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Life’s Challenges: Facing One's Mortality When Least Expected


So I started to walk into the water. I won't lie to you, I was terrified! But I pressed on - and as I made my way past the breakers, a strange calm came over me. I don't know if it was divine intervention or the kinship of all living things, but I tell you, at that moment - I was an [Army Ranger]! ...The sea was angry that day, my friends, like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli! 


Seinfeld - George Costanza ‘The Marine Biologist’

It was a Friday.  The week was coming to a close on our family vacation in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.  Courtesy of hurricane Arthur that had blown through off the coast a week prior, the sea had been a bit angry throughout the week, keeping most sensible people out of the water while generating beach erosion, to include gouging out a nice foot and a half shelf in the ocean floor, just off the shore line.


But, this day, our last full day, the seas had moderated, to the point that by late afternoon, the swells were no more than three feet or so in height.  In the waning hours of day, with the sun beginning to set on our vacation, the McGirr clan rallied at the water’s edge, little ones frolicking and splashing about.


While shepherding one of the youngin’s, myself, I glanced out at the seemingly calm ocean, considering for a moment taking  her  out  beyond  the  shelf  to enjoy the deeper water. 

Rehoboth Beach, Scene of the 'Crime'

Most fortuitously, the thought was only a fleeting one as I recalled one of my beach maxims…Do NOT assume responsibility for another’s child by placing her in what could prove to be a potentially hazardous situation.  As it would so happen, leaving her in the hands (and safety) of other family proved to be the only smart decision I was to make in the next minute or two, a decision that I will be forever grateful to have made.


While the sun was setting, there was still an intense glare, so I opted to wade out past the cut out shelf still wearing my hat and sunglasses.  After all, I was only going out to cool off in waist deep water.  It weren't as though I intended to do anything crazy like go wave diving or body surfing, right?  Mistake #1.  


NOTE:  A USMA classmate of mine would later humorously ask if I was sober when it happened.   Upon reflection, maybe not drinking on the beach prior to the incident may have been my first mistake?  If I had been, then I could have blamed everything to follow on that rather than my own stupidity        

I was not even out in the deeper surf before the first sign literally hit me…a six foot surge of water.  Bobbing up and over the crest, my immediate thought was, “WTF?  Where the hell did that come from?


It may have been the subconscious feeling of the absence of water at my feet with the surge’s passing or, possibly, just a premonition that prompted me to quickly glance to my left, back out over the open water.  What I saw was not reassuring.  It had the appearance of a miniature tsunami…water was quickly being pulled out to sea in an undertow that was feeding a progressively towering wall of water.  There was literally exposed ocean floor. 


It was a rogue wave…at least by Rehoboth Beach standards.

My first immediate thought at seeing it was, “You’re f*cked, Lock” as my mind rapidly clicked through limited options: (1) stand my ground…and just wait for the wave to break over me, (2) make a run, back over the shelf, up to the water’s edge or (3) advance into the rising water.  Option (1) was not really viable nor was (2) given the distance and the likelihood that the breaking wave would most likely sweep me along.  So, (3) it would be.


Now I know the right course of action given such circumstances is to dive UNDER the freakin’ wave but, come on, (1) the wave had sucked up so much water there was literally no water to dive down into and, more importantly, (2) I was wearing my favorite hat and an expensive pair of ballistic sunglasses.  Couldn’t risk losing them, now, could I?  So, what choice did I have other than trying to ‘jump’ the wave? Right?  Mistake #2.


As the formidable mass of water continued to rise and bear down on me, it didn’t take a mental giant to realize one would not be ‘jumping’ this breaker without slamming face first into it, resulting in lost hat and glasses—are we detecting a theme here, yet?  So, how does one minimize such potential loss?  Well, jump with back turned, of course.  Mistake #3.


As the wave bore in, I turned my back to it and jumped.  Standing nearly six feet tall, I most likely jumped approximately two feet.  Glancing over my left shoulder, I could see the tip of the wave curling at least another two feet over me.  A ten plus footer.  This was not going to go well, I quickly surmised.


There was still a brief moment to prepare for the inevitable, to brace myself for what I knew would be a pretty good impact.  So, what did I do?  Rather than tucking and bracing for the blow to come, I opted to reach for my hat and glasses.  Man, talk about sheer stupidity!  It was an action born from sheer hubris, a belief in my own indestructibility and capability to physically take any beating and ‘come back tickin’…like a Timex watch.  This was Mistake #4…which proved to be one too many.


As the crest of the wave curled over, with me now literally under and inside, I found myself in the vortex of ‘the Perfect Storm.’  With a surge of a ton or two of water up top pushing my upper body forward from behind and an undertow pulling my feet out from below and my hands cartoonishly flailing as I endeavored to grasp items of relatively inconsequential value from my head, Alea iacta est - the die was cast.  Events had passed the point of no return and the inevitable was about to happen.


The 180 degree head over heel flip literally took less than the blink of an eye.  The only thing I had going for me was the fact that, in that split second, I fleetingly realized that I was now being driven, head first, towards the ocean floor.


As it would be, Mother Nature opted to teach me one final lesson about hubris by smashing me down directly on the edge of the cutout shelf.  Not an inch in front, not an inch behind, but directly on the edge.  And, unfortunately, the point of contact was not with my head…which I’ve proven time and time again can take a vicious hit.  As fate would have it, my point of contact with the edge proved to be the singular, one square inch of my body, that is my virtual Achilles heel…the C5 – C7 segments of my spinal column.  That one point in my neck where I have compacted vertebrae (too many jumps out of an airplane?).  Wish I’d have known this a few seconds earlier.  Maybe, then I’d have been a bit smarter?  Nah….


Given the pain felt later, I must have had a gut feeling and instinctively arched my shoulders in anticipation of the body slam.  Bang!  While my shoulders apparently bore some of the impact as evidenced by their 'bruises upon bruises' feeling later (once I had feeling, that is), my neck still took the majority of the blow.  For a split second, there was intense heat at the point of impact, followed by a transient moment of total numbness, weightlessness, floating like a ragdoll and then…nothing…literally nothing.  It were as though a switch had been thrown.  There was a total lack of feeling from head down.  In that instant, I’d become a quadriplegic and my immediate thought was, “Lock, we have a problem.”


Initially face up, a rag doll, I was easily flipped over in the turbulent breakers.  Despite the lack of feeling there was a phantom sense of being drug over sandpaper…good thing I have a hairy chest otherwise it would have most likely been scrapped raw. 


For a brief moment, I thought that maybe I'd be left 'high and dry' on the shoreline.  However, that was not to be as the tide receded and me along with it, grinding back across the sandy beach in the surf.   As I was being drug back over the beach, face down in the surf, essentially a bobbing head, I mentally ran through a function check of my appendages…hands, feet, fingers, toes.  Zip; no movement, no feelings, nada, ничего.  Not good.


The choppy surf action subsided as I floated back over the cutoff, into water that was approximately three and a half, four feet deep.  With calmer water, I felt there was one last option as I sought to turn my body over, to right the ship, to get a breath of air. Focusing on my shoulder, I tried to flip. No luck. Focusing on my hip, I tried again to roll over. For a second time, no success.  Mission failure.


Now, I was out of options.  What oxygen I had left in my system, which was little to start with given I had not anticipated being under water for so long and had, thus, not taken a deep breath before my attempted ‘jump,’ was being exhausted.


There are four phases of ‘controlled’ (no panic) drowning (1) consume the last of the oxygen in your lungs, (2) blow out what carbon dioxide you have left in your lungs, (3) inhale and begin swallowing water and (4) unconsciousness.

With no other options available, I ceased my mental struggles and literally relaxed.  I had achieved nirvana; I was Zen.  Floating face down with my eyes wide open, I watched the sunlight from above bounce and sparkle off the ocean floor only a few feet below, waiting to drown. Safety a few feet below? Now that was frustrating.


I’ve read of others who’ve drowned and been resuscitated tell a story of eventual calm and serenity as they approached and eventually fell into unconsciousness.  At this point, I was about to experience what they were saying.  With no other course of action other than to simply float and watch the sunlight, all was rather serene as my final exhale ran its course and, after a moment of hesitation as I fought the urge, I began to inhale water.


Now, in the vein of full disclosure, I have a little more open water experience than most, having been certified both as a PADI SCUBA diver and life guard, as well as having been involved with various Army related water borne operations as a divisional combat engineer. I was in pretty sad circumstances when one really gives it thought.  


So, given that experience, as I floated about, my head bobbing like a cork, I can honestly say that while I was prepared to drown, I was not fearful, per se, of dying.  Why was that?  One simple fact.  Once water begins to enter the upper airways during drowning a laryngeal spasm occurs where the larynx or the vocal cords in the throat constrict and seal the air tube, thus preventing water from entering the lungs.  Consequently, water only enters the stomach in the initial phase of drowning with very little, if any, water entering the lungs (dry drowning).  Eventually, in the majority of cases, the spasm relaxes within four to five minutes, allowing water to enter the lungs (wet drowning).  Until then, though, all's relatively good.

A wall of people formed a breaker between me and the swells as those around me began work to extract me from the water.  I glanced at my toes bobbing up and down in the water.  Seeing them prompted me to give new meaning to the term ‘talking head’ by asking those around me, “Where are my arms?”  Pretty sad for someone who used to bench press 355 pounds.  Can you say, ‘Bruce & Glory Days?

In either case, the brain stops functioning within two to three minutes without oxygen (or, in my case, at the sight of a rogue wave I believed I could take on and beat) and permanent brain damage will only begin to occur with oxygen deprivation of six minutes or longer. 


With that scenario, the ‘golden minute’ from my perspective was around the four minute mark.  Until then, no brain damage (other than what I apparently already have) and no water, especially salt water, in the lungs.  Given I had family immediately behind me on the shore and a lifeguard stand just a few yards down the beach, I felt the odds were in my favor that the beached whale in bright orange trunks that I’d become would be spotted, turned over and kick started (if necessary) within that four minute window.


As circumstances had it, there were two family angels nearby…Nate (‘my hero’) who, despite his young age, smartly handled the wave and was the first to indicate to others I was in distress and Eric, a nephew, who, followed by another nephew, Mike, led the charge to get to me just as I was sucking in water and closing on unconsciousness.  The timing couldn’t have been better…well, actually, while it could have been sooner (Eric!), it certainly could have been worse.


Can’t say I recall being flipped over in the water but I do recollect the initial voices around me as I sought to regurgitate the water I’d swallowed and ‘kick start’ my breathing…something that was a bit of a challenge given the lack of feeling below my neck.  Eyes closed, I struggled to overcome the 2,000 pound elephant sitting on my chest.  Around me, I could hear voices, asking if I was okay (or at least I thought that’s what I was hearing) to which I replied, with my first intake of air, “I’m trying to breath!


While an EMT (who was on vacation—talk about timely and being in the right place at the right time) stabilized my neck as lifeguards moved in to assist, I soon realized it would probably be a good thing for me to open my eyes to let those around me know that I was at least alive. Though my range of view was limited to the rotation of my eye balls, I have to admit my first thought…after a few intakes of air…was, “Now, this is more than a little bit embarrassing,” as I took in the large number of people gathered about me. I used to ride around in tanks, jump out of airplanes, shoot and blow things up, for Pete’s sake! And a freakin’ wave takes me out?! WTF?!  Certainly nothing heroic about that! In my scenarios, I was always the hero, prepared to save others, pulling a body from the surf. What irony. At least, I could have saved some face had I been found with my hat and glasses, 'deep sixed,' grasped in my fists! 

Strapped to a board, head immobilized, I was carried up the beach to a waiting four-wheeler.  Sure glad this was not the day before.  Would have placed a bit of a damper on our traditional family seafood night...though it would have saved my hands from being scared by having to shuck nearly six bushels of blue crabs.

Seafood Night - a decades old McGirr family tradition  for 40+ family members

Meanwhile, my brother in law, Steve, had made his way back to our rental house to find my wife, Judy, who’d momentarily left the beach just prior to my little odyssey.  Shades of déjà vu for both of them, to whom I owe the greatest of apologies.  The mortification of having placed each of them through an incident similar to one they’d both mutually experienced nearly 32 years prior was more disturbing to me than my actual injury.


My wife arrived while I was being transferred from the four-wheeler to a waiting ambulance.  As she tells it, she touched my hand and, when I didn’t respond or acknowledge the touch, she knew there was a real problem.  Seeing her look of distress out of the corner of my eye as I was loaded on the ambulance, I called out, “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”  Of course, the fact that I couldn’t move my head or even give a ‘thumbs up’ made such a cheery assurance a bit suspect.  While I was confident, even then, that I’d fully recover (just call me arrogant), I felt like a real idiot (would like to say ‘ass’ but I couldn’t really feel my ass at the time).  Inexcusable  


The ambulance made its way to a local school where a State Police Medevac helicopter waited for us at an LZ…Landing Zone…having been called for by the lifeguards even before they’d entered the water to assist.  Smart move that was, needless to say, greatly appreciated. 


As I was being loaded aboard the chopper and strapped down, there was a debate outside about where to take me.  The lifeguards had highly recommended before I left the beach one place over all others and, fortunately, after a quick assessment, the para medic on the bird concurred: Christiana Hospital in Newark, which was Delaware's only Level I trauma center.

Sad to say, I even made the local paper. While my wife was left behind to be driven the 90 miles, I was airlifted for the start of a 30 minute flight.  The State Trooper para medic monitored my vitals as I continued performing function checks on various parts of my appendages…with no luck.  In a neck brace and strapped to a board, the only thing I could feel was extreme pressure at the base of my neck, similar to that which I used to feel as a wrestler doing neck bridge exercises.  While the pressures were similar, I could at least lie on my back as a wrestler to take a break whereas, in the bird, that was not an option and the agonizing pressure simply remained constant with no way to assuage it.

Rather than focus on that…or the fact that I might be a quad for life?...I continued to run through my function checks.  Twenty minutes into the flight, a glimmer of hope?  Glancing over at the para medic, I queried, “Hey, any movement down there?”  He glanced at my feet and gave me a thumbs up.  The big toe of my left foot had wiggled a bit and was working its way back into operation.  Reminded me of the scene out of Princess Bride where, Westley, is slowly recovering after being declared only ‘mostly dead’ by Billy Crystal’s Miracle Max:

Fezzik:        You just shook your head...doesn't that make you happy?

Westley:     My brains, his steel, and your strength against sixty men, and you think a little head-jiggle is

                    supposed to make me happy?  Uhmmm...?

Make me happy, a toe wiggle?  While I would have happily taken a head-jiggle, I wasn’t going to be greedy, for I knew at that point that I had the paralysis thing licked.


Though I was certainly delighted with a toe wiggle, I still felt as though I’d gone 15 rounds with Mike Tyson…ear bite, included…in that my bruises had bruises all over my body.  However, the fun wasn’t going to stop there.  A few minutes out my friendly flight attendant walked me through what would be happening once we hit the ground…to include the digital exam to see if I still had sphincter control.  While I couldn’t feel any appendages, I did a quick ‘squeeze’ to realize that I still had a more than adequate ‘pucker factor.’


The bird touched down at the trauma center, in a temporary LZ, given the actual LZ was undergoing renovation.  Slipped out of the aircraft, I was trundled across a parking lot into the front door of the emergency room where I was met by a trauma team composed of two - three doctors and four or more nurses.


Efficiently, they went to work…the script straight out of the television series ‘ER.’  While the doctors reviewed the vitals and background with the helicopter para medic, the nurses began to strip me down and clean me off, cutting off my favorite blue ‘Hawaiian shirt’ and bright orange trunks, neither of which were to be seen again.

Laying there naked, being wiped down, two thoughts flashed through my mind (1) I was being given a sponge bath by four female nurses  …                   a fantasy of mine and (2) George Costanza.  George Costanza?!  Huh?!  Yep, good ol’ George, once again, but this time it had to do with ‘shrinkage’…something all guys can identify with coming out of the water  
















Fortunately, such concerns seemed to be a moot point when I heard a nurse call for an extra-large catheter to be inserted.  Or, maybe, that was the narcotics kicking in?  Who knows?  No harm in living in a delusional fantasy world now and then.  

My fantasy was soon interrupted as I was gently turned on my side.  That dreaded moment had arrived as a voice rang out.


Relax, I’m going to check your sphincter.  See if you can clamp down on my finger”…to which I replied, “Right, the fun part.


Glancing over, I could see my para medic buddy quietly laughing.


Hey,” I admonished him, “it’s not nice to laugh at a patient in distress!


Things moved along rather quickly as I was rolled into a curtained room.  Poked and prodded, I lay there as tests were run, blood drawn.


Briefly drifting off, I woke to hear a familiar voice outside the curtain.  Jen, daughter one of three, my advocate, an emergency room Physician’s Assistant (PA), had driven down from Philadelphia and was now in charge.  Talk about a strange feeling. 


Pushing the staff and dropping the professional courtesy trump card, she was able to get me into the MRI tube hours before I was originally scheduled.  Nice having family with influence  


The family was fantastic as they quickly rallied and began to arrive, ‘circling the wagons’…my wife—driven up by my brother in law, Steve and nephew, Charlie (who also graciously helped pack up our rental house in our absence), daughters Cheryl, two of three, and Stephanie, three of three, as well as son in laws (or future son in law), Kevin, Chris and Brian.  We even had my little ‘Ranger Buddy’ and grandson, Rory, join us, though he didn’t really seem too impressed by the environment or the circumstances.  All in all, that was fine by me.  Last thing I want him to recall was seeing ‘Papa’ laid up in a hospital bed.  Nothing impressive about that, for sure.

Finally, the MRI results were back: no spinal fracture but there were some damaged ligaments, a potential concussion (though I never felt the symptoms), as well as ‘central canal stenosis’ in the vicinity of the C5 – C7 vertebrae—spinal compression, that resulted in 'spinal shock.'


In layman’s words, I had a narrowing within the spinal column that led to an abnormally limited 'buffer zone' between spinal cord and spinal bone - nearly cord on bone.  Not good. Later, looking back through my med records, I noted the following prognosis: “Trauma, improving quadriplegia.”  Not something one really wishes to see associated with his/her name, I tend to believe.

All were pretty amazed that I had not sustained any fracture of the spine which only leads me to smile, recalling a comment on the beach a few days prior from, Cyndy, one of my sisters in law, who asked me why I kept my head uncomfortably angled up rather than back against the chair while reading.  It is actually a question I’ve been asked more than once and my reply is always the same.  “I’m strengthening my neck muscles through isometrics.”  While said partly in jest, such exercise apparently came in handy when it counted most


The paralysis aside, have to admit the most interesting side effect from the spinal shock was the hyper sensitivity of the skin…to the point where I could run a lightly touching fingertip over the hair of my arms and it would feel as though I were being stabbed hundreds of times by a hot knife - and I'm not talking a butter knife.  Hell of a phenomena.


The prognosis was that I’d be in the trauma center for at least three to four days.  Lying virtually unable to move in my bed, I (pretentiously?) proclaimed that I’d be out within 48 hours.  As events would have it, I would be out and on my way home within 46 hours of the accident.  Should have played the lottery that day


Interestingly enough, that Friday night would be one of the few times in 57 years I’d ever stayed overnight in a hospital as a patient…aside from a night for strep throat at Ft Jackson during enlisted Basic Combat Training and a partial night a few years back nursing a kidney stone.


Given the excitement of the day, one would believe I’d rest easily, at least for that first night, but such was not to be.  Between the torture device called a neck brace and my geriatric room mate who called out in pain, anger and frustration every 30 minutes throughout the night, any rest, much less a good night’s rest, was not to be.  Will have to admit, though, my roomie was a bit entertaining, at least for the first hour or so.  Between pulling his catheter out and urinating all over the place or still having it in and yelling at his nurses that he could not pee, I’d have found myself crossing and uncrossing my legs…had I the feeling to do so.


And, by the way, speaking of catheters, while I’m no way advocating the experience, I will say having one would be a God send at a tailgate.  Amazing how much urine one can void wearing the thing…and not even be aware of it.  

The next day, Saturday was a day of work…seeking to convince family and hospital staff that it was time for me to get up and start walking around.  Later that afternoon, after being shown how to properly roll out of bed, it was time to ‘stand in the door’ and make the jump.  As I stood (wobbly), an image of Peter Sellers as ‘Dr. Strangelove’ (remember, “Gentlemen, there is no fighting in the War Room!”) flashed before my eyes, as I took my first step.  Fighting the urge to 'Sieg Hiel' and yell out, "Mein Führer! I can walk!” I waddled out the door.

Hospital PT…physical therapy…ran a diagnostic the next day, checking out my ambulatory finesse and ability to navigate…up and down…a massive flight of three steps.  Though a wee bit slow, all systems were “Go.”  As I’d foretold on Friday, I was being wheeled out the front door of the hospital to my car at the 46 hour mark.  Hoo Ahh!  Or should that be Hoo Ouch? 


At this point in time, having moved on, so to say, it must be noted that the degree of service, courtesy and professionalism from beach, to Medevac, to hospital was exceptional, as well as greatly appreciated.  To those who took part, a sincere Airborne Ranger Thank you!


As painful as it was and would be for the next six weeks…especially wearing the torture rack euphemistically called a neck brace, it was a relief to be home.  Amazingly enough, I didn’t even miss a day of work for the very next day, Monday, I was sitting before my computer keyboard banging away.  Of course, it was rather convenient that the keyboard was in my office at home and the term “banging away” was somewhat relative given that I was only using two fingers.  Fortunately, I do not invoice based on words per minute.

With the assistance of our daughter, Cheryl, her mother and I settled in for the long siege with me beginning ‘OT’…occupational therapy.  Talk about depressing.  Having never endured any type of therapy before (though there are those who claim I have missed out on more than my fair share of Psychological Therapy), I soon found myself immersed in a world of octogenarians and older.  Was this what was in store for me in a few more years?  Ugh.  Nothing like being made to feel older than one’s years.  As I sat there, in my neck brace (annoying enough to wear throughout the day but a literal agony inflicting device when trying to sleep at night, the only period of time that offered a respite from the overall pain and discomfort), playing, essentially, finger games to increase strength and test dexterity, I began to ponder my escape.


Before that escape, though, I needed to ensure that my finger dexterity would eventually be better than that of my one year old grandson, Rory.  Buttons, buckles, zippers, shoelaces.  Fortunately, my daughters felt it humorous to provide dear Ol' Army Ranger Dad the necessary ‘training aides.’  I’m proud to say that I can best my grandson in these fundamental skills…barely.

Our siege at ‘Fortress Lock’ in Marlboro, NJ, would become even more surreal nearly four weeks after my 'incident' when my lovely bride would have shoulder surgery on her torn rotator cuff…a planned surgery that had been pushed back because of my own extracurricular activities.

To refer to us as ‘basket cases’ would be an understatement.  We were now the modern day equivalent of Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic’ … complete with ice machine and hand putty in lieu of pitchfork …

...though, I’m sure my wife most likely felt we were caught within the canvas of Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream.' 

A visit to the neurosurgeon at the six week mark and the neck brace was not only off, but now I could once again (legally) drive.  Ahhh…


However, before then, I had to place my life in the hands of our daughter, Cheryl...a young lady who'd lived in NYC for five years?...and who did not own a car...and, thus, had driven very little over that time frame?  And, now, we were going to enjoy a four hour plus round trip to Delaware on the New Jersey Turnpike?


So...if given a choice...another rouge wave or Cheryl driving the NJTP?  Uhmm...  


In the end, though, I seemed to have made the right choice.  We survived without incident.  

As for my neck, is it fully recovered?  Do I have the same pre accident range of motion?  Can I glance as quickly left or right as I used to?  What was my range and level of discomfort prior to the accident?  Or, is my range more limited, my level of discomfort a bit more now as a function of old age?  Who knows given one generally does not provide much thought or consideration to such aches and pains without cause.  However, if there’s a silver lining out of all of this, aside from others learning from my hubris, maybe it’s the fact that I’ll now keep my head down and focused on that little white ball on the golf course as I attempt to hit it?



Aches and pains aside, there does seem to be one, potentially long term residual after effect that may not be disappearing any time soon…if ever…and that’s sensitivity of my skin and the ‘phantom cold’ of my feet.  While the hyper sensitivity has gradually resided over the months, along with the Zap shocks, it seems to have stabilized to a point more heightened than normal where my shoulders continue to feel slightly bruised, as though from a good, hard lifting workout, and exposed skin from the midsection down feels a momentary shock of cold when in contact with something metallic or porcelain, such as a bathtub…now there's a great memory of trying to get in and out of in the weak early days.  And, while my feet are not cold to the touch, my brain registers a feeling akin to that of standing barefoot on ice. 


In the end, though, such feelings will just have to be ignored, as I do with the constant tinnitus ringing in my ears (a result of my 82nd Airborne Jumpmaster days of hanging out a troop transport door in flight no more than 20 feet from a screaming jet engine with unprotected ears - smart?) or the crick in my neck that I’m now more cognizantly aware of.  What’s the saying that 'Bad breath is better than no breath at all?'  Tend to believe the same can be said for hyper sensitive feelings.


As a result of my escapades, I can now claim a few additional ‘bucket list’ items to check off:


1: undergo a complete and total quadriplegic experience

2: come as close to drowning without actually drowning…or at least CPR’d back to the living

3: be given a sponge bath by four cute nurses


Aside from #3, have to admit the first two were not items I’d envisioned having on such a list.


Robin Williams passed away a month after my accident and, as part of his media eulogy, images of his best friend, Christopher Reeves, were splashed across the television. Tossed from a horse onto his head, Reeves lived out the remainder of his life as a quadriplegic. Later, in October, while watching my ritual annual screening of the movie, The Perfect Storm, one of the deckhands, the John C. Reilly character, Dale ‘Murph’ Murphy, is accidently hooked, pulled overboard, drowns, is rescued and resuscitated.  Reeves and The Perfect Storm. I have gained a new appreciation of those real life experiences. While I do not reflect on or consider the ‘day after’ as the start of a new life, I do fully recognize and appreciate per Christopher Reeves what my life could have been for me and my experience I'm EXCEPTIONALLY happy to proclaim they did not need to experience.


Shortly after word got out to some friends reference my accident, a classmate sent me a link about a similar accident that had occurred just the week prior in Maui, Hawaii, where a 42 year old tourist had been found floating in the ocean.  Taken to a nearby medical center in critical condition, she soon passed away having suffered a spinal cord injury.  The story prompted me to recall a neighbor who’d drowned years back one summer when I was a young preteenager.  There one moment; gone the next.  


It’s said that cats have ‘nine lives’…and, the more I thought about that, the more perversely confident I was that I could match it.  If not an actual near death experience, an experience that could have potentially left me seriously handicapped, if not outright paralyzed, had there been just a minor change in circumstances.  My review of such personal experiences ran the gambit from: being nearly hit by a car as a toddler—pulled away at the very last second by a bystander just as I was swiped by the vehicle; hit in the head by a picket fence post tossed into that air that ripped my scalp off down to the skull bone; smacked in the forehead by the full swing of a baseball bat that, literally, flipped me nearly 360 degrees; knocked off by a tree, a la the movie Seabiscuit, as my saddle slipped sideways on a runaway horse; saved from going over a 50 foot embankment in an armored vehicle by a steel rail that barely held on impact; riding a 67-ton 'bob sled' tank down a snow covered tank trail 'ramp' over a 100 foot gorge in a blizzard; as well as clearing a few misfires—to include one of nearly a ton of explosives.  My most recent, aside from ‘the Wave,’ was an entertaining 360 degree rollover with a 450 pound ATV directly over the top of me in the red sands of Saudi Arabia (little over a half year later, six-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer Amy Van Dyken severed her spine in a similar ATV accident).  Sad to say, by the time I finished counting my ‘cat lives,’ the total, including Rehoboth, was THIRTEEN.  Damn…and I haven’t even been in combat?!  Not good.  Talk about being nicked by a ‘silver bullet.’  No more lives left by my count…no more tempting fate…the next one may be it  




In the end, I’m a man of Lessons Learned and, while there are a number to be learned from my odyssey, I consider the following to be most significant:


  • NEVER go into the surf without a lifeguard nearby.

  • Carefully consider (read that as ‘reconsider’) taking toddlers into the surf; it only takes one 'rogue event' to change (end?) a life.  And, if it’s not your child, do NOT accept the responsibility of a potential mistake.

  • Don’t be so foolish as to take on a wave, ESPECIALLY a large one, by attempting to jump it, especially by turning your back to it, as I did (read Lifeguard article at end).  Simply be smart and dive into the base and go under, arms outstretched in front (with arms out front, one's head is better protected from any possible turmoil encountered under the wave).  One may be successful 99 times out of a 100 trying to go over the top of a wave...or even turning one's back to it...but it's that one out of 100 that results in that old adage - "Ninety-nine 'Atta boys' and one 'Ah shit'...and the Ah shit has it!"  Most who fail will most likely die or, as a minimum, be crippled for life from such an endeavor - so I’d advise not putting it to the test.

  • As for the greatest lesson learned?  On a daily basis, understand and appreciate the true priorities of life—as in family. One never knows if it may be the last day, and this experience reinforced something I’d learned years ago at the age of eighteen when my younger sister had died: pick and choose what’s most important in life for everything cannot be a priority.  In the end, when all is stripped away, if one does not have family, what does he or she have of importance?  Money, fame?  Is that what life’s really about?  Is that the legacy one wants to leave behind?  I’ve experienced nothing more humbling than to go from being the strength of the family to its weakest link.  It was not something I’d planned…nor ever thought probable…but, when it unexpectedly became a reality, every family member dropped what she or he were doing and rose to the occasion out of concern and not out of a sense of obligation.  For me, there was no greater lesson relearned or appreciated.  I could have died that day...and been VERY 'happy' with the '77' legacy I'd left behind


That said, there is one last lesson that has been learned and that is the fact that my 27 year old US Army Ranger mentality could no longer be supported by my 57 year old ‘Old Ranger’ body.  Elvis has left the building...

OT soon gave way to PT…and what a difference…going from relatively sedentary ‘old folk’ to an environment with young, high school and college aged athletes working to regain their competitive edge following injury or surgery.  Talk about ‘night and day!’  If it weren’t for the fact we were the old folks, now, it would have been rather amusing…though I did gain a bit of retribution by pointing to myself and prognosticating for the youngin’s, “Remember this day for there will be a time, thirty years from now, when you will be me!

Time heals, as they say, and such seems to be the case here.  Upper body strength…at least for an old guy…has been coming back well and while leg endurance recovery seems to be taking its sweet time, have to believe that it, too, will eventually return to relative normal.  And, while the hyper sensitivity of my skin has subsided, the transition has certainly been a rather entertaining one…especially when a sneeze or awkward step results in a large, literal bone jarring electrical shock throughout my entire body.  ZAP!


Here but for the Grace of God...

NASHVILLE -- Dr. Rick Miller can't get away from saving lives — even on vacation.


The chief of Vanderbilt's trauma unit was on Florida's Gulf Coast last week, out beyond the breaking waves with his older daughter, when she noticed panic on the shore.


"Dad," she said. "Something's really wrong."


Propelled by his medical instinct, Miller took off swimming toward the screaming. At the same time, his wife, Karen — a retired critical care cardiac nurse — sprinted across the beach and helped pull a motionless man out of the water.


"It was crazy," Miller said. "Crazy, crazy."


Val Schaff doesn't remember the part when his blue, pulse-less body was dragged onto the shore by strangers. By then he had been unconscious for several minutes.


What the 55-year-old, father-of-three does recall is wading into the water with his kids' boogie board and climbing on. He remembers the wave that smacked him and his body being whisked over his neck, his head crushed into the sand below the water.


Vacationing Vanderbilt doctor saves a dad's life

Jessica Bliss, The (Nashville) Tennessean June 21, 2015

And then, nothing.


"I could not move my limbs," Schaff said. "All I tried to do is hold my breath."


The next minute, he was found floating in the water face down.


When Miller made it to the shore, Schaff wasn't breathing. As a trained emergency professional, Miller keeps people alive every day. But that's in a hospital with millions of dollars in advanced medical equipment at his disposal.


This man had been submerged in the water, unable to move, and was drowning. CPR was the only option. So Rick and Karen Miller took turns delivering compressions and rescue breaths, attempting to restart Schaff's heart.


Nearby, Schaff's wife, Joni, and their 17-year-old son watched.


"I was getting hysterical," Joni Schaff recalled. "My son looked at me, grabbed my shoulders and said, 'Pray, Mama. You've got to pray.'"


And so she did, starting with the Our Father.


A lifeguard arrived from down shore with an intubation kit, and the Miller's younger daughter went out to the street to call 911 and lead the cops and paramedics to the beach. The Millers sparked a pulse and Schaff began to spit up foamy sea water, lots of it. But he still wasn't moving.


When the emergency vehicles arrived, they couldn't access the beach, so someone drove a pickup to the shore and five others put Schaff in the back and drove him away.


"It was like 10 trauma alerts in a row," Miller said. "I was sure he was dead."


But on this day, there was good news. This time, two dads on family vacations in Florida intersected at the right time. One saved the other's life, giving him another Father's Day with his wife and three children.


And, earlier this week, when the two men spoke by phone, they acknowledged that together.


Schaff, who lives in New Orleans, eventually awoke in Sacred Heart trauma unit in Pensacola, Fla., — where, barely able to move, he mouthed over and over again to his wife "I'm paralyzed."


For a while, doctors did advise that could be the case. But Schaff was transferred to Shepherd Center, a spinal cord and brain injury rehabilitation location in Atlanta, where he has since regained some control of his limbs. Tests and time will show if he retains full brain function, but he happily is testing out his legs.


"Val just fought," his wife, Joni, said. And he knows it was the Millers who gave him that chance.


"All I could tell Dr. Miller was thank you," Val said. "'I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you. I didn't have that many more minutes to live.'"


But additional minutes is what Miller gives every day in the hospital. And for this dad on a beach vacation, he wanted the same.


When the two talked about it, Miller said, "We all just cried together."

Val Schaff (center), a 55-year-old dad from New Orleans, slowly reclaims function in his limbs after nearly dying on a Florida beach. Dr. Rick Miller, chief of trauma at Vanderbilt, saved Schaff’s life. Now, he can spend Father’s Day with 12-year-old daughter, Emily (far left), wife, Joni, 17-year-old son, Val Schaff V, and 15-year-old daughter, Victoria. (Photo: Submitted)

Never Turn Your Back on the Ocean

A Lifeguard’s Beach Safety Tips

by Sgt. Ed Fisher ... and personally attested to by JD Lock

The writer is a 22-year veteran of the Beach patrol

Published August 26, 2012


Never turn your back on the ocean. It’s a motto all lifeguards live by.


It’s a motto that we would like all people to live by. There are two reasons to never turn your back on the ocean. Safety and preventing serious injury are the primary reasons. People who turn their backs toward the sea while in the water are in great danger of getting a neck or back injury. Every summer we deal with dozens of serious neck and back injuries, many of which could have been prevented if the person had not turned their back on the ocean.


Unsuspecting people who turn their backs to the sea are often taken off guard by a wave and slammed into the sandbar. Sometimes this can be the equivalent to being hit by a car and slammed headfirst into concrete. While it sounds graphic this analogy is truly representational of the force of a wave. On the beach I have seen everything from dislocated shoulders, slipped discs, and spinal cord injuries that caused paralysis. Just being hit in the back or neck by a powerful wave is often enough to cause serious injury. Although we all are aware of the dangers of being rear-ended in a car accident and the possibility of a whiplash type neck injury, most people do not realize that being hit in the back by a wave that can carry several tons of water is the equivalent of a 25 mile per hour or greater rear-end collision. If everyone would pay attention and not turn their backs on the waves the Beach Patrol would respond to a lot less neck and back trauma. There aren’t too many days that go by where a lifeguard does not see someone with there back to the waves get walloped unsuspectingly.  The beach patrol encourages people to pay attention when standing in the surf or walking out of the surf. These are two times when people seem to take their guard down and turn their back on the ocean.


The other reason to not turn your back on the ocean is respect. A famous Hawaiian, Duke Kahanamoku, helped popularize the motto, “Never turn your back on the ocean.” Duke was a native Hawaiian who gained fame by helping make surfing an international sport and winning gold medals at the Olympics in 1912 and 1920. He also won a silver in the 1924 Olympics. Duke was a lifeguard and recognized the value of never turning your back on the ocean, but he also tried to teach people the same respect he and his Hawaiian ancestors had for the ocean.


The Ocean City Beach Patrol has worked with trauma doctors to modify and adapt a specialized technique of spinal stabilization that was first introduced by Hawaiian lifeguards to manage suspected head, neck and back injuries.  Although every surf rescue technician is trained and skilled in the use of these techniques it is far better for our beach patrons to have injuries prevented rather than treated. Taking responsibility for your own actions and spreading the caution about spinal cord injuries is the greatest form of prevention we have. Many people just do not realize the awesome energy and power contained in a wave and that wet sand is just as un-yielding as concrete and that it is the bones of the spinal column that cause the damage and possible paralysis that results from the impact of your head, neck or back with the beach. Most people would never think of crossing the street without looking both ways, but will turn their back to these powerful waves which could be just as dangerous to an unsuspecting person. Please, use your head to protect your spine and think before turning your back on the ocean, diving or riding breaking waves into the beach. Have fun but remain safe.

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