Three Lessons Learned from a Broken Neck

2014 ended with a bang for me; or more specifically, a break; or more specifically still, six breaks in my neck.

On December 28th, on the first swim of the first day of a much-anticipated vacation in Puerto Vallarta, I got into a fight with a rogue, “Holy crap, that’s big!” wave, and the wave won, picking all 200 pounds of me up like a feather, bending me backwards and slamming me headfirst into the ocean floor. The entire left side of my body from the waist up went immediately numb as I struggled to get my head above water while one thought crept into it: “This is bad.” After a minute of lopsided treading water, I managed to stumble to shore and up to our beach chairs, where my partner, Brent, and a friend had received their first round of drinks.

“I think I just really hurt myself,” I muttered, gently lowering my soggy, sandy self down onto a lounge chair.

“Oh I’m sure it’s nothing,” said Brent. “Here, have a Bloody Mary.”

After sitting for five minutes, I begrudgingly came to the conclusion that I needed to go to the hospital. Brent—respecting both his marital obligations and the fact that it takes a lot to get me off a beach (especially one that serves drinks)—came with me. After X-rays and various scans, it was revealed that I had fractures in five of the seven vertebrae in my neck, most notably the bottom two (C6 and C7), which had clean breaks from one side to the other but somehow by-passed my spinal chord.

When the doctors in Puerto Vallarta started talking surgery to stabilize my spine, our travel insurance company decided it was time to get me back to Vancouver and informed us that they were sending a jet. Admittedly, even in the face of tragedy, flying home on a private plane elicited its own degree of excitement. But visions of Cristal and caviar quickly evaporated when we pulled up to the airport and the paramedics wedged me, Brent and our luggage into a Lear jet that was roughly the equivalent of a Volkswagon Beetle with wings.

Back home on Canadian soil, I spent the next five days at Vancouver General Hospital (VGH) in one of the best spinal wards in the country. Every doctor or nurse who saw me would look at my chart, look at me, look back at my chart, look back and me and say, “You are very lucky,” which I was, and I knew it. On January 3rd, I walked out of VGH, my head held high by a lovely neck brace that will be my constant companion and fashion accessory for the next several weeks.

Without a doubt, this whole experience has been the most traumatic health event in my 48 years on Earth. For someone who had never so much as broken a bone, I guess my body decided it was going to go big with its inaugural trauma. But as traumatic and disruptive as the whole experience has been, I have learned three valuable lessons from it, which I want to share in the hope that they might enlighten others.

On Stillness

I am a kinetic person who has been more or less moving non-stop for the past 25 years. So the thought of having to be still, completely still for an indefinite period of time both terrified and challenged me. But when I realized I had no choice in the matter, I was able to quickly and surprisingly embrace the stillness forced upon me. While I had visitors, my iPhone, books and an abundance of trashy magazines to distract me, I spent a lot of time in the hospital just being still: thinking, not thinking, seeing, hearing, feeling and absorbing what was happening around me versus worrying about the future or dwelling on the past.

In embracing stillness versus resisting it, I was able to not only regroup but also restore some clarity and focus that was missing from my life: around what is really important and what is not, around the healthy forces in my life versus unhealthy ones, around spending less time fretting and more time just being. I have tried to carry this stillness with me since leaving the hospital and intentionally infuse it into my life by starting each day with 10 minutes of meditation; by reading and writing first thing each morning versus compulsively checking email; by turning my phone off when I need to focus on something; or by taking a short walk or playing the piano to clear my head. I have been amazed at how much serenity and clarity a little stillness has brought to my life, both personally and professionally, making me more focused, creative and productive.

On Dependence

I’m a control freak and have a hard time relying on others, especially regarding anything that affects me or my surroundings. So it was tough to, in an instant, go from being the guy in charge to being the guy who couldn’t even turn over in bed without three people doing it for him. In the hospital, I needed to rely on nurses for everything; and while that was embarrassing and a bit emasculating at first, I soon surrendered myself to their expertise, their care and their unflinching willingness to provide it. Whether it was getting me water, bringing me happy pills, emptying my urine bottle or coaching me through my first bedpan experience (“Bill, it’s been five days; it’s time.”), the nurses at VGH approached every task with a warm smile, humour and words of encouragement, quickly earning my trust and, with that, helping me let go and let others takeover. Through their remarkable care and the gracious offers of help and acts of support from countless friends and family, I have not only come to have faith that people really want to help, but understanding that I need to be more willing to let them.

On Gratitude

In the age-old “glass half full or half empty” debate, I lean towards the latter. So I was shocked at how quickly after the accident my psyche went to a place of gratitude versus despair. I greeted each hour and each day with the profound realization that I was truly lucky to be alive and able-bodied. And while I knew this accident would mean a lot of things would be missing from my life for a while (e.g. exercise, travel, the Whistler ski season, being able to shave my own face…actually that’s an added bonus), I was amazed at how quickly a profound appreciation for all that I still had would drown out those thoughts. This whole ordeal taught me to approach each day from a place of thankfulness, not disappointment; from a perspective of abundance versus want; from a recognition of all that is going well in my life versus the few things that might not be. And if those old demons start to creep back into my head (as they do), I will stop, sit down and make a list of what I am grateful for, quickly righting my outlook on things.

This view extends out across a wide array of areas, but none more clearly than on all the amazing people I have in my life and how much I cherish and value them: friends, family, colleagues, clients and, most notably, my partner of 18 years. In the days and weeks following my accident, the outpouring of love and support flowing in from all corners of the globe was both humbling and overwhelming, filling my heart and strengthening my soul. And while I am eternally grateful for being able to walk, I am more so for having a wealth of loving and caring arms to walk into. That is a richness that will know no end.

As you head further into 2015 and fully re-immerse yourself in the hubbub of work life, I encourage you all to bring some stillness into your life, to bravely lean on others when you need to and to be thankful for all that you have versus dwelling on what you lack. Happy New Year everyone!

SIDE NOTE: I also encourage you to never travel without travel insurance. I buy a blanket policy every year for a whopping $125. I estimate that, with the hospital care in Puerto Vallarta and the air ambulance home, that insurance saved us around $75,000.

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