august 16, 2005
it was 8:30pm on august 11 when the doctor said to the nurse "una fractura."
i had been studying spanish for only four days here in mendoza, argentina but i clearly understood the spanish for "a fracture." the problem here was not language. the problem was what he was looking at when he uttered those chilling words.
he was looking at an x-ray of my spine. i had broken my back.
i absorbed the gravity of those words and i collapsed on a tattered gurney. i went into shock. i was in a daze, staring at the dirty, yellow floor. i smelled urine. graffiti covered the curtains that separated me from the other patients. old women wailed in pain next to me. large hacking coughs filled the air. i started to cry when the nurse came by and told me to clutch firmly onto my laptop so someone wouldn't steal it from me; i was in a dangerous place.
well, she didn't actually tell me that, she just grabbed my computer case and wrapped my arms around it. if she had said it, i wouldn't have understood her; i couldn't understand anyone around me - they were all speaking spanish. doctors hovered over me looking at my x-ray and i picked up words here and there like "fractura", "operacion", "columnar." i had a broken back. a broken back. i was numb with disbelief. i closed my eyes and told myself it was a dream.
before i tucked away my computer, i tried to comfort myself by listening to a specific bob marley song. i played three little birds on my laptop which i held open above my head. bob told me: "don't worry/about a thing/cause everything little thing's/gonna be all right." i wanted so much to believe him.
i have never, ever, EVER, been that scared in my entire life.
"quiero hablar con mi familia." i need to talk to my family, i said in spanish.
impossible. no phones in the hospital.
i was to be taken to a place where i would be more safe. the ambulance driver came up to me to collect money for the ride. i tried to understand the amount he wanted but he spoke too quickly. i handed him 200 pesos and he returned 40. my ride was costing me about $55.
after a couple of hours, they strapped me into a stretcher and stuffed me in the back of an ambulance taking me...where? i didn't know. i couldn't understand what they told me.
what was going to happen to me? would i be able to ski again? did i have spinal cord damage? i was still able to walk, but would that bone chip sever my spinal cord and leave me paralyzed? no one could answer my questions. i desperately wanted to talk with my family.
i lay helplessly in the back of the ambulance as we drove the streets of mendoza, looking for a place. a man sat back there explaining everything to me (in spanish). i understood little. all the other hospitals were full, but finally they found a trauma center that would take me. they wheeled me in and the nurses started asking me questions. i understood these words:
"amigos? familia?" do you have any friends or family here?
no. i had met some new friends but they had left the day before. i had no family here. i was alone and no one knew where i was. i didn't even know where i was. it had to be a dream.
"quiero hablar con mi familia." i want to speak with my family, i repeated again. our phones do not dial out to the united states is what they answered.
but then i remembered that my spanish teacher, carolina, had given me her business card with her cell phone number on it. while a crowd of people talked excitedly to each other about what to do with their foreign patient, i held up her card from the stretcher and announced: "mi amigo." my friend.
they called carolina and she and her husband were there within a couple hours. they called my family to tell them the news. they told the doctors and nurses what happened. they told me that they would take care of everything. and they did.
but i still had this broken back. my fourth lumbar vertebrae - which looks like a block from the side-view - had it's right corner broken off. it was so perfectly clear in my x-ray, even to the untrained eye.
for two days i lay in the hospital immobilized. have you ever laid perfectly still on your back on a 4-inch mattress for about 28 hours? it hurts, especially if your back is broken. i cried a lot. uncontrollably at some points. it hurt that bad. i was no longer scared by not having family or friends around, my sisters, brothers, and a few friends had called, and i had carolina and her husband david to visit me. the nurse who originally helped me at the general hospital stopped by with a friend also. i was no longer alone, but i had terrible pain.
they implored me not to move. a doctor who spoke broken english said to me "if you move, the bone will move and cut your spinal cord." he then pointed at my legs and made a slashing motion. you will lose the use of your legs is what he meant.
let's pause for a breath here. are you with me? this is all true. this happened. now, are you willing to come the rest of the way with me? i will tell you what happened next, but i will leave you to judge it. you believe what you want to believe and i won't tell you that you are right or wrong. i will respect whatever you think.
my mom passed away about seven years ago and i was with her on her deathbed. she spoke to me about the things that she would never see and how that saddened her. i then said to her "mom, i will go see the world for us. i know you will see it through my eyes. we will see it together. you can't come with me physically but i know you will be there with me."
it's why i shout "top of the world ma!" whenever i reach a high peak or tall building on this trip around-the-world. i'm reminding her to take a look, just in case her attention has wandered for a bit.
so there i was in the hospital bed, thinking about the promise i made to my mom, and about how i had been traveling the world for 17 months without a major setback, and about how i had only about 5 months left until i returned home, having circled the world, visiting 6 of the 7 continents. about how my mom must be so thrilled with the things we've seen together.
i turned on my side, despite the discomfort (and the doctors orders not to) and said "we can't stop now ma. i can't keep seeing these great things if i am stuck in a hospital bed." i put my right hand on my lower back, right over the spot where the break was, and i continued to speak to her. "if you have any power over such things ma, maybe with god's help, i need you to heal this bone. i need you to send your love, your positive energy through my hand and into this bone and heal it for me. i have to keep going. i cannot lie here like this. please help me if you can."
i rolled back onto my back and went to sleep.
it was either the next day or the day after that they loaded me back into an ambulance to cart me to the place that performed MRI's. this will help the doctors pinpoint your injury they said. will help them determine how to fix it.
they set me on a hard plastic table and pushed me into the tube of the MRI machine. for about 10 minutes the machine whirred over my body as i lay there bare-chested. eventually all the sound stopped and they pulled me back out.
the operator walked over and looked down at me lying on the table. he wore a red fleece jacket, pushed up at the sleeves. he looked thoughtfully into my searching eyes.
"no fractura," he said. no fracture.
nothing at all.
carolina was with me. she seemed shocked. "are you sure?" she asked him in spanish.
"100% sure. he has no fracture."
i was dumbfounded. what was so clear on an x-ray (an x-ray i still have with me right now) was gone two days later.
over the next two days i had an ultrasound, a bloodtest, a urine test, a spinal exam, everything, and besides a nasty bruise and a bit of internal bleeding, i was given a clean bill of health. i left the hospital today, my backpack in the wheelchair, not me.
i have been told to take it easy, and i will. my sister debra is coming to visit me for for a few days here in mendoza and we will just chill with some nice wine and good music. i will continue to study spanish and do a lot of writing, just as the doctors have advised me.
but you can bet, when i feel the urge, that i am going to point myself towards the andes mountains that i can see on the horizon, run to the top of the nearest peak, and shout like never before:
"TOP OF THE WORLD MA!!!!"
100% true. 100% up to you to decide what really happened. i am 100% relieved.
and, of course, there is another thing you can be 100% certain of, and that's that i will always...
keep on keepin' on,
the x-rays of my broken spine
p.s. i fell down some stairs.
p.p.s. new zealand update coming within a day or two.
p.p.s.s. thank you to everyone who called, e-mailed, sent stuff, and bought plane tickets to argentina. but most especially, muchas gracias to carolina and david who i never would have made this through without - no way. i will never forget all that you did. never.