As long as I can remember, my life has revolved around athletics, but as in anything in life, when you push the limits, you sometimes find it, and have to pay the price. Being an adrenaline seeker, I’m no stranger to the emergency room and have almost as many visits as I do years in my life. I’ve had injuries that range from broken ribs to sprained joints, from torn cartilage to a dislocated knee, but no injury has left a greater impact on my life than when I fractured my sternum.
I was a sophomore in high-school and had recently fallen in love with rock climbing. As I quickly improved, I felt more and more comfortable testing the limit of my abilities. On a particular climb, I found myself strung way out on lead, high above my last piece of protection with my arms pumping out. This is not a place you ever want to find yourself as a climber; there isn’t much you can do besides pray that your gear will hold and hang on for the ride. Looking down, I saw at least 15 feet of free rope between me and my last piece of gear. My stomach knotted up because I knew that if I fell at that moment, it would send me soaring not only down the 15 feet to my last gear placement, but an additional 15 feet past it before the rope would catch me. That is, if the small piece of metal I had wedged into a crack would hold the force of the fall. My aching fingers slowly began to loose contact with the rock until I could no longer hold on. I went screaming down in a 30+ foot pendulum, smashing full force into the cliff face below. I was pretty shaken, but miraculously, my gear had held and I had survived the fall.
I had all the normal aches and pains you would expect from crashing straight into a wall of stone, but nothing felt all that terrible. Over the next few days, the aches began to fade away and I was feeling pretty lucky under the circumstances, besides this one lingering pain in my chest. Four or five days had gone by and as my other pains disappeared, I was growing concerned about the growing pain in my chest. I talked to my dad about it and he said that if it still hurt in the next couple of days, he would take me to the hospital. A couple of days later, the pain had only gotten worse, but my dad still wasn’t too concerned, thinking that I would be in much more pain if anything was actually broken, so he told me to wait another couple of days. I waited another two days and by this point, my whole chest had turned a dark purply color. As I was pushing on it from top to bottom, I hit a spot where it sunk in a few inches, sending lightning bolts of pain through my body. Something was seriously wrong. A full ten days after the initial accident, I finally went to the hospital where I found out that I had sheared my sternum clean in half while miraculously not breaking a single rib.
I went under the knife, my fourth major surgery at this point in my life, and had a permanent titanium plate inserted into my chest. I really hate hospitals so begged to be let out early, and had an incredibly rapid recovery at home over the next few days. But as my luck has it, I wasn’t done paying for this accident yet.
As I was sitting at home one night, three days since leaving the hospital, I felt a powerful pressure growing inside my chest. Within a few minutes, it had become difficult for me to breathe and I was quickly becoming light-headed and dizzy. I called my parents, who were out at the time, and told them that I needed to go to the emergency room. I was experiencing a hemothorax. An artery had ruptured in my chest cavity, quickly filling it with blood and equalizing the pressures between the pleural space and my lungs. In other-words, my lungs were being crushed inside my chest cavity with the blood that was beginning to fill it.
My parents rushed home, but by that time my chest was already swollen to the size of a grapefruit, not just half a grapefruit, but a full protruding grapefruit, and I felt like I had an elephant sitting on my chest. I could barely speak. My breaths came in short, painful squeaky gasps. I was loosing my grasp with reality as my brain was being starved of oxygen. My vision doubled, then tripled, then quadrupled as everything began to leave trails of light behind like in some horrible drunken nightmare.
On the drive to the emergency room, I remember everything sounding like it was so distant, almost like I was underwater. My vision began to fade around the edges as it became harder and harder for me to get air into my lungs. It was horrifying. The volume of air that I was able to pull into my lungs was rapidly decreasing until eventually my breaths stopped all-together. Both of my lungs had completely collapsed.
That was it. I thought that it was the end. It was a scary moment, but at the same time, an erie, peaceful wave washed over me because the incredible battle to keep breathing was finally over. The struggle had ended, my body had lost. There was nothing that I could do.
My vision faded to black and I was left in this calm, dark world, far from the chaotic noises that rested on the edge of my slipping consciousness. My mother’s hysterical cries in the background somehow reached through my narcosis, grounding me in the severity of the moment and giving me this absolute desire to live. I wasn’t ready to leave this world just yet, and there was no way that I was going to do that to my mom. I was going to fight until the bitter end.
Even so, the sounds eventually faded away and I was left in an utter emptiness. I had entered the void. My life never flashed before my eyes, I never saw the “light at the end of the tunnel.” Just calm darkness, and it was so peaceful down there. But that too disappeared as I lost consciousness all-together, my brain so starved of oxygen.
I woke up to the bright lights of the I.C.U; people in white coats running around; bags of blood hanging above me, entering my arm through an I.V.; a vacuum tube coming out of my chest, draining the blood that was still accumulating. The doctor told me that if I had arrived just a minute later, I probably would have been dead, or worse yet, severely brain damaged. That thought was a little too close for comfort.
I haven’t told many people about this experience, or in such detail. It was an event that has forever changed my life, but oddly enough, it hasn’t stopped or even slowed my participation in extreme sports. This experience has actually increased my motivation for them, only with a different perspective. Coming so close to death allowed me to see just how valuable each and every moment is. There is no such thing as an ordinary moment. Never again will I pass up an opportunity to be active, to boldly try new things that I previously never thought were possible. I want to spend as much time as I can living on that edge, the delicate balance between life and uncertainty, only now, with a little more caution and a better knowledge of where to draw the line. Never again will I forget to live.