Surviving a Serious Accident
I was 29 years old, living in San Francisco, and playing full-time in a band. We had been invited to play an outdoor rally for one of the candidates who was campaigning in the 2000 presidential campaign. Our manager, Dianna, thought the rally would bring us some helpful publicity. So we agreed to play the gig and, on the appointed day, arrived at the Ferry Building to begin setting up our gear. I unloaded my bass amp from Dianna’s jeep and plugged it into an electrical outlet near the outdoor stage. Then I plugged my bass into the amp, switched on the power, and tried to play a few notes.
Our keyboard player, Bernard, had plugged his amp into the same outlet, but he wasn’t getting any power. A technician came over and unplugged both of our amps. He plugged us into a different outlet and said, “Try it now.”
I picked a few notes on my bass and heard that my amp was working. Bernard pressed a few keys on his keyboard; piano notes rang out of his amp. I picked a few more notes on my bass and said to Bernard, “They’re both working.”
A moment later, a bolt of electricity tore through my arms, shoulders, and neck. The impact of this bolt of electricity seemed to make a deafening sound, like the rattling of an earthquake. My teeth clenched together. For a fraction of a second, I had a feeling of infinite discomfort– not even of pain, but of such staggering impact that my brain seemed to switch off and restart.
In that same fraction of a second, I thought I could hear someone yelling into my left ear. There was a huge explosion of noise; I tried to yell that I was being electrocuted.
And then I found myself lying flat on my stomach, staring at the black ground. I didn’t know why I was on the ground. But I seemed to remember that I’d been electrocuted, earlier in the day. Or maybe the previous day. My jaw was resting on the ground. My neck ached. I couldn’t move my head.
I moved my tongue inside my mouth and noticed that I was missing a tooth. I saw a small white speck of pebble resting in front of my nose. It was my tooth. Surrounding my tooth were several flat orange-red marbles. I looked at the marbles. After a few moments, I noticed that they were clumps of blood.
I began to hear yelling. People were shouting. I could hear Dianna’s voice. I called to her, “What happened?”
“ARE YOU ALL RIGHT?”
“THE LIGHTING TOWER FELL ON YOU.”
Someone else was kneeling beside me. It was a man. He said, “Don’t move. Just don’t move.”
Dianna was yelling something at me. I shouted to her, “I have my tooth, I’m gonna hold my tooth.”
I felt nauseous. I rested my cheek on the ground. I could hear a siren. People were yelling.
An ambulance arrived. Someone told me not to move. There were legs, shoes, pants. There was a paramedic in a blue shirt kneeling next to me. Then there was a second paramedic. They put a wooden board on the ground next to me. They told me they were going to move me. I said, “Nooo…,” but they began to roll me onto my back. A blinding pain stabbed through my neck. Then I was lying on my back. I was puffing and panting. A paramedic put a white collar around my neck and began bolting me to the wooden board. A second paramedic pressed a belt across my forehead, strapping my skull against the wooden board.
Then they were loading me onto a stretcher. There was a slight bump as they loaded the stretcher into an ambulance.
Dianna climbed into the ambulance. I told her I had my tooth. The paramedic asked me to give him the tooth. I said that I wanted to try to use it again. He said he’d wrap it in gauze and hold it for me.
The paramedic asked me what my name was. He asked me what my age was. I remembered that I was 29. He asked me what day it was and I said I wasn’t sure. I asked him if it was Thursday. He said yes. He told me to move my feet. He leaned over me and asked me again to move my feet. I wriggled my toes. He said, “Can you move your feet?” I wriggled my toes harder and moved my shoes. He asked if I could feel my arms and legs. I said, “Yes.”
I asked Dianna what happened. She said that a lighting tower had blown over and fallen on my head. She said that she heard someone yell something and, as she turned, she saw the tower land on top of me. Our singer, Jethro, and a few other guys had lifted it off of me. I told her that I didn’t know what had happened, that I’d thought I’d been electrocuted. “No,” she said. “The whole tower fell over. The top of it came down on your head.”
The ambulance was moving. The paramedic was kneeling next to me. I told him that I could feel my legs. I asked him if that meant I was okay. He said, “We’re gonna go right to the emergency room and they’ll check you out.” I said, “But I’m okay, right?” He said, “They’ll check you as soon as we reach the emergency room.”
I could feel something wet running down the side of my face. The paramedic was pressing a large piece of gauze against the top of my head. He pulled away the piece of gauze; it was red. He reached for another piece of gauze.
Then we arrived at the hospital. Someone rolled me into a hallway. There were bright fluorescent lights. The paramedic talked to a doctor. They lifted me off the stretcher and placed me onto another stretcher. Then I was resting on a stretcher in a hallway. People in green hospital clothes were hurrying up and down the hall.
A few minutes later, a doctor came over and began asking me questions. He asked me what had happened. I told him that a lighting tower had fallen on me. He told me that I was bleeding from a hole on the top of my head. They were going to take some X-rays. He walked away.
I rested on the stretcher in the hallway. People hurried by.
A few minutes later, I felt the stretcher being moved. I was being wheeled into an X-ray room. Some people moved around. I asked them if I was okay. Someone said they were going to take some X-rays. Someone else put an X-ray bracket next to my head. A technician placed the X-ray machine next to my right ear.
Someone yelled “X-ray” and everyone ran out of the room. The X-ray machine made a grinding sound. Then everyone ran back into the room. Someone adjusted the machine. Then someone else yelled “X-ray” and they ran out of the room. The X-ray machine made another grinding sound. Then everyone ran back into the room.
The doctor who’d examined me in the hall said “It might be a broken finger” and the X-ray technician moved the camera down to my right hand. He lifted my hand and slid a film cartridge underneath it. Then he said “X-ray” and everyone began to run out of the room.
I looked down at the X-ray machine, which was hovering over my waist, aimed at my right hand. I remembered that whenever I’d previously had dental X-rays, a nurse had always covered my chest and groin with a lead apron. I shouted, “Wait, wait…” The doctor came back into the room. I said, “Wait…please, don’t you need to cover me with a lead pad or something?…” The doctor squinted at the X-ray technician. The technician turned and went into a side room. He came back with a yellow apron. He placed the apron over my chest and waist. Then he yelled “X-ray” and ran out of the room.
The X-ray machine made a grinding noise. The technician came back and collected the film cartridges. He removed my lead apron, cradled the film cartridges in his arms, and hurried out of the room.
Then the room was quiet. Several minutes passed. I could feel something wet collecting on the side of my face, near where my head was resting on the wooden board.
Five minutes passed. Ten minutes passed. The back of my round skull was being pressed into the hard flatness of the wooden board.
A doctor appeared in the doorway. “We’re going to take some X-rays just as soon as– oh…” He spun around and walked out of the room.
Five minutes passed. The back of my head was flattening into the wooden board. I listened to the in-and-out gasps of my breathing. If I breathed too deeply, my neck would move, pressing my head further into the wooden board.
A doctor walked in and said, “Someone will be with you soon.” He turned and hurried out of the room.
Five minutes passed. Ten minutes passed. A doctor walked in. “Your X-rays were negative.” He turned to walk out of the room. I said, “Wait, wait…” He turned back. I tried to turn my face. “So they were negative?…I’m okay, right?”
“We checked your spine and skull for fractures. They were both negative.”
“So I’m all right?”
He turned and walked out of the room.
Five minutes passed. I could feel something wet collecting on top of my head. It was collecting and collecting. Finally, it grew too large, and pushed over the side of my face. It began running down along my ear.
The doctor who’d initially examined me in the hallway came into the room. He began wheeling my stretcher into the hall. He said, “We’re just going to patch up your head and then you can go.” He wheeled me through a brightly-lit hallway. Then he rested my stretcher along the side of the hall. “I just have to find you a room.” He parked my stretcher and walked away.
Five minutes passed. People hurried by in green hospital clothes. The doctor came back and said, “We’re just waiting for a room.” He turned and walked away.
A stretcher rolled by. A flurry of people in green hospital clothes hovered over the stretcher. Someone was clipping an IV packet to a post on the stretcher.
A few minutes later, the doctor reappeared. He began wheeling my stretcher down the hall to a side room. We turned into the room and rolled to a stop. The doctor removed my neck brace. Then he removed the strap that was binding my head to the wooden board. I moved my head and felt something wet and sticky under my neck.
The doctor put on a pair of rubber gloves. He leaned over me. “You have a small hole in your head. I’m just going to staple it closed. But first I have to numb the area. I’m going to inject this into an area near here.”
He showed me a needle filled with anesthetic and touched a point on my forehead. “It may sting a little.”
He placed the needle near my forehead and injected the painkiller. Almost immediately, I could feel the top of my head grow numb.
The doctor brought a small light over and placed it above my head. He studied my scalp for a moment, then began pinching together the skin around the hole in my head. I heard the click-click of a staple gun and felt the dull thud as the staple grabbed my scalp. The doctor kept pinching my head and clicking the staple gun.
After the fourth staple, the doctor stood up and removed his gloves. “All right. That’s it. Someone’ll be in soon. We’ll just get your papers and you can leave.”
I looked at him for a moment. “Wait, is there anything I should know. I mean, my head is killing me. I can’t move my neck.”
“You should be able to.”
“No, it hurts so much. It feels like it’s stuck.”
“You should be able to move it.”
I tried to move my head. “It’s not gonna damage anything if I move it? It hurts whenever I try anyth–”
“You should take Ibuprofen. Do you have some Advil?”
“You’ll be sore for a while. Give it a few days.”
He walked out of the room.
A few minutes later, a nurse wheeled me out of the room. She leaned over the stretcher. “So what happened to you? The doctor said you had a light bulb hit you or something?”
“No, no, it was a lighting tower. The whole tower came down on my head.”
The nurse parked the stretcher along the wall in the hallway. “We’re just going to observe you for a little while and then you’ll be free to go. I’ll be right back.” She stood up and walked down the hallway.
Later, the nurse came back with Dianna. The nurse said she was going to check me out of the hospital. I told her that my head hurt, my neck hurt, my back was in excruciating pain, I thought that the swollen finger on my right hand was broken, my right knee felt jammed, part of my ribs hurt, I had a headache, I couldn’t turn my head, my tooth was broken, my right arm felt stiff… Was she sure that I was all right? Was there anything I needed to do. Maybe have a CAT-Scan or something.
“Well, your X-rays were negative. And you didn’t lose consciousness. So we can’t keep you overnight. You’ll probably just be sore for about three days. The doctor said you should take Ibuprofen. Do you want him to write you a prescription?”
“No, I have some Advil at home.”
Dianna looked at the nurse. “Doesn’t he need a neck brace or something?”
“Oh, no, that wouldn’t be good. The neck needs room to travel and recover itself.”
A week later, I was in agony. I was unable to turn my head from side to side. Any time I stood up, sat down, lifted my right arm, lifted a forkful of food, tried to pivot my head, drink a glass of water, climb into bed, climb out of bed– I would feel a sharp, spearing pain in my neck and inside the upper right portion of my back. My right knee– which had apparently been driven into the ground with the full impact of the lighting tower, would buckle if I walked uphill or climbed a staircase. But most disconcerting was a numbness, a lack of sensation in the fingers of my right hand. It had started as a tingling, a dullness in the tip of the index finger of my right hand. Gradually, over the course of a few days, the numbness had spread to the rest of the finger, then the middle finger, then the V-shaped portion of my hand where the two fingers met. As the days wore on, and this numbness increased, I began to feel shooting pains in my neck and right shoulder blade. Even while sitting immobile, the shooting pains would flash down my arm, ringing like a siren inside my elbow.
Finally, my insurance company approved a visit to an orthopedic doctor. I squeezed myself into a taxi and endured the bumpy ride across town. At his office, the doctor brought me into a brightly-lit room. He examined me for less than two minutes before running out of the examination room. “Lynn, Lynn, we need to get this guy an MRI as soon as possible.”
“St. Luke’s is down this week…”
“I don’t care. I don’t care. Find him someplace as soon as possible.”
The MRI took place the next morning. I was given earplugs and fitted into a white plastic tube. For twenty minutes, the machine made loud jackhammering sounds, graphing images of my spine.
The next day, the doctor had the results. I was lucky: I didn’t have any herniated disks– nothing that would require surgery. But one of my vertebral disks had been shoved out of alignment by the impact of the tower. The disk had been worn away as it scraped against the adjacent vertebrae. As it traveled, the disk had struck an adjacent bundle of nerves, bruising them, which explained the numbness in my fingers.
The doctor ordered a neck brace, which I needed to start wearing immediately to relieve some of the pressure on my neck. After I had purchased the neck brace I could eventually begin a series of Physical Therapy sessions to rebuild my neck and arm.
For an immediate measure, though, the doctor had prescribed steroids. The nauseating cortisone-steroid pills would help reduce the inflammation along my vertebrae.
I read the possible side effects of cortico-steroid treatment:
“This medicine makes you more susceptible to illness. If you are exposed to chickenpox, measles, or tuberculosis while taking this medicine or within 12 months after stopping this medicine, call your doctor. Check with your doctor as soon as possible if you experience swelling of feet or legs; unusual weight gain; black, tarry stools; vomiting material that looks like coffee grounds; severe nausea or vomiting; changes in menstrual periods; headache; muscle weakness; prolonged sore throat, cold, or fever…”
I began the steroid treatment the next day.
EPILOGUE: I didn’t work again for nine months.