Recently, I took a trip to my father's home in Idaho in order to become severely injured. Well, that wasn't the stated purpose of the trip. My wife and I had intended to visit my father for a weekend of winter recreation - we just got a little more "wreck" than "reation" on the trip.
My father, who just celebrated his 70th birthday, is a bit out of the ordinary. At an age when most people are moving into planned retirement communities and discovering that they have a favorite brand of laxative, my father has just built his own log cabin in a secluded valley near Yellowstone National Park, and has taken up snowboarding. He offered to guide us on a snowmobile trek to the Continental Divide, and I agreed with the hope that by following his example, I can be as healthy and active at age 70 as he is.
The problem with this goal is that I don't think I, at age 33, am as healthy and active as my 70-year-old father, and if I keep following his example, by the time I am his age I will have been dead for at least 15 years.
I did not, however, allow any sense of either caution or self preservation to inhibit me in this snowmobiling endeavor. I assumed that, by taking some time to step outside of my little Southern California, urbanized, Starbucks-drinking comfort zone, I might learn something about myself. Of course, I was quite correct about this. I learned that I was an idiot.
Well, let me tell you what it is like - it is like taking a Currier and Ives painting of a horse-drawn sleigh in a snowy country meadow and duct taping it over your face as you drive along a busy freeway at 70 mph. The snowmobile immediately began to assault me with a barrage of snow and ice like demonically possessed Zamboni, reducing my visibility to zero in a matter of about .0038 seconds.
Because of this, I failed to see the one small obstacle on the hillside ahead of me: a 7,000-foot pine tree. As you know if you have spent any time watching such high-quality television programs as "America's Funniest Home Injury Videos," this is exactly where my snowmobile began to head of its own accord as soon as I was out of control.
Then, with a crunching sound that only 300 pounds of plastic and aluminum can make, my snowmobile came to an abrupt halt, flinging me headlong at 40 m.p.h. into the winter wonderland.
After a great amount of bouncing and rolling and flailing around, I came to a stop at the bottom of the hill, buried in snow up to my armpits. I looked around and, to my amazement, didn't see signs of blood gooshing out of any portion of my body, which was an immediate relief. Then, I thought to myself, "When I was 18, I'd have gotten up and walked away from this without so much as a scratch. I wonder if I can still … "
As I tried to push myself up out of the snow I noticed a kind of stinging in my left hand. I struggled to my feet and gently removed my glove, hoping that I'd find my wrist was sort of bruised or scraped up. What I found, in fact, was that my hand was sort of backward with all kinds of weird lumps and bumps where there weren't any before.
And I thought to myself, "Oooh. I'm not 18 any more."
Home, Home On The O.R.
So, my dad, my wife and I took another snowmobile trip, this time with me strapped to the back of my wife's snowmobile, through the winter wonderland to the hospital in Rexburg, Idaho. There, I met Dr. Lee, an osteopathic surgeon who immediately began to examine my arm with all the delicacy and grace a carpenter would use to examine a cabinet door which had come off its hinges.
Dr. Lee was a big ol' cowboy kinda guy who, I suspect, thought I was basically a wimp for making such a fuss over a messed up hand. If Dr. Lee had hurt his arm while out ropin' doggies, I think he would have held the cow down with his good hand and reset the broken bone with his teeth so that his fellow bronc-busting MDs wouldn't-a had to fret none about administering a heap o' anesthetic. I got the feeling he was a little unsure why I bothered coming to the hospital for such a minor problem when I could still move a majority of my fingers.
Regardless, if he thought I was some kind of sissified, sushi-rolling softy, he was polite about it. He explained that, in fact, my wrist was broken and dislocated, and he told me how he was going to fix both problems - a procedure which involved five little Chinese finger traps, a 25 lb. sandbag and a Makita cordless drill.
Fortunately, it also involved a respectable amount of morphine.
I was wheeled into the operating room while Dr. Lee assembled his surgical team and charged up the battery in the Makita drill. Generally, I am a proponent of the philosophy that the patient should take an active part in his or her own health care. By this time, however, I was feeling the effects of a significant amount of pain medication, which did little to enhance my normally outstanding sense of tact and diplomacy with a bunch of guys who were about to use power tools on my body.
"So you guys are going to operate on me, right?" I asked
All of the nurses and assistants agreed.
"Okay," I said as the anesthesiologist held up the mask, "and you know we're here to fix a broken wrist? Nobody's here to do any amputations, right?"
"Don't worry. We'll get you back in working order," Dr. Lee said with a laugh, trying to reassure me as he frantically signaled the anesthesiologist to administer industrial-strength sedatives. "What do you do for a living?"
I knew he didn't really care what I did for a living; he was just trying to put me at ease until the drugs began to work. I also knew, however, that this was my one chance to get the attention of the surgical staff, to make sure that they were all alert and awake and paying attention and not letting their minds stray to other vital health-care issues like mortgage refinances or getting their BMWs back from the mechanics. So, as the anesthesiologist slipped his needle into my arm rather painlessly (although at that point he probably could have slipped a residential lawn sprinkler system into my arm rather painlessly) I said the one phrase which I hoped would give me the best chance of waking up with all my limbs still attached and in working order:
"I'm work for the IRS … I'm in the … audit bureau … " Zzzz.
You'll be glad to learn that the operation was a success. I woke up several hours later with a severe hangover and two drywall screws holding my wrist together. The doctor explained that he wanted to keep me in the hospital through the night, because if there was any swelling, they would need to get me back into surgery right away in order to perform euthanasia.
No, actually I think he wanted to be able to reduce any swelling before it restricted the circulation, but with as much anesthesia as I'd had, I wasn't entirely sure at the time, nor did I particularly care.
After snoozing away through of the afternoon and evening, I spent a lot of time awake that night once the drugs wore off. I started thinking about the crash, and I realized just how lucky I'd been. There are plenty of people involved in such incidents every year who don't walk away from their landings, who wind up in wheelchairs or on respirators as a result of their high-speed mishaps in a winter wonderland.
As my wife and I were sitting together that night, in the lonely hours of the morning that you only see when there's some kind of tragedy in your life, I wondered what might have happened if good fortune had not been with me on that snowmobile.
Turning down the volume on the Star Trek re-run we were watching, I asked her, "If I'd gotten killed out there instead of just breaking my wrist, would people have thought, 'What a stupid way to die.'?"
She looked at me with that look she which she usually only gets when I attempt some form of significant home repair and said, "I'm not sure what anybody else would think … but if it really matters to you, I think you'd have spent your last moments out in the beauty of nature, having a great time, surrounded by the people you love. It's sure a lot better than working yourself into a heart attack sitting in front of your computer. If you've got to go, I can't really think of better way."
Hmm. Pretty smart, that lady. I suppose that's why I married her.
So, my wrist will heal, the cast will come off, I'll go into therapy and eventually be back in working order. All things considered, I'd probably do it again. (The snowmobiling, that is, not the crashing part.) Until then, I've come to realize that there are times in life when tragedy - large or small - helps us separate what's really important from what's just … distraction. Everyone should have an opportunity to re-evaluate the focus of their lives from time to time; I just hope you can do it without the help of a 7,000-foot pine tree.