On Friday, I’ll be celebrating more than just my son turning 17 years old. I’ll be celebrating the fact that he’s alive to see his 17th birthday.
If you’ve ever gotten one of those phone calls – the one that makes you stop dead in your tracks as you try to process what the person on the other end of the line is saying – you know how surreal it all is. Especially when it’s your kid.
My son is a sweet, funny, active teenager. When he’s not playing video games, he loves to longboard and hang out with his friends. He loves track – he had been training for hurdles and the 4 x 400 – and with his preliminary times was looking forward to a great season.
He also loves to ski. This is something his dad has done with his older brother and him since they were little kids. Most every spring break, he takes them to one of the big ski resorts out west – Vail, Telluride, Breckenridge … this year it was Aspen.
It was just my son and his dad spending their last day on the slopes. That morning, my son sent me a beautiful photo of the ski run with the mountains in the background against a bluer than blue sky. They had just started down a run to go get some lunch – shortly after 1:00 pm their time. His dad was about 100 yards behind him when he saw an explosion of powder and knew my son had wiped out. He immediately skied over to him, thinking he had just fallen and I'll never forget him telling me, "He was screaming. He was just screaming." I don’t ever think I’ve heard my son scream in pain, and it haunts his dad to this day. Realizing this was more than serious than a "yard sale", as skiers call them, his dad asked frantically, “Can you move your arms and legs?” Luckily, he could.
My son said later that the reflection on the snow was so bright – even with his goggles. He went over a ridge at a high rate of speed and crashed back-first into a tree.
Not knowing the extent of his injuries, his dad yelled to another skier who had witnessed the accident to call 9-1-1. The ski patrol arrived almost immediately and called for medics. His dad said it took nearly 15 minutes to dig my son out of the snow under the tree. Thankfully, they were able to give him pain medication right on the spot before carefully transferring him to a backboard and towing him down the mountain to a waiting ambulance.
I had already received several communications from his dad – the first a text – obviously right after the crash – telling me that my son had wiped out on the slopes. The next said “I don’t think we’ll be home tomorrow.” The next was a phone call – his dad so emotional he could barely speak. “I think you need to come to Denver.”
Ever wished you could teleport? It was after 3:00 pm my time. I considered driving. I looked for flights that evening. I wasn’t able to get out of Chicago until 7:30 the next morning, arriving in Denver before noon.
As I rushed home from work to make my arrangements, my son was rushed to Aspen Valley Hospital where his injuries were diagnosed – a crushed L1 vertebrae and a fractured tailbone. The doctors at Aspen Hospital weren’t equipped to treat that kind of injury and recommended he be flown immediately to St. Anthony Hospital, a Level 1 Trauma Center about 45 minutes outside of Denver.
Unfortunately, he and his dad had arrived at the hospital in their full ski gear - boots and all. His dad had to leave our son at the hospital, drive back to the resort, pack up their things, rent a car since they were shuttled from the airport and drive the three hours to St. Anthony. I cannot imagine how hard that was for him to do, and I literally can’t even imagine how terrified my son had to be being flown in a helicopter to a hospital where no one he knew would be there with him.
Though I didn’t have to be at O’Hare until 6:00 am or so, I couldn’t sleep, and left my house around 1:30 am for Chicago. I JUST HAD TO GET THERE. Meanwhile, the doctors feared the shattered pieces of my son’s vertebrae were floating dangerously close to his spinal cord, so he remained immobilized on his back for the night as they planned surgery for the next morning.
I wanted more than anything to be there before he went to surgery, but the gods weren’t in my corner. My bag was late coming off the carousel in Denver, the shuttle dropped me off at the wrong rental car place and traffic was so bad the 45-minute drive to the hospital took over an hour. I missed seeing him before surgery by 10 minutes. His dad met me at the hospital and, through many tears, brought me up to speed on what had happened and what the team of doctors and nurses were doing to repair our broken boy.
I don’t know that I was prepared to see my son after his operation. To stabilize his spine, the surgeon implanted screws in the vertebrae above and below his L1 and secured them with rods. The fractured tailbone, unfortunately, would have to heal on his own. As they wheeled him in, he was connected to so many monitors and tubes, including one coming from his back that was draining blood into a bag by his side. He was in and out of consciousness and obviously in a great deal of pain. The doctor stressed that the first order of business was pain management and also getting him up and into a back brace, which he would have to wear for eight to 12 weeks. Honestly, the thought of him walking at that point was the furthest thing from my mind. Seeing him in THAT much pain – I felt like my heart was shattering just like the broken pieces of his back. It was almost unbearable for me as a mom to watch my son suffer like that, and I feel guilty writing that because of how unbearable I know the pain was for him.
He was in the trauma ICU for two days before being transferred to the “regular” ICU floor. I’m not going to lie – he was on a LOT of pain medication – and he needed it. My son is no slouch – and I learned during this time that he has a very high tolerance for pain. But even then, on his scale of one to 10, he was consistently on the higher end.
He was set up with a Dilaudid pump he could press at specific intervals that delivered an instant dose of pain medication. At first I was hesitant about them giving him that kind of power, but he used it only when he absolutely had to – not every single time he was able. In addition he was on a number of other pain meds and muscle relaxers, which made him sleep pretty fitfully for the next few days. When he was awake, his pain could be excruciating. When he was asleep, he would have nightmares of hitting the tree, which made him startle awake and cry out in pain.
On about day four, his dad and I started wondering when and how we could get our son home. We were told that he would have to be off all IV pain meds before we could make the trip. We thought maybe after the weekend, then two days from then, then the next weekend … it just kept getting pushed back farther and farther. We ended up staying at St. Anthony Hospital for two full weeks.
Pain management is a dicey thing, I’ve learned. As much as the doctors want to get you up and walking, they are also pretty good about not making you do it if you can hardly stand the pain. My son’s pain didn’t abate. They couldn't find the right medicines and dosages and combinations to manage it – one would work for an hour or so then wear off before he was due for the next, leaving him begging for relief. We had multiple consults with the litany of trauma surgeons on call, and it wasn’t until I opened up a can of whoop ass on a nurse who wouldn’t administer a pain med because she "wanted him to see if he could wait" that we met with a surgeon who found the right mix and schedule to finally provide him some relief.
An aside: The opiate epidemic is real. I get that. Doctors over-prescribe. I get that, too. But let me tell you – when you see your child in that much pain, you don’t give a rat’s ass WHAT they give him – you just want his pain to stop. But there are definitely consequences, as we found out later.
Finally, my son was able to get out of bed. Finally, he was able to go to the bathroom on his own. Finally he was able to walk with a walker. Not without a lot of pain, mind you, but little by little, I saw my sweet, funny boy slowly coming back to me. He had a long way to go, but he had already come so far. We marveled that two weeks prior, he was running a 400, and now we were thrilled that he was able to shuffle down the hall and back. Physically, he was encouraged by his progress. Mentally, though, he was devastated.
Getting him home was a production, and took days of planning. His dad had enough airline points to fly him home first class – there was no other way he could have gone – and we carefully planned our trip. We’d spend one day to get to Denver and find a hotel close to the airport. The next day, we’d drop off my rental car, have his dad deposit my son and me at the airport, he’d take his rental car back, we’d find a wheelchair, get him through security and have him wheeled directly to the gate. We had pillows and pads and just enough of the heavy meds to get us home, and with as much pain as that kid was in, we needed every last one of them. The travel was awful for him, including the three hour drive from O’Hare to Peoria - which we were going to do the next day, but my son insisted, "I just want to go home."
More on opiates: They are woefully undermanaged.
The doctors, nurses (except the one) and staff at St. Anthony were incredible – amazing. But once we checked out, my son was no longer their patient, and they handed us off to a spine surgeon in Peoria and said to follow up in two weeks. We had no pain management plan until then other than the dosages that had been directed to us by the doctors - and no refills. My son was on pretty high levels of oxycodone plus two other medications and we stuck to the strict schedule of administration, which included getting up every three to four hours during the night to avoid what they called “pain spikes” – where the pain gets so bad that nothing can touch it. But when we ran out, his primary care doctor – a pediatrician because we hadn’t made the leap to a “big boy” doctor yet – obviously wasn’t crazy about prescribing oxycodone to a 16-year old. He lowered the dosage (not a good idea) and reluctantly gave us just enough to get us by, and we counted the days until we saw the spine surgeon.
The day before my son's appointment, I had gone into work when he called me in so much pain I rushed home and took him to Midwest Orthopedic's prompt care. Luckily we were able to meet with our spine surgeon, Dr. Patrick O'Leary, who told us he was admitting him immediately to the hospital to get his pain under control. Now, since we were seeing the doctor and subsequently going to the hospital, I had held off on giving him his oxycodone, thinking that they’d give him an IV of something in the hospital. Little did I realize that by the time he got to his room at Unity Point (Methodist) Hospital, he was experiencing the symptoms of opiate withdrawal, including vomiting, the shakes and aggressiveness. I had never seen him act like that before.
An aside: A quote from my son: "If that’s what opiate withdrawal feels like after half a day, I don’t even want to think about what someone who is addicted to them goes through."
They administered his pain medicine right away and gave him something for the nausea. That night, he began complaining of a stiff neck, then later, showed me how he was losing control of his neck muscles and his head was actually turning on its own. Thinking he was just stiff from being in bed, the nurse gave him a heating pad and we settled in for the night. The next morning, the stiffness was worse, and slowly, before my eyes, all of the muscles in his body started contracting and he went into a full muscle seizure. Within minutes, nurses and PAs and doctors in blue caps and booties were rushing into his room like they just got out of a clown car. At the time, they had no idea what was wrong, and it took them a couple of minutes before one administered two doses of Ativan and Benadryl through his IV. Slowly the seizure stopped, and I remember Logan sitting up, dazed, and the doctor saying, “Hi, Logan, it’s nice to finally meet you.” They finally determined he had an allergic reaction to the nausea medication, Compazine.
An aside: You know what really sucks? When your son is in so much pain he looks at you and says, "Mom, I just want to die."
An aside: You know what really sucks? When your son is in so much pain he looks at you and says, "Mom, I just want to die."
We were in the hospital for two days, but it was a pretty productive two days once that was over - and I cannot say enough good things about the fine people at Unity Point. During our stay, we met with a number of specialists who made sure that no stone was unturned as far as my son’s health. We were given a an extensive pain management plan that was reviewed with us in great detail. The doctors, nurses and social workers spent as much time with us as we needed and answered all our questions. My son, who had arrived in a wheelchair, left under his own power.
The healing continues, with physical therapy his next hurdle, if you will, though my son is obviously light years ahead of where he was three months ago. He will always have the screws and rods in his back, and about an eight-inch scar that goes right down his spine. His tailbone is still healing, and he's still unable to do a lot of the physical activities normal teenagers like to do. He's struggled with some depression and still has nightmares about the accident. To put it mildly, it’s been a bummer summer.
But he’s alive. My son is alive. Maybe that sounds dramatic to some – it does to me at times. I think of what could have been – if he would have hit head first. If he would have been paralyzed – he came SO DAMN CLOSE – if he would have died. I seriously have to continuously push those thoughts out of my mind.
I look at him now and I am so thankful. So, so thankful. I’m thankful God spared him. I’m thankful for the doctors and nurses who helped heal him. I’m thankful for his dad who brought me coffee and traded nights in the hospital room with me and worked with me as we navigated this horrible situation with our son. I’m thankful for the ski patrol and medical personnel on that mountain who were so quick to respond. I’m thankful for the surgeon who so expertly fixed his back. I’m thankful for the nurses who were so kind to him (except the one), and the doctors who helped manage his pain and assuage our fears. I’m thankful for my friends who reached out. Seriously – it’s times like these that you find out who your friends are. I had people I hadn’t seen since high school who lived in the area – or who had kids who lived in the area – offer to come sit with me in the hospital. My dad took care of my dog for two weeks and my friend from work checked in on my cat twice a day. I had people I hadn’t known very long – or barely at all – texting me and calling me. Friends made contact with people they knew who had planes in an effort to get my son home when we had no plan (this blew my mind.) A great friend of mine went to my house, packed a bag for me and brought me dinner at the hospital in Peoria. People stepped up – people I adore but am not close enough to that I would EVER expect that kind of support.
It’s true what they say – family isn’t always blood. And some people just DO – they take care of your house or run errands or bring you dinner or just pray – they DO when you don’t know what to do or what you need. You all are priceless to me and I am eternally grateful for getting me – and my son – through a time when we both felt so incredibly alone and powerless. When your child is hurting, nothing else matters – NOTHING. So when friends pick up the slack – when they know to pick up the slack – it means the world. The absolute WORLD.
This will be with us for awhile. My son is still physically and mentally affected from the accident, and at this point is doubtful he’ll ski again. He started physical therapy just today, and it is evident that he has a long way to go before he'll be hitting the track again. His dad, who witnessed my son's pain in the hours before I arrived, was traumatized from the moment it happened – and I can’t imagine how horrible it had to be to witness what I did not see.
As for me, I’m sad. Sad that he has endured pain I have never known and to which I can't relate. Sad that he was poked and prodded and cut and medicated and had to get a taste of the horrors of opiate withdrawal. Sad that he will forever have these screws and rods in his back. Sad that he missed track again this year and has to question whether he will ever get back to where he needs to be for next season.
But overshadowing my sadness is this tremendous thankfulness. I'm thankful that my son is OK – my sweet, funny son – held together by some screws and rods but in one piece. I’m thankful for those who helped – you know who you are. But most of all, I’m thankful that as we celebrate his 17th birthday, we're also celebrating that my son is still here … alive … walking … because I can’t imagine life without him.
I know this post is long, so if you read it, thank you. Now go hug your kids. Life can change in the blink of an eye.