Saturday, July 18, 2009

July 12 (Part I: Memoirs of a Life Changing Day)

This past Sunday, July 12 was a weird day for me. In fact, it is perpetually and perennially a weird day for me. To the vast majority of folks out there the 12th of July is just a meaningless date stuck in the middle of the month. If anything, it marks the halfway point of the summer. To a good friend of mine, July 12th signifies his wedding anniversary. To some lingering disco and/or savvy sports history fans out there, July 12th is the anniversary of “Disco Demolition” at Comisky Park in Chicago—this year being the 30th year hence. But to me, July 12th is a date that will always live in infamy, because it was on July 12th, 1996 that I had the paralyzing diving accident that forever changed my life.

The day itself started off like almost every preceding 1996 Eau Claire, WI summer day: I woke up to warm, partly cloudy, mid 70’s weather. My only thoughts were on mowing a few clients’ lawns, as me and two great buddies had a summer lawn mowing business. We only planned to put in about a half day’s worth of work because we had been planning a “company” beach BBQ at a local lake with our friends on that particular Friday for weeks. Regardless, I left my bedroom on my way to “work” that morning without a scintilla of a thought that my life would be catastrophically and forever changed before I went to bed that night. Instead, it would be the last time I would ever roll over and sit up in bed, stand up, feel the full sensation of a full body stretch, go to the bathroom unimpeded, shower unassisted, dress myself, let alone walk, etc. Moreover, I would never see that bedroom again.

Flash forward to around 5 pm that evening at the beach, when our typical 17 year old BBQ was in full swing: copious consumption of Mountain Dew, burgers and dogs, the throwing back and forth of friendly smart talk, and the sharing of good times overall. In a pretty short timeframe I myself probably chased 3 triple cheeseburgers (with 4 slices of cheese each) with damn near a six pack of Dew. (FYI, I do NOT have that appetite anymore…but kinda wish I did.)

Somewhere around 7 I had to change from my casual beach garb into some more dress casual clothes, leave the party, and meet my parents at our country club for dinner. I had made it clear that I would be eating—a lot—before our family dinner and thus meeting them for dinner would be a wash, but my mom was insistent. Leading up to that Friday I had been grounded by my dad for staying out past curfew, so it was agreed that if I took the time to leave my party and join them that my dad might hand me my get out of jail free card. So in the end I gladly followed through. As soon as everyone else’s dinner arrived I was allowed to return to my party. As I departed my dad told me to “come home when I wanted” which was code for “you’re ungrounded,” and also to have fun but “use my head.” Unbeknownst to them, my departure would be the last time my family would see me as a fully functioning, able bodied young man.

Back at the beach, the start of the undoing occurred when the football a few friends were tossing around landed in the lake. Since it floated out too far it meant someone would have to go in to retrieve it. Having been on my high school’s varsity swim team, and a bit of a waterdog in general, it didn’t take much for me to volunteer to do the job. In retrospect, I’ve always considered that Mistake #1 (i.e. that it wasn’t my damn ball, why the hell did I get wet for it?). At that point in the day a pretty thick cloud cover had rolled in and the weather had cooled off quite a bit. Indeed, it had become downright gloomy. So the fact that I still decided to go for a swim despite that it was no longer decent beach swimming weather I’ve always considered retrospective Mistake #2. Hand in hand with that was Mistake #3: that I didn’t have any swim trunks with me because swimming was never included in our BBQ party plans. Rather, the closest thing I had to a swimsuit was the khaki shorts I was wearing before I changed for dinner, so I changed back into them. One of my all-time best friends Andy decided to take the dip with me, and he just so happened to have his swimsuit in the trunk of his car. That being said, history clearly shows that at that point I could have easily bowed out and just dispatched Andy to fetch the ball by himself, but by then I was all caught up in the moment (i.e. Mistake #4). Besides having just been released from my punishment, on top of that a few of our female friends had recently arrived and I suppose part of me wanted to show off my new beach bod a bit (side note: a personally disappointing junior swim season, a recent heartbreaking split with a girl, and recovery from a month and change old June 1996 lung collapse surgery had all highly motivated me to hit the gym harder that summer). Regardless, not my football + bad swimming weather + no swimsuit + caught up in the moment should probably not have equaled going for a swim that night. But I did, and my future was dramatically changed in an instant.

As for the fateful dive itself, we approached the water like any other excited kids going for a swim in the lake: ran out until the water got so high up on our thighs that we couldn’t run anymore and then dove head first into the water. Happens every day, no big deal. But when I dove into the water that day two factors immediately worked against me: 1) where I dove, 20 or so feet from the shore, it was much more shallow than I anticipated/it should have been (not so fun fact: they dredged the beach shortly after my accident became publicized); and 2) my swim team instincts took over in the moment and I essentially did a tightly tucked chin, racing style, shallow dive (i.e. Mistake #6). Combine those two factors and disaster ensued. Since that kind of dive generally generates a lot of force, the impact of my head hitting the bottom of the lake instantly broke my neck, shattering a few of my neck vertebrae in a few places. Most of the damage occurred at the sixth and seventh cervical vertebrae (side note: essentially, if you tuck your chin to your chest the sixth and seventh cervical vertebrae are the most prominent bones that stick out on the backside of your neck.) In the very same instant, one of the larger broken pieces got pushed hard into my spinal cord and paralyzed me immediately.

As for me as a whole, the direct result of the diving accident left me face down in the water. All these years later I can still vividly remember the greenish hue of the water, the scratch of the microscopic sand granules as they worked their way behind my contacts, and how the sand felt strangely numb on my hands and fingers. At that point I still had enough neck and shoulder strength to keep my face above water so the fear of drowning never even crossed my mind. My immediate instinctual attempt was to get back up but, as mentioned, all I could move were my head, shoulders, and arms a little bit, so simply getting up did not happen as intended. Even then it hadn’t registered that something was seriously amiss. It wasn’t until Andy, immediately sensing something was wrong, was right there beside me and called for help. Now much more aware that something was definitely wrong I still remained calm knowing that the rescue was under way.

What did get scary, however, was when part way back to the beach one of our friends, who had no idea something was wrong with me, thought we were horsing around and started dunking me in and out of the water. Had I not been in good shape and trained in the water so well that might have gone worse than it did. Anyway, he was quickly corrected and the rescue continued unimpeded. (Side note: I think he always felt really bad about that and thought he was a primary reason for landing me in a wheelchair, but that’s nowhere near true. Moreover, I’ve never had any ill thoughts towards him or blamed him for his actions; it was simply a mistake. You could possibly argue that the extra jarring to my neck affected some of my functional returns, but I’ve always been of the mindset that the major extent of the SCI damage was done upon impact with the lake bottom.)

Once we got me onto the beach and it was obvious that I wasn’t getting up the paramedics were called. My buddy Josh (one of my best friends and at the time “business” partners) tried to keep the mood light by giving me sip of Dew and a drag off his cigar. After a few minutes a few middle aged gals observing things from down the beach arrived on the scene. One was ex-military in some form or something and she immediately began telling some story about how one of her friends had a bad diving accident a few years prior and that he was still just starting to recover. Thanks for the crappy timing, Ms. Captain Buzzkill. I mean who sees a scared kid lying flat on his back on the beach mere moments after an accident and immediatly begins to rant about how messed up he’s about to be? Really? Between me and my friends we essentially told her to take a flying “F” and she went off in a “he just doesn’t grasp the seriousness of the situation” huff.

Rather, it was quite to the contrary. People may not believe this about me, but I began dealing with my physical plight while I was still lying on my back on that beach. Between both my real world awareness and my Boy Scout lifeguard and safety training I was familiar enough about issues of paralysis to see the real early warning signs. Moreover, Christopher Reeves had just had his highly publicized accident just a year before, so that thought had already crept into the back of my mind as well. My fears were further solidified when after the paramedics arrived I could not wiggle my toes on command. Also, at one point soon thereafter I asked one of my friends about the positioning of my feet: were they lying flat on the beach next to each other? Rather, the answer was that one ankle had been crossed over the other which was contrary to the “feeling” I had about their positioning that whole time. For whatever strange reason, it was at that point that I knew for myself that I would be up against a serious, potentially long term battle with paralysis. And I started dealing with it right then and there: before the cervical collar was put on, before the flat board was brought out, before the ambulance trip was underway, and before any medical diagnosis.

Arriving at the hospital was like entering an area of controlled chaos: multiple medical personnel occupying a small space; IV’s and catheters going in; clothes getting cut off (specifically including my favorite khaki shorts and boxers); getting asked a series of routine, yet menial questions like: What’s the Year? (1996), Who’s the President? (Clinton), Do I have contacts? (yes), Had I been drinking? (no), Was I allergic to anything? (no), etc.; getting set up for X-ray and MRI and other medical exams; being presented with the medical diagnoses; getting put into traction to keep my neck and spine straight; etc.

Of course my most vivid memory of that night was when my parents arrived at the ER. The second I saw them my dad's parting words “use your head” came flooding to my forefront, and in that instant I was immediately heartbroken for thinking that I let them down by not listening (i.e. that ending up in an ER was not using my head). All I could mutter was a quick "I'm sorry" before I burst into tears. That would remain the only time that I cried about my ordeal during my whole rehab period, and a significant amount of time thereafter. And it wasn't even a result of my own pity party, but rather for feeling so guilty about what I was putting my family through.

Still, most of what happened in the ER, etc. went by in a blur. I don’t recall the order of things or how long I was there before they moved me to my room in Intensive Care. I just know that by the time I finally fell asleep, presumably past midnight, it had been one LONG ASS day. The wait through the weekend before my neck fusion surgery would be longer, going in and out of sleep, mostly staring at a dark ceiling, and not knowing if it was am or pm. The two week recovery in ICU after vertebrae neck fusion surgery would be real long too.

Subsequently, I would go on to be hospitalized for the next four and a half months: 2.5 in Eau Claire and 2 at world-renowned SCI rehab facility
Craig Hospital in Denver, CO. I was diagnosed as a C-7 incomplete quadriplegic having sustained a catastrophically traumatic spinal cord injury (“SCI”) (more on the details of that in a later post) and would be wheelchair bound for the next 13 years, to this very day.

This post got longer than intended but it’s pretty much the first account about the day of my accident I’ve put out there from my perspective. At the least it might fill in a few gaps for my family and friends. At most, a larger audience might find it interesting. Either way, just writing this kind of stuff down is always personally cathartic. In fact, FYI this is essentially an excerpt from the book I'm writing based on my life’s post-accident experiences (it’s been a work in progress for years). So I'm going to split up my July 12 breakdown into two posts. Check out Part II for some of my thoughts on dealing with thirteen years and counting of “July 12.”


  1. Shawn Dean, you write beautifully. I’m certain the autobiography will be the same.