My Little Accident
What you are about to read is probably the numero uno reason that I finally broke down and created my own web site. I was involved in an accident that changed my direction, my attitudes, and consequently my life and the lives of many others around me. Part of me feels rather odd (I'll not go into details as to what part...) that I am about to expose to you some things that are very close and personal to me. Yet, I have never had a problem telling anyone this story, even if I do not know the person well. What happened to me on that crazy day in Mexico started a chain of events that caused me to learn much about myself, and about what things are really important in my life. I am hoping by disclosing these events openly, you will laugh a little, be amazed somewhat, and maybe put some things into perspective in your life, as all of this has definitely done in mine. So, here it is, 5 years after the fact and I'm finally putting this down in writing...
The day was January 23, 1993.
I was working on Royal Cruise Line's Crown Odyssey as a musician in the show band. That particular day we were anchored off of Cabo San Lucas, on the tip of the Baja peninsula in Mexico. None of us had to work until the evening, so we figured we would spend the day riding rented vehicles in the sun. We found a place that rented four wheel ATVs (basically a 4-wheel motorbike...or a "4-wheeler" as we call them down south). After we rented them (and after I took forever trying to figure out how to start the damn thing....) we were taken to a large sandy area with lots of high sand dunes near the coast.
Here's where things get juicy.We had three hours to kill. There was an old abandoned lighthouse at the top of a hill overlooking the rocky coast below. I heard a rumor that there was a photo session commencing at that lighthouse. This photo session evidently was for a major magazine which sports a bunny as its mascot. Yes indeed, the word on the street was that it was the session for the Playmate of the Year! It was a beautiful day in paradise and I was twenty-two. I figured I would be nuts not to go check it out!
I began riding the bike up the hill. When I got about halfway there, I did a very annoying thing in which is one of my worst habits. I started thinking. (It's always a bad sign when that starts happening...) I thought, "Walter, if you go up there you are going to look like a pervert!" However, being as male as I am, I don't let these little thoughts (that might even have the flavor of morality) deter the ever mighty fo rce of testosterone that flows through my veins. Through the infallible logic which I received from my first chakra, I formulated a plan. "Why don't I go get the rest of the guys so that we would be a group of perverts, as opposed to one slimy little pervert you can single out," I thought with the proud gusto of a chimpanzee that just fig ured out that he had to put those little sticks together to get that freakin' banana. Right at that point, the trail split...
One trail went to the lighthouse
(and our Playboy bunny!), the other trail made a 180 degree turn into some tall
rocks. Being a curious sort of guy, I opted to take the trail into the rocks to
return to where the other guys were, as opposed to just retracing my steps. That
180-degree turn was a hard turn to the right. When one makes a hard turn to the
right, one tends to hug the left. That was all well and good until the wall of
rocks on my immediate left suddenly ceased to exist and I was riding along the
edge of a 200-foot drop to the craggy rocks and ocean below.
took the road less traveled.
I knew I was in trouble, and I was no daredevil idiot. I slammed the brake and started pulling away from the edge of the cliff, thinking more about what I almost went over than where I was going at that particular moment. My wonderful habit of not ever living in the present was my big mistake. I didn't see the foot tall rock that my bike was making a beeline for. My right front tire impacted with that rock. The bike and I were knocked into the air and to the left. Just minutes before, I was thinking abo ut Playboy bunnies. Now I was suddenly looking down the throat of a monstrous drop and the hungry rocks below. For the longest zillionth-of-a-second in my life, the bike paused on the edge of the cliff. I remember what I was thinking for that zillionth-of-a-second all too clearly. It was pure denial. It was the pure, sarcastic denial of a 22 year old immortal. "Oh GIVE me a FRIGGIN' break, like I'm gonna go over a CLIFF." Nonetheless, by the next zillionth-of-a-second, I was airborne.
I ended up free-falling (while still upright on the vehicle) about half the way down the cliff. I don't know, I guess I fell six or seven stories (I lost count at about four ) before I slammed on the ground.
My brain went into overdrive.If any of you have ever been in a car accident or of the like, you will understand this phenomenon. You know how it is on the last couple seconds before you hit that uninsured motorist? Life suddenly seems in slow motion, or more accurately stated, your brain is moving so fast that everything else seems slower. Now, being that I was in the air for longer than your average mortal, and longer than your normal fender-bender, my brain had LOTS of time to be in turbo-charged mode. It is AMAZING the unlikely mix of thoughts that went through my brain as I was falling to wha t should have been my death in paradise.
- The first thing I thought was the obvious. "Oh God, I'm going to die."
- Next, I had a brief pseudo-out-of-body-experience. It was like I was observing myself from another vantage point, although I never really left my body. I noticed, rather casually (being that things were in slow motion) that I was screaming. Loudly. "I would even call it a blood-curdling scream," I remember thinking. "Kind of melodramatic, don't you think? It's not like anyone can HEAR me..."
- Then I thought the obvious. "Oh God, I'm going to die."
- I have to give you some background for this next wonderfully deep and moving thought that bursted it's way out of my brain.
- Now I am getting very close to the rocks. Impact is imminent. (Say that 12 times fast...) Now this is the only time I'll get a little cheesy on you. (ok, probably not the only time...) I'm not, by nature, an overly spiritual person. However, what happened at this moment was by far the most intensely profound thing that has ever happened to me to believe there is a God, or an all enc ompassing being, or the Force, or whatever the hell you want to call it. It's out there. I was just finally realizing the blunt reality of my situation. I remember thinking "I am about to experience what I have waited for all my life....death. Bring it on. I'm ready." Then something very curious happened. All the sudden, something from outside hit me. I knew at that moment I was going to be ok, and my whole body relaxed. This may seem very simple and not that big of a deal, but it was without question not a feeling that came from within. Wow.
Ouch!I hit the hard rocks with the bike still under me. That was by far the hardest impact I have ever experienced in my life. I think the only reason I survived that impact is that I was still upright on the bike, (from my abundance of experience jumping bicycle ramps in my formidable years...thanks Brice!) So therefore I landed with the big fat tires under me. The bike flew one way, I flew another. I rolled completely out of control, in a fetal position, against hard rocks the rest of the way down. (Another six or seven stories) It was so completely out of control. It was like that feeling you get when you are on a roller coaster, you've just gotten over the top before the biggest drop and you realize you have no control over the situation there is absolutely no way out now. The only other comparison I have to this sensation is to watch Homer or Bart Simpson fall. When falling, they hi t about 932450975 things and you hear them emit a series of "doh! doh! doh!". Yup. That was it. Except, this was no cartoon. This HURT.
This is where things get a little gory...Finally, this madness ended. I had somehow stopped rolling. I couldn't believe I was alive. I knew I wasn't at the very bottom of the cliff as I could sense that I was close to the edge of something. That being the case, I was a little afraid of moving. However, I slowly tried to sit up. That's when I noticed my leg. I had jeans on, but when I lifted my leg, there was no doubt it was in bad shape. My right leg was completely broken in between my knee and foot. It was just dangling uncontrollably like it wasn't really attached to my body, as if I had a new joint in the middle of my shin. That was the first (and hopefully last) time I ever really experienced the true meaning of the word "horror." I screamed (maybe it was more of a helpless yelp), put my leg down at a completely unnatural angle, and put my head down. I didn't want to look at the mess that used to be my leg. I opened my eyes and I was looking at a rock. The rock was glistening red of my own blood. I looked up and there was a trail of these, with blood increasing as the rocks were closer. This wasn't a much pre t tier alternative to look at. I couldn't believe how helpless I was. I couldn't walk, which meant I couldn't get myself out of this one. I felt very alone. Uh, I was very alone.
Yo, Walt! It's time to wake up!Have you ever read a novel where the hero gets really banged up at the end of the chapter and then at the beginning of the next chapter he/she wakes up rather disoriented in a hospital with his girl by his side? It's a beautiful idea, but it just ain't reality. Somehow, one must GET to that hospital. I remember lying down with my eyes closed, wishing desperately that I would black out and wake up in a hospital. This was the point in which I realized how tired I was and how ready I was to fall fas t asleep. Little did I know at the time that I was losing blood fast and evidently that causes one to want to pass out. Another curious thing happened here. I remember back when I was in college, I was living off of 4-5 hours of sleep a night. I was double majoring, I was playing in umpteen million school ensembles, and I was playing full time in a rather popular funk band that would travel all over Texas. I remember Sunday mornings right after a late night Saturday gig. The alarm would go off at some obnoxiously early hour and I would almost stay in bed. Next thing I know, all those years of trying to increase my self discipline would pay off. I would remember what I wanted to accomplish musically and the obstacles I needed to overcome. That feeling would give me the gusto to get my lazy butt out of bed and to the practice room. That feeling is also what gave me the gusto not to fall asleep at a very bad time when I was very alone and battered at the bottom of this cliff. I remembered those Sunday mornings, opened my eyes, and screamed bloody murder. Now, granted I was so far down that there wasn't a chance in hell anyone could actually hear me. But I didn't give up. I think that may be what saved my head, though many of my friends would disagree that anything up there got saved...
I don't know how much time passed before someone showed up. My whole concept of time was pretty warped at the moment, being in shock and all. (Anyone who has played with me knows of my warped sense of time...) I did eventually see a head (bearded?) pop over the top of the cliff. I think he yelled something at me and I couldn't understand it. I think it was one of the photographers from the Playboy shoot at the lighthouse. He evidently saw me go over the cliff from the lighthouse. After a while, some very brave people started climbing down the perilous rocks. Including:
- A young boy who was one of the tour guides with the people that rented us the bikes (it might have been one of the other renters, though) climbed down. That was no t an easy task. I don't remember everything...from this point until when I woke up after surgery, everything is pretty hazy.. Eventually more people climbed down... I remember asking to borrow his outer shirt to protect my back (I was shirtless) from the stinging sun. I thought I was getting sunburned, but I actually ended up ruining his jacket and just not realizing it. I wish I remember his name. He was a nice guy. He came to the hospital often afterwards to see how I was faring.
- A nice man who started giving me breathing exercises to do - I remember I was s till in this odd state of shock. When I wasn't emitting a host of colorful four letter words I was making "jokes" like, "You know, this doesn't make m y top ten list of groovy things to do on a Saturday afternoon..." I remember how surprised he was that I was trying to crack jokes.
- A very pretty American nurse who happened to be vacationing with her boyfriend in the area- She did some cleanup and also tried to help k eep me calm. I remember her saying "What about your arm?" I guess it looked pretty bad...it didn't feel bad though.. I moved it with confidence and said, "Oh, it feels fine." Little did I know I had lost a bit of my elbow. Ouch! She also came spent a lot of time with me in the hospital after this happened.
- Some of my friends from the ship - It was so nice to see familiar friendly faces. I'm sure I scared the hell out of them though. I evidently had blood gushing from many spots, especially from one point in my head and everyone thought I had major dain bramage.
- A host of emergency guys after a while...but I don't quite know how long it was before they were able to come.
I finally made it to the top of the cliff and got hauled to someone's sport utility truck. I then got driven to an ambulance...
I took a pleasant little ride through Cabo San Lucas...Oh my God! This ride was the most insane thing that has ever happened to me, unless you count puberty. I hope I can explain it on paper (uh, you know what I mean...) in a fashion so that you can t ruly visualize the complete madness of the situation.
I get put on the ambulance. Joining me is the nurse that helped me out before and two of my best friends from the ship. The ambulance starts on a mad frenzy to the hospital. We are flying over unpaved roads. With every bump (BOOM!), my leg flies in some unnatural position. At the same time, the nurse is getting ready to grab my leg. She says "Walter, I'm going to set your leg now. This might hurt. It's ok to scream." At the same time, Tom, who is a saxophone player on the ship, didn't know that this pretty lady is a nurse. He starts freaking out and is saying "HEY! That's my buddy! Be careful!". At the same time, Ivo, who is a trumpet player on the ship, had a very wacked sense of humor, and God bless him for it. Trying to make me laugh, he was giggling (rather uncomfortably) and saying, "Say Walt, you did this just to get out of playing the Greek Show tonight, didn't ya?" (The Crown Odyssey is a Greek ship. Once a week we would play the Greek Crew Show. We liked the music, but it was very repetitious and we basically would never take the horns off of our faces for the whole show. This is very tiring, especially for a brass player...so it was our least favorite show to play.) So, to me, all of it kind of came across sounding like this:
BOOM! This is going to hurt. BOOM! Hey! What are you doing? It's ok to scream. BOOM! BOOM! Heheheheheh. BOOM! You did this just to get out of Greek Show BOOM! Didn't ya? That's BOOM! my buddy! BOOM! Really, it's ok to BOOM! scream! Heheheheh. BOOM! Here I go!When she set my leg, I don't remember feeling a thing. I had lost a lot of blood and was starting to lose what little grip on reality I had left. Just at the point in which I didn't think I could handle any more of t his, the ambulance started slowing down. Tom said that we were at the hospital. I looked at him and asked him how it looked. He said it looked fine. I was still worried (and a little dazed) and asked him a few other times. I think I may have asked if he thought there would be chickens in the operating room, as I had heard horror stories. (I don't mean to offend anyone here, this was just the result of rumors I had heard. When I ended up back in the states, the doctors were amazed with what a good job the surgeons in Mexico had done.) Tom reassured me that the hospital looked fine. It turned out that it was a brand new hospital. I said goodbye to Tom, Ivo, and the nurse. I was rolled into the emergency room in a cloud of anxiety, pain, and fear into the hospital thousands of miles away from anyone I knew.
I'm glad I remembered what Mother always said...I was wheeled into the emergency room. I was asked a lot of questions to which I gave confused answers. I remember them giving me some sort of drug and then they sewed up my face. I was conscious of it, but I really didn't care. At some point, they ripped my jeans off. They laughed! What? "Here I am, possibly on my death bed and these doctors are laughing at me?" I remember thinking. Then it donged on me. I was wea ring my Mickey Mouse silk boxer shorts. (He's playing pool...) Thank God they didn't laugh when they ripped those off! Mom always told me not to forget my underwear. Mom was right, something did "just might happen.". Next thing I know I'm talking to an anesthesiologist. I get a mask put on my face and I'm out like a light with the thought that I might have heard the word "amputation.".
I woke up disoriented and
groggy. It took me a couple minutes to get my bearings straight, then it hit
me. I remembered what had just happened. I thought it might have been a dream,
but the hard, painful reality made itself known to me. I remembered falling.
I remembered the pain. I remembered my mangled leg. I looked down and I still
had two feet rising under the sheets. That was a relief. My right arm was also
in a cast. I remembered I was on a cruise ship. At that moment, I realized so
very frightening. The ship must have left Cabo by then. I didn't know
anyone in Cabo San Lucas. Come to think of it, I didn't know anyone in Mexico.
I didn't know if my family knew I was in trouble. I didn't know anything.....well,
I did know one thing. My arm really hurt. I figured I would get a nurse
and see if I could get some drugs to ease the pain. I looked around for a nurse
call button, but there wasn't one. I saw that I was in a ward, with the beds
separated by curtains. I decided I would do it the old fashioned way. I'd yell.
I called for a nurse for a few minutes with my anxiety level rising with each
passing second. Finally the nurse came. When she did, I lost all dignity and
started to cry and spill my guts to her. I remember telling her I was very scared
ship had left and I knew no one. I remember telling her how much my arm
hurt (I was later to find out that the elbow is the second most painful bone
in the body to break.) and how much I really needed some medication. She looked
at me with pity in her pretty face and said these words to me:
I didn't know Spanish.
They tranquilized me.
It put me to sleep....sort of.
I kept dreaming I was falling....
The clock ticked ever so s l o w l y....The first couple days in that hospital was by far the most trying time throughout this entire ordeal for me emotionally. From that first point of waking up after the four hours of surgery, I felt even more alone in that hosp ital than I did when I was a sole battered figure at the bottom of that cliff. Every painful second that passed seemed an eternity. I couldn't eat. My stomach wasn't holding anything and I just wasn't used to cantaloupe juice. I had no distractions, and I wanted them desperately. I had no television to watch, no book to read, and no one to talk to. I had no choice but to think and think and think about what had just happened to me. This, while more painful, was a good thing in the end. In that time, I realized that I hadn't done anything wrong per se. I was sober when it all happened, and I just happened to make a wrong t urn. If anything, my ignorance of the terrain and the operation of the bike was to blame. Therefore, to bask in my own self pity and blame myself was illogical and pointless. I figured I would just ride it out and try to make the best of it, as I obviously had no choice. While it may seem to be just a simple enlightenment, it was a major hurdle for me to overcome. It is amazing what can happen when you just face your problems head on...
I ended up staying in the hospital in Cabo for a tota l of twelve days. All in all, the stay turned out to be a good one. My faith in the human race rose a couple notches. The nurse that helped me at the bottom of the cliff came by often. She originally was going to go back to the states that day, but she stayed an extra few days to help me out. She was the one that finally got hold of my family. She also would just spend time talking to me, and it was needed and appreciated very greatly. The man that gave me the breathing exercises came by too. There were some pretty nutty moments during my stay. I'll share some of them:
- My nurse in the mornings was a beautiful girl named Edith. She was very nice, very shy, and didn't speak a lick of English. With my non-existent mastery of Spanish, communication was difficult at times. Luckily, it didn't take me long to gather that "pee pee" and "poo poo" transcends all languages... Anyway, o ne morning I was getting my first sponge bath (no comments please). For those of you who have never had this somewhat humbling, yet strangely enjoyable experience, there is a certain part of your body that (if you are capable) you are supposed to wash yourself. Now, being that this was the first sponge bath I had ever gotten in my twenty two years of existence, I didn't know this. So, she pointed towards that area and looked at me as if she was ex pecting me to do something. I was confused. She kept on trying to tell me what to do, but her pantomiming did nothing but make me wonder why a girl like her would be interested in a banged up guy like me. So, when I finally realized what she was trying to tell me what to do I blushed like crazy and we both laughed. Ok, it's not that funny, maybe you had to be there.... but it was the first time I had laughed since this whole thing began.
- Maybe you'll find this one more amusing. Edith was cleaning my back. Ouch. My back had "multiple lacerations" according to the doctors, which to you and me that means my back was pretty friggin' scratched up and butt ugly. (Why is "butt ugly" considered "very" ugly? If it's the right butt, it's not ugly at all!) Anyway, she was going through the tense and painful process of digging out all the sand out of the scratches on my ba ck. Soothing, eh? Obviously, I was pretty uptight and tense during this whole procedure. Finally, she finished and the pain stopped. I allowed myself to relax. Next thing I know I hear the spray of an incredibly stinging antiseptic upon my ripe and tender back. It completely caught me off guard and I shouted, "DOH SHIT!!!!!!" As I listened to my exclamation reverberate down the now suddenly silent halls of the hospital, there wer e a few uncomfortable seconds of silence followed by the sound of a small, heavily accented voice giggling and saying "heeheeheehee dohshit dohshit heeheehee" It was the man behind the curtain in the bed next to me. Yet another little phrase that bolts through many language barriers. Edith kind of giggled and looked at me in a disapproving motherly tone. I am proud to say that was the first (and last) time I ever cussed in that hospital....uh, in English that is...
- To show you what an imbecile I was, I remember one time the Port Agent came over. (He's the guy who is the liaison between a cruse ship and a port) He woke me up, brought me flowers (they were yellow - I remember the most random things) and said, "Ahh, I see you were taking a siesta" To which I replied, "No, I was actually taking a nap..."
- The doctors were absolutely wonderful. They were very nice and would go out of their way to talk to me. They knew that I was pretty lonely, being that I couldn't talk to most the people that surrounded me, and they all knew English. My doctors would always smile, laugh and teach me useful things, like how to cuss like a sailor in Spanish. (Like I said earlier, I didn't cuss in English after that...) I also remember one doctor especially named Nancy. She was a doctor in the maternity ward. She obviously had nothing to do with my care, but she came by every day she was at work to see how I was doing and just chat for a bit.
This is why I will never go skiing.The flight home was a fiasco. I said many tearful goodbyes and I was wheeled out of the hospital. I now had plaster casts on my arm and leg. My face was still a mess. I took up three seats in every plane. People saw me and would always ask the same thing, "Ski accident?" I vowed at that point never to go skiing. I'm way too accident-prone. I saw my aunt and my cousin during my layover in Phoenix, and then made it back to Mississippi. Once in the car and seeing the familiar sights of home, I cried nonstop until we pulled into our driveway.
I spent 2 weeks at home in Pascagoula, Mississippi. A nurse came in daily to clean and dress my leg. There is nothing quite like waking up and looking at the bone in your leg every morn ing. All the skin had died. The chances of infection were pretty high. This was major. Somewhere in there I could have sworn that I heard that nasty word "amputat ion" again...
We were referred to a specialist in New Orleans. I went out there and was in the hospital for a whole month, which was enough time for me to completely fall in love with my occupational therapist... It is amazing what the doctors did at that hospital. They took a sliver of my shoulder blade and nudged it in the area where bone had died. They took one of my latisimus muscles of my back (that's th e big muscle that give you that wonderful "V" shape. I now have a wonderful backslash / shape!) It's a fairly expendable muscle. The doctors told me I wouldn't ever be able to cross country ski or body build. Damn. That puts a real crimp on my lifestyle. ANYWAY, they put the muscle over the exposed leg bone and the graph from my shoulder blade. They then took some skin from my butt and outer thigh an d put it on top of that. Sounds like a really twisted sandwich, doesn't it? Skin will not graph directly on bone, so the muscle is put in between for the skin to take onto. It also protects the bone from further infection. Pretty nifty, eh? So now, when I get a back itch, I scratch my leg! (Or something like that...)
I spent about 4 months in a wheelchair, and then another 3 months with crutches. In September, I was finally walking on my own with a below-the-knee removable cast. During that time when I was laid up, I relearned why I stopped watching TV, read a lot of books, listened to and wrote a lot of music, and practiced my horn (once I was physically capable). Most of all, I thought about my life, and what I wanted out of it.
Here is where I try to sum this all up....Well, if you've actually read this far, I somewhat question your sanity, but I'm very touched and happy. This accident, while not exactly what I would call enjoyable, was the best thing that ever happened to me. I'll try to explain so that you understand why I would make such a harebrained statement.
I have a very hard time believing that this was just some chance event. While, I am typically the granddaddy of all sceptics, there is just too much hard evidence.
- I am alive. I could end my explanation with that one sentence. For crying out loud, I fell about twelve stories! The Mexican newspaper said it was an 80 meter drop! That would be about 20 stories! Dave Tough, a famous drummer from the swing era, tripped and fell on a street in Hoboken and died right there. I fall over a 12 story cliff and survive? What's up with that?
- Not only am I a live, but I'm fully functional. I can even run, which I was pretty much told could never happen. I've climbed mountain trails in Alaska since the accident. Think about how amazing this is!
- When I was rolling against those rocks and hitting my head, I cracked my skull in a couple spots, yet there was no brain damage. (No comments please) Do you realize just how easy it would have been for me to bang my spine in the same way and be paralyzed? I could have easily banged up my jaw, and never played my horn again! Scary!
- I had no medical insurance, but the cruise ship's insurance company covered it. The bills totaled more than $80,000. If I would have had to pay, I never would have been able to afford to play trombone professionally. Hell, I barely can now anyway!
We, as human beings are very very mortal... We are physically fragile and have no tortoise shell to protect us. This is not something someone in their 20's usually thinks about. However, like I said earlier about Dave Tough, dumb little things can happen for no reason and BOOM you're dead. I don't mean to get morbid, but it's the simple truth. No matter how careful you are, it could happen to anyone, anytime. Therefore, if you are one of the lucky people that knows what it is you want to do, then you owe it to yourself to try to do it, because you may never get the chance otherwise. Life is short. If you want to be a writer, a pain ter, a lawyer, a dancer, a trucker, whatever it may be - there is nothing stopping you but your own fear of failure. If you really put the time and effort into it, there is nothing to stop you from being able to do it. I'm making a living as a trombone player. It's not much of a living, but I'm working. Even though I'm not always doing the heavie st stuff in the world, the most important thing is that I love what I do and I can honestly say that I am happy. That is by far my most crucial requirement, and I think I can safely say that for most human beings. I may not be happy doing this forever, and if that is the case, I'll change. At least I will have known that I did it. Thanks to what happened to me on January 23, 1993, I am now a happy man.
Thanks to everyone who helped me through those trying times, and thank you for listening.