It was almost 4 o’clock and the sun was low in the west. The mountain blocked most of the direct sun and caused the flat, shadowless light, the bane of downhill skiers. I knew it would be like that this late in the day. I also knew most accidents happen then, when you are tired and the flat gray light hid most of the moguls. It was almost like skiing by touch, the subtle changes in pressure on your skis indicated the up and down of the mounds and troughs. If you take it easy, it’s not so bad.
I made one critical mistake. When I skied off the chair lift I forgot to tell myself I would take one more run that day. Most accidents happen on the last run, not the next to last. Usually, I lie to myself, saying the current run is the next to last, then at the bottom of the mountain, change my mind and decide not to go up again, thereby avoiding that dangerous last run.
As I lay in the snow, unable to move, I realized my mistake.
It had nothing to do with that snow leopard who raised its massive paw and grabbed my downhill ski. It was that little white lie I neglected to tell myself that caused me to fall and somersault 100 yards downhill.
The ski patrol removed my remaining ski and untangled my legs.
“It doesn’t look like he broke anything. That’s amazing after that fall,” said the Patrol Captain.
“I don’t feel anything, Georgie,” I said. Georgie and I had known each other for a long time, but this was the first time he had to toboggan me off the mountain.
Georgie looked at his partner, a woman about his own age, then back to me and frowned. “You don’t feel anything, Dave?”
“Nothing except the snow you generously packed around my neck, thank you very much.”
“Let’s strap him down as usual but add an extra strap across his forehead to immobilize his neck. Take him down slowly, Karen. He should be feeling some pain. That was a bad crash. Go easy on his back, no bumps.”
Karen skied between the front handles and Georgie grabbed the brake rope behind the sled. They started down the slope, over the moguls as slowly as they could. As we neared the bottom of the trail I started to feel the bumps in the snow. Luckily, we were almost to the runout where the snow was smooth and hard.
Karen started herringboning slowly, carefully, past the snow covered pines and up the rise that lead to the Patrol hut. On the way down the slope Georgie had radioed for an ambulance to meet us there. With my head lashed down with ice encrusted straps, I couldn’t move anything, but I could hear it approach.
We skied over to the ambulance and Georgie went to talk with the EMT’s as Karen kneeled next to me to start loosening the restraining straps.
“Don’t unstrap him, Karen,” called Georgie. “Let the EMT’s take over.”
Two EMT’s came over to Karen and kneeled next to her in the snow, asking me, “Do you feel any pain anywhere?”
“Yes, my legs hurt, and my neck where the strap is cutting me.”
“Ok, we will transfer you to our gurney and take you to town for some X-rays. Hold tight.”
They removed the straps from my legs, chest and head. When they started to move me from the sled to the gurney my eyes opened wide and I began a scream. At least that is what Georgie told me a few days later. Thankfully, I fainted, remembering nothing as the straps were removed.
I woke in a hospital room the next day, to find Mom and Dad sitting in chairs at the foot of the bed. The room was one of those typical two-toned painted rooms with a TV mounted near the ceiling in the corner.
“Good morning sleepy-head. How are you feeling?” said Mom.
“A little groggy, but otherwise I am fine. How long have I been here and can we go home now?”
“No, not today. Your doctor wants you to stay here for a few days.”
“Why? I feel fine and nothing hurts. Why can’t we go home?”
Dad, broke in saying, “Nothing hurts because you are all shot up with pain meds, son.”
“Why? What’s wrong with me?”
“Well,” he said. “That was a big spill you took. You did more than bang yourself up again. This time you broke three vertebrae. The doctor needs you to stay here, immobilized for a few days until they can fit you with a back brace and adjust your pain meds.”
I couldn’t believe it. Nothing hurt at all, in fact, now that I thought about it, I had a nice little buzz on. Whatever they were giving me, I hope they didn’t stop.
Mom and Dad left after a couple of hours. I think they were hoping that I would nod off. A nurse came in to check on me. “How are you feeling, Dave? Do you have any pain?”
“Nothing yet. What pain killer are they giving me? It’s amazing.”
“Right now you are still on a morphine drip, but we will be removing that tonight. You don’t want to get hooked on that, do you? Are the straps ok? You need to keep them on so you don’t move your back. I am not even sure the morphine would be enough if you moved.”
The next day a different nurse woke me around 6:00 am. She asked, “How are you feeling this morning? Any pain anywhere?”
“Yes, my legs hurt and my lower back feels like there is a red hot poker sticking me.”
“I am not surprised. They took the morphine drip out overnight while you were asleep. Look at that pain chart on the wall. On that scale of pain from 1 to 10 where do you think you are?”
I looked over toward the wall and thought for a minute. “Probably a 7 or 8. More than uncomfortable but I am still able to talk, so my teeth can’t be constantly clenched.”
“Ok, there is probably still some morphine in your system. I can give you something for pain. There is no reason you feel any discomfort. Here, take these Vicodin, the pain will be gone soon.”
The next day was a repeat of the previous as was the next, and the next. Then, the back brace was ready and with some help from my pal Vicodin, I went home.
A couple of weeks later I called the pharmacist who said, “Sorry, Dave, your prescription expired and the doctor isn’t going to renew it. He said you shouldn’t be feeling much pain now.”
I probably wasn’t, but had been taking the opioid regularly so really hadn’t felt any pain since I started, but I sure did feel that essential, urgent euphoria. And now I was shut off.
Apparently, over the next few years I found other sources and other medications. They were often purchased in little plastic bags as evidenced by the needle tracks on my arms. I couldn’t remember. I was caught in a haze of need, of yearning, of desperation.
I woke one morning back in a hospital. I had no idea how I got there. Three walls of the room were the institutional two-toned green and vanilla. The other wall was clear glass. There was no TV. I was strapped to the bed and I felt pain, intense pain. It wasn’t just located in my back, but every inch of my body was on fire. I raged against the straps futilely trying to free myself. “Nurse!,” I shouted, although I probably didn’t actually form words, just screamed.
“Dave. Dave can you hear me? I am Nurse Jane. We are going to get through this together.”
To her credit, she sat by me through all the screaming, crying and swearing. On the day I was discharged I think Jane was a happy as I was. Mom and Dad had passed a few years before so there was no one there to welcome me back into the world. I hadn’t seen much of them over the past few years anyway. Well, it will just be up to me then.
I woke one morning, strapped to a hospital bed. The two toned green and vanilla walls looked familiar, as if I had been there before, sometime in the past. I screamed.