“You broke your neck…”

As a working writer, it’s been my job to construct sentences as objectively true as I can make them. Here’s one I never expected to compose: It’s been one month since my wife Tracy fell and broke her long and lovely neck.

Wait, what? Or more like,What the hell?’

First the good news: She’s resilient and on the mend. We are working toward a complete recovery, and her neck is even longer now, thanks to a dead guy named Joe. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

A walk in the woods, a stumble in the dark

We spent the afternoon of Dec. 21 hiking to some ice caves in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, then made our way to a fabulous little hotel and restaurant. I had the ossobuco, she had the whitefish. It was our pre-anniversary dinner, Tracy was set to fly back to our home in California in a few days, while I stayed in Michigan to care for my ailing mom.   

Several hours later, around 12:35 a.m., she got out of bed to go to the bathroom. Our room, lucky number 13, was pitch black. There were no nightlights, and there was a large dresser near her side of the bed. I believe Tracy stubbed her right big toe, hard, on the dresser and then fell. I heard her cry out, and I got out of bed to find her lying on the floor, unable to get up. She was in a lot of pain, but didn’t want to call for an ambulance. I eventually got her back on the bed and we decided to see how she did through the night. 

I went to the front desk to get some aspirin, and on the way back, this is absolutely true, I encountered a woman, buck naked, trying to get into our room. “All my rooms are locked,” she told me, as she walked back down the hall, tattoos on full display.

I unlocked the door and gave Tracy the aspirin. She did not improve by 6 a.m., so I got her in the car and drove to the emergency room at UP Health System, the hospital in Marquette. There, after the ER staff evaluated her and ran a CAT scan, an MRI and X-rays, a neurosurgeon strode in and said: “You broke your neck, you’re having surgery, you have no choice.”

A Bruin on the spot, a bullet dodged

Bedside manner was not his strength. But he did assure us that although we were in the middle of nowhere, he was a UCLA grad, so we were in good hands.

We had no time to freak out. That afternoon, the doctor and his team performed an anterior cervical discectomy on Tracy. They made an incision on her throat, went in and corrected the fracture, inserted a piece of bone from a cadaver (Tracy decided the cadaver’s name is Joe) and fused the C5 and C6 vertebrae with a titanium plate and screws.

She dodged a bullet, the surgeon said more than once. The injury was very close to being much, much worse. As for the recovery, we could expect to regain 90 percent of whatever would be recovered over the course of the next year.

After a few nights in ICU, we were discharged from the hospital on Dec. 24. This felt like a Christmas miracle, but it was undone four days later when Tracy developed pulmonary emboli, aka blood clots, in her lungs. After a long ambulance ride and a few more nights in the hospital, she was discharged on New Year’s Eve — just in time to drive home through a snowstorm, woo woo! 

Six millimeters of pain

Somewhere in that whirlwind of hospital rooms and bad meals, a nurse told me that Tracy had a six-millimeter bruise on her spinal cord, which was the cause of the burning nerve pain radiating down her arms and into her hands and fingers. This would prove to be a stubborn and vexing pain.

One month later, Tracy is still wearing a neck brace and has steady pain in her arms and hands. It’s going to take time, but the pain shows signs of subsiding, and she is gaining strength day by day. We’ve had time to process the shock of facing down a life-threatening injury; we’re now solidifying our resolve to come through even stronger than before.  

She wishes it was a more glamorous story: We were at the ice caves and a precious little baby was crawling along when suddenly a huge chunk of ice broke loose and Tracy dove and swept the baby to safety…

Fact is, anyone can be confronted with a serious health challenge, anytime. Actually, it’s pretty much guaranteed. As part of the human condition, no matter how healthy and / or wealthy you are, catastrophe will strike one day. Medical advice is miles above my pay grade, but there are some practices that might help you prepare you for the aftermath of such a life-changing moment when it inevitably occurs:

Gratitude. We are thankful a great doctor was on duty that day, and for the care provided by the medical professionals we’ve met on this journey. Even more so for how our family and friends have stepped up to make things easier for us in all sorts of ways. Each of us is far more delicate and vulnerable than we imagine; when the worst happens, your lifetime relationships are protective and life-sustaining. Cherish and support your true friends, you never know when they might be all that’s standing between you and despair.

Persistence. Not a news flash, but there’s a tremendous amount of bureaucracy in our healthcare system. You can almost feel yourself getting caught in the gears as you’re being asked questions designed to limit coverage and deny you access to the help you need. Educating yourself is part of personal disaster management, and in this regard, Google is your friend. Unfortunately, you will run into people for whom it’s too easy, over a phone line, to be professionally uncaring. Whatever your line of work, please don’t ever be that person.    

Resourcefulness. Much of modern health care is about the drugs they give you, and not all of them work the same for all people. We’ve cycled through several pain killers (and blood-thinners) mindful, as everyone is now, that opioids are dangerously addictive. There are also times when opioids are perfectly appropriate. Some work better than others, and we’re treating them all as minor acquaintances, not long-term friends.

Another true sentence: Cannabis is a time-tested medicine, despite all the mainstream misinformation of the last 100 years. I’m now on a mission to tell the world about this safe and efficacious medicine, and we are walking that talk by making cannabis part of our healing program. We’ve found that cannabis edibles are great for nighttime relief. Non-psychoactive CBD is a powerful anti-inflammatory, and we are using CBD tinctures and balms, and a high-CBD hash to quell pain and inflammation.

Be awake. Obvious, right? But you know how you try to not fully awaken when you get up to go to the bathroom, so you can quickly fall back to sleep when you return to bed? Forget that. Turn the light on so you can see your route. You’ll fall back asleep just fine. In fact, don’t do anything on auto-pilot. Be consciously aware of every step you take, all day long.  

To sum up: If you have insurance, good friends, good health and some time, you’ll probably be OK when disaster strikes. But some people don’t have all these things. Our societal safety net has giant holes in it, so we all have to be ready to lend a hand to friends when they are in need.  Everybody needs help sometime, let’s be more ready to give it.

We’ve also found that a snow-bound town in the north woods is an ideal place to do nothing but get well again.

One last declaration of truthiness: Whatever obstacle is in your path today, if it causes you to slow down, look around, and be thankful for all you have, it might be just what you need right now. 

It’s a gift. Accept it and work to make yourself stronger and better.

To all our friends and family who instinctively knew how to step in, help out in kind and thoughtful ways, and make this injury less of an ordeal, thank you, We love you.

— T&T