I’ve told this story more times than I can remember. Hell, it did happen almost 15 years ago. But even still, circumstances come up where people hear about it or see an image related to it and wonder what the hell happened. So instead of trying to tweet out pieces, I’ve decided to finally write down what is arguably one of the top 5 defining moments in my life, but not for reasons you may think. So let me tell you all about the day I shattered my leg.
It was April 20th, 2001. I was 20 years old, on a camping trip with a large group of friends just north of Gainesville in a place called Ginnie Springs. I had been here quite a few times before. We’d arrive on Friday, leave Sunday, and go about our business. For me, it was a break after tax season (I still worked in finance at the time). So I arrived Friday and set up camp as normal.
Saturday morning comes and we’re BBQing and playing horseshoes by 8am. As the day rolls on, more people show up. We’re about 30 deep by the late afternoon. Good times are being had by all.
A tradition for these trips was to tube down the river on Sunday. So we rent our tubes and go to the top of the river to get started. I had a beer or two that morning, but my roommate was really hung over, so I stopped drinking assuming I’d have to drive home. That assumption proved to be very, very wrong.
About halfway down the river, there was a rope swing. I use that term loosely, as it was basically a ski rope, tied to another rope, tied to a tree. And there were nails in the tree where boards used to be. So after climbing out of the water, I look at this setup and say the now infamous words, Not happening. I’ll probably hurt myself.
So I go to get back in the water. Now at this time, Florida had been in the middle of a extreme drought, so the river was about 5 feet below the bank. I take a step on the bank, and the ground around it crumbles and I fall. I fall feet-first down the side of the river, onto a tree that was a few inches below the surface horizontally. My knees had locked up on the way down, and my right foot landed dead center on the tree. It hurt. It hurt a lot. But I didn’t really think it was a big deal. I was also wrong about that.
Once I landed in the water, I couldn’t really move. So my friends in their drunken state picked me up and put me back in my tube. My leg hurt, but again didn’t think too much, since there was no blood. So we float down the rest of the river, which took another 3 hours or so. A friend would give me cold beers to use as ice packs, and we’d rotate them out. We get to the end of the river and they all get out and go back to camp, promptly forgetting about me (they were drinking all day, mind you). After about another hour or so, they come back and get me out.
By now its about 5pm, and I’m being lifted out of the water in a tube. They place me in the back of a pick up truck and bring me to the front of the campground. As my luck would have it, the one EMT in the county had just left with someone who was having a bee sting reaction. So I wait. While I was waiting, my friends almost convinced me to just stay in the back of the truck and drive home. Thankfully, they lifted me about a quarter inch and the pain was so great I said “fuck you, I have health insurance.” So after about an hour, the EMT comes back. They get me onto a stretcher and attempt to straighten my leg out. More pain.
I should mention that while I didn’t know it at the time, the ball joint of my femur was shattered and resting on my femoral artery. Had it moved the wrong way and sliced it, I would have been dead in 10 minutes or less. For that, I’m fortunate.
So they get me into the ambulance. The EMT attempts to get an IV started and misses my vein 4 TIMES. I still haven’t gotten any pain medication, and I’m livid. He then asks if I want a shot of something, and I kindly tell him to go die in a fire. I’m clearly not in the best of moods.
So we arrive at the hospital – North Florida Regional in Gainesville. I’m in a room in the ER, and I still haven’t gotten any pain meds, as a nurse also could not get a vein (I have very pronounced veins, and did not have sleeve tattoos at the time). I flag someone with a white coat and explain that its now been over 6 hours since the accident and I still haven’t gotten anything for pain. He hits a vein in 30 seconds and I’m on my way. About 15 minutes later, I’m wheeled into the x-ray room. I ask, “do you think it’s broken”? They have a good laugh, and then reply, “Its not a matter of if, but where and how bad.
This is the last thing I remember. The morphine had kicked in and I black out / pass out. At some point my parents arrived. The next morning I awoke to a hemovac to my side and staples in my thigh. I spent a week in the hospital, re-learning how to walk and finding out how good my dad was at arguing with insurance companies. It looked like this:
Now, at this point, you may be wondering about that whole “Top 5 Defining Moment” thing. Well, here it is.
I can point to that event as when I crossed the line from a “guy who likes to drink” to being an alcoholic
Now, I’m not blaming my alcoholism on the leg. Not even close. But looking back, I can see that after it happened, my life turned into finding a reason to drink. I was house bound for 9 weeks after the surgery. Where did I go my first night out? The bar. What did I stop doing after that? Anything that wasn’t related to or facilitated drinking and using drugs. I now had every reason (in my head) to sit my ass on a barstool. And I did. Two and a half years later, I got sober, and I have been ever since.
But it’s not all bad. There were some solid life lessons to come of this.
Being “good enough” is rarely close to good enough
I made the mistake of not completing my physical therapy. I was walking again, after having gone through the process of using a wheelchair, a walker, crutches, and a cane. I was mobile “enough”. Hell, I wasn’t going to run a marathon, so who cares, right? Well, I’ve since had to go back twice for more PT, and I still can’t run. Probably never will.
Life doesn’t care if you had other plans
A good friend and I were planning on renting a house. In fact, he had checked it out that Friday before the camping trip, and we were slated to sign the lease on Monday. Well, that didn’t happen, since it was unknown at the time how long I’d be laid up and what the long term effect was gonna be. So I didn’t move out, he instead moved in with his girlfriend, promptly got her pregnant and had a kid. Not the plan.
Events can have an effect long after they are over
Besides the whole running thing, I also thrashed my knee. And because I didn’t get back to 100%, I favored my other leg for years (still do to a point). So it messed up my other knee as well, and I developed arthritis. So now I have to take medicine for said arthritis.
I (and you) can overcome anything
I didn’t wanna end on a down note. But the reality is that I have a slightly gimped leg that will eventually have to be replaced. I had to learn to walk again, and live with the fact that I’ll never be able to do certain physical things. But that hasn’t in any way prevented me from changing careers at the age of 26, starting my own company, and becoming respected by my peers. Have others had it worse? Of course. I’m still a middle class white kid from the ‘burbs, I got a lot of opportunity in life. But going through that proved that nothing in life cannot be overcome, besides death.
So yeah, this was a long post. And there are some parts I left out. Funny stuff, like when a friend brought me bad porno mags to the hospital while my parents were there, or when the nurses took away my harmonica because I kept playing it while on morphine. And honestly, if you read through this entire thing, hat’s off to you.