While I had a number of close calls climbing prior to this event (referred to often as “my accident”), and lots of injuries from other competitive sports and time in the backcountry (I address the psychology behind this elsewhere on my blog), this was probably the first, but not the last, “you should be fuckin’ dead” event of my life.
In October 2010, while sport-climbing at Owens River Gorge near Bishop, CA, I was dropped and fell close to 200 feet (70m), smashing to the ground. The result was a T-10 incomplete Spinal Cord Injury, Cauda Equina Syndrome (basically all the nerves at the base of my Spinal Cord/Sacrum were shredded up), shattered pelvis, disintegrated sacrum, exploded L-vertebrae, a paralyzed left-leg and a lifetime of chronic pain and impaired bowel/bladder function.
Aside from the vertebral fractures and Spinal Cord damage, my L2 vertebra exploded upon impact, my pelvis broke in multiple places and my sacrum was reduced to a collection of pebbles. The process of piecing back together humpty-dumpty was a long, arduous and very painful one.
This accident changed my life completely. My identity as a physically strong climber, skier, tennis player, triathlete, cyclist, all-round athlete and mountain woman was ripped away from me. I had been blessed with athletic and other talents, and was used to many things (especially athletic endeavours) coming easily to me. Being strong, capable and independent had always been important things to me from a very young age; and now, I relied on others to help dress me, feed me, bathe me, help me go to the bathroom, and so forth. Being “weak” and dependent was not a position I was used to being in. Even when I did get out of the hospital and then acute in-patient rehab, and started to learn to be more self-sufficient, I saw no possibility of future happiness. I saw no future where I could not be active, outside, and exploring new place – things that had always been essential to my well-being. I thought I would never have a romantic relationship or sex because I thought, who would want to be with someone who couldn’t go running with them? Who would want to be with someone so fuckin’ broken. While I had taken a very business-like approach to my physical trauma, and devoted maximum mental and physical effort there, my mental state deteriorated. My outlook seemed so bleak that I was driven to trying to kill myself in January 2011, resulting in my one (and only) experience sitting in the back of a police car (hard plastic back seats with very little leg room) and an involuntary psychiatric hold.
Somehow, I pulled myself up from rock bottom (edit: a number of years later, rock bottom reached new nadirs). I put as much effort into maximizing my physical recovery, or at least, the extent that my irreversible injuries would allow. I engaged in multiple rounds of physical therapy, treating it like a full-time job. I returned to work; but soon after, decided that I wanted something good to come out of what was otherwise a horrible thing. I thought I would not be very mobile again, that I would not be able to derive fulfillment from my recreational and athletic pursuits, so my work had to be all-consuming and my life’s work. Naturally, medicine fit the bill rather nicely, especially given my first-hand experiences in the hospital and with rehabilitation. I quit my job, volunteered in Guatemala (I documented my experiences here), moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts to embark on a pre-medical post-bac program, with my eyes firmly set on becoming a doctor.
Sometime in early 2013, I started to climb again, first on ice (because I thought that since I had not climbed on ice even before my accident, it would be easier, mentally and emotionally, for me to not hold myself to a certain standard), in North Conway, NH, then Ouray, CO; then I decided I needed to just go fling myself against rock to see if I could even climb at all; joining a climbing gym came last :) The last part actually has a lot to do with me taking a long time to overcome the self-consciousness I expected to feel, not being able to climb as well as I did before, and feeling self-conscious about climbing in a totally different manner to able-bodied folks (that video is me leading indoors pretty early on after starting to pull on plastic again; I am recruiting my left leg more and climbing much more efficiently/elegantly than that pull-up fest, although there are still a lot of pull-ups and campusing, especially on steeper terrain).
As I climbed more and got stronger, I realized that I could still derive and enormous amount of satisfaction from my athletic pursuits, and the opportunity cost of studying to be a doctor – time-wise, financially, and vis-a-vis relationships, was just too high. I completed the post-bac program but then devoted the rest of the Spring and Summer to training for Paraclimbing competitions.
My older blogs capture my thoughts at particular stages of my life, all highly relevant and worth remembering. I started this blog because I felt that I had moved to a new epoch in my life, one where I felt strong, capable and comfortable in my own skin. Of course there is still much self-doubt and uncertainty – my accident didn’t change some things about me – but self-doubt and confidence are not mutually exclusive things. I hope to share my upcoming musings, stories, and adventures with you all.