by Andrew Rubin
In late July 2006, I was vacationing with my friend in a small seaside town in Long Island. Since overcoming the ravages of multi-organ failure in 2003 and learning how to walk again to the doctors’ surprise, I had made in those three years strides in my physical recovery. I had gained the weight I had lost during my fight against septicemia and the compartment syndrome that paralyzed and damaged my right leg and hand permanently. The strength that I had rediscovered had enabled me to resume teaching and writing as a professor of English, in spite of the paralysis and neuropathy of the hand and foot.
But all that nearly changed one summer afternoon, when I began swimming in the ocean beyond where the waves would break–something I often used to do year before my injury in 2003. It was an immaculately sunny day, and I felt a renewed sense of vigor that I hadn’t experienced in years. The waves were by no means daunting, and when done, I naturally managed to catch one to carry me back to shore. As the breaking surf began to lift my body and thrust it forward, I suddenly recalled that I lacked the strength on my right side to body surf.
It was high tide, the beach was steep, and as the wall of water rolled, I curled along with it. Halfway through the first rotation, my neck hit the sea floor. I couldn’t discern if I was upside-down or not, but I heard a crack. I found myself inside of its tube folded up like a wooden toy soldier. Before the wave had a chance to curl again, I tried to free myself from this powerful centrifuge. Neither my arms nor legs would respond to the impulses and instructions sent from my brain. As I tumbled forward, my neck again hit the sea floor. I heard another pop. However hard I encouraged my hands and legs to swim out of the current, I discovered that they were doing nothing of the sort. My body was limp, and strangely I did not feel a thing.
At that very moment, which felt to last a lifetime, it seemed that I was examining myself from afar: I had fractured my cervical spine and damaged my spinal cord fairly high up. I was paralyzed from the neck down. “I regret to inform you that you are a quadriplegic, and will never move again,” the doctor inside my head seem to report.
I had met several quadriplegics at the hospital during my recovery years prior, so I was familiar with the effects of cord damage. My head was swarming with what seemed like a life-time of thoughts and memories. All at once I wondered if I had damaged my C1 and if I would ever breathe on my own again. I expelled the remaining air in my lungs and, to my relief, discovered that I could. The damage, I inferred, was lower than my C1. I then wondered if this incredible force of nature that was hurling me forward and had cracked the neck of a 38 year-old man, 6 feet tall, and 170 pounds, would deposit me far enough up on the beach that the sea would not reclaim me as a possession, sinking slowly and drowning in the distance. Would the surf would position me on the shore with my face down– my mouth and nose planted helplessly in the sand? Would I be able to breathe through the fine, wet grains of sand or, would I suffocate unceremoniously?
As all this swarmed through my mind, I found myself dropped by the sea face up, far enough from the crashing surf that the tide would not return me to sea. Every twenty seconds or so, the surf would briefly submerge my head under force me to hold my breath again. I was, I knew, paralyzed from the neck down. I could not feel the cold, brackish water on my body until it reached my chin, when I’d realize I would have to hold my breath yet again.
There I was on my back, on the beach. I was staring at the sky. It was perfectly blue. There wasn’t a cloud in it, and the tumble of the waves in a strange way reassured me that I was alive. I could feel nothing at all from my chin down. I could only hear the waves, see the sky, and smell the ocean. The sublime moment seemed, and still seems, to have lasted an eternity, until a bigger wave broke closer and drove water up my nose and burned my eyes, interrupting the strangely placid experience.
I let out an appeal to the sky, to the passing clouds, to the sun. I hoped that the breeze would carry my voice over the thundering deep bass of the crashing surf, and reach the handful of people on the beach. To them, I must have looked strangely at ease. I was lying motionless, flat on my back, gazing up at a perfectly blue sky. I felt the warmth of the sun on my face, but not the cold water that would lap across my body,. I eventually attracted the attention of my friend, who approached me with a camera taking pictures of a still life seemingly peacefully enjoying the sky, the sun, the sand, and sea.
I was uncharacteristically calm , and told her that I had broken my neck. Moments later, several lanky men and women in bathing suits arrived. One young man dug his surf board at my feet to block the waves from knocking me around. A rainbow of beach umbrellas were uselessly assembled around me like some sort of ancient ritual was about to begin. A voice spoke directly into my ear that the voice belonged to a doctor and help was on the way.
A few others arrived and slid a fiberglass board beneath me and strapped me me to it.. The procession up the beach in the back of a jeep that bounced me around as it struggled to ascend the sand dunes and then pass through the tall reeds only seemed to make things worse.
Waiting in the small, sandy parking lot was an ambulance from a volunteer fire department. I was inserted into the back on the stretcher. Sitting at my side was a volunteer medic. I could see that he staring at me, his mouth agape. He had recognized me from the day before when he (a real estate agent by trade) had showed my friend a home for sale. With a stethoscope plugged into his ears like headphones, a blood pressure pump held unsteady in his hand ready to be squeezed and fill the cuff around my arm with air, he seemed too affected by the ordeal to do anything. He was as paralyzed as I was. I barked an order as if I were Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now. “Are you going to take my pressure or what!” I roared, but then kindly reassured him that I did remember him from the day before to stop his hands from rattling.
The ambulance of amateurs drove me to a nearby baseball field, The helicopter landed in the outfield. Its propellers whirled loudly, and kicked up dust from the baseball diamond, and I was placed sideways next to the pilot. I couldn’t see much of him, but his helmet, his sun glasses, a microphone. His mouth was moving, and he was saying something as he looked down at me. I could hardly hear him. I assumed he was telling me that we would be there soon. I tried to move a toe and finger, but nothing happened. I couldn’t even raise my head. But I could still see the blue sky, and noticed that the sun was setting and we were flying in its direction..
Within what seemed like minutes, I was on a landing pad at a trauma center. A cortège of men in blue scrubs carried me inside somewhere where all I saw was a flood of florescent lights. A nurse pulled out a syringe, injected me in a place where I had no feeling, and walked away.
I could taste the salt on my lips and I felt the sand crusted on my eyelids. But suddenly I was overcome by the strangest sensation. A thousand of pins and needles seemed to stick me at once. A ghostly chill passed through my body, and seemed to travel up my spine, and I thought that somebody had inadvertently flipped on a circuit in a room somewhere. It almost seemed that the blinding lights into which I was staring had flickered, and I nearly let out a howl, until I realized that something of me had moved. A gust of antiseptic air swept beneath the door to the room, and I imagined that it appeared as an apparition that greeted me and said, not now, not yet. I implored the nurse to wash the sand off me and give me a blanket because I felt frozen, my bones were rattling, and II was shivering but not moving at all. My body felt cold, wet, and I was thirsty.
My friend was two hours away and driving madly to the hospital. She arrived shortly before my surgery in which they were to fuse the broken vertebrae by securing them to rod that would be screwed into my rib cage. The morning after surgery, I was walking with a walker. A day later my parents arrived. As they had done years before, when I awoke from the coma with compartment syndrome that would indirectly lead to this, they stood over my hospital bed in silence and with tears in their eyes.
I was discharged several days later, and driven by ambulance hundreds of miles to the National Rehabilitation Hospital in DC where I had to learn how to walk again. But this time it was harder and more painful. I often complained of pain on a regular basis, and my complaints had not served me well. In my charts, I had been mis-identified “as a drug-seeking patient,” as opposed to a human being with a broken neck who was in acute pain. A few days later, a psychiatrist was ordered to evaluate me. He sat beside my, and spoke in a calm voice and said that he understood how difficult it must be for me. Yes, it hurts a lot, but it’s my neck, it’s not in my head.
After weeks of this circus, I was discharged, and I arranged an appointment with another spinal cord surgeon. He knew from my neck brace why I was there. He took an X-ray and placed it on the back-lit white board on the wall of the examination room. When we both looked at the image, we stared at each other in shock. The instrumentation that should have been fastened to my upper rib had detached from it. The straight piece of steel floated in a cavity of fluid threateningly close to my heart. “You must be kidding me,” I said, my eyes trying to look down at my chest, as if I would have seen it protrude. Without saying a word to me, he grimly picked up the phone on the wall and scheduled an emergency surgery that would, I later learned, take over 10 hours. In the operating room, they removed the failed instrumentation from my neck and vertebrae, then carefully flipped me over, and through a six inch incision in the back of my neck, inserted new rods and screws to fuse the two broken vertebrae.
After the operation, I awoke and I sat up to look for signs of life. I saw rows of sleeping patients Everything but their heads were covered in white, cotton blankets. The double doors to the postoperative room flew open, and the back of my surgeon’s white coat was flying behind him as if he had a long tail. As he walked over, he remarked, “You are sitting up!”
To the University’s frustration, I spent another year on medical leave, but the the following summer a foundation awarded me a writing residency in Marfa, Texas where I resumed work on my book, Archives of Authority: Empire, Culture, and the Cold War. In 2012, it was published by Princeton University Press, and I was proud that I had completed it in spite of everything because it assured me that I would be tenured. The day the published book arrived, I received a letter in a thin Fedex envelope. It was from the Provost of my University, where I had taught full-time as an assistant Professor from 2002-2012, with the exception of the two years when I was recovering from both catastrophes. “It is with regret that I write to inform you that you have been denied tenure and promotion. We thank you for your years of service to the University,” he wrote.
Two years years passed, and after having failed to completely recover from the initial injury that had left my foot with a chronic wound, I decided to have my foot removed. I replaced my paralyzed and damaged foot of 15 years with a better, prosthetic one. A year later, after realizing that what I did enabled me for the first time in 15 years to actually run again, I had a surgeon remove my paralyzed hand. I would replace that too with a better, prosthetic, myoelectric one. I suppose, in a strange kind of way, that I was refurbished, and I was not about to give up.
to be continued…