Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Everything Changed

Four weeks ago, I was on my way to work, you know, typical Monday stuff, and everything changed in a wicked instant. Everything. My life was totally upended in a fraction of a second amid the squeal of burning rubber and the thunderous bellow of impact. Now, this is no tragedy, good people, far from it, in fact. Did I catch a bad break? I guess so. I could have died. Heck, I probably should have died, and my future is suddenly wildly uncertain. And yes, I'm a hard-working father of five who basically lives paycheck to paycheck. This is America in 2019, after all, and where finances are concerned, I'm poor from poor. Go ahead and put those tissues away, though, because I swear to you that this is a happy story. You see, finances are insignificant in the grand scheme of things, and dollars and cents aside, I'm stinking rich. I may well be poor from poor, but I'm also loved from loved, and despite that which could have or should have happened, I'm still here. After spending right at a month in the hospital, I'm at home with my wonderful wife and my precious children. Okay, my recovery is far from over, the pain is intense, and no one really knows just what I'll be capable of when this journey is complete, but life is good. Like I said, everything changed a month ago, but I'm alive, and my family, my friends, and my community are rallying behind me. People I don't even know are rallying behind me.
That Monday morning that now somehow feels like it was both eons ago and yet mere moments ago at the same time didn't seem like anything special. I got up at 5:00 a.m., like always (read: WAY TOO EARLY), and I had just about completed my thirty-minute trek to work when an oncoming vehicle swerved into my lane. Why? Good question. There really isn't a good answer to that question, not on that road, but from where I sit, it really doesn't matter. It happened. I was doing about 55 in my trusty 2005 Suzuki Reno (best $1200 I ever spent), and I'm guessing the other guy was doing about the same. He wasn't driving a Reno, though. He sat behind the wheel of a Tahoe, and for those of you keeping score, the final from that little showdown reads like this: Tahoe 1, Reno 0. 
I can remember the impact, which was kinda like taking a stiff jab from King Kong, and then there's a little gap. After that black hole in my recollection, I came to and felt nothing but gratitude. I was alive! This seemed like a miracle to me, because while I couldn't recall anything but the very onset of the crash, I knew that I had survived a head-on collision with a much larger vehicle. The notion that my wife and kids might have awoken to a knock at the door and some horrendous news loomed large in my mind, and I was so thankful that I hadn't perished on impact. That's the first thing that I recall, an overwhelming sense of gratitude. 
The second thing to ping on my radar was pain, and good and plenty of it. I'm talking pain on a scale that I couldn't have imagined prior to the accident. This monumental suffering prompted a gruesome survey. I glanced about the vehicle first, actually thinking that it would be prudent to locate my phone and call my wife to tell her that my day had taken a bit of a swerve. The phone was nowhere to be found, and I remember thinking that the interior of the car looked like a Dali painting. Broken glass was everywhere. The Reno appeared to have taken a direct hit from a bazooka. My cd player was sideways. And there was blood all over the place. Blood was dripping from my face, And as I continued to process my surroundings, I looked over at my left arm. It appeared to be broken into three or four pieces, and it was bleeding freely. Okay, let's be clear, it was a gusher. 
Time for some truth, good people. When I saw my arm, two things happened. First, the mystery of the colossal pain was solved. Just looking at my arm crystallized everything--that destroyed limb was the beacon broadcasting all that agony at full volume. Secondly, a dreadful certainty sank in. I figured I was a goner, my friends. I was surely going to bleed out. I wasn't going to see my lovely wife or my amazing children again. This realization hit me like a ton of bricks. I don't recall any sort of fear where my life was concerned, no despair or remorse festered on a personal level-- at that moment, my own hopes and dreams didn't hold any value. All I could think about was my family. This would crush them. We are a family of seven, and we are a tight-knit bunch. Things were going to be so hard for my wife. My children were going to have to grapple with a glaring absence, and I could hardly bear to think about just how much this would devastate them. 
But I wasn't dead yet, and I figured God had already dealt me one miracle, so I quickly concluded that there could be no harm in hoping (and working) for another. The pain was severe enough that I could have lost myself in hysterics, and it may have been significant enough that I could have just closed my eyes and passed out. I had an idea that it would have been that simple. But I was thinking of my family, and yes, I was praying and thinking about miracles too. I decided to focus on my breathing. This is something my sensei (I have enjoyed the privilege of learning Tae Kwon Do from the incomparable Randy Misketch and his spectacular family for five years now) has promoted at length, and while a few of my peers have occasionally snickered at these exercises, I've always been a believer. So I inhaled strength and courage, and I exhaled fear and doubt. And I found my center, and I took control of the situation. 
An EMT with a radio in hand showed up at what remained of my door. This seemed odd, because I didn't feel like a lot of time had elapsed, and I hadn't heard any sirens wailing or caught sight of any flashing lights. I calmly directed him to some work clothes in the back of my misshapen Reno and used them to create a makeshift compress, which I pressed against my arm in a desperate bid to slow the bleeding. Maybe I had some success on this front; I don't know, it felt like a losing battle, particularly where my bicep was concerned. I still had the impression that I had broken my arm badly in a few places, and I figured I had also severed an artery. As it turns out, I was right about the artery. While I waged this battle, the EMT used his radio to make it clear that we were dealing with heavy bleeding and the need for a tourniquet and additional treatment was dire. I tried to get out of the car and found that my legs and my right arm seemed to be functional even though the Suzuki was basically wrapped around me. The door hadn't fared as well, though, and neither my mangled arm or the twisted vehicle would allow me to find another exit. I was trapped.
Then there were sirens, and I heard an angry old woman shouting about reckless driving. She sounded like she was ready to fight, and I was glad that she was on my side and not vice-versa. A tourniquet was applied to my arm while I was still trapped in what remained of my Reno, which was further dismantled in short order as emergency personnel hustled to remove the door and then the roof. This happened very quickly, and my view was limited; I had been covered with a sheet to shield me from all the broken glass. In spite of this, I would pick little specks out of my hair for weeks. Before I knew it, I was being loaded on a stretcher by several strong hands. 
Another tourniquet was quickly applied in the ambulance as we raced down the highway. No one told me to stay awake like they do in the movies, but it seemed like the right thing to do. So, I kept on inhaling strength and courage and exhaling fear and doubt when I wasn't too busy praying. The pain had grown stronger, but my resolve seemed to be increasing as well. I remained calm, I stayed alert, and I obeyed every command promptly and answered every question posed with great clarity--and maybe a bit more detail than was necessary. I talked to avoid thinking about the pain or wondering how badly my favorite left arm had been damaged. My EMTs were skilled and dedicated, and this gave me hope, but the pain continued to roar as I continued to bleed--and the ride to the hospital seemed to take forever.
Finally, we hit the ground running (or, in my case, being wheeled into the hospital on a stretcher by people who were running) at New Hanover Regional Medical Center. I got passed around a bit, still lucid, praying, breathing in strength and courage and exhaling fear and doubt, answering questions as needed and chatting amicably (I can't remember any of them, but I did try a few jokes) when there were no questions, though such shortages proved rare. Then I found myself being prepared for surgery. No one had been able to get through to my wife, so I was alone, but I felt optimistic--I had done all I could do, and I had made it this far. Then I overheard one of my surgeons addressing an aide with a desperate plea: "Is there anyone we can reach? It's critical that his loved ones get a chance to see him before surgery." That didn't sound so good. Another prayer went up. Another gulp of strength and courage got sucked in. Honestly, I still felt optimistic, and I was still hurting something fierce. I figured we might as well roll the dice and see if this second miracle would take. I hoped to wake up with two arms and my wife at my side, and I couldn't stand much more pain. I went under the knife with gratitude. There's that word again. For a guy whose life was in doubt, I was finding gratitude at every turn. I think it was my faith, and maybe the fact that I grew up on a dirt road.
Some say the struggle is real. I say that it runs through my veins. I went under.
The second miracle landed. Surgeons saved my arm and my life. I came through feeling blessed, so very blessed. They gave me a breakdown of the damage, and I didn't even care, my spirits continued to soar. The tally included one ravaged left arm, a badly broken nose, a fractured orbital bone, and a broken kneecap--and an awful lot of lacerations and scrapes, most of which were relatively minor. Straight up, I felt like celebrating. Yes, the road to recovery would be long and difficult. Yes, the pain was ferocious. Yes, there was still so damn much to fret over, to include the dangers of infection and the possibility that my arm might still be lost, and the knowledge that I may not be able to use it even if I kept it throughout all that lay ahead. But I was alive. My wife and kids didn't have to endure that knock at the door and all that came with it. I felt so incredibly thankful. 
Speaking of my wife, who works nights and has her phone set to avoid alerts until 8 a.m., she finally got that phone call while I was undergoing my first surgery. I would undergo five more surgeries during my three weeks at NHRMC. Since there was very little she could be told during that first call aside from the fact that I was in surgery, she drove to the hospital scared out of her mind. She has been by my side ever since, and in the last week, her duties have increased dramatically due to my being discharged from the hospital. In addition to managing my meds and working diligently to keep me as clean and as comfortable as possible, she mans my IV. She does pin care for me twice a day (I left the hospital with a stabilizing rod in my arm), and that is no easy feat. Thankfully for me, she is a strong and amazing woman, and she feels like God has used this experience to call upon her. She is beginning the journey toward being a nurse. So I'm in good hands, good people. My wife is a treasure, and I could never deserve her, but that's old news. I can't imagine trying to weather this storm without her.
The early stages were really hairy. Every trip to the bathroom felt like a round with Drago. Sleep lurked safely beyond my grasp, and a guy who lives paycheck to paycheck with a family of seven to fend for found himself on the shelf, wondering if he would be able to resume his job whenever this unexpected journey comes to an end. The prognosis was grim. The damage my left arm had been subjected to and the required treatment were both more in line with what physicians would see and recommend for a victim of a shark attack. No, my bones had not been broken or dislocated, but I had lost all that skin and tissue, to include all of my ligaments in my elbow, and the joint itself was completely exposed, drastically increasing my risk of infection. Still, I couldn't help but recall that hellacious impact, and the devastation it had wrought upon my beloved little Reno. I felt lucky. I could look at my wife and children and think about that knock at the door we avoided, and my heart would swell with gratitude. I did my best to share my appreciation with all the terrific doctors, nurses, and aides who tended to me in my time of need, offering them all the praise and thanks I could give voice to. It really seemed to touch many of them, and I was proud to do my best to lift up these hard-working people who have devoted themselves to helping others. And I kept at it with the jokes. A few of them hit the mark.
During my stay in the hospital, I would learn that I had been far luckier than I realized. While my ability* to emerge mostly intact from a vehicle that looked like it had been stepped on by Godzilla remained largely unexplained, there was a reason help had arrived at the scene with such haste. It would also explain why I saw an EMT before I heard any sirens or beheld any flashing lights. My accident had happened within a hundred yards or of the rescue squad and fire department in Riegelwood. They actually heard the wreck, and they came running. Without that particular break (and that is a monumental break, wouldn't you agree?), there is little doubt that I wouldn't have made it out of the car. I got another good break in that our hometown hospital is nothing short of phenomenal, with ortho ranking among their specialties. The surgeon who performed my pivotal first operation did a superb job, getting me off to a great start. 
So now, this fortunate and grateful dude is back home. My arm has that pesky stabilizing rod in it, and I'm wearing a giant immobilizing brace on my knee. I'm still on an IV as we work to avoid infection, and my wife does pin care on the stabilizing rod twice a day. I have one wound vac** change per week at home with a nurse's assistance, and I do the same thing once per week at the doctor's office. I am working toward a skin graft, but at present, I don't have enough skin at the wound site (my elbow) to support a graft. How long until we get there? Like many things, that is still up in the air. Could be four weeks, could be four months. Could be longer. Once we do the graft, provided the graft takes, we'll allow that time enough to heal, and then we'll do another surgery, and the doctors will repair my elbow. Yes, the joint is intact, but it won't function minus all those ligaments that I lost. Infection is still my biggest threat, and while we've come so far, a single bad break could send us back to square one. 
Once that repair takes place, I can throw myself into physical therapy, which will surely represent a battle, though I assure you all that I'm up to the challenge. Provided there are no setbacks along the way, what should I expect from my arm? Again, my future is uncertain. One thing is clear: a full recovery is not in the cards. Beyond that, some physicians have stated that I'll get pretty damn close to a full recovery while others have cautioned that I might not be able to do much at all with my arm. My job as an NDT technician requires me to perform vigorous inspections on welds in hard to reach places. It's a dangerous gig, with much of the work taking place at considerable heights. We do a lot of work in confined spaces. There's a lot of climbing involved, and there's a lot of crawling. There are volatile chemicals, radiation, and a host of other risk factors to contend with, great and small. It's physically demanding. It requires brains. It requires caution, diligence, and the ability to conquer your fears, as well as the ability to interpret and organize data, to engineer solutions and record our findings. It's quirky, truth be told, and for some reason, I dig it. And I won't be able to do it unless my left arm is at 75% or better in terms of function. My kids love softball and baseball, and I cherish pitching and catching with them. We enjoy those excellent Se Jong Tae Kwon Do classes together as a family. My life as I know it is hanging in the balance, good people.
But that's okay. I'm lucky to be here, and I'm optimistic. I think I'm going to get 75% or more out of this arm--and if I don't, I'll be okay. I still have so many reasons for gratitude that it would be pointless to try and list them all. However, some praise is most assuredly warranted here. I would start with my God, who has surrounded me with love and support. I would then point to the family I treasure and the friends who have my back like a jacket. Our church family at Pine Valley Baptist Church truly rocks, and the same could be said for both our martial arts family and our softball family. I need to dish out some props to my company and all of my exceptional co-workers. And I would not proceed here without alluding to my community at large and even all of those strangers who have thrown their weight behind me. We have a fundraiser that is going strong, we've been showered with donations, meals, and gifts. People have watched our children and helped us transport them to practice or church. Friends have moved furniture for us and tended to our lawn. We have been awed and humbled by the assistance we have received. Last but surely not least, I would single out my wife. She's my best friend, and she's the best person I have ever known.
Kristen has helped me every step of the way, and we're taking things one day at a time, rising to every challenge, embracing every success, and accepting any setbacks with grace. God is with us, and so are you, and we're going to win this one. 
You can support our fundraiser on Facebook here. Every donation helps, and even a simple share is greatly appreciated. Your prayers and thoughts are welcome; I am a man of faith, and even if I wasn't, it would be hard to discredit the power of prayer in light of my experience. My journey is far from over. My future remains uncertain, but I am blessed, and I continue to find gratitude at every turn. Honestly, I'm compelled to do another round of thank yous. I thank God again for allowing me to make it this far, and I thank him for giving me hope that the recovery I'm working toward will be our next miracle. I want to thank my wife for being nothing short of amazing. I could spend all day thanking her for being my wife, and it would not be enough. I want to thank my children for being the wind beneath my wings and the joy that dances within my merry soul. I want to thank my family and friends for supporting us and lifting us up in amazing ways. I want to thank our church family once more for being there whenever and wherever we need them, and showering us with love. I want to thank our Tae Kwon Do family and our softball family for helping us as much as they possibly can, and going above and beyond any and all reasonable expectations in their support. I would also thank the community at large once more, to include all those lovely folks I don't personally know from near and far who have joined themselves to our cause--these giving souls should be noted again for the aid and encouragement they have directed our way. I thank the skilled people at New Hanover for getting me this fair, and I stand ready for whatever tomorrow may bring with the knowledge that I am blessed and loved far more than I could have imagined before Monday, July 15.
That's when I nearly died, but more importantly, that's when everything changed for me, because that's when I learned the true meaning of gratitude. Thank you all so very much, and God bless.
*Those who know me well understand that I take my fitness seriously. I lead an active life, and my job is strenuous. Being in shape is very important to me. Several physicians have advised me that my conditioning likely played a key role in my initial survival. Leading up to the crash, I was a bit fanatical about ramping up my workouts, often to my wonderful wife's chagrin. A few people had taken note of this, and I had responded that I didn't know what fight I was training for, but I fully intended to be ready. Well, I guess that's just another good break, as it turns out, and there's no longer any mystery about my opponent.
**A wound vac is a machine that pumps fluid out of an open wound. With my elbow, it was useful in the early stages as a means to avoid infection. At present, it is more beneficial because it stimulates skin growth, so it's helping me as I work toward that skin graft.


  1. Wow. Just wow on it all. It all honestly touches me deeply. I look at your big family, your wonderful wife and kids and feel so immensely happy for you. I have long admired you as a father, and of course as a friend. But above it all as a father. There have been so many points that I have seen you with your kids from afar or up close and thought - man what a good man, what a good father. There was a time where I didn't know if I could be one, or have the opportunity to do so. But I saw you and your family and it inspired me. And once it happened everything made so much sense, and I understood the blessing and welcomed it. Shoot I love it more than anything else in the world. I feel blessed to know you, have you in my life. And man I wish I was closer, leaving Wilmington area was so hard this time -- I just didn't want to leave. I had a breakdown of sorts Sunday as we were packing. Im hoping to find my way there sometime / somehow, it feels like it calls me. Your bravery and outlook on all this is amazing. Looking forward to another visit - hopefully before another summer. Keep healing up, and I will keep checking in... Mucho LOVE

  2. Damn Jamie, can I first just say that I’d like to stop crying now. This evokes so many emotions in me...for so many years you were my childhood brother, reminding me of Rachel and i know it does you too, the pain I know Jimmy has gone through as a father (being a parent myself) and then the pain the Kristen has gone through being a wife. Damn it man, just damn. I’m so happy i can count you among the strong and fortunate. Thank god you are strong, fit, and surrounded by love!❤️

    You’ve always had a mind for a good story, and you still write incredibly well and can pull people in. Save this, build on it, and when you’re stronger I want to buy a novel by one of my oldest friends! Love ya man!

  3. Thank God, Jimmy, just thank God. That you're here, fierce, fighting. That Kristen is just as much of a warrior, for your amazing attitude. I've never been prouder of you both, as I am seeing you meet every challenge with grace.

  4. You are a savior, your wife is an amazing human being as well. I do not know you or your family but your story inspired me in more ways than I can explain. I wish you and your family all the prayers and well wishes stored up inside.

  5. James you are a crusader. Warrior and Christian combined. That's real old school strength and honor. So proud to call you my friend.