Things I Learnt by Breaking My Back

Broken Back

When I was living in France and working as a ski rep, I happened to take an unfortunate tumble. I landed on my lower back and the compression went up my spine, causing compression fractures in two of my vertebrae.

It was uncomfortable and at first, I could barely breathe. I later found out that this was due to the fact that I had fractured vertebrae T12 and L1 which is where the diaphragm is attached. I managed to drag myself to a chair lift and climb into it which was a huge mistake. The pain was so bad that I had to hang out the bottom of the chair by my arms in order to straighten my back. When it reached the top, I was so exhausted and in pain that I collapsed on the floor. After this, I don’t remember how long it took, but a paramedic eventually arrived. I had a disagreement with him about my lung being punctured. He said because of my difficulty breathing, I had probably broken a rib which had then punctured my lung. I argued that the impact had not been on my chest and his diagnosis was impossible.

With my arms strapped onto a stretcher and my neck in a brace, I was skied to the bottom of the glacier before being put into a gondola that could transport stretchers. It looked ominously like a coffin. After two rides in these horrible things, I was strapped to the back of a skidoo and dragged to a medical centre where I had x-rays before being transported to a proper hospital in an ambulance. Ironically, if I had have fallen a week later, there would have been a helicopter on standby to collect me.

After investigation, the doctors tried to get me into a private jet to be flown back to the UK for hospital treatment but I refused, telling them to have a think about it until tomorrow. Good or bad, every experience shapes you. This is what I learnt from breaking my back.

1. My Body is Precious

This x-ray shows the compression fractures on vertebrae T12 and L1

Strapped to the backboard, the paramedic asked me to wiggle my toes to check for spinal cord damage. If I had damaged my spinal cord, it would have meant some form of paralysis. This was one of the singularly most terrifying things I have ever been asked to do and when the doctor in the hospital said I couldn’t play sport for 12 months following the accident, I openly cried.

2. Travel Insurance is Essential

Two paramedics had to come and strap me to a board to get me to the hospital

I have travelled without travel insurance in the past and thought nothing of it. I always assumed it was unimportant because of the excesses and low maximum claims on personal belongings. I now realise that you get travel insurance for the medical cover. At the time I was working and had both travel insurance and Carré Neige (mountain rescue insurance for skiers). Without these two items, my rescue and hospital fees would have cost me around £5,000.

3. Morphine is Great

C17H19NO3 was a new experience for me. The physical and emotional pain simply washed away and everything became pleasant. I genuinely believed my own words as I told my boss that the doctors said I can leave for dinner and come back tomorrow when the medical centre is quieter. At this point in time, I was topless, with my ski pants half down, and unable to move from my back board.

4. Doctors Don’t Know Everything

‘Et æble om dagen...’ by Jane Mejdahl is available at http://www.flickr.com/photos/gullig/273868403/ under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0. Full terms at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

I had so many mixed opinions of what was required for recovery, that the meaning of the word science was becoming laughable. One doctor told me that from looking at the x-rays, it was the second time I had fractured my back. Another told me not to play sports for a year. In the end I tried new doctors until I found one I liked; after six weeks he said I could start swimming and after two months, ski if I felt up to it. For better or for worse, I chose to follow his advice because it is what I wanted to hear.

5. People are Great When You are in Need

It’s very easy to take people for granted when you work with them and see them everyday. However, after my accident, people helped me out and came to check on me and were generally great. A lot of the time I shoed people away because I was in a very bad mental place and didn’t want to speak to people, but they still helped. My boss, who at times I had experienced a tenuous relationship with, was brilliant. So too were my parents. Although I didn’t initially tell them about the accident, they learnt about it in the early hours of the morning and despite not knowing where I was, turned up at the hospital around lunchtime.

6. It’s Illegal to Leave a Hospital

Attempting to discharge myself, the doctors told me that they would call the police because it was illegal for me to leave the hospital. They said that I wasn’t ready to go and I needed to stay until I had been authorised to leave by a specialist. I don’t know how true this is and my French is too limited to argue, so I ended up staying an extra night in the €1,000 a night specialist unit.

That’s it. These things went into my little imaginary book of life learning which I carry around with me every day. It gets bigger and bigger, but I like to think that my life becomes more successful because of it. We must take the good things and learn from the bad.

2 Comments

  • Hi,
    I have recently suffered the exact same injury. How was your back treated in recovery-did you have to wear a brace?
    Did you ski again the same season? Was it scary getting back on skis?
    My doctors have been hugely vague with how long I have to be out of sport and working- they have given me timescales like 2-6 months, so any advice based on personal experience would be great!
    Thanks

    • Cara, I am sorry to hear that you have suffered the same injury. I wore a back brace and had extensive bed rest for a month, then I started swimming everyday to strengthen myself again. I was skiing again within two months (although the doctors originally said it would be at least a year). I was desperate to get back up on skis, so it wasn’t scary for me, but I had a major crash on a black kicker while snowboarding a few days after getting back on the mountain and that was one of the most painful experiences of my life. I suppose I was trying too hard to prove that I wasn’t afraid! With fractured vertebrae, it isn’t an exact science, so doctors will tell you many different things. I went with the doctor who told me to swim until I felt strong enough to ride again as that is what I wanted to do. I don’t know if this was the right thing to do or not, but other than losing my ability to bowl in cricket (which was never much of an ability), I haven’t suffered any long term side effects. I hope you recover quickly.

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