There had been many times in my life that I had woken from sleep – disoriented, unsure of what time it was, even uncertain of where I was. This was different. I didn’t wake up from a sleep, but rather came to a sudden realization: I was in a hospital room. I could hear machines beeping, but other than that – it was silent. At least at first. Soon my senses came about me and I heard the clamor outside the door of nurse shoes, visiting families, food & medication carts, as well as cleaning carts. I also heard the TV in the room that I was in; it was on a local news station. There was obviously activity all around me, but the questions remained: why was I in a hospital room?…alone? Who was I there to see?
I remember the initial shock and confusion. But after that, it’s pretty obfuscated. Similar to when you’re having a cell phone conversation and the party that you’re conversing with is “breaking up”. You can make out what they’re saying by hearing certain key words or portions of them and putting everything together, but it’s more like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. In this case – it’s a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces.
I eventually gathered myself enough to register that I was in the hospital bed. In a gown. My right leg and foot were heavily wrapped up in dressings and an immobilizer. Same with my right arm. My left arm was in a sling. There were staples on my right knee, my right thigh, my abdomen, my left shoulder…and on the left side of my head. I felt a catheter. I was not in pain – unless I tried to move. I was overcome with confusion…but there was no panic or terror that I remember. Probably because of the heavily medicated state that I was in. Which is probably also what made me think that standing up out of the bed was a good idea. With right leg fully immobilized and left leg weak and atrophied, I was unable to support myself after taking a good few minutes to even make it to the side of the bed. I didn’t fall. I was able to hold myself upright despite my arms being weak & atrophied, as well.
I forgot who it was who came in first and helped me back into the bed, but pretty soon there were medical staff members and my family in the room with me. Again – I don’t remember exactly who…but I know that my parents, my wife, and my kids ended up there. It was then that they informed me that I was in a car accident on my way from Virginia to Texas. It was an annual trip that I made at the end of every summer to pick up my children. They would spend the summers in Texas with family and I would travel there to pick them up, visit my family, and take them back to Virginia. I had spent the night at my sister-in-law’s house in Mobile, Alabama to break up the trip. I woke up around 5:30am to get an early start. I was always anxious to get there to see my children after not seeing them for the entire summer. Not long after I left the house, I was on Interstate-10 right outside of Mobile, and a driver going in the opposite direction came across the median and hit me head-on. He was a 20-year old young man who died at the scene. Probably on impact or close to it. To this day, I don’t know what caused him to come into my lane. I remember none of it. I remember waking up early and brushing my teeth. The next thing I remember is realizing I was in the hospital…that was about 10-14 days later. All of those days are gone from my memory. As well as weeks – even months – before the accident being extremely hazy.
They took me through my list of injuries: starting with a broken right foot, shattered right knee cap, open fracture of the right femur…all of which were crushed under the dashboard. It was later discovered that I ended up with a torn PCL, as well. Dual fracture in the right forearm. Broken left collar bone – from the seat belt. Because of the force of the impact, the seat belt also caused internal bleeding and damage to internal organs that required them to cut open my abdominal cavity. All of that was very difficult to hear. Especially considering that all of those injuries happened in the span of an instant. They then told me that I had also suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury in the crash. That was the first time that I felt a wave of panic set in. Past recollections and experiences had showed me that recovery from such an injury did not usually go well. I feared for my future. Would I be able to function properly? Would I be able to go back to doing what I loved? What kind of father would I be? (I would find out later that I was put into a medically-induced coma so that they could perform neurosurgery)
…everything was uncertain…
My Rehabilitation Program consisted of two daily sessions each of Physical Therapy, Occupational Therapy, and Speech Therapy. I remember throughout the program how difficult everything was. The simplest of tasks seemed daunting. My rehab consisted of screwing nuts and bolts in & out of holes. Piecing together small puzzles of butterflies and puppies. Recalling information from short stories read to me by the Speech Therapist. And also – the most difficult and intimidating task of all at that time – learning to walk again. I hated walking. When it was time for physical therapy, and I knew they were going to make me walk, I became angry. I looked for ways to get out of it. I was content with my mother and the nurses pushing me around in a wheelchair all day. Walking was not only painful – but it was extremely humiliating to think that only weeks ago I was a physical specimen. A strong competitor who had just qualified for national and international competition as an Olympic weightlifter. And now I was struggling to take a few steps?
I didn’t realize until later that the strength I had built through years of training was directly what was responsible for not only my recovery, but my survival. The first state trooper at the scene told my brother that he had never seen a collision like that or vehicle in that condition where there was a survivor. Doctors, nurses, and therapists all agreed that my survival/recovery was due to the condition that I was in before the accident happened. The frustration that I felt towards therapy later became frustration directed at myself. I didn’t want to be in a wheelchair. I didn’t want people to have to feed me, bathe me, or change my adult diapers any more. I used that anger. I went from a wheelchair to a walker. From a walker to a cane. I started giving myself showers and doing things for myself that others normally did for me.
Something else that contributed to my recovery was the amount of support that I received from family and friends. My mother stayed there with me throughout the entire Rehabilitation Program. I had friends from Virginia visit me during the 10-day period that is gone from memory. Some of them were Navy and happened to be close-by in Florida and went to see me the day after the accident. I still had my breathing tube in. Others traveled from Virginia to Alabama. It makes me sad that I remember nothing of their visit. The ones who traveled from Virginia told me, however, that I knew their names and had conversations with them. I received daily cards, flowers, messages, and words of encouragement from family and people back in Virginia.
It has been exactly two years since the accident happened – 8/4/2015. After a long and arduous journey of recovery, I’m extremely thankful to say that despite being significantly weaker physically, I am back in the gym and able to do most things that I did before. I am thankful that I am now a CrossFit affiliate owner. I am thankful that after extensive testing by neurological specialists, it was determined that I have “no brain-related impairments”…other than a little amnesia and short-term memory loss. I am thankful that I’ve had such great support by everyone throughout this whole ordeal.
And finally … in a way that may puzzle and confuse some people … I’m thankful that the accident happened.
Despite everything that I had to endure: being unable to care for myself, all the fear, all the scars, all the pain, all the misery, all the uncertainty…I feel that because of what happened, I am a better person. I’m a better father. I’m a better friend. I’m a better coach & trainer. I appreciate life more. I truly know what it means to have adversity and to overcome it. During a podcast, a friend of mine stated that: “…seeing you now…seeing you lifting and back in the gym…it’s probably easy for some people to dismiss your journey.” And he’s right. Some have seen the condition that I’m in now and think: “I guess he wasn’t hurt that bad after all.” It’s so confusing to them that someone could recover so much from such extreme trauma. I would say that the young man who crashed into me died of similar injuries – on impact. But I would also say that it’s not such a bad thing for people to be so confounded by the recovery that they just automatically assume that everything was over-stated or over-dramatized. I actually see that as a good thing. I’ll end with what has become one of my favorite sayings that I heard somewhere – I say this to myself (and others) almost daily:
ALWAYS FORWARD. FORWARD ALWAYS.