“Go for it, run for it, dive in head first, live life with no regrets,
Put your heart out there, you might be scared, but it all works out in the end,
Because the best is yet to come…”
My normal landing position
June 8, 2009, my life changed forever. Do I regret it? Not really. I’m grateful for the lessons I’ve learned, the friends I’ve made, the love I lost, and the personal growth I’ve undergone (and am still experiencing). I began a journey that will fundamentally leave behind a shell of who I was, and eventually reveal who I am to become.
So what happened to cause such a shift in the core of Douglas Spotted Eagle?
Days have definitely begun more auspiciously with fewer clouds, maybe less rain, perhaps a little sunshine…The first jump of the day went great, shooting an AFF practice jump with Joe and Jay. The second jump, one of the student candidates shifted as he climbed out, and I pulled back on the camera step, slamming my helmet against the fuselage of the plane. My camcorder shut off (due to how hard I hit the switch on the plane) and I didn’t catch the entire exit. I should have known at that point, things weren’t going to go so well.
There was a lot of ice in the air, and it was cold (although I didn’t really notice until I was under canopy) and I decided to hang high when I saw one of the candidates lose proximity to the “student.” I wanted to capture the distance between the two.
Deployment went great, all was well. Closed down the camera, released my brakes, collapsed my slider, unclipped my wings, and started for home.
Flying a typical left hand pattern, I began a front riser 90 as I’ve done for the previous 300-350 jumps or so. As I released the riser and the canopy planed out, I started my flare.
And somehow lost my right toggle.
And instantly realized I’d just killed myself.
The whole thing of “life flashing before my eyes” is somewhat true. In that instant, I saw those that I loved fly by my face. I saw my son, and wondered if I’d be soon with him. I told my family goodbye and as far as I remember, I closed my eyes for a split second, but then I did see the ground in my face.
Fortunately, I wasn’t terribly high off the ground. Two witnesses say I was about 24″ above the ground when I took a sharp turn to the left striking my right knee, then my pelvis, and then face straight into the ground. My body bounced a couple of feet into the air and landed me flat on my back and I rolled to my right side. Thinking I was okay, I attempted to stand up, but immediately collapsed.
It actually becomes murky here, because there were at least six witnesses, and only two of them have remotely identical stories (they were the closest to me and their story most closely matches mine. However, one person claims I did a low toggle hook turn (my injuries aren’t reflective of the typical injuries associated with a low toggle hook, but it deserves to be mentioned here as a possible scenario), and another person thinks I did a low turn (toggle or riser) and couldn’t have pulled it out either way, and therefore did a high speed stall, and thought the toggle didn’t leave my fingers until after my legs had struck the ground ( I can’t accept this explanation as;
a- I remember the toggle leaving my hand well before striking the ground and
b-at least one leg bone would have been broken were this the case.
Still yet another person claims it was just a straight “fly into the ground” and there was no flare, no toggle loss, no stall, but that it was as if I’d lost awareness of where I was coming in at a steep angle and didn’t flare at all (and consequently didn’t lose the toggle until I was on the ground). Again, if this were the case, a leg should have been/would have been broken at the least.
Curious that so many people saw the same event and very few had remotely matching descriptions. Even if only one of them is correct, it’s a scary thought that so many skydivers saw different things. It makes one wonder about incident reports, and makes me grateful that various sorts of landings have fairly standard sorts of injury lists, as it helped narrow down what I believe the truth to be.
The rule is, “when someone is on the ground after a bad landing, DON’T MOVE THEM.” Period. Even if you have medical training, without the proper tools and assistance, don’t move the skydiver unless you believe they’re choking on blood in their throat. Leave it for the professionals.
I undid my camera helmet latch with my left hand, and pulled my cutaway handle to release my main. I was telling jokes as the BLM medical team from across the field began asking me questions. I was stunned to be alive, and the adrenaline was keeping the pain from being as excruciating as it was about to become. I started moving my toes and fingers to be sure everything was OK, as I knew I had some sort of injury to my back based on the pain in my pelvis.
I reached between my legs and undid my legstraps so that my rig wouldn’t need to be cut from my body (I love my VooDoo that much). All of a sudden, I had the most morbid thought of “Congrats Phil, you got exactly what you wanted (and had verbalized), I’m out of the air but I can still do PR for the dropzone.” There’s a story there, but that’s for another telling). My best friend and business partner arrived at the DZ, and held my head for a moment, before we heard the Lifeflight helicopter arriving at the DZ. He laughed and said “Here’s your ride, and I’ll bet you don’t jump out of this chopper.”
Arriving at IMC
The Lifeflight team rolled me onto my right side to put the backboard beneath me, and that’s when I realized how bad the pain was going to become, or so I thought. They rolled my rig off my right shoulder and strapped me down to the board. The next thing I knew, I was floating on the shoulders of the EMT’s, being placed into the heli. It was dream-like, because the pain hadn’t set in yet and I couldn’t see who was holding me up.
Once loaded into the heli, I held my hand against the window, using the ASL sign for “I love you.” Several friends and a couple of loved ones were standing outside, so I wanted to reassure them that I’d be alright.
As the pilot spun up the engine, I told him to fly fast through 3800 feet before turning north. He laughed and says “What do you know about it?” I reminded him I’d just flown through it and it was really bumpy. He laughed again and says “I’ll see what I can do.” When it became really bumpy, I asked him if we were at 4K or so. He laughed again and said we were at 3600, and then asked me “Are you gonna be a backseat pilot?” This got a chuckle out of the whole crew.
The heli ride was painful as the adrenaline began to wear off, so I placed a hand against the top pads of the ceiling for support. My right arm was being used for BP, measuring oxygen, and they’d started an IV to keep me hydrated.
When we arrived at the Intermountain Medical Center, I joked again with the pilot, saying “Ease up on the collective, my back’s already broken,” to which he replied “Yes sir.” Later he came to my room and told me he’d never had anyone joke with him like that on the flight, and that it was a welcome change to the norm. I think I was doing it simply to assure myself that if everyone was laughing, I ‘d be coming out of this OK.
The team dragged me off the heli and straight into an MRI to get an overview of what was going on. Holy cow, there was a lot going on.
Open book pelvis, shifted with the left side 6″ above the right. Broken coccyx, sacrum (these are common with pelvic fractures), broken transvers process on the L1. Perforated bladder, damage to the colon, compression to the sciatic nerve. No tib/fib/femur, and no neck, arm, nor upper back injuries. The greatest shock was how fast the team went into action when they discovered blood leaking from my anus. I think this was the point that was most frightening for me because it was the second indication within the hour hour that I might not live through this experience. Perforated bladder and ripped colon, plus pelvic trauma make for a cocktail with a mortality of 75-85%.
Think about those odds for a second….15-25% chance of pulling out of this experience alive…
As I was pulled into the ICU in critical condition, I had a trauma team, neurology, orthopaedics, urology, and general med team. The first person I saw was from the trauma team and she told me “We’ll have you up in no time. No more skydiving for you though, OK?
The ortho team placed my left leg in traction, the urology team inserted a Foley catheter (these things are miserable), the neurology team put me on Dilaudid, apportioned for up to seven clicks every ten minutes. I’m not sure why it’s apportioned, just give me that stuff; it really kept the pain at bay and allowed me to sleep. I didn’t know I was considered in critical condition at the time, but I was made aware that due to my local “celebrity,” I’d been put in the hospital under a “secret” name and a code was required to visit or call my room.
My “secret” code name and number
The first night there, Jay Stokes, Jack Guthrie, and Debbie Zimmerman stopped by to see me. I was barely lucid, and fell asleep before they left the room. The only thing I remember about that night was that I dreamed of vampires, gargoyles, and a guy who has been threatening me over a skydiving experience more than a year in the past. I dreamed of him standing over my bed with a baseball bat, but it was like a freeze-frame where the bat kept moving back and forth really fast, but not actually hitting my body. I woke up screaming at him to leave me alone. My “babysitter” in my hospital room was shaking as I told him the story of my dream. It was so far off the wall and out of the norm….
Tuesday morning brought a different kind of pain, the traction they’d put on my leg wasn’t enough. Added weight meant added pain as the cables dug deeply into my left knee. I couldn’t keep my eyes off the clock so that I’d know immediately when the 10 minute mark came so that I could give myself another shot of Dilaudid. I was allowed seven clicks of the button to control my dose every ten minutes.
I was thrilled to see my family walk in and see me, but was surprised to see how upset my mother was; she didn’t know the code to get in, and the hospital wouldn’t tell her whether I was there or not. The hospital seemed to be entirely on top of the security aspect of keeping people from my room. By now, a few friends and a few fans of my music had learned of the incident and phone calls were coming fast and furious.
The next “surprise” floored me.
The wingsuiter whom I’d dreamt of the night before showed up at the hospital, somehow learning not only what hospital I was in, but also learning what room I was in. Fortunately my business partner saw him before he actually got into the ICU, and prevented him from getting in to my room. We were all scared to death, based on my condition, his previous threats of burning down my house, killing me, and coming after my family. He’d previously shown up at my daughter’s place of employment and made intimidating comments, and had left more than a dozen threatening messages on my phone.
And here he was in my hospital. He had some ridiculous story of visiting someone else in the hospital and heard from them that I was in the same hospital, but later changed his story to say that he came specifically to see me. How he knew where I was, we’ll never know. Remember, this is the same hospital who only the day before, wouldn’t allow my mother nor sister into the room.
Thank god Mannie was there to keep him from my room. I was so filled with tubes, so drugged up, who knows what could have happened.
Wednesday, I thought I was going into surgery but as luck would have it, my left leg wasn’t stretched enough and was still shorter than my right. Another day of talking on the phone, sleeping, drugs, and a lot of pain from new nurses playing with my catheter.
The regimen was so routine, I was now waking up with my scheduled blood draws, pill-taking, catheter-draining, etc. Midnight, 2 a.m., 4 a.m., 6 a.m., and then I was awake for most of the day.
And so on it went.
Thursday was surgery day, and so I can’t recall much until late afternoon. I was having the most strange dream of a rabbi praying over me (I’m not Jewish). I heard a voice say “Douglas, you’re going to be alright.” I opened my eyes, and there was my business partner’s rabbi standing over me telling jokes.
Next up was a visit from Jay Stokes, as he was leaving the next day. It was great seeing him before he’d left. Little did I know I’d see him in a couple of weeks at the Board of Directors meeting in Dallas, TX.
Friday, the doctors wanted to put me straight into physical therapy. As soon as my right leg rolled off the bed, my lower leg shifted. They decided I had a bruised bone and so trained me to lift my entire leg using my quad muscles. They immediately put me on a walker and tried to get me to walk around the room, but my leg kept collapsing. My therapist (Heather) weighed in at approximately 110 lbs but she could lift me like I was a sack of feathers. I was instantly enamoured with her ability to keep smiling even though I knew I was killing her back. I couldn’t stand on my own, and couldn’t get on a walker, not even with her help. In addition, I hadn’t had a bowel movement since the accident so both myself and the doctors were getting worried. The nurses worked on getting my bowels some relief. Little did I know that due to the damage to my colon, being impacted was yet another deadly prospect. Who’da thunk constipation could kill? Fortunately, the meds they used gave me some relief after a few hours. My older brother spent the night with me, and although it was strange having him there (we don’t see each other much), I realized how much he loved me, and how much he’d given up to spend the night watching over me. He is with the Utah State Attorney General’s office, and is an exceptionally busy guy.
After surgery, starting therapy
Saturday was a restful day. Saturday night was wonderful. Nick from PD stopped by the hospital, and it was like a wave of beautiful sky passing through the room. His stories of friends hurt much worse than I was, how they’ve returned to the sport, how they got through the hell that I was yet to experience gave me some strength, and a little bit of fear. Nick, you’ll never know how much it meant to see you that night. I thought I’d hit the bottom at that point and what I thought was depression had really settled in. The night got even better; I was given a new RN named Derek, and Derek made sure that the various teams didn’t wake me through the night. Instead (brilliant concept), they’d take my blood measurements once, and SHARE the results throughout the various teams (trauma, neurology, orthopoedics, urology, general health). This made for my first night of mostly sleep.
Sunday came and went with no excitement other than another visit from my daughter and brother, but I was able to request Derek as my RN again. This guy is da’ bomb. Two nights in a row of mostly sleep. I slept until 5 a.m. and it felt like heaven.
Monday, the hospital staff doing rounds came through and wanted to discharge me from ICU and put me in a rehab facility. However, the pain in my right leg, and the “flopping” feeling in my lower leg hadn’t changed in spite of four days of therapy. In fact, it seemed worse. My business partner suggested that they hadn’t done an MRI on my knee, and one of the doctors responded with “So what?” Mannie pointed out that there was no way to check my ACL without an MRI, and to my surprise, the doctor immediately backed down. They ordered an MRI right away. Off I went for an MRI on my knees, but the backboard they rolled me onto didn’t have any padding. The stitches in my back plus the swollen portions of my butt were directly on hard plastic. They also raised my knees in the air using foam blocks, which put the pressure even more directly on my back and the stitches along my spine.
After about 40 minutes, I couldn’t take any more pain from lying on my back. They rescheduled the MRI for the next day. I think I cried harder that night than ever before. Not only from the intense pain of lying on the hard plastic, but from the frustration at being so damned helpless.
My new heavy metal, the third time…
Tuesday, they came to get me for the MRI, but the doctors made sure that I was pretty drugged up first. I put on my iPod, watched a video and listened to music that relaxed me. When we got to the MRI department, miraculously, they’d found a padded backboard. I was able to practically fall asleep during the hour it took to do the work.
And they found I’d torn my ACL and MCL. Wow…I’d been doing physical therapy for five days on a torn ACL/MCL. Brilliant. The doctors fitted me with a brace and rushed me out of there.
And so ended my time at the Intermountain Medical Center….once the MRI was complete, they moved me to HealthSouth, a rehabilitation facility. In my mind, it became known as “Hell South” but we’ll have that story for part II. (click the link for Part II)
Because “the best is yet to come….”