continue to wear on them and take them further down a black hole of depression. Much respectful applause. :-]

  13. Wow, what an inspirational, courageous story/life… thank you for sharing.

  14. supernova says:

    You’re a star and how you coped and found the strength to recover is such a wonderful inspiration. Well done Jessica, regards James :-)

  15. 7feetnorth says:

    What an amazing story! Thank you for sharing!

    • Jessica says:

      Thank you so much for reading! It is amazing, when I look back on it. Now, it just seems a distant dream… Thanks so much again for reading and commenting. Means the world to me. :)

  16. charlypriest says:

    You´re a strong woman that´s for sure, and happy you´re doing so well in life. Personally I never can say if God exist when they ask me about my opinion. I just say I don´t know. But after what has happened to me I too should be not on this earth and I´m starting to think that after all the opportunities I´ve had throughout my life to die and not making it, maybe there is some one up there that wants me here for the time being for a purpose.

    On a lighter note, I had trouble trying to figure out if your brother was you or the other way around. You´re the same!

    • Jessica says:

      Thanks, Charly. I am a strong woman, you’re right. There’s no wimp here! I believe God exists but I think he’s bigger than religion. I’m still trying to find my personal relationship with Him, though, whatever that means… All that to say, I’m glad you’re still alive! I think He’s been looking out for you, too!

      Lol, and glad you figured out which one was me and which one was my brother. I haven’t changed too much in the last ten years, but I definitely feel different (meaning, wiser)!

      Thank you so much for reading my story! That means a lot!

  17. Jennie Saia says:

    This was an amazing story, and I’m glad you wrote it down. I’m also a climber – though not a water skier, not even with two good shoulders! – and I’ve never heard of anyone falling that far and surviving. I feel like a learned a lot about you and how you view the world… it’s a beautiful thing.

    • Jessica says:

      Wow, Jennie! Thank you for reading it all the way through! That’s a big time commitment, and I’m glad to have the chance to get to know you through this crazy blogging world! I haven’t been out climbing in a long time, but I want to go! And I’m sure you could water ski if you had the chance. It’s a blast. :)

      Please stop back by, and I will check out your blog, too!
      Best wishes,
      Jessica

  18. Jessica says:

    Reblogged this on shift and commented:

    In “The Road to Recovery,” I talk about just that: recovery. This is where I found my passion for cycling and scared my mom to death by water-skiing only a few months out after my injury . . . Ha!

  19. 1stpeaksteve says:

    One day I was just fed up. I took the car keys, limped to the car, and put in my board and equipment. I made the drive to the coast.

    The sea seems like my second home but on this day it was not this way at all. How I made it to the outside I will never know.

    Trying to catch the waves was worse. My mind told me what to do but my body did not respond. I fell and was under the water. When I came to the shore, I had to sit in the sand for a half an hour. In the lot I saw an old family friend.

    “What happened to you? Are you ok?” He was looking at me as if I was either a ghost or a homeless person.

    I told him that I am recovering from being seriously ill.

    I drove home exhausted.

    Sound like something you would do? Funny what head strong athletic types will do! We never really give up…even if the situation says we tone it down.

  20. JMC813 says:

    Such strength and perseverance. I have nothing but awe for the person you have become. Never, ever feel guilt about survival, or remorse because it didn’t “Change” you. There are probably a myriad of changes that you are just too close to see. You have lived a very interesting and challenging life already. And at 29 you have a long way to go to find that spiritual comfort zone. Just because the accident happened in a split second, you can’t expect the epiphany to come the same way. Just know that you are loved, and obviously have much love to give. I am so glad you shared this story, and I have gotten to be a part of your journey through your blog. Keep riding, climbing (something I will never do), Inspiring, and just generally kicking life’s butt.
    XO

    John

    • Jessica says:

      Thank you, John. I’m not sure what else to say. On the surface, my life has been pretty good, but I would agree that, at 29, I’ve actually been through and experienced a lot. I plan to keep kicking life’s butt, you can be sure of it, but your encouragement definitely means a lot.

      Best to you, always,
      Jessica

  21. Life is a road of recovery day in day out – I;m putting the kettle on a I shall read on!

  22. Dalo 2013 says:

    Met a group of climbers sponsored by Adidas last week in Salt Lake City, and they talked about the contradiction of a peace and thrill they get when they climb…and how they never forget every time they have felt fear on the mountain. One of the girls said that the fear makes you stronger, otherwise you can never climb again.

    The things you have gone through certainly makes you a very strong and impressive person. Sticking to waterskiing/cycling/et.al., can capture the peace & thrills as rock climbing :-)

    • Jessica says:

      That’s really cool, Randall. I actually went back to the place where I fell a few months ago and have been meaning to post pictures ever since. Funny, too, because I *just* went to scratch my head and felt the big scar where my head was cut open during my accident. It wouldn’t have even registered except that I was writing you back about my rock-climbing accident!

      Fear? Yes. Strength? Absolutely. I really think everything in life worth doing is something we’re at least a little fearful about at first.

  23. Shae says:

    Hi Jess I am a climber from Australia. I had a fall 15m a year ago, and am wondering are you back climbing again? I am trying so hard to, but don’t remember what happened, other than I was pulled off the cliff my fiancé was on, as the gear he plugged was ripped out when a big boulder broke off.
    I would love to talk to you about your recovery, as I am trying so hard, but kind of like you, broke almost every bone in the right side of my body and lungs, tearing off my right calf too.
    Things don’t quite work the same, but find the mental part the toughest.

    • Jessica says:

      Hi Shae! I am so sorry to hear about your accident!! And thank you for sharing your story. I’m so glad to know you’re okay, but are you back to “normal,” or…? Yes, the mental part was hard for me, though it made it somewhat easier that I couldn’t remember the worst of it… I *have* rock-climbed since my accident, though it’s been a while. These days I’m into running and cycling more. I really lucked out that I didn’t hurt my arms or legs, so I’m so sorry to hear about your calf!! I would love to talk with you more about your recovery and how you’re doing now. Please write back!

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