It was Saturday July fourteenth in the year two thousand and twelve when I realized I was indeed destined to be a writer. This realization came about via an unexpected answer to my prayers and intentions. You see, that week I attended two separate yoga classes, and at the beginning of each class we were encouraged to set our intention- to create a goal or a prayer upon which we should focus our energies. Wednesday of that week, my silent prayer was “Dear Almighty Heavens, please let me reconnect with my yoga practice in a deeper way than I have thus far.” On Friday of the same week, my intention and focus was “Dear Lord, please let me dedicate more time to my writing craft, that I might achieve success as a published writer.” These two intentions were completely unrelated in my mind, at least, until the moment of impact.
Saturday, after catching a beautiful left-breaking wave at Churches campground at Camp Pendleton, the event occurred which would be the catalyst to the actualization of my inward intentions and prayers. What happened? I was hit dead in the spine by a girl on a ten foot longboard, and…
I broke my back.
Ah, the drama contained within that phrase! In all fairness, I only broke a few little pieces of my back, and the damage was moderate, not extreme. I suppose I should start at the beginning. It’s a very good place to start.
The morning of July fourteenth, two thousand twelve, was a glorious morning at the Kona Kai marina in San Diego. I woke around seven thirty, brewed a cup of Donut House coffee, and munched on a granola bar as I prepared to go exercise with my friend Liz, who lives with her husband Charlie just one dock over. Liz and Charlie’s residence is a thirty five foot Ericson sailboat, with blue canvas, and all fiberglass interior. I’m a bit envious of their floors because they are much easier to clean than our wood floors. They only need to be hosed down, which is handy considering they have a wee little puppy named Dinghy. Dinghy is a malti-poo, which is a hybrid sort of dog, a mix between a poodle and a maltese. Dinghy is absolutely precious, but being a puppy, he has been known to make a mess on the floor. It’s no matter, since Liz can easily hose the floor off! This is a great advantage in my mind, and as I sweep or vacuum the wood floors in our boat, I often think of Liz hosing her floor off with a twinge of jealousy. But Liz and Charlie’s floors are not the point of this story, so I’ll move on.
After picking the last morsel of granola bar off of my tank top and popping it into my mouth, I swapped my pajamas for my swishy-swooshy shorts (they make a swooshy noise) and donned an under armor workout tank. I laced up my running shoes (new white nikes with a hot pink swoosh, ooh la la) and pulled my greasy hair back into a ponytail. After securing my fly-aways with a headband, I did a quick mirror check to make sure I looked gym-ready. Satisfied with my appearance, I dashed into the v-berth, gave Brent a quick kiss good-bye and grabbed my gym bag. I set off down the dock with a spring in my step- the sun was shining, the herons were squawking, and it felt like the beginning of a wonderful day. Little did I know that by three o’clock that afternoon I would be in the trauma ward of Mission Hospital, squawking my own cries of pain that no heron would hear.
Liz was ready to go, and we set off for the gym at the Kona Kai hotel. Together we enjoyed an hour long workout- mostly lower body stuff, legs and butt and abs. After our workout, we got ready in the locker room- Liz for work, and me for a day at the beach. Liz would be working at the restaurant that evening, and invited Brent and I to come for dinner, to bring Mindy and sit outdoors on the dog friendly patio. We made plans to do just that, and I said good-bye to Liz and went to meet Brent and the boys to head north for some surfboarding.
Why don’t we call it surfboarding?
This was the question of the day in the water. The term was coined as a cooperative effort between Brent and Russell Black. Think about it. Skateboarding, snowboarding, paddleboarding, then surf-ing. Where did the board go? Who took the board out of the expression? Saturday, while surfboarding, Russell and Brent decided that we were putting the board back in surfboarding.
Back to the story. We met up at the marina parking lot with the aforementioned Russell Black and Shawn Price, a friend and fellow surfboarder who works with Brent. After loading the boards, we made the trek north to San Clemente, only stopping to get burritos and fish tacos at Pedros before we hit the beach. While at Pedro’s, another friend arrived, Mr. PJ Piedmont! With a whole pack of surfboarders in tow, we drove onto Camp Pendleton and parked right in front of Churches, a great surfboarding spot that is river rock reef but breaks like a right point. The waves looked fun, about chest high, and though the tide was pretty full, we all paddled out, anticipating better conditions as the tide dropped.
We were out for approximately an hour and a half before it happened. Everyone was enjoying themselves, getting good waves. laughing and splashing and bs-ing. As time went on, the lineup seemed to become increasingly populated by long boarders. I’ll state for the record that I love to longboard, and I have no problem with long boarders sharing the same peaks as short boarders, provided everyone minds their p’s and q’s and follows proper surf etiquette. In fact, on that fateful day I wished I’d brought my longboard so I could catch some of the gently sloping waves further out. Instead I was surfing the Frankenboard, also known as my fat boy fish. It’s respective monikers make sense when you see the board- it’s six feet, eight inches long, twenty-two inches wide and about three inches thick. It’s appropriate for a man around six-two, two twenty. I stand five feet seven inches, and weight one hundred forty pounds, so clearly it’s larger than I need. Thus the nickname “Fatboy Fish.” Frankenboard refers to the patch job that’s been done to this board. She’s mostly green, but a large triangle out of the nose and a big rectangular patch in the center are spots where big chunks of the foam and fiberglass were replaced. Sadly, once upon a time Frankenboard was sitting in a garage, and being cut into pieces to repair other boards- can you imagine?!!? She went through a rough time, but was repaired to perfection by Paul of Sojourner Surfboards in Morro Bay, CA. Thanks again, Paul. When I adopted Frankenboard, I felt she needed some TLC and personalization so that she would feel loved again. I decorated her with a spray painted stencil of a bird, as well as one of Brent’s face, and also applied with acrylic paint the letters L-O-V-E on the bottom. She’s a total babe now that she’s been cleaned up a bit.
So, I was hanging out in the lineup with Frankenboard beneath me when I saw a set rolling our way. Not one to be shy, I made my presence known as I paddled for the first set wave, aiming slightly left to show my intended direction. As the wave swelled up behind me, I gave a few long paddles and then popped up, weaving around the few people paddling out. The last girl I passed was on a purple and white ten foot longboard, and she looked scared as I made a big bottom turn to go around her. Perhaps she had been paddling for the same wave, because the nose of her board was aimed to the beach rather than the outside. Shortly after I passed the girl, the wave foamed out and I fell flat like a pancake back into the water. Coming up to breathe, I only glanced behind me quickly to see the next set wave charging towards me. Turning back to the beach, I retrieved my board and made a move to hoist myself upon it to paddle back out. As I pulled my body up I felt the impact hit me like a freight train from behind, jarring me in the center of my spine and causing my torso to move forwards while my legs, head and shoulders moved back. Limp, like a rag doll, I was slammed underwater as the pain radiated out from the center of my body to the tips of my fingers and toes.
I came up gasping and screaming involuntarily, seemingly doing both at the same time.
“GAaaaHHAHAHHHHH SHIT FUCK SHIT OHHHHH MAN…”
My voice trailed off as my mind began assessing my body for damage. Pain, everywhere. Identify it. Lower back, right hip, abdomen, right leg. The pain seemed to be coming from inside and outside at the same time. Within one second I realized that I was injured, perhaps quite seriously. I heard people yelling but their voices sounded tinny and far away. Wiggling my fingers and my toes, making a keening noise I can’t very well describe, I realized one hopeful thing: I was not paralyzed. This was excellent news. No matter how great the pain, the understanding that I could feel at all was very comforting. I took a few deep breaths, and willed my body to relax. Looking behind me I saw another wave coming, and I ducked underneath it just in time. Coming up, facing the beach again, I saw the girl who hit me standing there, staring at me with a confused look on her face. For a split second I wanted to rip her face off- but only for a split second. The violent impulse passed and the more urgent need to get to the sand came to the forefront of my thoughts.
“Are you ok?”
The girls voice was whiny and pleading, and it grated on me.
“No,” was the only response I issued. My breathing was labored and talking was not going to help.
“What happened?” asked the whiny girl, and I ignored her, looking around for the next wave that could take me in.
“WHAT HAPPENED?” she asked in a louder voice this time, sounding demanding and impatient, “I mean, I know my board hit you but what else happened?” She was attempting to determine how much culpability she had in my obvious pain and suffering.
I spoke slowly and clearly, and just managed to get the words out before the oncoming wave scooped me up…
“You AND your board hit me in the spine.” With that, I heaved my weight up onto my board and was swept away in the sweet embrace of Mother Ocean. Submitting myself to the will of the wave, I was carried to shore and gently deposited on the sand. Shaking, trembling, I made a feeble attempt to stand but quickly fell, and realized my right leg could bear no weight. I had heard no crack at the moment of impact, and running my hands over my body I felt no bones jutting out. Mentally I asked myself for the date and my location. July fourteenth, San Onofre- Churches. Good. Taking a few long, slow breaths, I realized that I was in a pickle.
Recognizing the symptoms of shock when one is in shock can be difficult, but the sense of eerie calm and the clarity of my senses told me I was riding high on endorphins. Knowing this, I figured if I were to attempt to stand, now would be the time. I took two deep breaths and on the third pushed myself up to standing, releasing an involuntary groan of pain as I did so. It took a moment to get steady on my feet, and again I noted that my right leg would bear no weight. Any attempt to shift weight to that side led to immediate, blinding pain in my right lower back.
I refused to cry.
Instead, I tried to figure out how serious my injury was.
There were two main factors here: 1) I was hit directly in the spine, by a large, heavy object. 2) I could not twist my torso, bend from the waist, or move my legs without excruciating pain. I’m not a doctor, but I knew that this was a bad situation. Two men with marine haircuts were coming from the north carrying surfboards and pointing at the waves. They appeared to be deciding where to paddle out. I looked around for the lifeguard, and saw no one.
“Excuse me?” I called to the maybe-marines headed my way. They turned and did a quick scan of me, saw the controlled panic in my eyes and the way I was standing, clutching my lower back. It’s highly likely that I looked like a hot mess, but I continued, “Are you guys paddling out here?”
“Yes, ma’am?” was the cautious reply of the taller one. Not surfboards, I realized, but spongers, aka boogie boarders, or body boarders if you want to be politically correct.
“Hi. Um, I need some help. I was just hit in the spine very hard by a woman on a ten foot longboard out there. I don’t think I can walk, and I’m not sure I can move my spine. I may be seriously injured. There are a few guys out there surfing who are with me. One of them is named Brent. He is wearing a long leg, short sleeve wetsuit and surfing a white Xanadu with a red leash. My name is Amelia. Please tell him that I need him to come in right away, it’s an emergency. Can you do that?” My voice was trembling as I spoke, and my eyes began to tear up. I swallowed the lump in my throat and steeled my nerves, willing myself to remain calm so that I could explain things to the paramedics.
They stood taller, immediately reacting to the gravity of the situation, and assuming an air of responsibility that is easy with first responders, soldiers, men of action and valor. The shorter one quickly repeated the information I had provided- “Brent Travis. White board, red leash. You’re Amelia. Longboard to the spine, emergency….” he paused for a second, then asked “Want us to get the lifeguard for you, or call an ambulance?”
“No, please, just get Brent. There are others out there with us, if they hear you asking, they will come too. I’m fine right here, I just need them. Thank you.”
Nodding, they told me to sit tight, hang in there and they would sent Brent right in. As they paddled out, the tears I was holding in began to fall- big, fat, salty drops mixing with the salt water already streaming down my face. Part of me wanted to lose it right then, just start screaming and crying like a baby. Instead, I held fast, and tuned into the ESP that soul mates, lovers and partners have. I channeled all my energy into thoughts which I directed towards Brent in the water. I’m hurt, I thought, I need you. Come now. Hurry. I’m hurt. Please, babe. Hurry. Come now. I’m hurt. The words repeated themselves over and over in my mind like a mantra, and I waved my left arm in a desperate gesture to beckon him in. It seemed like an eternity, but after a few minutes I saw him catch a good wave, and he came in, running up the beach to me with concern written all over his face.
About that same time, PJ, Russell, and Shawn all came out of the water too. The lifeguards had shown up, and questions were being asked rapid fire. After calmly explaining a few times that I was hit in the spine, hard, the lifeguards seemed to finally understand that I would not be able to walk. They then suggested that perhaps I try to ride in my own car, to spare the cost of an ambulance. Thank goodness, at that time, Brent jumped in.
“Hey guys, we appreciate the help, but she’s getting worse by the minute, so if we could just call an ambulance, that would be great.” By this time my groans had turned to whimpers, alternating with loud outcries as the pain spasmed through my back . In a gentler tone, Brent said to me, “Breathe, babe, just take a deep breath.”
I was scared, because breathing hurt badly as well. Instead of inhaling deeply, my breath was coming in short, ragged huffs and puffs. Reluctantly, the lifeguards admitted maybe I should be off my feet, and they pulled out a long wooden board, with straps attached to it. It looked like a medieval torture instrument, yes, but at that moment I wanted nothing more than to be strapped to that board, and off my feet. They propped the board up against my back, and wIth the help of five men, I was lowered down onto the ground. Commotion, and noise, and confusion increased, and discussion of my condition went on without my input.
The fire department arrived, and began asking me questions. What is my name? Amelia. Where am I? Churches. Which finger are the holding? Index. Other hand, which finger are they holding? Index, again, come on guys mix it up- that was too easy. The man who is asking the questions seemed satisfied with the answers. They told me to squeeze their hand, then told me to push with my toes. I squeezed, I pushed. Someone told me I would be lifted up, we were driving down the road to the lifeguard station. I still had my wetsuit on, but only halfway. I asked them to please not cut it off- it’s my butt suit! My favorite wetsuit, an O’neill 2:1 bahia with long sleeves and short legs. It makes my butt look cute. It was very important that they not cut off my suit, and so they didn’t.
Brent was sitting next to me in the back of the truck, holding my hand and giving me comfort. Shawn, PJ, and Russell took the truck and would meet us at the hospital. We drove a short distance, then stopped. Every motion, every bump, every stop was hot blinding pain through my back, up to my right shoulder, and down my right leg. My mind kept telling my body to be quiet, stop screaming and crying, but my body was not listening very well. I kept hearing myself make a deep groaning noise that could only be understood as “nnnnnNNNNNnnn.” Strange thoughts were going through my mind, like Labor is worse than this? Thank God I don’t have kids yet. I’ll be a wimp.
Some time passed and a new person was there asking me question. His name was Morgan. Morgan and someone with him said we’d have to lift me up to transfer me. My eyes were squeezed shut, but tears were still leaking out. I heard Morgan ask someone else (the lifeguard, maybe) “What happened? Have you done a PQS?” I wondered what a PQS was. The other guy (the maybe lifeguard) replied, “Yeah, PQS was good.” Well, that’s a relief. Morgan redirected his attention to me, and his tone of voice changed, became smooth and soft and comforting.
“Ok, Amelia, here’s what we’re going to do. We need to move you now, to get you into the ambulance, so we can take you to the hospital and get you fixed up. We will try to be as gentle as we can, but it might be a little bumpy. Just hang in there, you’re going to be fine. You’re going to be surfing again in no time…” his voice trailed off and he was addressing the others again, explaining that we were shooting for the trauma ward at Mission Hospital, but if for some reason they wouldn’t take me, then we’d have to go to Scripps La Jolla.
Big hands came near my face and put an oxygen mask on me. On the count of 3 I was rising up, up in the air again, and then down, onto another board, something with rolling wheels. And we started moving, rolling, bumps on the ground, pain every few seconds, sharb, stabbing, blinding. I was keening and crying and praying at the same time- OK, God, it’s your show now. I know I will heal from this, and I thank you for your love, and grace, and mercy. Thank you that I’m not paralyzed. Thank you for whatever lesson this may be. And God, please send your angels to make this ride the fastest ambulance ride ever.
I heard Brent’s voice, separate and distinct from all the others. “Is it cool if I ride with you guys?” They asked if I was family. Without hesitation, he said, “Yes. She’s my wife.” Love swelled up within me like the greatest anesthetic, and for a moment I felt no pain. Then a door was slamming, lights above me, and we were rolling, rolling, moving. Morgan was above me, I could feel him. I opened my eyes, and there he was, with a great big head of gingery blond hair, and a bushy mustache that made me think of Mario, from Super Mario Brothers. He was like an Irish Super Mario… Super Morgan. I thought all this and it made me laugh. The chuckle turned into a cry of agony and searing heat radiated out from my lower back.
Morgan again: “Ok, Amelia, we are headed to Mission hospital. When we get there they will give you something for the pain. I can’t give you anything now, because they need to check you out first and make sure everything is alright. I am going to put an IV in so we can get you ready for them, ok? How long have you been surfing?”
I knew what he was doing. He was trying to distract me from the pain. I answered his questions, with my eyes closed once again. I didn’t feel anything when he stuck my arm to get the IV started. From the front seat, Brent was giving me assurance that I would be OK.
Thirty minutes went by and we pulled up to the Emergency department, trauma ward at Mission Hospital. Someone asked if I was supposed to be there, was I a trauma? Good question, am I a trauma? No one answered, but my board on wheels was moving again, this time with fresh air on my face, bumping and rolling, then going through double doors and now it is hospital, bright lights, smells like cleaning supplies. I opened my eyes and could only see dots on the ceiling, and count the lights. My rolling cart came to a stop and there were many people around me, all in green suits. They had face masks on, like they were prepared for surgery. Fear struck a chord in my heart. Then two more came, one in purple and one in navy blue. The one in navy blue had short blond hair and a kind smile. She put her face right near mine.
“Hello, Amelia. We’ve heard you had an accident surfing and hurt your back. We’re going to take good care of you. We need to move you to a bed so we can examine you and get you some pain medication. It may be uncomfortable at first, but we will move you as quickly and safely as we can.” They had taken away the oxygen mask, and Super Morgan was making his way to the exit. I wanted to thank him, but again the crew around me was counting, and I braced myself for pain. It came as they moved me from the stretcher to the hospital bed. A brief moment of excruciating pain, and then a dark haired woman in violet scrubs was standing over me, and she told me that she was giving me some pain medication now.
“This is Dilaudid, Amelia. It’s a strong narcotic, so you should feel relief from your pain very soon. You may even feel sleepy.” As soon as her words registered, I could feel the medication working in me, turning the rough jagged pain into a soft cloud. The cloud was spreading from my center to my extremities, and I began to feel warm, and the lights were not so bright anymore. I heard one nurse ask another for scissors. “We need to cut off this wetsuit,” she said. I tried to argue, buy my pleas fell on deaf ears. “You’ll get another wetsuit,” they said,”but this one has to go so we can examine you!” The distinctive sound of shears cutting fabric, or in this case neoprene, reached my ears and a few tears leaked from my eyes as they cut away my favorite suit.
I heard the medical team talking amongst themselves. X-ray, CT scan, keep her medicated. The X-ray was conducted right there in the bed, and then I was moving again, being transported to the room for the CT scan. There, another pair of scrubs, another introduction- the name I can’t recall- and more questions. Was I allergic to any drugs? No. Was I taking any medications? No. Was I pregnant, or thought I could be pregnant? No. Well, no. I had my last period June 16, and it’s July 14, so… No. The woman called to another person in the other room, “We’re going to need the lab results of that CBC before we can go ahead!” Above me, there was a picture window in the ceiling. It was a bright blue sky, with big fluffy white clouds. The clouds were moving slowly across the picture window. How nice, I thought. I wanted to compliment them on the lovely picture window with the moving clouds.
“It’s so nice that your clouds move,” I said. No one responded, and I realized I was alone in the room. I waited two minutes, then three. After a few minutes, I became aware that the clouds were not moving at all… rather I was just experiencing mild hallucinations. More time passed, and the woman in scrubs came back.
“It’s negative,” she told me, which I took as a reference to the possibility of my pregnancy. “You’re not pregnant,” she continued. No kidding.
“Thank you,” I replied. Then I questioned whether that was an appropriate response. I didn’t have too much time to consider it, because I was moving again… this time sliding backwards into a large silver machine, a cylindrical or maybe tubular shaped machine. One part of the machine, an inner red ring, was spinning to the left. The outer silver ring was spinning to the right. I was not spinning at all.
Then I was moving out of the machine again. Scrubs Lady was there and she told me I would experience a warm sensation in my body as a result of the iodine she was injecting me with. Nonplussed, I agreed. She was right. The injection caused a warmth to spread within me, this time, from my genital area outwards. It felt a bit like I was wetting my pants, but she had warned me of that so I knew I was not really peeing myself.
In the tube I went again, and this time the inner spinning circle was black. The outer spinning circle was still silver, it didn’t change. Then I was coming out again, and everything was great. Scrubs Lady said that, she said: “Everything is great. You’re going back to trauma now.”
I went back to trauma, and they gave me more pain medication. I was in the floaty cloud again. Someone asked if I’d like Brent to come in. Yes! I want Brent.
“Yes, please. Send him in.” I was impressed with how calm I sounded- totally dispassionate and relaxed about the whole situation. It must have been the Dilaudid. Brent came in, with the sweetest expression of love and the biggest smile on his face.
“Hey, babe! How are you? You look beautiful.” His happy expression and clear love for me were a buoy for my sinking spirits, and I couldn’t help but return his smile.
“I love you.” It is the first thing I always think when I look at him, so I said it aloud. He came to stand next to me, and took my hand. Looking down at my feet, he laughed and said, “Oh, just look at you! You’re all covered in sand! You’re just a wild beach bunny.”
I laughed too, because it was true- I was covered with sand, with salt in my eyelashes and in my hair. I had cried as much about them taking my wetsuit as I had being hurt, and the first question I asked the doctor on duty was, “When will I be able to surf again?” In that moment I felt overwhelming gratitude for the ability to laugh, and the fact that I could move my fingers and toes, and the love of such an incredible man. And before the doctor even spoke, I knew I would be just fine.
At that time, one of the nurses was conversing with a doctor who just came in the room. I overheard “fractures of the lumbar blah blah blah,” and I knew they were referring to me. Then the doctor strode over to my bed, and introduced himself to Brent and me.
“I am Dr. DeSantis, the trauma physician on call today. Heard you got run over by a long board…” it was not phrased as a question, so I let him continue. “It looks like you have fractured both transverse processors on the L-3 and L-4 lumbar vertebrae. The good news is, those are not weight-bearing parts of your spine, so you should be able to walk soon, with the help of a walker. In four to six weeks, you should be walking on your own. And to answer your question, I’d hazard a guess that you could be surfing again with two months. It depends on your body, but you seem to be healthy, and you should heal fast. You may feel it very challenging to walk for the first few weeks, and especially the first week until the swelling subsides. I seriously doubt that you will need any surgery, but bed rest for at least three or four weeks will be necessary. We are going to keep you here tonight, and maybe for a few nights, because you’re pretty beat up and we want to be sure we get your pain under control. For now, we are going to keep you on Dilaudid, which is eight times stronger than morphine, and you should feel pretty good. Do you have any questions for me?”
I am fine. I can surf. I can walk. Eight times stronger than morphine? Shit. No wonder the clouds were moving.
“No, thank you, Doctor. I appreciate your help. As long as you say I’ll be walking and surfing again soon, that’s all I need to hear.” Brent smiled and shook the doctors hand, offering his own thanks as well.
“Ok, Amelia, Brent, we will get you transported up to the East Wing, they will take great care of you up there. Would you like us to send your other friends in now?”
I agreed, and the Doctor took his leave. As he exited the room, in strode PJ, Russell, and Shawn. For some reason I expected them to still be in wetsuits (which they weren’t). Then I realized Brent wasn’t in a wetsuit anymore either. Perplexed, I started to ask about that, then realized they probably changed before they came, and Brent changed while I was being examined. The boys all gathered around my bed and gave me smiles and high-fives for being such a strong lady about the whole thing. I just shook my head, and suggested someone go find the girl that hit me and offer to give her our soft top. A foam board would have been way more appropriate for her skill level.
Later that day I would be wheeled up to my room, where I would spend the next few days in a lovely hospital vacation. IV painkillers, trashy tabloids, and jello? Come on, it doesn’t get much better than that. The best part of the whole deal? I get a brand new wetsuit.