White Whale

The titanium pins and plate that will forever hold my spine together.

The titanium pins and plate that will forever hold my spine together.

When I was a teenager I broke my neck attempting a somersault, whilst mooning my friends at the beach. Fortunately I made a great recovery. However, I was ridiculously close to becoming a quadriplegic.

On a warm February day in 2000, whilst my school mates were at the beach, I was stuck at my less than normal after school job. I was a cleaner in a dental laboratory. So while my friends were swimming and negotiating sand in their cracks I was sweeping up remnants of false teeth off the floor and scrubbing the dunnies. I came prepared to work that day by bringing my skateboard and my beach gear. Fortunately, one of the apprentice dental technicians was also heading to the beach. So come knock off time he gave me a lift, via picking up one of his mates on the way.

When we pulled into the beach car park I bumped into a couple of female friends, one who I happened to have a crush on. Disappointingly they were just leaving. Hitting the sand I parted with my college and his mate to join my school friends at our regular spot that we gathered every summer. After dumping my things, still excited from bumping into my crush, and desperately wanting to swim in the bay after a long day at school and work I made a dash for the water. The tide was high and there was a ledge of about a foot from the sand into the shallow water, as I often did I attempted a forward somersault into the water. To my surprise and a handful of observers surprise, I landed the somersault on my feet! I had attempted this feat dozens of times and never once landed it.

My friends that witnessed the somersault were impressed and my other friends wanted to see it too. So I attempted it again, and again to no avail. By this time all my friends, numbering about a dozen were all on the beach egging my on. Now with all the attention and not wanting to disappoint, I tried another maneuver. This time as I jumped I mooned my friends, exposing my bare white ass the beach. Not really thinking it through, as I landed my hands were still holding my board shorts and my head penetrated the shallow water my head hit the sand hard. I got straight back up onto my feet, my neck felt jarred and a bit tender. I slowly walked back up the beach towards my friends them BAM! My best friend thought it would be funny to rugby tackle me to the ground, because that’s the kind of stupid shit we did back then. Getting back up, I told him that my neck was sore and he apologized and we sat down with our friends and I tried to shake off the pain.

Ironically, during the previous school year most of us that were there, including me had done our bronze swimming medallion together. We were all well trained on how to rescue drowning people and how to deal with spinal injuries. Not realizing the severity of my injury I shook off the pain and told my moderately concerned friends that I was fine. After about 15 or 20 minutes the pain was getting worse, so I decided to go home. My colleague was in the water with his mate and my friends were all too young to drive so I made the journey solo and on foot.

The trek home was a little less than two kilometers and I had my skateboard. However, the pain was getting worse. I tried to skateboard but my neck was too uncomfortable so I painfully walked. As I passed a phone booth (this is before all teenagers had mobile phones), I considered calling home for a lift. Stupidly I thought that if I could walk all the way home it couldn’t be that bad, so I soldiered on. Reaching home and in a fair amount of pain, I told my mum what happened. Naively I suggested to her that I should see somebody, like a Chiropractor. Blessed mum called the local Chiro, they were just able to squeeze me in the last slot of the day. I had a lay down on the couch for the half hour before mum drove me to the appointment.

The Chiropractor didn’t want to touch it without an x-ray. So she x-rayed it and revealed that I had a fracture. Realizing that the injury was far beyond what she could treat, she instructed us to go straight to hospital (I later found out that she was heavily criticized for not calling an ambulance). My mum understood the severity of the injury and drove me very carefully to my local emergency department.

The emergency department was not an unfamiliar place to me, nor my poor mother as I was a fairly accident prone teenager. My mum pointed out that the waiting time displayed on the notice board was 5 hours, then mentioned that it was going to be a late evening of waiting in emergency. After a couple of minutes waiting the triage nurse was able to see us, my mum told her that I had a fracture of the C5 vertebrae. The middle aged nurse gave us an odd look, almost that of ignorance towards my mother’s diagnoses. My mum handed her a copy of the chiropractors x-rays. The nurse then casually took my details and strolled away. After about a minute the triage nurse rushed back, accompanied by a team of medical staff. They carefully strapped a neck brace on me and ever so carefully placed me on a hospital bed. They must have seen the x-ray and realized the severity of the injury.

Whilst getting wheeled through the hospital, lying on my back with only a view of the ceilings, I asked if I could still go surfing on the weekend, as I had a planned to go down the cost with my older brother. The guy pushing the bed looked at me in disbelief and informed me that it could be a while before I could surf again. This was the moment when the penny dropped and I realized that I had really fucked my neck.

I was x-rayed again and placed in intensive care. I was examined by several doctors and nurses. Several used needles to prick strategic places over my body to see if I still had feeling. The most poignant question everybody asked was to do with feeling in my legs and feet. This is because of the seriousness of the fracture. My fractured C5 vertebrae was millimeters from damaging my spinal cord and rendering me a quadriplegic.

As I was in a small hospital in the suburbs, that night I was transferred to a larger hospital that was better equipped to deal with my injury. For the transfer, I was carefully transferred to a stretcher board by a large team, who then strapped me down, almost like I was about to be airlifted out of a gorge. At the start of the ambulance trip one of the paramedics asked me if I had an erection. I very awkwardly replied ‘no’, he went on telling me that sometimes in spinal injuries dudes get an erection. I was a less than two weeks shy of my 16th birthday and uncomfortable talking to strangers about erections (for the record I was flaccid). I didn’t realize at the time that the paramedics were doing a munificent job of keeping my mind off the current situation that I was in.

Several months later, my parents received a letter from our insurance company stating that ‘next time we required an ambulance, they needed at least 24 hours’ notice’. Yeah sure thing, who doesn’t know 24 hours in advance when they may need an ambulance?Wankers!

In the larger hospital I spent the remainder of the night in intensive care, before being placed in the regular ward the next day. To prevent my vertebrae from moving closer to my spinal cord I had to lie flat on my back, without a pillow and with sandbags placed on either side of my head. Because they were too scared to move me, I was still wearing my beach gear for the first few days. When they did remove my still-sandy bathers and top, my main concern was not for my spine, it was for integrity of my designer singlet. Lying in bed also made it difficult to go to the toilet so they also put in a catheter. Yep, they shoved a tube up my pee hole. I will get to number 2’s later.

I was closely monitored with x-rays and CT scans as my fractured vertebrae was unstable and the risk if becoming a quadriplegic was high. Even the slightest bump could render me a quadriplegic for life. The only reason that I survived my friends’ rugby tackle and the walk home was that after the injury my neck muscles spasmed and somehow held the vertebrae together.

Five days after the accident they decided to operate. For the operation they first scraped some bone from my hip, they mushed this bone up to create a cement-like paste to replace my broken C5 vertebrae. They then went on to fuse three vertebrae together with titanium screws in my C4 and C6 vertebrae and a titanium plate to hold the three vertebrae together.

The recovery from the operation was rough. The muscles around the hip are strong and sensitive and they were cut to get to my hip. Because of this, while I was now allowed to move freely as my spine was stabilized it was too painful to even stand at first. Additionally my neck was swollen to the extent that I couldn’t eat, I kept trying to swallow. The food would go down my throat a centimeter or so and just come back up. A few days after the operation I was able to walk assisted to the bathroom for a wash, I was shocked with my appearance. I didn’t realize the amount of weight that has lost from being unable to eat. I was already a scrawny teenager, now I was so skinny looked as though I had been in a POW camp.

Because I was up and about they took out my catheter. As my bladder started to fill I tried to use the piss bottle. I’m still unsure if it was stage fright or my body dealing with lying down for over a week with a catheter, but I just couldn’t pee. My bladder was getting fuller and fuller and I just couldn’t pee. To this day it is probably the worst pain that I have ever experienced. It felt like my bladder was going to burst. I was in so much pain that I was yelling and swearing. The nurses gave me Valium to calm me down and because I was in the children’s ward they told me to stop swearing. My doctor was unavailable and they didn’t want to put a new catheter in without his consent. Fortunately another doctor overheard my screams of pain and to my much needed relief was able to put in another catheter.

Fortunately, as well as my family I had lots of friends visiting. This helped to break up the long boring days of staring at the ceiling and listening to my Discman. On my birthday my best friend, the same one who rugby tackled me came in with his family. He had chipped in with a few of my friends to buy me a scooter. While it would be a little while before I could ride it I was stoked as I had had my eye on it for a while. It was a unique push scooter with a seat and this was just before the razor scooter fad when retro scoots were surprisingly cool.

After being in the hospital for about ten days and 5 days after the operation, I was making a great recovery. I was walking around the ward and partaking in the arts and crafts with the long term patients, which comprised mostly of wafer thin teenage girls with eating disorders. Considering my current weight, if it was not for my neck brace strangers would probably assume I too had an eating disorder. Fortunately, my swollen throat had eased and I was able to eat mushed food. The only thing stopping me now from going home was my bowel movements. I had not pooped since the accident.

To aid the emptying of my bowels, I was first fed an oral laxative, it did nothing. The next step was a laxative suppository. While it really was not very comfortable having a nurse squeeze gel into your anus, by this stage I was over modesty. When you go into hospital you leave your dignity at the door. The suppository worked and after a personal record of 12 days without taking a dump I experienced the closest thing to childbirth.

I spent a total of two weeks in hospital, the day after I was released I was back at school. Not because I was eager to learn, but because I was a teenager and I felt as though I was missing out on a social life. However, I was quite the eyesore wearing the neck brace known as a Philadelphia collar. Everywhere I went I would get stares. When pretty girls looked at me, my initial reaction was that they were checking me out. Really they were staring at my neck brace.

That scooter my friends gave me ended up being rather handy. While my neck was relatively stable, I still had to wear a neck brace for six weeks and I couldn’t partake in contact sports for a year. I was fine with that because I didn’t play any contact sports anyway. However, I did Skateboard and because of the nature of the activity I couldn’t do it for a year. This for me was one of the single worst parts of the recovering process. I loved skateboarding, it was my favorite hobby and it consumed most of my spare time. So I just rode my new scooter instead, it also help build back up the mussels I used skateboarding.

Everybody told my how lucky I was, I was sick of hearing it. I just wanted to get back to skateboarding and perusing girls like every other teenager. The only long term effect it had is a loss of about 10% movement in my neck. This makes it hard to look over my shoulder, especially annoying when reversing a car. I also cannot touch my chin to my chest and find it difficult to look up at tall buildings and things in the sky. It does get stiff sometimes because losing two joints puts more strain on the other joins, but hey I can deal with it because it beats the hell out of being a quadriplegic. And no I don’t set metal detectors off at the airport. Titanium is too light to trigger the sensors.


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