25 Was the Worst Year of My Life (Ch. 1)

so far…

I can’t vouch for Kate’s motivations behind this post, but it moved me, and reminded me why some of my girlfriends and I give thanks we’re no longer in our twenties (even though the thirties bring with it rapid aging and a whole different marriage/procreation pressure cooker!). 

As I commented to Kate, in 2004 I told my dear and brilliant and then-24 friend S- when we were living in Tanzania that “25 was the worst year of my life.”  (Just another unsolicited and unwelcome Redstar editorial.)  And sure, I had exceptional circumstances, but I think either way it would have been a brutal time.  The first milestone age after 21, where you look inward for more measurable goals other than purchasing your first keg and possibly drinking the bulk of its contents (not that at 25, or 30, or 50, for that matter, you’re above throwing or attending a fabulous party in your honor).  Yet, what have you got to show for 25?  An apartment you can’t really afford, a lot of fabulous but blurry nights and some rather dicey relationships to come out of them?  A job that you’ve decided long ago is beneath you, but the boss keeps forgetting to clean out the corner office for your ass and framed photos of you and your friends in Cancun in college?  Graduate school keeps a lucky few of us busy and under the impression we’ve got our eyes on the prize, but then you’re done at 26/27 and it’s right back to working your way up to that corner office now occupied by the bozo who used to have the cube next to you and certainly doesn’t have $100k in student loans now.  (And scooting back to grad school again at 29 is not recommended by this author!)  You sigh, and turn your attention back to the Redstar Perspective rather than those files on your desk.

When I was 24, I broke my back, foolishly and unexpectedly on spring break in Negril, Jamaica.  The youngest of the six friends I was with, I was nonetheless 3-6 yrs older than most of the vacationing population there that March week.  On the booze cruise to my demise, my crew ranging in age from 24-30 overhead conversations b/w 21 yr old Army guys such as “yeah, this place is so much better than Cancun because everyone there is like, 18.”  (Then one of our gang ran off and hooked up with said guy, but that’s not the point here.)  Cliff diving at Rick’s Cafe, I was the one my aunt always talked about when we came in crying from some fall or scrape or skirmish outside: “you play, you pay.”  And how.  Hitting the water at a 45 deg angle from ~35 feet up, I knocked the wind out of myself, started barking like a seal, and had to swim to the water’s edge to avoid my buddy Tergie crashing feet first down on my head.  An old Navy guy (Armed Forces, not the retail chain) hauled me out of the water, and Tergie and our friend Marbury half carried me up the rock stairs carved into the cliff.  Then came a short ambulance ride to a clinic with a German doctor but no x-ray equipment, followed by an excruciating ambulance ride (the EMT gave me the following choice, strapped as I was to a wooden board: we could go quickly over the unpaved roads, but that would cause me great, additional pain as I bounced along; we could go slowly, and meaning I would have to tolerate my already excruciating pain in my back) to a public hospital in the center of the island with x-ray equipment (We went slowly for over an hour.).  From the navy guy to the booze cruise boat captain who saw me hit the water to the German MD to the MDs I eventually saw 6 days later in NY, everyone but the Jamaican staff diagnosed me correctly: a spinal compression fracture (scroll down until you see “severe” on the left hand side of the page; fyi: the Navy guy told me I could walk it off if I took 8 advil a day for the next 6 weeks, or something to that effect). 

At the Jamaican hospital, the nurses wore white dresses with little lace caps, the head E/R doc was from Burma, the sign on the hallway signifying a room I can only hope held files was marked “Death”, and little Jamaican kids waited for treatment from falling out of the backs of pick-up trucks.  Marbury, blond and over 6ft tall and a lover of terrible pop music true to his Tampa roots, was running around the hospital barefoot in his bathing suit and free Miller Lite spring break t-shirt that he had to practically wrestle from Rick’s Cafe.  My friend KL stuck by my side in the ambulance and E/R while Marbury ran around trying to get someone in the hospital to accept American $$.  No dice, and eventually Tergie and our friend Dan had to take a taxi across the island with the Jamaican $$ they’d practically had to wrestle out of the exchange desk at the hotel (by this point in the story, usually the entire High Drama chorus – Tergie, Marbury, and KL – interject with their chapters, for it is certainly not just my tale to tell, these guys got me through it, but I will have to try to do them justice here). 

The radiologist in Jamaica was home that Mon night; we had to wait for her to come in for my x-rays.  The x-ray tech at NY Hospital when he saw the slides that following weekend was satisfied with their quality; if only the camera had captured the correct part of my spine.  The NY tech was the first to notice the fracture that was cut off at the top of the slide, while the rest of the image showed an intact lumbar spine.  In fairness to Jamaica (because I have come to have issues with the entire island after this whole debacle), I was complaining of lower back pain in the hospital.  But it turns out the fracture was where the thoracic and lumbar meet, several vertebrae up my back at T12 when the upper curve of the S meets the lower one.  Ouch.

After a long ride back to the hotel from the hospital (someone remind me of our driver’s name) complete with a side-of-the-road jerk chicken purchase and some hassling from armed police (“why is she lying down?” they demanded when they spotted me lying prostrate in the chauffered van Greg and Dan had commandeered), I retired to the hotel room I’d spend the week in – through Thursday, watching cable piped in from Nashville, TN and popping painkillers manufactured by 3M.  I couldn’t stand up straight without clutching my lower back like a pregnant woman, and I shuffled around the hotel like an old man the few times I tried to muster the energy to leave the room (there is a picture of me with the gang at the hotel club one night, lying on a couch in ponytail and glasses smiling weakly).  Finally, my mother’s transatlantic worries and own anxieties and enduring pain (why wasn’t it dissippating???) got me to the airport Friday for an early flight back to the U.S.  I cried the entire route to the airport, again at the ticket window (next to another young American girl doing the same), was sick the whole flight home, and was so so so kindly met by a JFK employee who helped me off the plane and got me a wheelchair and what little I’d brought home and rolled me out to my mom and stepdad (this airport employee is not a fiction).  The High Dramas brought the bulk of my stuff home for me on Sunday, only to touch down and learn what really happened.

Saturday morning my mom and stepdad and I walked the six or so blocks to NY Hospital for a check-up.  Supposedly I was fine, but I was still in pain, and my hospital care was in the Carribbean, so why not just swing by the e/r just to be safe?  I think we’d made plans to go to a museum later in the day.  (Keep in mind, huge bruises covered my arms and backs of my thighs, so it seemed reasonable to believe that I was just really bruised.  The inability to stand up straight, though, I’ll admit, that was a concern.)  Fast forward past the inevitable loitering in the e/r (especially given its lack of Seattle Grace “man candy” staff) to the radiologist coming into my hospital room and saying, “I want to meet the person who walked to have these x-rays taken.”  That’s me!  Turns out I had shattered bone fragments flung around my spine.  By the Grace of God (or Seattle), none had settled on any nerves, but there was no reason to assume they couldn’t shift.  (This is the part of the story where I remember that Monday night at the hospital in Jamaica, the bottoms of my feet were tingling, like pins and needles, and I asked Marbury, also barefoot, “are your feet tingling?”  Assuming it was an environmental thing.  His weren’t, so I was left to my own confusion and tingles, which eventually subsided.  The radiologist was pale as I recounted this to her.) 

From that moment on, there was action.  I was scheduled for the O/R for 8am the next morning at Hospital for Special Surgery, where the Ghananian Genius (scroll down to BACK SURGERY)  Dr. Oheneba Boachie-Adjei operated on my back.  (None of the on-line bios do him as much justice as his People magazine profile several years after my surgery!)  I avoided the severe pain of the bone graft from the hip common in these spine surgeries; I had a stump of a rib on my left side that they removed instead.  Propping me up on bean bags the following morning in the e/r, they sliced me upwards at a diagonal across my left side, detached my diaphram, removed from rib, broke it up and put it inside a titanium cage fastened into place in my spine with titanium rods, added whatever bone they cleaned out of my spine in with it, reattached my diaphram, and sewed me up.  Surgery took about six hours, and I now have a very cool scar across my side that one PhD friend said looks like I got “defending my boyfriend in a knifefight in Mexico.”  I spent the rest of the week at HSS, downgrading from the recovery room to the room next to the nurses station to a private room with a view of the East River (for my last night there when I could eat, go to the bathroom on my own, had been w/o a chest tube for a few days, and felt relatively well enough to hold court that Thursday evening to visiting friends).  I was fitted for a back brace and released on Friday.  The next six weeks, twelve weeks, year, several years, would be given over to various forms of physical and mental therapy. 

And as I mentioned, I was only 24.  So stay tuned.  I’m tired and 31 and need sleep for the moment.



7 Responses to “25 Was the Worst Year of My Life (Ch. 1)”

  1. December 5, 2006 at 9:08 am

    Great post. Horrible time. I remember that you used some Origins cream at that time called “Happiness”, or something, as a clear effort to raise your life spirits. The smell, when I come across it, still makes me cringe.

    My worst year to date was age 19, but I will keep you posted.

  2. December 5, 2006 at 9:37 am

    At 24, I’m bitching about my pseudo quarter-life crisis … and at 24, you broke your BACK?? Good Lord, I need a little perspective.

    Thanks for the words of wisdom. 🙂

  3. December 5, 2006 at 11:24 am

    I think you’re right in the sense that you are really a very different person from the woman I met at MET – and it’s one of those things where I wish, not for myself, but for you that I could go back and somehow make what happened not to have happened. In some ways I miss who you were. But that was then, this is now – and you are stronger and more focused (if that’s possible) than the girl I met… and also more aware of the limits of things. It’s hard knowing that, but I do think it’s also what you do with that knowledge.

  4. 4 KL
    December 11, 2006 at 1:38 pm

    ….Mr. Campbell.

    The driver’s name was Mr. Campbell….

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