Keeping my head up high

A blog on recovering from a broken neck injury

“Keeping my head up high”: A short story

Together through sickness and in health

What follows is 100% true. I wrote this in late October 2015 and posted it here on December 11th, 2015.

Estimated reading time: 15 minutes


I heard the helicopter going full throttle. This was a familiar sound to me as a geologist who works in remote locations.

We were about to take off and I was lying on a stretcher. A paramedic told me, “You’re going to the emergency room and a lot of people are going to be working on you.”

Then everything faded to black.

When I awoke I was on a bed being wheeled away. A crowd of people hovered over me as I moved down the hallway. “Where’s my husband?” was all I could say in my foggy state. When they asked for my name, I even thought about whether I should affix or completely replace my last name with that of my new husband’s. I stuck to my maiden name.

The nurses continued to ask me questions but my every third reply was, “Where’s my husband?” I had no idea what happened to him and I was getting worried.

Wait, what even happened to me?

Finally, one of the nurses said, “He’s at Ridgecrest and he’s fine.” I fell asleep.

They woke me up to sign some consent forms on a clipboard. They told me they were going to clean up the wounds on my left arm, which were down to the bone around my elbow. Though I did not feel any pain from my body, my mind was sort of there, my head a bit dizzy. The anaesthesiologist explained what he was going to do for this surgery. I signed the consent forms haphazardly then I was out again.

Next, I remember lying down, about to enter an MRI machine. MRI scans typically take 45 minutes to complete, plus I had at least five other X-rays and CT scans that night. Yet I recall only a minute of my MRI.

I woke up in a hospital room a few hours later. A Middle Eastern doctor in his 60s with round, dark brown wide frame glasses came to my bedside.

“You broke your neck, honey,” he told me.

I was still in a haze. I saw my aunt and uncle enter the room… we were supposed to see them that night. The neurosurgeon and my aunt discussed the details of my injury. I could hear parts of their conversation, slipping in and out of consciousness. He talked about a device called a “halo brace” that they would put on me as soon as the next morning. He asked me to wiggle my fingers and toes.

Never in my life did I want them to move so much.

And THANK GOD they moved.

Read the rest in my new book coming out 14 February 2017! This book is a collective work between 50 writers from around the world

Okay, I broke my neck. And I’m not paralyzed. I’m going to have a normal life again. Everything’s going to be okay.

***

I asked my aunt, “Tita Lolit, is this a dream?” I really thought it was. She looked at me with great sadness in her eyes and replied, “I’m sorry, anak (my child)… unfortunately, it is not…”

I fell asleep again.

When I woke up, my husband was by my side. It was so great to see him. My aunt and uncle drove an hour and a half to Ridgecrest to pick him up, and then an hour and a half back again to my hospital in Lancaster, California. I giggled as I noticed him wearing a blue nurse’s scrub as a top with his jeans. This was at 3:30 am on 27 April 2015.

After an uneventful hour of driving, I started feeling tired. My husband offered to switch with me immediately while we passed the small town of Ridgecrest.

My husband remembered the entire accident. Leaving the day after our wedding from Toronto, Canada, we were on the eighth day of our honeymoon in the United States. Since we both enjoy hiking and camping, we had planned a 19-day road trip across the US to discover the picturesque national parks.

We had left Death Valley National Park in California on 26 April at 2:30 pm. We were to drive five hours towards Rowland Heights, a suburb of Los Angeles, to spend the night with my aunt’s family and then carry on with the rest of our trip. We were going to meet them at a restaurant, just in time for dinner.

My husband drove for about an hour. I voiced my guilt for being such a useless passenger – he had driven ninety percent of our trip, nearly two-thirds of the continental US! Although he didn’t mind and claimed that I was “the best co-pilot ever,” I insisted on taking the wheel and cruised through the flat, desert plains of the Panamint Valley.

After an uneventful hour of driving, 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 stop at the very 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 the sound of my husband telling me to go back to my lane. A pick-up truck was coming right at me. I was in the opposite lane, apparently trying to pass a minivan. Out of panic, I abruptly returned to my lane, but had to turn the wheel back to the left to stay on the road. Before I knew it, we were swerving left and right and lost all control.

Our car reached the edge of the other side of the road and I screamed as we forcefully hit a dirt road. Just after our car quickly turned sideways from the impact, I blacked out. My husband was still conscious.

Our car rolled over at least three times and ended up on its roof. The people from the pick-up truck and minivan stopped to help us. They dialled 911 at 4:13 pm. 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.

My husband tried to extricate me from the car, but the onlookers advised against it as both of us might have had some broken bones. Although my husband said that I was still conscious, constantly complaining about the pain in my left arm, I don’t remember anything from this part of the accident. I’m glad I don’t.

The land ambulance arrived and took care of my husband, but I had to be evacuated by helicopter to the trauma hospital in Lancaster some 80 miles away as my injuries seemed more severe.

At Ridgecrest Regional Hospital, emergency staff performed a full examination of my husband. Except for a mild concussion and small pulmonary contusions, he 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. Usually people become quadriplegic if there is also damage to the spinal cord in this area… but luckily for me there was absolutely none.

God was definitely watching over us that day.

***

I spent an entire month in the hospital. And it started with getting that dreadful contraption screwed into my skull in four different places.

My neurosurgeon opted to use a halo brace to prevent my head and neck from moving even a millimeter, keeping my neck in the correct position as it healed. In the end, I wore it for 14 weeks, the time frame required for adequate healing post-surgery. Though the halo brace allowed me to be mobile and continue with daily activities while injured, this petite girl had to carry seven pounds of metal rods and hard plastic around 24/7. While I sincerely felt that my halo was my lifesaver, it was also the bane of my existence… try not showering for three and a half months and you’d understand.

I could have been discharged after all my surgeries, two weeks after the accident. But a nasty bacteria called C. difficile invaded my colon as all the antibiotics I took obliterated my “good” colon bacteria. As I suffered from all the diarrhea and vomiting from this severe colon infection, as well as from the excruciating pain in my broken arm and neck, I was incredibly fortunate to have my husband, who was permitted to sleep on the recliner beside my hospital bed, keep me company round the clock. My parents also came at once from Canada, staying with me during my first two weeks at the hospital.

I was a mixed bag of emotions. I was too weak to feel anything but pain at first. When reality started to kick in, I felt despair, hope, gratefulness, hopelessness, happiness, and everything in between. Plus more pain. I cried a lot. I agonized about how the accident was all my fault. I feared that I would never be the same again, or that it would, at least, take a very long time to go back to being the mining geologist, avid traveller and hiker, and exercise enthusiast that I was.

It was rough, but I resolved to get through it. While I had a wonderful support system in my husband, parents, siblings, friends, and the hospital staff, I also turned to prayer, meditation, and walking around the hospital floor multiple times a day for exercise.

Discharge day finally came but I could not return home to Canada. It was deemed unsafe to travel that far by plane, train, or car. I had to stay in California for the duration of my treatment in the halo brace, until it came off… another two months. Away from all my loved ones—with a broken neck; in an awful halo. It could have been worse had it not been for my aunt’s family who graciously hosted my extended US “vacation.”

***

Initially my neurosurgeon told me, “Three months in a halo, then six weeks in a Minerva jacket, then that’s it and you can go back to normal.”

As I write this, it has been six months since I broke my neck. And I’m still in a neck brace.

I tenaciously endured the halo brace during my time in California. Anyone who has worn a halo will tell you that it was probably the most difficult experience in his or her life. Because it’s true. For one thing, personal hygiene became a three-step process for me – washing my hair using buckets of water, showering only waist down, and cleaning my upper body with BABY WIPES. Ugh. Rising from bed, entering and exiting vehicles, and even simply walking around with the added weight of the brace: these and other basic living activities turned into daily challenges.

At first I struggled with the thought of how long two months would be in the halo. It felt like an eternity. I counted the weeks left in that thing, just about every night as I tried to go to sleep. Seven weeks left… six weeks left… sigh, I thought. I found myself deep in thought sometimes, trying to figure out the purpose of life, the meaning of everything that had happened to me, God’s plan for me, and so on.

At the three and a half month mark, my neurosurgeon claimed that I was “all healed.”

Being extremely physically active pre-accident, I felt frustrated just sitting around in my aunt’s home watching movies, binge-watching TV series, and reading books to pass the time. My sole, safe form of exercise was walking and I was already walking outdoors a good hour every day (fortunately, my halo didn’t scare many children at the park). As we were talking on FaceTime, my friend Jen advised, “If you can’t improve yourself physically, focus on improving yourself intellectually.” She was definitely right and it had never been a more opportune time.

I signed up for two free online writing courses lasting two months – perfect timing for my halo removal! Writing has been a favourite hobby of mine since childhood and I was happy to get the chance to practice and improve on it. Above all, my idle thinking time was not spent in negativity any longer. It was now spent doing research and proofreading my writing four times over.

With my reinvigorated, optimistic attitude, the next several weeks passed by more quickly than I thought. At the three and a half month mark, my neurosurgeon claimed that I was “all healed.” I could not contain my joy when he told me that after looking at my CT scan. At that moment all the hardship, anxiety, and troubles the halo brace brought into my life disappeared. Minutes later he removed my halo, freeing me from that cage on my head.

***

When I returned to Toronto, Canada, my new neurosurgeon told me that I was, in fact, not “all healed.” With my most recent CT scan displayed on his computer, he showed me all the different areas in my neck where new bone still hadn’t grown from my first fusion surgery in California, resulting in what is called a “non-union” between my C5 to C7 vertebrae. If I wanted to continue my active lifestyle, I had to get another surgery to further stabilize my fractures.

At that time, I had one month to go in my new manageable (but still cumbersome) Minerva jacket. Like the halo, it came down to my waist, but it had its defining features: a chin pad and straps to hold my head up! Since my US neurosurgeon told me I was “all healed,” I initially came into that consult wondering if I even needed this new neck brace. Then after half an hour I walked out with a major revision spinal surgery scheduled two weeks later, plus several weeks of added neck brace time. “We’re going to fix you up,” my new Canadian neurosurgeon reassured me.

For over a week, I was in a state of perpetual emotional struggle over that unexpected development. Everything I did while in the halo, I did it right – resting, eating properly, walking, being positive. I was told my neck was healing well. And now, my new doctor tells me my first surgery wasn’t even all that successful?!? Like I basically wasted all that time in the halo?

I wasn’t just upset or disappointed, no. I was utterly demoralized.

When will this ALL end?

My mantra became: Just take it one day at a time. I focused on that alone. As I lay in bed every night, squirming uncomfortably in my Minerva jacket, I would set myself little goals for the next day, such as to complete insurance paperwork, clean up the pantry, or bake the banana oatmeal muffins I craved.

Ah yes, banana oatmeal muffins. With all my free time disabled from working, I began my “culinary adventures” now that I could be functional in a kitchen again after rehabilitating my broken left arm. Like what I had done with writing, I returned to another old hobby – cooking. I cooked anything and everything for myself and my family, trying new recipes and perfecting the classics. And pretty soon, the day for Surgery No. 2 came.

***

I woke up in a recovery room after the surgery. I wasn’t wearing my Minerva jacket anymore, but a new, much smaller, lighter Aspen collar. Without any padding on my upper body, I felt my back against a bed for the first time in four months. I felt dizzy waking up from the anaesthesia. My throat and my hip hurt. Soon a male nurse named Kevin attended to me. I told him I felt incredibly thirsty, to which he said that it was an effect of the anaesthesia and he was going to get me some mouth swabs and ice chips for now.

Fresh out of the operating room, my neurosurgeon came to my bed to see me and tell me how it went:

  • The surgery took five hours, instead of the two hours his team had previously estimated.
  • The surgery was a success with no complications.
  • He took a good look at what was going on in my neck (since I can’t get an MRI now with the metal implants in my body from my previous surgeries).
  • He was surprised to see how incredibly damaged the ligaments in my spine actually were.
  • So extensive was the injury to my neck that I was truly on the borderline of paralysis.
  • I had to wear the Aspen collar for three months, instead of the six weeks he had told me previously.

Crushed by the news that I had to wear a neck brace for a little while longer (AGAIN), I was on the verge of tears.

I asked him, “Umm, can I take cooking classes?”

My neurosurgeon was a Chinese man in his late 30s, but he looked and acted much younger than he was. He laughed and said jokingly, “Come on, are you serious? You’re not just sitting there eating! No no, not for now.”

“Can I take French classes?” He didn’t allow that either. Nor travelling to Québec City, where I was to move into my new apartment with my (also new) husband after our wedding.

Nevertheless, I thanked him profusely for all his and his team’s hard work in finally fixing me up. He then left me to rest and went to the waiting room to tell my family how the surgery went.

Of all the things that went well – undergoing a successful surgery and dodging paralysis – I chewed on ice chips thinking how extremely long another three months in this cursed neck brace would be. So narrowly focused were my thoughts that I began to cry out of disappointment and distress. Instead of recuperating from a major, major surgery involving my SPINE, my mind went in circles thinking. When am I ever going to go back to my life? Why is this taking so long?

I forced myself to snap out of it and get it together. I took deep breaths and ate more ice chips. I attempted to rest from the surgery.

After some time, I was wheeled back to my room. As he handed me off to my nurse, Kevin wished me all the best telling me, “Hey, before you know it, those three months will fly by.”

***

My family welcomed me as I returned to my room. They had been waiting for me since the surgery started at 1:30 pm… and it was already 7:30 pm.

I held my mom’s hand. In tears I told her, “Mommy, I’m going to be okay, right?” Her heart ached as she saw me, her eldest daughter, terribly distraught. “Oh yes, anak, you will be all right…” she consoled.

For over two hours now, the idea of wearing a neck brace for three months instead of six weeks still shattered me. Never did I feel so sad and disheartened. And when my nurse, Kathryn, told my family that visiting hours were now over, I never felt so alone.

I told her that I was on top of the world, newly married with a thriving career and everything to look forward to. And now the only thing I looked forward to was the day I would get my neck brace off.

A while later Kathryn entered my room to give my pain medication for the evening. My throat and hip still hurt and I felt just spent and weak all over. I asked Kathryn if I could eat the soup my husband brought me. She kindly offered to heat it up in the microwave.

When she returned, I pitifully asked, “Kathryn, umm, can you stay with me for a bit?”

Looking a little surprised yet understanding, she said, “Okay, sure, I’ll just bring my computer in here so I can do my charting while we talk, if that’s fine.”

Crying uncontrollably, I told Kathryn everything… never mind that my roommate heard me too. I told her that I was on top of the world, newly married with a thriving career and everything to look forward to. And now the only thing I looked forward to was the day I would get my neck brace off.

Kathryn was a young woman with shoulder length brown hair, probably a few years older and only slightly taller than I was. In her brown eyes I saw that she truly sympathized with me. She consoled and advised me, “It’s okay to have a pity party once in a while, but it’s important to get yourself back up too.” By now she needed to attend to her other patients, but she asked me to think of five things for which I was thankful until she came back.

I came up with:

  1. My loving husband
  2. My supportive family
  3. Surviving a deadly accident
  4. Being able to walk
  5. Getting this surgery to continue my active lifestyle

With that, I resolved to get some rest for the night.

***

I was discharged after a day of recovery from the surgery and the next five weeks at my parents’ home in Toronto passed in the blink of an eye. I continued to cook, read, and walk for exercise. I even started and actively wrote in my own blog that consumed most of my time.

At my appointment with my neurosurgeon three weeks post-surgery, he said that everything actually looked good. He even told me I could take cooking classes and French lessons now! Most importantly, he allowed me to fly to Québec City to be with my husband.

As I moved to a new city into our new apartment, my husband and I felt like real newlyweds… just five months too late. In wedded bliss, we felt like we were on our honeymoon again. Only this time no one ended up in a hospital.

At present I have only one more month until complete neck brace freedom. I am currently attending French immersion school full-time, much to the delight of my francophone husband. (We’re still working on his Tagalog… he’ll get there.) It has been three weeks since I started at the pre-intermediate level and everyone says I have improved astronomically. I have also been taking some cooking classes taught entirely in French. In my first class, I understood seventy percent of what was said and even asked so many questions!

One night as I lay in bed, I started crying softly. Not out of sadness, disappointment, or despair this time. This time I wept out of sheer happiness.

recentxray copy
September 2015 X-ray of my neck with all its bells and whistles. At the back I have wiring from my first (failed) surgery, at the front I have a plate with screws fusing all three vertebrae together from my second surgery.

SAMSUNG CSC

Author Dan LeBlanc was born and raised in the Philippines, immigrating to Canada when she was 18. Newlywed at 26, she is a mining geologist with a passion for observing rocks, hiking the world’s most challenging trails, and sweating it out at the gym or with an exercise video at home… until she almost lost her life in a car accident on her honeymoon in April 2015. With two major spinal surgeries, three cumbersome neck braces, and many trials under her belt, she is currently completely brace-free and has been on a steady, positive road towards making a full recovery by mid-2016. Until then, you can follow her physical therapy, language learning, and cooking escapades on her recovery blog www.dpleblanc.wordpress.com.

***

Thank you to everyone who gave feedback to this story during my writing process: my mom (my writing’s number one fan), my husband, Uncle Lenard B., Nikka M., Alexis T., Jen L. (the Jen of the story!), Ysi D., Jaya S., Elin B., and the rest of the Coursera English Composition I group.

I welcome any and all comments and suggestions for improvement!

More importantly, I am thankful to those who have helped me every step of the way back to my pre-accident self – be it through your prayers, words of encouragement, visits to the hospital or to my home, or care at the hospital, doctor’s office, or physical therapy clinic. I remember each and every one of you (I’m great with names and faces!). Know that I would not have made it this far without your kindness and empathy for me.

Maraming salamat! Merci beaucoup!

You can also read my story in detail in the various mini-stories I have written in my blog here 😉

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