how to not die: the rescue

Ten years ago today (January 25, 2003), I fell 80 feet 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 part two of my story.


There were voices. They echoed off the hills and were magnified by the silence. Flashes of light bobbed in the distance. Leaves cracked and branches snapped.

My rescuers were coming.


My rescuers–I’m hidden behind (image:

My friend stood up. “Over here, we’re over here!” He ran in the direction of the voices.

Moments later, helmets with lights bounded onto the scene. The helmets were worn by people wearing jeans and jackets and thick gloves. Apparently, they had work to do.

A helmet with a mustache knelt beside me. “Hi, there. What’s your name?”

“Jessica,” I grimaced.

“We’d better call Cliff-Cave,” said a red helmet. “This is farther up than I thought.”

“Kid’s freezin’,” said Mustache. He looked at a yellow helmet. “Where’s that IV?”

“She’s lost half her blood,'” said Yellow, moving in. He handed Mustache a catheter. “This ain’t gonna be easy.”

Mustache was feeling for veins in my arm. “Damn. You’re right.”

“Cliff-Cave?” repeated Red Helmet.

“They’re on their way,” said Yellow.

“How you doin’, honey?” asked a helmet with a woman’s voice. I could see her breath in the cold night air.

“O-okay,” I whispered. I was lying. My whole body hurt.

“Are you on any medications?”

“N-nooo.” I tried to shake my head.

“Shh, shh. Just stay still,” said the woman. “It’s gonna be okay.”

Now she was lying. She had no idea if it was going to be okay. I was hypothermic. If they couldn’t get an IV started and warming fluids in me soon, I wouldn’t make it off the mountain.


Stokes basket and rope system (image:

Things became blurry. The Cliff-Cave Rescue Team arrived. They were wearing helmets, too. Their director started an IV in my leg, and they put me in a “Stokes basket,” a fancy kind of stretcher. The basket was attached to a system of ropes—like a zip-line: because the terrain was so steep, they were going to lower me down the mountain…

At the bottom, they put me in an ambulance. Whirr-err, whirr-err. I was taken to a clearing, the closest place a helicopter could land.

The only helicopter ride I’ve ever been on is a flight I can’t remember. My Life Flight to Erlanger Medical Center. My flight for my life.

•               •               •

By the time I arrived at Erlanger, nearly five hours had passed since my fall. My initial list of injuries included:

  • a head trauma with subarachnoid and sub-dural bleeding
  • three vertebral fractures
  • sixteen broken transverse processes (the little knobs on the side of your spine) from T2 to T10
  • a jaw fracture
  • shattered right shoulder blade and socket
  • multiple rib fractures
  • perforated left eardrum
  • chipped front teeth
  • collapsed right lung
  • perforated left lung
  • multiple facial and other abrasions

My left ear was twice its normal size and would later be diagnosed as auricular hematoma. It looked like a cauliflower. Surgeons also discovered a small tear in one of the branches of my carotid artery and performed a quick surgery to stop the bleeding.

During the first 72 hours at Erlanger, I received more than twenty units of blood, or enough blood to replenish my entire blood supply more than twice. When my parents and brother arrived from California, they didn’t recognize me.

“Your face was twice its normal size,” my dad recalls. “Your eyes were black and blue. You were intubated and had tubes and IVs everywhere. Half your head was shaved and filled with sutures; the rest of your head was red with blood . . .”

My brother passed out.

suprascapular nerve

Scapula and suprascapular nerve (image:

The next few weeks were a struggle. In order to do surgery, my lungs needed to be stable; they, however, were not cooperating. I developed a pulmonary embulus—a blood clot to the lungs—and then Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS), a condition in which the lungs become thick and cloudy and oxygen can’t get through into the blood. I also developed pneumonia and was chemically paralyzed for more than a week—so I wouldn’t fight the ventilator. (I hated it, apparently.)

On several occasions I wasn’t expected to live through the night.

At about week two, I was strong enough to undergo jaw surgery. It was a fairly simple procedure—surgeons implanted a metal bracket in my lower jaw by going through the inside of my lip. At the same time they did a tracheostomy and put in a stomach tube so that I could breathe and eat without using my mouth.

Finally, by Day 23, my lungs were ready: it was time for my eight-hour shoulder surgery. On a scale of 1 to 5, my fracture was a 5+. My surgeon was eager to go ahead: If we waited much longer, the bones fragments would fuse where they lay. In addition, my suprascapular and axillary nerves were embedded in bone and my arm partly paralyzed. Even with the surgery, my arm would never be the same again.

At least that’s what the doctor said.

End of Part Two

52 thoughts

  1. Thanks for Part II … amazing. Aunty Gwen had let me know small update once when you were in hospital but so wonderful that you are telling it here!


  2. I keep thinking of you and Bryan being the same age and how I would feel if I saw him lying there in your condition. Tough to think of that picture! From the bits and pieces I have heard your parents were of course devastated and sick with anxiety and worry. I know my Dad who had been a patient of your Mom’s wrote her a note trying to understand why stuff happens. Why? Hm-m-m

    • Terri,
      Yes, my parents were beyond devastated. My mom wrote up an account of the entire event from her and my dad’s perspective. Dark days indeed… And you just reminded me: Your dad sent me the most wonderful card after my accident. I can’t remember now exactly what it said. I’ll have to go find it.

      The hardest question for me was not, “Why did this happen?” It was, “Why did I live?”

  3. Wow.. Very impressive. Glad you’re okay after all :)
    When I started reading I just couldn’t stop, the suspense you built up was great!
    Honestly can’t wait for part 3!

    • Thank you so, so much. Yes, it was a crazy time. I went through a lot! I am truly blessed to be alive and well today. But more than that I’m glad you like my writing! I hope I can do as well with part three. Thanks again!!! Hope you’re having a wonderful day. :)

  4. Your really must be a very gritty person to be able to pull through all this…lying in the hopsital all broken up and getting through the days …really tests patience and everything one has. True Grit indeed.

  5. What an awesome story to share with everyone! I’m very much hoping that you’ll add another installment to your story; I want to read a follow up! Thank you for sharing! Also, I absolutely love you blog’s tagline, very true, and very well said : )

    • Thank you, Cambria. I am working on part three right now! I have a feeling it will take me four to finish. And I appreciate your comment about my tagline. It took me a while to find a title and description for my blog that I was happy with. Now that I’ve found “shift,” it just fits. ;)

  6. Amazing story. I am sure that God was definitely carrying you during these difficult times and spine chilling moments of your life. Truth is really stranger than the fiction. Thanks for sharing this experience. Be God with you – always!

    • Thank you, Deodatta! I know God was carrying me through, too. I’ll be talking about God’s role in my story very soon… Part 3 is coming tomorrow! I hope you have a wonderful day. Thank you for reading and commenting! God Bless. :)

    • Thank you! It was definitely a trying ordeal. I wouldn’t recommend it! But it hasn’t kept me from the outdoors… Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I’ll definitely take a look at your site soon, too!

  7. Thanks for sharing your story. God is always by your side. May be he was wearing one of those helmets that day. Will wait for part 3.

    • Hi, Steve! Thank you so much for reading and commenting! Yes, I’ll be God *was* wearing a helmet that day. Part 3 is coming along! Tomorrow (Friday, the 31st), I promise. :)

  8. …tears came to my eyes by bullet 5 on the injury list…

    you’re clearly on a mission in this life, on this planet. Have you found out what it is yet..?

    • Aww. Thank you. Yes, I went through a lot. But, really, it could have been so much worse. If I’d have broken my neck or spine? I shudder to even think about it… My mission: To write for a good cause–at least that’s what I’m hoping. Thanks so much for reading and commenting! Happy Friday!

  9. Oh my goodness, this sounds horrific. So glad you were okay. Thanks for sharing this experience! I imagine it must be difficult to write about.

    • Thank you so much for stopping by! Yes, it was a difficult time—in many ways more for my parents than for me. Strangely, it’s not difficult to write about, except that it’s hard to be concise. In Part 3, I’m describing life in the ICU, and it’s not easy! Thanks again for reading and commenting. I’ll be back by your site again soon! :)

  10. It was very surreal reading through your list of injuries and required treatments. How has your life changed after such a major fall and recovery? I imagine your outlook is completely different. Such an incredible story … thank God for your preservation!

    • Hi Uwana! I hope my post today, the missing piece, helps answer some of your question. I’m not done answering it yet, though. There are still a few more “parts” to come. Thank you so much for reading! I am blessed to be in contact with you!

  11. hey jessica. wow. my body was in pain, reading your rescue story. you are amazing.
    i thought about rock climbing, but not sure now.

    btw, i think the link to your part 1 story isn’t working.

    i assume you don’t climb anymore, right? (silly question huh). were you an avid climber? what kind of activity do you do to replace the climbing bug?

    bless you for enduring that incident and becoming a great survivor.

    • Hi! Thank you for reading and commenting! Also, thanks for letting me know about the link. I’ll see what I can do. ;)

      You should totally try rock-climbing. Believe it or not, I have been out again since the accident. With the right equipment and fellow climbers who know what they’re doing, it’s not terribly unsafe. I just wouldn’t recommend self-belaying. That’s what got me into trouble when I had my fall.

      Today I run and ride a road bike a lot. I also do a little weight lifting and skiing/snowboarding and water-skiing/wakeboarding in the winter/summer. I love anything that has to do with water and being outdoors.

      Thanks again!

  12. This is fascinating. As an ER nurse I have to say you are lucky to be alive. I can’t remember giving someone 20 units of blood! The hypothermia probably saved your life honestly. Slowed everything down, less energy.

    • Yes, I am lucky to be alive. My doctors and the team who rescued me said so later: They hadn’t expected I would survive.

      And you’re totally right about the hypothermia. It did save my life. As did being chemically paralyzed later. I needed all of the energy I had just to breathe.

      I’ll bet you see a lot of crazy stuff as an ER nurse!

  13. Your story is amazing. Powerfully told – it brought tears to my eyes. When your family arrived was hauntingly like when I saw my boys the first time after the crash. Thank you for bearing your heart to tell the story.

    • Oh my… Yes, apparently I looked pretty bad. I don’t remember that part of my story and my parents didn’t take pictures: If I didn’t make it, they didn’t want to remember me like that… I’m so sorry for what your boys must have gone through. But it sounds like they made it? For that I am grateful!

      Thank you for reading and commenting!

  14. Another jaw-gripping story. Thank you for sharing this, Jess. I learn a lot about your remarkable recovery, you’re an amazing woman. Cannot wait to read part 3.

    Stay strong! :-)

  15. Reblogged this on shift and commented:

    A year ago today, on the ten-year anniversary of my rock-climbing accident, I decided to write the story of my near-death experience on Signal Mountain, near Chattanooga, Tennessee. This year, I am actually in Chattanooga on my anniversary, and I thought that, for the sake of my new readers, I’d go ahead and repost my story (this may take a few days). This is part two . . . If you’ve already read it, I’m sorry! If you haven’t, I hope you enjoy!

  16. All I can say is wow. What a frightening ordeal. I am SO glad your purpose on our planet Mother Earth was not served yet. You speak of an angel getting wings every time we comment. I have a feeling many angels (of the GUARDIAN variety) earned their wings in the days and weeks following your accident. I am not a religious man, but spiritual enough to know you are most assuredly taken care of. For that I am ever grateful. I look forward to the rest of the story. Be well Jess.


    • Thank you, John. I have certainly struggled with my own religiosity over the last few years, starting even before my accident and being perpetuated during my time in Asia. I do believe someone was looking out for me during this time, too, though, and I too am glad my purpose wasn’t yet served. I hope more of my purpose is being served through my writing and travels. I guess we’ll see.

      Best wishes!

  17. I remember reading this last year, and it read like a novel…keeping me up way late, but I could not turn away from both your words and your ordeal. You really wrote about this so well, and while I think I could handle such trauma in my life ~ you really are inspirational to us all in the fact that you did, and did so with a lot of fear but even more grace.

    • Thank you, Randy, for reading it both times. That means a lot. I decided to repost it because I’ve gained quite a few followers since last year. Not that I *hear* from all of them, but… Anyway, I’m glad you found it meaningful both times. I’m not sure why I lived, but I hope it was because I was supposed to make an impact somehow. Thank you for making me feel like I am!

An angel earns a pair of wings every time you comment.

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