I am a Mine Geologist at an underground mine called Musselwhite in Northern Ontario, Canada. Many may not know what that entails, but one thing is certain: WE TAKE SAFETY SERIOUSLY to protect ourselves from the risks of our work environment. I contributed this article to the mine’s quarterly magazine and the Goldcorp-wide intranet. My work was published last week, but it’s a message that I’ve taken to heart since I’ve been back on the job.
I delivered this message to my crew last October 6, 2016 at the night shift Day of Remembrance. As the Day of Remembrance went on, I didn’t feel so brave about standing in front of all those people and showing all my pictures but there was no going back – I had to go up and share my story! Looking back, I’m glad I did. Now I am sharing it with all of you, my Goldcorp family:
My name is Danica and I’m a Production Geologist underground here at Musselwhite. Some of you may not know me or haven’t seen me in a long time. I was off work on disability for a while – 14 months – because of a simple choice that could have made all the difference on my health and safety.*
My husband and I were on our honeymoon and were having the time of our lives. Having left immediately after our wedding from Toronto, we were driving, hiking, and camping across the US for eight days now. We left Death Valley in California on April 26, 2015 at 2:30 pm for our next stop near Los Angeles five hours away.
My husband drove for an hour, then I insisted on taking the wheel as he had driven most of the trip. After an uneventful hour of cruising through the flat, desert plains of the Panamint Valley, I started feeling tired. My husband offered to switch with me immediately while we passed the small town of Ridgecrest.
But no. I wanted to power through and switch at the next town, which was in a measly ten miles. I left Ridgecrest and turned left on Route 195 to get on the 395.
Then that was it.
Suddenly, I awoke to my husband shouting to go back to my lane. A pickup truck was coming right at us. I was in the opposite lane trying to pass a minivan. Panicked, I abruptly returned to my lane, but before I knew it, I was swerving left and right and lost all control.
Going completely off the road, I screamed as we forcefully hit the ground. Just after our car quickly turned sideways from the impact, I blacked out.
Our car rolled over at least three times and ended up on its roof. The people from the pickup truck and minivan stopped to help us. They dialed 911 at 4:10 pm. If you saw the wreckage, you wouldn’t think anyone survived.*
I broke my neck. And my left wrist. And my left pinky. Usually, people become quadriplegic if there is also damage to the spinal cord in the same area where I broke my neck.
The cause of the accident? Whether I zoned out for a few seconds with my eyes wide open or fully fell asleep on the wheel, I still don’t know. All I know is that I recognized I was tired and didn’t stop driving right then and there.
Except for a mild concussion and small bruises on his lungs, my husband was completely fine. I, on the other hand, suffered significant injuries. I fractured the distal ulna and fifth metacarpal on my left arm, and more seriously, the C5, C6, and C7 vertebrae in my neck with severe damage to the surrounding ligaments.
In other words: I broke my neck. And my left wrist. And my left pinky. Usually, people become quadriplegic if there is also damage to the spinal cord in the same area where I broke my neck. When I first woke up after the accident, I rejoiced at being able to wiggle my fingers and toes as I realized I wasn’t paralyzed.
I was in and out of the operating room five times the first five months after the accident, two of which involved major surgeries on my spine. I stayed in the hospital on two separate occasions for a total of five weeks.
I also wore three different neck braces for nearly eight months, completely unable to move my neck as my fractures healed. The worst of them all was a five-pound contraption called a halo brace that was SCREWED INTO MY SKULL.
My way of life changed substantially while wearing these neck braces – sleeping, showering (or not showering), eating, walking, even sneezing. As a sporty and active person, I couldn’t run, bike, exercise, nothing. My only physical activity was walking, and I was thankful I could do that* given the gravity of my injury. Man, did I ever watch a lot of movies and read a ton of books that summer…
And then came the second phase of my recovery, after my fractures finally healed and my last neck brace was removed. Though I wasn’t wearing a cumbersome neck brace anymore, doing physiotherapy to restore the movement in my incredibly stiff and painful neck and getting back into shape to go back to work were just as hard.
There were literally two people who believed I could ever go back underground – me and my husband. Even I sometimes doubted that I could carry those muck samples*, hit a face with my rock hammer, haul out a hose, drive, or simply turn my head around underground again. I did my rehab like it was a full-time job for SEVEN MONTHS before my doctor let me go back to work.
So, a long year and two months later and here I am to talk about it. I came back to Musselwhite in late June this year.
Going through a serious injury like mine has completely changed the way I live and work. Completely changed the way I view my safety and that of others.
Now everything I do underground revolves around making the right choices and doing the right things because I don’t ever want to get hurt again. I don’t want to go through all that again – all that pain* I brought to myself and my loved ones; all that hard work just so I could go back to work, do all the things I love, and live a normal life. I act safely to protect my co-workers so they don’t get hurt and don’t have to go through that too.
Now everything I do underground revolves around making the right choices and doing the right things because I don’t ever want to get hurt again.
Though no one deserves to get hurt from making an unsafe decision, I definitely learned my lesson. Such a simple choice between driving and not driving when I felt just a bit tired resulted in me breaking my neck and being so close to either getting killed or stuck in a wheelchair forever at 26 years old. Or maybe killing other people too. Since then, I promised myself to just choose to be smart and safe all the time. Not just at work, you know? Because maybe the next time something happens, I may not get a second chance again.
At present, it has been six months since I have been back underground, checking out rocks and driving all over the mine in my Toyota. My utmost gratitude goes to everyone at Musselwhite who has supported and rooted for me throughout, especially to my department head Bill McLeod and our nurse Rob Gow. My colleagues told me that people wouldn’t stop coming to our office and asking about me!
Thank you also for the very generous and unexpected donation I received after my accident, which eliminated any financial stress even after being largely covered by the Goldcorp/Great-West Life and Ontario health insurance. Though I really wanted to write 130+ thank you cards, I had to focus on my recovery at the time.
During my recovery, I maintained a blog at dpleblanc.wordpress.com where I detailed my experiences and progress. I also co-wrote a book that includes my story, which you can support and read on any device for less than $3 at http://a.co/17JyfYF. All proceeds go to charity.
*times when I cried during my presentation!
Given that Goldcorp has mines and projects in Canada, the US, and Latin America, I’m happy to have reached so many people in my company. French and Spanish versions to follow… I even wrote the French version myself!