The Accident: Reflections, Details, and Lessons

Incident occurred on July 3, 2019

Here I am sandwiched between two blue marvels. Spinning like a mobile hanging from the sky, suspended above the ocean. As I float in the air, things seem to be moving much slower than one would expect.

It feels like a different kind of freedom than I experienced just moments ago. A waiting process that’s out of my control. Something I just have to believe in. Now I know why religion became so popular throughout time. In the grasp of no one and nothing, controlled by the uncontrollable, what else do you have to rely on? Right or wrong, being in this moment has made me realize that sometimes all you have is hope. Fate is your only destiny.

On that thought, I land soft like my mother flipping a pancake on to its uncooked side. I hit the ocean surface and slowly sink into the sand only a few feet below me. It was low tide. I realize one of my edges is burnt, but this is a good thing because we don’t throw away these pancakes; we try to salvage them. I feel fortunate to not have landed on the shattered jet ski that snapped my ankle and sliced me to the bone seconds before leaving pancake batter dripping from the summer sky. At that point, I might have been unsalvageable. Completely burnt. The first of what came to be many things I’d be truly grateful for.

Floating limp in the water, I let out my first scream to the outside world: “Help! I can’t move my left foot!” Everything seems to be speeding up. The friend who collided with me is floating next to me demanding, ”Get on my back.” As I throw my arms around his shoulders and submit all my weight to him, he looks back: “Watch my neck, I can’t breathe.” He struggles through the water bringing me as far he can.

In moments like this, you don’t have time to be upset or angry. You’re operating on pure adrenaline. You’re all reaction. Every day we’re faced with mental survival: how will we look to our family? Friends? Social media? Our survival instincts have been wired into us from homo sapiens’ earliest beginnings. That fire feels hot, don’t go near it. Survival. That lion looks angry, stay away from it. Survival. Mental survival has become our modern adaptation, a necessary component of staying alive. Nobody is exempt from this primal wiring. Today is a little different, though. While mental survival can be just as hard to overcome, it doesn’t have a visual component. You can’t see the threat live and in the flesh. You can’t see other people’s fear of the threat. The threat is not just in your mind anymore. It’s right there. And in this case, it’s a dance between deformity or living the rest of my life as the man I was just five minutes ago.

At this point, there are at least six other people surrounding me. One guy seems like he’s done this before. I let out another scream: “I’m good. It’s just my left foot. You’ve got to call an ambulance and get me to the hospital.” Meanwhile the guy holding my head is trying to direct everyone and instruct me to breathe in and out. He keeps reassuring me we’re almost to shore. I lay powerless in the hands of six other guys—many are faces I’ve never seen, and I have no choice but to believe in them. I can see they all want this to go away as badly as I do, but my lamb chop left foot won’t let anyone forget just how real this threat is. 

Having never lost consciousness, I know, at least rationally, some of the real problems that exist. It’s hard to tell if any of my bones are broken. Sure feels like it, though—one would assume they are based on the instant swelling and immobility of my left ankle. I can move my toes, though. Something I won’t stop doing to let everyone know I can still function my foot. 

But my wounds are bone-deep. That’s the real problem. Since I’ve worked in orthopaedics for six years and watched my fair share of war movies, I know what happens to severely wounded limbs that are infected beyond control. It leaves people with a choice to roll the dice and risk complications from infection spreading or amputate to stymie the problem. Most people choose the latter, because the former can result in some pretty bad outcomes. This is not a decision I want to make. And I’m hopeful I won’t have to. Then again, my bones were just marinating in the armpit of the Atlantic Ocean. For all of its beauty, the Long Island Sound isn’t the cleanest water in the world, but even “clean” ocean water could carry a bacteria known as Vibrio that can infect open fractures and cause a host of problems. So infection has been officially declared enemy number one. Everything needs to be done to prevent infection.

I’m lying on the shore looking at my massive ankle, wiggling my toes, telling the guys to keep my foot elevated and out of the sand. All I want is to see the same blue sky I saw ten minutes ago as I glided over an ocean surface that felt more like glass than water. It was the best riding day of the year. Everything was so calm. It was absolutely serene. How can something so peaceful turn so loud, so quickly? I’m lying there thinking of the millions of others who’ve had that exact thought. But when I look up, I don’t see that blue sky. I see six ugly mugs, all with fear and desperation in their eyes. It’s comforting to know we all have something in common. As I yearn for that blue sky, my mind snaps back to reality, and I yell out to one of my friends, “Grab my bag, it has all my stuff, and call my parents!” 

Finally, the paramedics arrive, and their primary concern is stabilizing my neck. I’m insisting I’ve got no pain, I’ve never lost consciousness, and the only problem is my dangling left foot. They’re asking me all kinds of questions: ”What’s your name? When were you born? What day of the week is it? Where are we? Keep breathing in and out, in and out.” I answer each question with ease, while repeating over and over, “You’ve got to just get me to the hospital.” 

The medics race me across the beach on a hard plastic stretcher, I can’t see anyone, but I feel the weight of a hundred eyes looking at me. Any performer knows that pressure. I hear the sound of America in the background: an ice cream truck, a couple firecrackers, and kids playing on the beach. They’re all gearing up for the fireworks show that’s set to take place only a few hours from now. An instant reminder that I’m only a blip on the radar. A sad feeling, but an honest one.

When you’re the one on the stretcher, it’s amazing how quickly you realize the unimportance of almost everything. Health is the one thing in life that rises to the top of your priority list faster than anything else. Your whole world stops. But it’s not until things get quiet that you start to yearn for the healthy moment that existed only twenty minutes ago. Your insides get tormented by what could have been, should have been, and now might never be. The concert you were supposed to attend, the book you were supposed to write, and the girl you were supposed to say something to. You wonder how each of those experiences might change if this whole thing goes in the wrong direction.

All those thoughts climb into my mind, one by one, as the double doors slam shut on the ambulance. I actually feel a slight sense of reprieve, though. It’s only me and the medic. His name is Liam. A silence surrounds us, and I feel a bit safer with my left leg hoisted high in the air, IV in my arm, and Liam letting the ER know we’re on our way.

I’m anxious not knowing what awaits, but I can sense another battle coming.

A little more on the accident...

Maybe you’re thinking, “But Doug, how did the accident happen?” In short, I was coming in from my last run of the day, gas tank on E, and perfectly content. As I started to slow down, I thought, “Let me pivot left for just another minute on this calm water. It’s too perfect for riding.” As I spun the jet ski and made a left, well, this is where this article begins.

I didn’t include much about “how” because like with most accidents, it was an accident.  Plus, I can’t speak for anyone but myself. I thought the interesting part was that I was completely conscious throughout. If the scenario that precipitated the accident played itself out 100 times, I probably would have done the same thing at least 99 of those times. There was nothing particularly unusual about the day. I was feeling good, alive, and ready to watch the fireworks with friends. It was just a usual day in the sun. Until something unusual occurred. Isn’t that how it always happens?

I sustained an open fracture of my left ankle, specifically my medial malleolus, which is that hard ball of bone on the inside of your ankle. The fracture wasn’t the worst part—that’s pretty run of the mill—but the bone-deep wounds dramatically increased risk of infection. Along with that came a little nerve repair, and it’s hard to know if or how that will affect sensation in my foot moving forward. Doc is optimistic. High risk of infection makes everything more urgent, including the surgery, which had to be done within 24 hours. The operation was performed by trauma specialist Michael Leslie, DO, of Yale Orthopaedics, and it went impeccably.

Recovery for this injury is like slow-form torture. You have to stay off your feet for six weeks. Literally, no weight on your foot for six weeks. It makes everything a pain in the ass—sleeping, pooping, bathing, eating, etc. It’s all a major inconvenience. Every now and then, swelling will flare up, and my foot will feel like it’s on fire. Not to mention my left calf muscle atrophied. There’s no telling how long it will take me to get back up to speed. But it’s hard to really complain about recovery. I could be missing a limb, brain dead, paralyzed, or gone. My outcome feels like winning the lottery. I’m whole. 

I want to thank everyone who helped me get through this experience. All the guys who carried me off the beach, paramedics, doctors, nurses, and hospital staff. My family, friends, and colleagues who’ve helped me through the recovery process. I am eternally grateful for your support.

Here’s the big lesson I learned...

You can’t tell whether something that happens is good or bad in the moment. 

Case in point: I was supposed to see the Rolling Stones that Sunday, go to Chicago for a weekend-trip the following weekend, and visit London and Barcelona in August. I’d also been test driving cars, thinking about buying one, and my birthday is right around the corner (August 10). At first glance, it appears the accident really screwed things up. Maybe it did temporarily. I think it’s also worth considering this question. Is it possible the accident came exactly at the right time? 

It’s hard to tell right now what time apart from the world will provide me. After all, I’m writing this only one week removed from the accident. I know being off my feet has already helped me get back into a daily writing sync. I know it’s provided me space to think and reflect on what truly matters to me. I suspect that will mature a bit and change over the coming weeks. It helped me organize some creative work, find a few breakthroughs, and make significant strides in a few projects. Something that was killing me inside. 

On a very granular level, this article would never have existed. I’m not saying I’d trade the accident for this article, but sometimes what appears to be bad in the short run turns out to be good in the long run (and vice versa). Too often, we’re quick to conclude how good or bad something is in the moment. But really, only time knows the answer. 

So, while I can surely account for all the setbacks, inconveniences, and problems that stem from this accident, I’d rather be dazzled by the world of possibility.

What will I see when I look back at this accident a year, two years, or five years from now? 

What positive things will have transpired because of this accident? 

That excites me.

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