Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Musings - Personal Strength - September 25

Some thoughts on what it means to be strong in crisis - Mark.

There is a dimension to injury that is mythical and life-affirming. It is the hero's journey and brings many gifts wrapped in strange packaging. In this light, the injury is a sudden sundering of business as usual, a sudden fall from grace. The journey back to the surface is arduous, and the traveler is forever changed in the process.

Of course, it doesn't always feel this way. Sometimes recovery is just miserable, or worse, boring. However, it seems worth embracing the injury and the journey at least to some degree; it is the only way that I can find to make sense of this ordeal. It is not as though I can press rewind and return to my life before the accident. Therefore, embracing the injury and paying attention is my only recourse. Therein lies the essence of strength; the only way past this injury is through it.

Blase Reardon was the first on scene at my accident. A couple of weeks later, he beautifully expressed his observations and thoughts. Blase commended me for my strength, focus and grace. His words have reverberated in my head since then. I think that embracing the injury at the time was the essence of my strength. Ironically, I had to surrender in order to be strong. Maybe it was wilderness medicine training; maybe it was seventeen years of climbing and thinking about accidents. Whatever the case, my response in the first few seconds after the boulder crushed my leg was to acknowledge completely that this accident had happened. I don't remember even a moment of denial or thinking, "how could this happen?" In that instant, I surrendered my life as it had been a few moments before. The thoughts that accompanied this surrender were the source of my strength in crisis. I remember thinking that my leg was broken, that my life was forever changed and that I needed to stay conscious in order to survive.

We have all heard stories of amazing strength of character. I have wondered how I would have handled the trials of Ernest Shackleton's crew in Antarctica or the close call that brought Joe Simpson a hair's width from death in the ordeal he describes in Touching the Void. We have heard of Nazi officers who refused to execute Jewish civilians. As a result, those officers were executed - murdered, really. Why did I watch the Rambo series or Chuck Norris movies as an adolescent? Undoubtedly, I wished and hoped that I had some of their qualities of strength. I feel sure that this yearning was for something more than physical strength. I hoped for strength of character and some degree of righteousness in pursuing a moral course of action.

Perhaps I am not alone in wondering whether I, too, possess the strength to respond to a crisis. Would I jump in front of a bus to save an endangered child? Would I take a stand against tyrants, though it might mean my downfall? And in this case, how would I respond if I were critically injured in a rock climbing accident? It is a hypothetical question most of the time. I have certainly hoped both that I would be strong and that I would never have to use that strength.

One of the gifts of this ordeal has been that it called forth strength in me. During my rescue, my survival required a very immediate and intense focus. Within a few moments, I pulled off my t-shirt and asked my cousin to wrap my leg. I began to take webbing off of my harness to use to stabilize my leg. I looked in our immediate vicinity for a sturdy stick that my act as a splint. However, I had seen my open fracture with my smooth dark muscle exposed and a jagged bone cocked at a stark angle. I saw my foot flopping to the side like a dying fish in the bottom of the boat. I was able to acknowledge that there was little that we could do medically until the Search and Rescue Team arrived with more materials.

Now, during my recovery calls forth a different kind of strength. It demands a steadiness and patience that alters my sense of time's passage. It requires me to put great effort into small tasks that were once automatic. I have to think carefully as I turn my wheelchair around in the kitchen, collecting the articles for a bowl of cereal from high cupboards, barricaded refridgerators and unforgiving pantries. Each day, I must follow my routine and perform physical therapy, even though I have done it for days in a row, even though I don't feel like it this morning. Embracing this condition, the slow convalescence, can be harder than the intense first moments of injury.

I have recognized this same strength in others. In Mass General Hospital, an octagenarian kept his spirits up while he underwent procedures for cancer. A diabetic in my rehab center talked about what he might do after his big toe and several others were amputated. A carpenter smiled when he described falling and breaking an ankle that had been smashed the year before. These people were finding strength that blossomed through their trials.

While this ordeal has brought forth gifts of strength and patience, I offer them as testimony rather than as prescription. My accident could have been different in a hundred small ways. The rock might have cut a different swath. Assistance might have been further afield. The elapsed time to surgery could have stretched over days. Moreover, I might have been another person with a different constitution or mindset. It is not for me to judge others' responses to crisis, only to articulate my own as a small data point in comprehending what is possible.

Within a week after my accident, a long-time NOLS instructor and administrator was killed while rock climbing. Despite wearing a helmet, Pete Absolon died instantly when he was struck by a rock trundled by an unthinking hiker. This accident was "the big one." No amount of "personal strength" would have saved Pete. Perhaps I have been most fortunate to have just enough travail to discover this strength.

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