On Falling, Part II: At the Hospital (or: Becoming a Cyborg)

I am resurrecting this long-dormant blog because I need to write about what happened to me this summer.  The TL;DR version is that I fell off a cliff on June 21 and miraculously survived, but there’s obviously much more to it than that. I’m still sorting through trauma, pain, frustration, and gratitude to be alive. I think these kinds of experiences change you; at least, I think it changed me, somehow.

Over the course of the next few weeks (months?), I plan to write a series of posts about my experience. Part I talks about the accident itself, and this post is mostly about being in the hospital.

I went into the hospital via the helipad on the roof. The first responders in the search-and-rescue helicopter cut off my hiking clothes before we landed so that they could start treating me as soon as we arrived at the hospital. I always thought it would be weird to get my clothes cut off like in some TV medical drama, but it turns out that if you’re in bad enough shape to need your clothes cut off then you’re also in bad enough shape that you don’t really give a shit. No one at the hospital knew exactly how bad my injuries were, so everyone was in full trauma mode. They asked me my name several times, but my broken face couldn’t get the words out clearly. I had started wearing an ID bracelet while hiking earlier this year, so after trying to say my name a few times I gave up and pointed to my wrist.

At the hospital the day after the accident.
At the hospital the day after the accident.

Someone came by to stitch up my chin, which apparently had a horrible gash through which I had lost quite a bit of blood (my skin was yellow all week, which I guess is something that happens from blood-loss?). I didn’t find out until a week or two later that bone had been showing through the wound — I suppose the adrenaline dulled my pain and made it feel more like a small scrape. I was given a full battery of x-rays and CT scans, most of which I don’t remember. In fact, I don’t remember much at all from my week in the hospital. they gave me heavy-duty painkillers right away, which made everything more tolerable. The x-rays and CT scans showed that I miraculously had no life-threatening injuries — no internal bleeding, no spinal damage, nothing. I did, however, have a fractured tibial plateau (leg/knee), a fractured mandible (jaw), and a tripod facial fracture (cheek), all of which were pretty severe, not to mention several scrapes and bruises, five broken teeth, and some whiplash (obviously).

My boyfriend KC arrived at the hospital in Pasadena sometime that afternoon. After he watched me get airlifted out of the canyon in a helicopter, KC and the other first-responders had an hour hike to get back to the trailhead, and then he had to drive another hour to the hospital. Throughout that whole time, he didn’t know my status, just that I was in the hospital. I can’t imagine how terrifying that must have been. When he called my mom, apparently he opened with, “first off, Lauren’s alive.”  Once she heard from KC, my mom immediately booked a flight out from Denver and was there by the next morning. KC took the week off from work and slept on a cot in my hospital room.

Stoked for surgery (I'm smiling because I can't feel my legs).
Stoked for surgery (I’m smiling because I can’t feel my legs).

I needed two surgeries to repair my fractures: one to stabilize my tibia, the other to wire my jaw shut. The tibia surgery happened first, and I was given an epidural to completely block the nerves to my leg. I think this was the only time my leg was totally pain-free since the accident, so I was pretty happy about it. The surgery should have taken an hour, but once the surgical team had my leg opened up, they discovered the break was much worse than they had thought. My many CT scans and x-rays apparently masked the severity of my fracture. The surgery ended up taking three hours, and my orthopedic surgeon later told me that it was a “fun challenge” for him, which wasn’t necessarily something I wanted to hear. I now have a titanium plate and nine screws in my left leg.

My knee, plus some titanium cyborg parts.
My knee, plus some titanium cyborg parts.

According to KC, for the first few days I was in the hospital, any time a nurse or doctor would ask me my pain level on a scale from one to ten, I always said “eight.” That sounds about right to me. The painkillers dulled it and made me care less about it, but it took them a while to figure out a dosage that actually got rid of my pain.

I had to wait a few more days to get my jaw repaired because the initial swelling was so bad. During this time, my mouth was stuck in a partially open position — since the front piece of my jaw was disconnected from everything else, I couldn’t move it at all. If you don’t close your mouth for a few days, your tongue starts to feel really weird, like a sandpaper-y rock. And my teeth were not in their normal places, they were sitting in my mouth at weird angles.

It was really difficult to talk the first week that my mouth was wired shut. I think I made this face a lot.
Right after jaw surgery, lookin’ sad.

Getting my jaw repaired was a relief (despite the look on my face in the picture). I could close my mouth, and the pain decreased significantly, both of which were great. Of course, having my jaw wired shut was a whole new minefield: six weeks of an all-liquid diet, always talking through apparently-gritted teeth, and wearing a pair of wire-cutters around my neck at all times in case I threw up and had to cut my mouth open to prevent drowning. So, not the most fun thing I’ve ever done.

I spend a total of five nights in the hospital, which really isn’t too bad considering I had fallen from a sometimes-fatal height. I hadn’t had a proper shower since before the accident, only sponge-baths — which are not real baths, and don’t seem to make you that much cleaner. My scalp was caked in dirt that had been kicked up by the helicopter. My mom bought a shower chair for the apartment, and that first real shower was the best shower of my life, hands down.

It seemed important to take several selfies the day after I had my jaw wired shut.
It seemed important to take several selfies of my swollen face and pouty lips.

My mom stayed in California for three more weeks to take care of me, which I absolutely needed. I’m so grateful that she was in an economic position to be able to take this time off from her job — I don’t know how I would have managed alone. For the first few weeks after I got out of the hospital, I couldn’t stand long enough to make myself a smoothie, I couldn’t bathe alone, and walking across the apartment required taking at least two rest-breaks. We drove into Pasadena a few times a week for follow-up appointments with my surgeons (a bit over an hour from KC’s apartment in the Antelope Valley).

I was really anxious that first week after the hospital–I kept replaying the accident over and over in my head, I struggled to fall asleep, and when I did get to sleep I dreamed about falling. The third night I was home, I started having bad pains in my chest and left shoulder, and insisted that KC and my mom take me to the ER because these are the symptoms of a heart attack. I remember sobbing in the ER waiting room while waiting for an EKG, feeling terrified that I was going to die. That feeling didn’t really go away for a few weeks. When I fell, I landed on the left side of my body, and even though I only had a few broken bones, everything was painful. So it turned out that the chest and shoulder pain was from the accident, my heart was fine. The ER doctors wanted me to stay there for observation, but I just wanted to go home, no more hospital. The three of us went home and tried to sleep.

After my mom left, KC’s mom stayed with us for two weeks (best future-mother-in-law-ever!) — I still couldn’t take care of myself on my own. It’s four months later now, and I still can’t entirely take care of myself. This isn’t news to anyone who has experienced disability or serious illness, but being wholly dependent on other people is really difficult. In this way I felt like a baby. For about a month, I needed help with everything from going to the bathroom to picking up things I’d dropped on the floor to getting in and out of bed. Our culture places a premium on independence and self-sufficiency, so asking for and accepting this kind of care can be pretty challenging.

Even though I was hurt, we still managed to get some outdoor-time.
Even though I was hurt, we still managed to get a bit of outdoor time.

It’s rare in life to have the opportunity be reminded of just how many people care about you and would miss you if you were gone. It seems to be largely restricted to times of illness/injury, to the times when life seems most precarious. I received an amazing number of texts and digital messages of support, some from people who I haven’t heard from in years. My hospital room was filled with flowers sent by loved ones, and KC’s mailbox was practically overflowing with get-well cards for me (not to mention the care packages, which were obviously wonderful). My relationship with KC was also reaffirmed: I learned that I can count on him to be there with love and kindness no matter what.

In July, I figured out which organizations were responsible for my rescue: Firestation 82 and the air unit of the LA County Fire Dept.,  the Montrose Search & Rescue Team, and the US Forest Service. I mailed them all thank-you notes, and my and KC’s families made a few donations in my name. Despite my best efforts, I never did track down Jasper, Collin, or any of the other hikers who helped me the day of the accident, but I wish that I could thank them. I don’t even know what I would say if I found them, but I would let them know that I am alive, safe, and healthy today because of them.

I realize now that, if given the chance, people will do their best to help in an emergency situation. Despite how horrible the accident was, it made me feel so grateful to all of the strangers who rescued me, and all of the friends and family who supported me (and continue to support me right now!). I still feel anxious a lot of the time, my bones always hurt, and I still can’t walk without a cane, but at least I know I’m not alone in the world. And that definitely counts for something.

Now that I’ve written the basic narrative, the next few posts will be reflections on various aspects of injury, trauma, care, and healing. Stay tuned!

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