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How I Would Have Died: Breaking My Neck

Lucky for him, he has no bones to break!

Last week, I described the bicycle racing crash that left me in a ditch bleeding with ten broken bones.

The worst of those ten broken bones—at least in terms of my short-term and long-term survival—was my seventh cervical vertebra, C-7. At the moment I crashed, I flipped into the air and landed on my head. My helmet saved my skull, but the impact cracked the first two vertebra in my neck and smashed my C-7.  

I was blessed/fortunate/lucky that one of the other racers was a police officer and knew to keep me flat on my back until help arrived. Officer Mike Whitaker also called 911 and let them know I was in very bad shape and needed a MEDEVAC helicopter to take me to the hospital. Because an off-duty Emergency Medical Technician lives in the neighborhood and was nearby in his car, there was an EMT taking care of me in three minutes and I was strapped in the MEDEVAC 20 minutes later.  

The MEDEVAC landed on the roof of Lancaster General Hospital in ten minutes. I was again blessed/fortunate/lucky that the neurosurgeon on duty was Lt. Col. William Monnachi, just back from a tour in Baghdad Hospital treating wounded soldiers.

Dr. Monnachi and his surgical team replaced my C-7 with a bone from a bone bank the next day. I could barely swallow for the next six weeks, but I could walk within three days. I was in a neck and chest brace for the next three months, but was walking at least three miles a day from the day I left the hospital. I resumed running a month later.  

Last week Bess Williamson, one of CHF's visiting scholars, mentioned during a presentation that 100 years ago people with spinal injuries died within a few months. She said the polio epidemic led to new treatments for spinal disease and injury, but recovering from spinal injury was rare until recent medical innovations like bone transplants.  

In the hospital, one of the first people I thought of was Joni Earackson Tada. She is a quadraplegic who is three years older than I am. She smashed her fifth cervical vertebra in a diving accident at age 17. The difference between us:  In 1967 there were no bone banks, MEDEVAC helicopters were rare, and neurosurgery did not have as many tools as it has today. Joni has done great things for the disabled over the last 40 years and is an inspiration to thousands of people. But it seems clear from her writings and presentations that she would trade her work and her wheelchair for the use of her arms and legs.  

Next week, I will talk about the nine ounces of high-tech plastics that kept me from smashing my skull in the 50 mph impact with the road.

 

 

 

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