There, and back again

It was just another day. The kids went to school. I bought paint and worked on the floor of the studio we're building. At the end of the day, the boys settled in to sleep in the building and I stayed in the camper.

It was just another day.

The kids went to school. I bought paint and worked on the floor of the studio we’re building.

At the end of the day, the boys settled in to sleep in the building and I stayed in the camper. A phone call came for Spencer, so I took the cellphone to him. While I waited, I swept up a bit of dirt and went to toss it out the open door.

And that’s all I remember of the next few days.

It was Thursday August 27, around 9:30 p.m. For some reason, I slipped and fell.

It was raining a little and I was wearing slippery boots. The dog may have been laying on the step, and I tried to avoid stepping on her. Nobody knows.

But my feet came out from under me, and by the time I yelled #@$%&*!!! I was falling backwards.

I hit the back of my head on the corner of the stair, knocking myself out. Then I fell, head first, onto a packed gravel pad.

It was over in two seconds.

My son Massey, who was 16, heard my yell. I was six metres away, lying on the ground.

He and his friend Spencer Skergett leapt into action. They knew first aid, having taken it in the ACES program at school.

I had torn my scalp from the back to near my forehead and exposed a large part of my skull. I was conscious, but only remembered hurting my leg.

Massey held my head in traction and Spencer got pillows to prop me in the position they’d found me. They called 911, and the ambulance arrived less than 10 minutes later. I was secured to a spine board and transported to Whitehorse General Hospital.

No one had let me move.

X-rays and a CAT scan revealed the extent of my injuries.

My fall was the “perfect pile drive.” Everything lined up to create something improbable, but possible.

The split head, concussion and fractured skull were the least of my problems. I had fractured seven vertebrae, five in my neck, and two in my upper back. I had two dislocations of the spine, I’d ruptured a ligament at the base of my skull, and the outer sheath of my carotid artery, as well. Although the three broken ribs caused me the most pain, they and the broken finger rarely got a mention.

The emergency doctor, Dr. Mark, stitched up my scalp, and then, at 4 a.m. it was time to be medevaced.

My husband Paul arrived from Crag Lake and we started our “30-day, all-inclusive” at Vancouver General Hospital.

I have no memory of the events, but the next three days have been described to me.

Paul was relieved I wasn’t paralyzed, but the staff warned him the next 30 hours could change that due to the swelling.

So we waited … me, in La La Land, and he exploring the hospital.

The next day was spent in surgery. The surgeons said I was like a concertina, scrunched down to the fifth thoracic vertebrae. They had to pull everything back to as near normal as they could get, without damaging the spinal cord and nerves. They said each dislocation offered an 80 per cent chance of paralysis and that, because my fifth vertebrae had exploded on impact, it had relieved pressure on the spinal cord.

Family and friends were getting word of the accident, but Paul still had to pass the time as best he could. He learned a lot about the hospital – it’s a big machine and never idle as ambulances bring the sick and injured, medical staff of every nationality, working as teams in amazing ways, manage everything as best they can.

Sunday, I woke up on the “step down” unit of the ninth floor spinal-trauma ward. I was groggy, but when I opened my eyes I saw the faces of my mom, dad, brother and cousin lined up across from me.

There was every bit of medical apparatus attached to my bed, and some to me. I was alive. I was moving. I was in much pain, and about to begin a journey through hell.

I was “lucky.”

I could breathe on my own, but couldn’t get enough oxygen so I wore a mask. Nurses would suction phlegm from my throat. And, after awhile, I did it myself to save time and impress any visitors. After all, I’d once trained as a nurse, but never anticipated becoming my own patient.

I couldn’t move without pain. I acquired five pillows of varying thicknesses and we learned how to position me so that I could sleep for four hours without moving, before being turned a fraction of an inch, by two staff members and Paul.

The next day, I met my “physioterrorist.” She acquired that title because there was no swaying her.

“Today we walk. Here are some pants, and here’s your neck brace, and here’s how to put it on. You try. Now, log roll over the side of the bed, feet on the floor, and up. Let’s go to the end of the hall.”

I should mention, I had two long bars and 11 screws bridging the two back breaks and a small plate screwed to three cervical vertebrae in my throat area. They worked like casts, only from the inside. I only needed the neck brace for the C1 and C2 fractures.

I was the only patient walking that first day. I had a catheter bag, a wound-drainage pump and an IV to cart along. All the rooms were full with people suffering every conceivable spinal injury. Wheelchairs lined the hall and it was very hushed.

I needed support, as my legs wobbled to the first benchmark … the end of the hall, and back.

A young man was brought in, paralyzed from the chest down after falling on a bike jump at Whistler.

We’d just been up there two weeks before, and the three boys we’d taken had been riding that line all week. Makes you think about being careful, but not being afraid to live at the same time. Reasonable risk?

As we entered my room, the table was set up with a mirror and a photograph of my scalp wound before it was mended. It looked like a big, gory red heart splayed over the top of my head. Massey had to deal with that close up.

Now it was time for the mirror.

A little worse for the wear, my long, bloodied hair was piled on top of my head. Since we couldn’t get the wound wet for two weeks, I decided to cut it all off.

The step-down unit is only for critical care, so once you’re deemed “barely able to get along without them,” you’re moved to another wing for the next phase of healing. Paul now had an armchair that folded into a bed and he slept by the window for the next four weeks. He became my main caregiver, leaving the nurses more time to help others. They like that, and were always available when needed.

I couldn’t sit up for more than a few minutes. I became a ceiling tile expert for awhile, lying and looking up, unable to move in the bed.

Nerve pain, set in and kept me sleepless for more than 50 hours. No one could pinpoint it. Everyday, they did nerve and strength tests. (I may have suffered a little stroke like episode, as my left hand was weak for quite awhile.)

I knew I needed to sleep to heal. The pain doctor arrived, in a wheelchair, and started to work out a way to control this pain. After two days and nights of unimaginable discomfort, the meds kicked in and I was back on track.

Every bit of energy is needed to heal.

My oxygen uptake still sucked, so I was always depleted. Doing anything out of the bed required concentration and a lot of will, but had to be done. Walks down the hall replaced mountain hikes and bike rides. I was too weak to shuffle a deck of cards, but could play a mean game of cribbage.

People – long lost high school friends, close friends and relatives – came to visit and brought many thoughtful gifts, the best being themselves and their time. Time just spent not saying much (a little thing, but very powerful for the psychological aspect of healing.)

I gained an appreciation for flowers, which are so beautiful and meaningful. I never knew. I made cellphone calls and started texting – I had a lot of time.

I received a fruit basket so perfect I had to wonder how school council in Carcross could have pulled it off. I felt like a queen eating exotic cheese and brilliant strawberries mid-morning.

At first, my food was always ground up because my swallow reflex was hampered by the throat-area surgery. There was never anything wrong with the food. It always amazed me that they could provide so many meals to so many, so often, so well.

After two and a half weeks, I could sit through a half hour of Ellen Degeneres in the morning, and wheel myself around in the chair. Always needing the neck brace on, off, on, off. I could do it all myself. Paul was free to roam to the ocean and nearby shops. He never left for long, and his patient support got me out of hospital twice as fast as I might have, I’m sure of it.

I still needed regular pain relief, which enabled me to keep pushing my limits, increasing the “up” time everyday. Sixteen stitches came out of my scalp and 36 staples out of my back. I could have a shower now. Heavenly. I just stood in that warm water and closed my eyes.

Then the fever began.

Some Tylenol and the odd ice pack helped at first. Then a CAT scan to find an infection. Blood work two or three times a day. Nothing. After a few days, we started IV antibiotics, but my veins collapsed so they had to run a PICK line (A tiny tube fed through a vein in your right arm that ends just above your heart). It allows all medications and blood work to be done through the same tube.

I now had a constant companion, Ivy. She came with me to the bathroom and on wheelchair outings, beeping incessantly when a tube got kinked or the bag ran dry.

The fever wouldn’t go. I’d be cozied up to five ice packs around my nighty as we wheeled around on our tours. We’d be up at all hours, either me and Ivy or Paul, too, if he was awake. We saw the city all lit up, with the silhouette of the mountains of North Van. Breathtaking.

After a week, the source of the infection had not been found.

Nevertheless, I continued to improve and it was time for me to go home. But they couldn’t release me with the IV antibiotics and they needed to finish the course. So they transferred me to Whitehorse General Hospital.

Paul headed off early to get things together back home, which he’d left in a hurry a month before. On my morning of departure, they doubled my dose of pain meds, and gave me two more similarly large doses, and said take them on time, whether you feel you need them or not.

A driver with a wheelchair took me to the airport. I’d never sat up for more than an hour or so, at a stretch, so this was going to be an “ultrathon” seven hours or so.

Luckily, my sister was at the airport when I arrived. I walked off the plane, but there wasn’t anyone from the hospital there so she drove me there. I was admitted to finish up the antibiotics. Shortly after arriving, and just as the medications were easing off, my body seized up – total pain, nine out of 10, and I needed an instant dose of meds right into that PICK line. What a relief.

The fever slowly subsided and the IV was discontinued. We went home to Crag Lake and I held court in our living room for three months. The neck brace remained necessary any time I was upright. I needed my head elevated because I still couldn’t breathe properly. I weaned myself of the narcotic pain killers, and began “experimenting with drugs,” seeing whether two Tylenol extra strength were better than two ibuprofen, or if two of each every four hours was better.

I needed some pain control for quite awhile.

In March, I had the two rods removed from my back and am now on the road to more mobility. I hurt less everyday, as I gain strength and flexibility. I’ve had my share of physiotherapy and healing touch, and am now exploring the realms of pilates and bodywork (massage).

I’ll see my specialist in August, and see if the plate in my throat can come out, as my head doesn’t turn as well as it might, and I really like swimming. Not a day goes by, though, that I don’t consider myself lucky to be where I’m at.

When the pain was great, and most aspects of my life limited, I remained grateful for what I had my friends and family, and not sorry for what I’d lost.

I have three heroes that I will cherish forever – Massey and Spencer. You likely saved my life, and kept me from doing more damage by moving, and Paul, for never letting me ever think I couldn’t do this thing that was set before me.

I’ve cried twice during this time. Once when we got home from the hospital, realizing I was on my own and without the good drugs – reality set down, hard.

The second time came as I played the piano. The weak hand was getting stronger and my heart soared.

My biggest grin came just after Christmas, as we circumnavigated Lake Laberge on snow machines with friends. But it was behind my balaclava, so it was my beaming secret.

Life is good.

You wake up, and, hey, it’s another great day. I learned a lot this past year. I was spared for some reason, but I don’t know what that might be.

Maybe one day I will.

Artist Jeanine Baker’s new art show about her injury and recovery is on display at Yukon Artists at Work.