Head Over Heels About the Ocean: A Tale of a Broken Neck

By Ike Andrews

Hello, fans of Grizzly Chadams.  My name is Ike, and I’m Zack’s dad, guest posting on his notorious blog.  I’m 40 years and 20 years and 4 years old.  That adds up to 64 years in terms of the number of orbits I’ve made around the fat, old sun (H/T:  Pink Floyd), but it means something a little more than that. Within me is the wisdom one achieves at the age of 40, the youthful spirit of adventure that develops in your 20’s, and the wide-eyed wonder of a child of 4.  The significance of this, you ask?  These three parts of my personality are what got me falling head over heels in the ocean, the titular offender for this month’s C6 lamina fracture, plus the misery to follow.

Translation: I broke my freaking neck!

Or, if you want the original (and naughty) version, truer to the rugby player in me: I think I broke his F*#%!@%# Neck!

It all started at a little place called Topsail Beach, located on a 26-mile long barrier island just off the coast of southern North Carolina.  But first, a little background on how I got there.

***

During grad school, I met a chemist named Phil from Ohio and a rugby player named Jerome from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.  We got to be friends, as did our wives, and managed to keep up to varying degrees after we graduated.  The wives were good about meeting up about every five years, but the men, being busy with careers in the paper industry, not so much.  But now that we’ve all finally reached retirement, we got our opportunity to join in these roughly quinquennial reunions. 

If you’re married, and your spouse has friends who are also married, you’ll notice that they often plan events for the women folk requiring the men to accompany them.  Of course, the women have already hit it off, but the men are relegated to sitting around drinking beer or whatnot, trying to act like friends when no common interests or experiences have yet to be established. I’m not being critical of these situations, it’s just the way they are.  Sometimes friendships do form, but often it’s just something you politely endure until it’s over.

A fitting artifact from the trip

But with Phil, Jerome, and myself with our wives LeAnn, Corrine, and Debbie, respectfully, it was as if no time had passed between us.  So, it was with much excitement and anticipation to reunite with the gang at Phil and LeeAnn’s house in New Bern, NC, during a long weekend in May.  Phil had planned a lot of activities for the men, and the same for LeeAnn and the women, but we all united each evening around the dinner table, enjoying the five home-brews that Phil crafted in his spare time (what a way to leverage a knowledge of chemistry!).

Naturally Gifted!

Friday’s activity for the men involved kayaking on the Trent River, a short tributary of the Neuse River, which empties into Pamlico Sound where it finally becomes one with the Atlantic Ocean (you know the place!).  If I had any sense of reading signs, I should have figured out that this expedition was a harbinger of more water troubles to come.  Phil already had a kayak and had borrowed two more from his neighbor.  While most of the kayaks I’d ever used had broad, flat hulls and were very stable in the water, these were narrow-bodied and felt tipsy, like I was trying to ride a bicycle for the first time.

My legs, built up over the years of doing squats, felt packed into the kayak like two large sardines. I began to rehearse how I would escape from these tight confines in the event I tipped over, as I wasn’t skilled enough to upright the kayak by using a hip motion, let alone deal with the trouble of getting my legs to slide out.  But after 5 minutes of paddling, a steady ache building in my lower back eclipsed my safety planning.

“Something’s not right,” I said to Phil.  “My lower back is hurting.”

“Are you pushing against the foot pegs?”  he asked.

There was just the slightest pressure against the foam of my flip-flops.  “The tips of my toes are barely touching them.”

“Ummm.  We should have adjusted them before you got in.  Let’s paddle over there to the shore and fix them.”

I went as far as I could before the front of the hull bottomed out, and as I tried to raise myself from the seat, I lost my balance.  Phil outstretched his oar to me, but couldn’t prevent the inevitable. I flipped upside down, nearly pulling him in with me.

To my surprise, my legs came out smoothly and I surfaced without being submerged too long, but as I climbed onto shore, my right flip-flop got caught in the mud and came off my foot.  Jerome eventually retrieved it, but not before I stepped on a rough rock that took off a quarter-sized flap of skin.  Then, stumbling from the step, I scraped my left shin against another rock, resulting in an ooze of bright red blood.

The geese that were on the shore flashed away in a noisy gaggle, but their clumps of poo were everywhere.  While I pulled the kayak on shore, all I could think about was getting some kind of bacteria in my wound, so I kept a close watch on where I was stepping. With careful maneuvering, we managed to navigate through the minefield with little casualties, and after about ten minutes of peg adjustments, I managed to get back into the kayak free of any back pain.

We kayaked for another hour and a half before we could get back to Phil’s house to tend to the wounds. I used hot, soapy water and a brush to scrub them both, then liberally applied antibiotic ointment.  Secretly, I wished I could have gotten a tetanus shot, but hoped the scrub and daub treatment would be good enough.

More water adventures followed, this time for everybody.  LeeAnn had a friend she’d met through her career as a nurse named Joanie, who had a beach house about an hour away from New Bern, and I couldn’t have been more excited.  I’ve always been in love with the beach, ever since I was a kid, and I couldn’t wait to hit the surf that Saturday.  By the time we got there, the surf roiling and inviting, with only a slight overcast. I wasted no time in taking a plunge, letting the waves wash over until I could dive beneath the first big breaker. The water wasn’t so bad once you got thoroughly submersed, and I spent the next 20 minutes playing with the waves, trying to catch one perfectly so I could body surf to the shore.  It felt so good to be out in the ocean again!

As I was about to head back to shore, it occurred to me that the salt water was good for my kayaking wounds, so I stayed knee deep in the water for an additional 10 minutes, walking up and down the beach.  At last, I got out and lathered up with some Banana Boat SPF 15 so I could relax in the sun. When lunch came around LeeAnn and I went to a New York style deli to pick up sandwiches for everyone, then stopped at a convenience store for drinks and chips.  Joanie showed up and Jerome and I lazed around her hammock and swinging chairs and chit-chatted while the rest of the party went back to the beach.

When the three of us retuned to the beach, everybody was snoozing, but our appearance caused them to stir awake.  Debbie and I went for a walk, and when we got back I got the sense that folks were tiring of being in the sun and would want to be heading back soon.  Since going to the beach is a rare occurrence for someone living in Spokane, Washington, the four-year old within me said I just had to take one more tip to take advantage of the glorious combination of wind, sand, sun and surf.   

The day so far had been filled with an overabundance of normalcy.  That was all about to change.  The surf hadn’t settled at all since the morning, still rough and roiling, but not intimidating, at least not to the 4 year old in me, with the 20 year old telling me I had to conquer those waves and body surf one all the way to the shore.  I went out just past the breakers and bobbed around a bit, then swam swiftly toward the shore trying to catch the first swell I saw, rising like it would soon spill over. I missed it, so I regained my bearings and went out again.  The second wave came and the crests were breaking on either side of me.  I started swimming forward and caught the middle part just as it was breaking, and the next thing I knew I was planed-out and soaring. A sense of exhilaration settled in, but only for about 2 seconds.

In the blackest darkness I could imagine, the wave hydraulics changed viciously and slammed the front part of my head against the seabed.  I was aware of what happened—too aware—and instantly realized that I had never, ever been hit in the head so hard in my life.  My body still swirling in the cataclysm of violent water, my second thought was just as clear as the first:  Why am I still conscious?

Fortunately, I was. Otherwise, the undertow might have swept me back out to sea, never to be found. I felt around for something solid to stand on, and my feet landed on the sand. As the wave receded, I felt a tingling up and down my left arm. “This isn’t right,” said the 40 year old in me. No way was I going to try to brush this off with bravado and act like nothing happened. Immediately, I staggered over to LeeAnn and Joanie, two nurses who would know exactly what to do in a situation like this.

“What happened to your head?” LeeAnn asked before I could ever say what happened.  I felt around at the top of my head until I found the answer. A silver-dollar sized chunk of my hair was missing, replaced by a bright red spot dotted with blood specks. “You’ve been scalped!”

“That wave slammed me into the ocean floor,” I explained.  “My left arm is tingling.” 

“That’s not good,” she replied.  “Let’s get you to urgent care right away.”

The three of us hastily left the beach, and at least the tingling in my arm stopped before we could cross the road back to the beach house.  We got into Joanie’s car and took off toward the nearest urgent care facility, but a quick phone call revealed it was closed for the weekend (an aside: the benefit of being with two nurses is that they both knew the medical landscape of the area very well).  After a brief debate, we shot towards New Hannover Regional Urgent Care Center in Wilmington, North Carolina.

LeeAnn plugged the destination into her phone and Joanie took off—well, sort of.  We got stuck behind a pickup moving slow and erratically. Not only did we suspect that he was texting, or drunk, or both, but they didn’t even know how to get out into the intersection to make a left turn!  Joanie, having lived in Chicago where she put up a lot with that traffic, suddenly lost her patience due the untimely impedance of our makeshift ambulance excursion.  I have to admit, it was reassuring to see her acquired southern charm evaporate in the face of a slow-ass driver.  After all, she was doing it because she was acting in the best interests of her patient, me.

Fortunately, the slow-ass driver turned into a nearby WalMart, giving us unobstructed access to the road from thereon out.  At one point Joanie got on the phone and called a nurse who specialized in neuro injuries and asked her what symptoms we should be looking out for.  She relayed a bunch of questions and had me do a few head movements before concluding I wasn’t too badly off, although in retrospect some of the head movements ended up becoming verboten after the doctor reviewed my x-rays.  At any rate, she quickly got me to an emergency room, that was to our luck empty, allowing me to reach the admittance desk right away.  “Good afternoon.  I would like an x-ray, a tetanus shot, and this scalp wound cleaned up, please,” I said.

“Would you like fries with that?” you think she would have responded.  Instead, she asked all the normal prerequisites—insurance, driver’s license, social security number, etc., and soon I was escorted into a private room in the main examination area.  A nurse came in and introduced herself, believing she was there to immediately treat my scalp. Instead she took blood pressure, temperature and pulse readings and said the examining doctor would be there shortly. Yeah, but my scalp… I wanted to say, but she left… too quickly.

Next, a thirty-something year old man in scrubs showed up and extended his hand.  “Hi, I’m Steven Crawford.  I’m the attending physician this afternoon.”

Right away I was impressed that he didn’t flaunt his credentials by insisting I call him, “Dr. Crawford.”  I explained what happened as he looked me over.  He checked me out for a concussion and then said he was going to order x-rays and we’d go from there. 

But what about my scalp wound…, I started to stay, but he left before I could utter the first word.

The x-rays showed I had a fractured C6 lamina, a serious place to get injured, as that region of the spinal cord controls the mobility functions from the neck down.  In other words, I was lucky I wasn’t paralyzed, as several nurses told me over the course of the next 24 hours.  Still, there was concern that the soft tissue inside the vertebrae might have been compromised, and the only way to find out was through an MRI.  Next stop, New Hannover Central Hospital in downtown, Wilmington, transportation curtesy of the ambulance. In the meantime, I got to wear what felt like a series of concentric Ubangi neck rings.

Well, That Escalated Quickly…

I’ve never felt so uncomfortable in my life.

Finally, just before the ambulance came to whisk me away, the attending nurse showed up to treat my scalp wound.  It must not have been too bad, I thought to myself, since it took them so long to attend to it.  You can judge for yourself.

Not a good look…

The ambulance ride was interesting.  One of the paramedics used to work for the movie studio in Wilmington as a location manager, but got tired of the travel and long days associated with film making. I remembered living in Wilmington at the time the studio came in, which led to extra work in “The Year of the Dragon” and an encounter with Arnold Schwarzenegger in a Gold’s Gym, a story for another time.  As I exchanged stories with the paramedic, I told her about how my son was born in Wilmington and that I was now going to be admitted into the same hospital that he was born in.  Come to find out, that wasn’t exactly true.   Zack was born in Cape Fear Memorial Hospital, not New Hannover Regional Medical Center, but it’s not the first time one of the Andrews men had gotten confused about birth stories regarding the city of Wilmington (see So it turns out, Michael Jordan Wasn’t Born in North Carolina…).

What can be said about spending a night in a hospital room that doesn’t evoke misery and dolefulness? At least the nurses were top notch and gave me a more comfortable fitting neck brace (plus the tetanus booster shot I’d been wanting since the kayak mishap), but the quality of sleep left a lot to be desired, especially given the hallway noise and the number of interruptions to take your vital signs, plus emptying waste containers (which maybe had one piece of trash in them, making me wonder what was the sense of doing it).  I didn’t get cleared to move out of bed until morning, but that didn’t stop me from getting up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, which involved a bit of advanced planning considering I was hooked up to an IV whose power cords were tangled into a giant ball that didn’t quite reach to the toilet on the first go around. 

A staff neuro surgeon stopped by early the next morning and did all kinds of tests involving pushing and pulling with my hands and feet, plus answering a series of rapid fired questions about basic personal knowledge and current events.  He then gave me the ok to move about the room and have some food, which was great, since I hadn’t had anything since lunch the day before. And I have to hand it to the hospital, the food actually wasn’t that bad, although the coffee tasted like somebody had dipped a stool sample in a cup of tepid water (I drank it nevertheless, indicative of how badly I needed caffeine).

So, the remainder of the morning and most of the afternoon was spent in waiting my turn for an MRI. I mostly watch back to back episodes of Animal Planet’s North Woods Law, astonished at how seriously fish and wildlife statute enforcement is taken.  Once Debbie and LeeAnn showed up, I turned off the TV and chatted with them. Turns out, they were more impatient about the MRI than I was.  When they slipped away to get a late lunch at the Au Bon Pain, I pinged the nurse to see what she could find out. Consequently, she fussed at the MRI scheduler to get his ass in gear to get me in.

Eventually, it happened, but not without a little Valium and a towel over my eyes, as the little bit of anxiety I got when getting encased for just a few minutes for a CT scan the day before was only going to worsen given the 25 minute procedure of the MRI. The results seemed good, but the neuro surgeon didn’t get to them until 7 pm and was afraid he couldn’t get all the diagnostic reports together in time for me to take home.  Therefore, he asked that I stay another night in the hospital.

That didn’t make sense—to incur an additional cost on account of their tardiness.  Fortunately, the nurses must have been on to the ploy, because they kept telling me they were compiling all the reports at the nurses’ station so they would be ready in the event I got released that evening. So, with the info the nurses had provided, I pushed back on the neuro surgeon.  Honestly, I think he was tired of being at the hospital all day and wanted to go home and relax over a beer with his family.  Anyway, he said he would try, but couldn’t make any promises. An hour later, he called back and said I was good to go.

It’s hard being injured in a strange place, but Phil and LeeAnn intuitively understood and made the best of it for me.  I slept on their couch the first night, propped up, and in their recliner the second night (part of an on-going experiment that continued when I got back to Spokane to find the ideal sleeping environment).   The plane ride back was painful, even though I’d paid the additional fare to fly first class.  I hate to think what flying in coach would’ve felt like.

Luckily, there’s a neuro-surgeon who lives in our neighborhood and my neighbor Todd, a physical therapist, had already spoken to him about the accident, clearing the way for an appointment two days after I got back.  He looked at the images and declared the fracture stable, and said I could forego the neck brace so long as I was at home, except for when I slept. Driving was optional, if I felt comfortable doing it.  So far, I’ve ventured out a couple of times, but am purposely avoiding the freeway until I feel like I can better turn my head.

The neuro surgeon, a former competitive power lifter (now in his 70’s—he blew out a disc trying to squat 600 pound when he was in his 60’s) cleared me to start lifting again, so long as it was light weight, high reps, and no squats or deadlifts.  While I’m eager to get back into the gym, I’m sticking to cardio for now and giving it another week before I lift again.

The worst part now is the pain, which is unnoticeable during the day, but creeps up as bedtime rolls around and goes full board once I lay down to sleep. I held off as long as I could, but finally broke down and started taking 5 mg of Oxycodone before bedtime (prescribed, of course), which ensures a good 5 hours of solid sleep. Getting up and applying a heating pad to the sore areas gets me through the 2-3 remaining hours. The upside of this is I get to spend more time now reading and writing (something I’ve been meaning to do), and once I get more active, I can find a good balance between all the activities.

So, while I’ve always been head over heels about the ocean, I’m really down on being heels over head there. Sure, it could have been a lot worse, and I am thankful to God for not letting it be, but it indicates to me that His work for me is not finished.  So, I’m also spending a lot of time in His Word and in prayer trying to discern what that work is.  

If I were to give any advice as a result of this accident, I would encourage everyone to keep themselves fit and strong.  I’ve been doing a lot of powerlifting over the past year, and the week before Zack got married, I set an all-time 1-rep PR in the deadlift at 505 pounds.  I had two doctors and three nurses comment that the musculature in my back and neck helped absorb the blow and likely saved me from getting my neck broken in two, with death or permanent paralysis being the consequence.  So, take care of yourself, both spiritually and physically, so that if and when life hits you with a tumultuous wave, you are well-prepared to take it on.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s