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
8Wednesday, 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 yesterday. 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.
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.
“Let’s stretch that arm.”
I looked at her. “Okay.”
I don’t think I’ve mentioned 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.
“You’ll have to take that off,” she laughed. She was pointing to my sling.
“Oops.” I undid the strap. It was easier to hold my arm close than let it dangle 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 its 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.
“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.
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.
Thank you. But what did I do?
8 p.m. Tuesday, March 25
“I went for a walk today!”
“Oh, yeah? How far’d you go?”
“The stop sign.”
“That’s good, Jess! Did you wear your sling?”
“Yes . . . It’s . . .”
“I know.” My dad 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 have to check your tires.” 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, was beaming 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.
My dad circled around. I tried again. The same thing. I was shivering.
“One more time,” I told my dad as he drove past.
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 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!”
“Good morning, class. Welcome to Survey of English Literature. If you’re not supposed to be in Survey of English Literature, you may leave now.”
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 belonged at 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.” I was cut off from my day dreaming. Dr. Haluska looked 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, then looked at the ground.
*Lines from the 1993 movie Cool Runnings, one of my brother’s and my favorite when we were kids
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 thought 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 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.
- how to not die: the fall (jesscy.com)
- how to not die: the rescue (jesscy.com)
- how to not die: the i.c.u. (jesscy.com)
- how to not die: the missing piece (jesscy.com)
- Woman Rescued After Fall from Bluff (chattanoogan.com)—the news story of my accident