Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Shattered

Typically, we post stories to this website to uplift, entertain, or even inspire friendly feelings of envy. I am afraid this will not be one of those stories. Anyone looking for an inspirational tale should stop reading immediately, and skip to the next story, which is sure to be an exciting yarn about a happy adventure. On the other hand, if your morbid curiosity compels you to follow a benighted and broken bard on his descent into a dark and painful realm, to join me as I plumb the depths of frailty and despair, then by all means click the link below to read more.

Realistically, this probably won't be the most horrific story ever related here -- I realize that many of you have suffered graver injuries at one point or another, and I'm sure my experience pales in comparison to many of yours. But at the moment my situation feels pretty serious and dramatic, from my limited and self-absorbed vantage point.

Invincibility

The thing is, I've never been hurt paragliding before. In twelve years of flying, I've had my share of close calls. And I've suffered the odd broken toe and sprained ligament over the years from some of the more dangerous social activities related to paragliding. But as a pilot I strive to stay on the conservative side of the spectrum. Maybe it's just because I'm basically a chicken, preferring to let others go first, and to avoid areas or conditions beyond my comfort zone. But I guess I have to admit I take pride in imagining I'm one of our safer and more sensible pilots. Maybe I felt a bit special after flying this long without getting busted up. But that kind of hubris is bound to catch up with a guy.

Also, I have to admit that the role of analyzing accident reports from around the country and writing the USHPA accident column for three years made me think I knew a thing or two about safety and avoiding accidents.

And after flying solo for almost a dozen years now, I started flying tandems only this past year. After all that time, I decided I was finally ready to accept the weighty responsibility of including another person in the consequences of my risk management decisions. Last Wednesday I was planning to fly what would have been my twelfth tandem since being certified as a tandem instructor. I am not doing tandems for money, just free ones for friends and family when the occasion arises.

Introduction

Last Wednesday started with an e-mail sent to me and some other pilots from Cait, a local college student who had been dreaming about paragliding since she was fifteen. She'd met Duck at Pounders a while back and found out about the possibility of a tandem flight. Now, a few weeks before her 21st birthday, she had decided she was ready to try it. I wrote back and offered to take her flying at Kahana that very day. It was a perfect and sunny sea breeze day -- the wind was a bit more east than ideal, but not too bad. I called around for company, and managed to convince Duck and Larry to come out and fly, and also to help me launch.

Duck volunteered to assist my passenger while Larry stood above the wing. I laid out in my usual spot on the brushy slope below the dirt on upper launch. We were hooked in and ready to go. I took a moment to pop the glider up and clear the tips from the brush prior to actually inflating the wing, and as the tips cleared, the wing started to come up before I was ready. For some reason I decided to just go with it. But the wing wasn't coming up straight -- it was low on my left side. I've seen this particular tandem wing come up crooked quite a few times before, and I've always managed to correct it, although a few times my passengers have been dragged around a bit as a result. I know it's a lazy and bad habit I need to work on.

So I corrected the crooked inflation with left hand brake, but for some reason, the wing seemed like it wasn't responding. I stubbornly continued to add left hand brake input, but the wing was just as stubbornly still just coming up on the right side, and by now it was practically standing on it's left ear, and it was powering up so hard I couldn't stop it from starting to drag us around the side of the hill. At this point I still stubbornly thought I could make the launch work, and I started to ease up on the brakes to just let it fly, even though it would mean we'd be careening off the side of the hill.

Injury

But instead of careening away, we were flung with sickening speed on a low trajectory around the hillside, just a few feet off the ground, covering only twenty feet or so before slamming into a small depression below launch, bouncing and rolling to a stop together in the thick brush. My helpers were running over. I could taste blood, and Cait had blood on her face and she was groaning. We assessed her condition, and aside from facial scratches, she was basically okay, to my immense relief, and she was soon walking around and looking for the lens which had broken off her camera.

As for me, I had blood running down my face from scratches on my forehead, but that seemed minor compared to the throbbing soreness in my shoulder: I could barely move my arm. I was nauseated and light headed, and I waited a few moments to clear my head. After sitting there a while, and checking myself out further, I felt a large lump protruding under the skin where my collarbone should be. We gave up the search for the lens, and I started to hobble down the hill while cradling my hurt arm with my good one. Each misstep or slight slippage had me wincing as I felt shooting pains in my shoulder. I heard sirens down below, and I was worried that they were coming up for me, but Duck called the alarm bureau and was told that they were looking for a lost hiker. I was strangely relieved -- I had a stubborn desire to get down on my own and avoid becoming a news story, despite Duck's sensible advice to call in the chopper.

To Cait's enormous credit, she was a great sport about the whole experience. As we were hiking down, she said if I hadn't been badly hurt, she would be ready to try another launch right then and there. Wow. I hope one of you other tandem pilots will be able to help out and fulfill her birthday wish in the next few weeks. Let me know if you might be available.

Diagnosis

By the time we got down, the wind had clocked even more east, and the guys who were just showing up to fly opted not to bother. So it turns out that even if we'd had a good launch, the flight might have been brief or marginal anyway. Doug ran up the hill to help Larry bring my gear down. Duck drove me to Castle hospital, while Larry gave Cait a ride home so she could take care of her abrasions. At the ER they diagnosed me with a broken collarbone, and released me in an arm sling, referring me to an orthopedist the next day.

The next day, Thom took me to the orthopedist. In the waiting room, I got a call from the ER, and the doctor said they'd noticed an additional break during the morning radiology review, to my shoulder blade. Both bones were not just cracked or snapped, but shattered into multiple shards, from what the doctors correctly surmised must have been a very high energy impact. The collar bone was shattered close to the sternum, at it's thickest section, which is quite rare. The orthopedist said it was the worst break he'd ever seen, but didn't have much to tell me beyond that. I wondered why I needed to be made aware of that particular distinction. And he ended up just handing me off to his colleague, an orthopedic surgeon, but the soonest I could see him would be Monday.

Revelation

Later that day, my buddies came over to sort out my gear, and they pointed out that the main thick section of the stabilo line was broken on the side that had never come up during launch. Up until now, I'd spent the past 24 hours wondering what had really happened up there. Nothing had made sense about the launch attempt, and I was at a loss to explain it even to myself.

But the broken stabilo line provided a crucial clue. I think it explains why I was never able to correct the wing -- that line must have been snagged on a strong root or stump in the brush on launch, and possibly only broke after building up the centrifugal force that whirled us around into the ground. It's surprising that none of us spotted it -- neither I nor my helpers ever noticed the snag. Of course, when we see a line snagged, we all know we have no choice but to reset the wing and clear it to start over. But in this case I refused to acknowledge something I couldn't see, and I continued to attempt a correction in the face of the wing's recalcitrant behavior.

Lessons

Friends have said they were surprised to hear that I could have had an accident during launch, because of all the ground handling practice I've done over the years, and how I love to kite all over our launches these days. But I'm afraid there's not much transfer of skills between solo and tandem launching. As Woody told me, it's the difference between driving a sports car and an 18 wheeler.

One of the cool things about flying tandem is that we really get a chance to be beginners again, and in many ways we are starting from scratch. But we may not realize how we need to unlearn certain solo habits, and reprogram some parts of our solo muscle memory. This is just a question of taking the time to practice a lot, especially on the flat ground with someone strapped in for ground handling practice.

So there are lots of concrete lessons here for me. Aside from paying more attention to line clearing on launch, and being more vigilant to the possibility of invisible snags, I could definitely afford to do some more tandem launch homework, to improve my wing control during inflations. Doug suggested I try speeding the wing up using the trimmers, to reduce the amount of time the wing spends in the power zone. I'm not sure that's what I'm after, but I'll certainly try it. I also want to work on my Mitsos technique, since I don't feel like I've been getting the stopping authority I expect to get from the C risers - it worked better on my first tandem wing.

One final point worth mentioning in the lesson section: assisting at takeoff is a tricky business. Duck told me he'd tried to anchor us as long as possible, but finally we were torn from his grasp. I know he's incredibly strong and determined, but the wing and the wind easily outmatched all three of us. When assisting in solo or tandem launching, it's important to stay mobile, moving with the pilot/passenger and only adding weight without fighting the pull of the wing or fixing them to a spot, so as not to allow too much energy to build up in the wing. With the benefit of hindsight, Duck thinks it's possible his steadfast assistance may have ended up complicating the dynamics of the launch, but I am certain that I deserve all the credit for the progression of events. I appreciated having helpers for a tandem launch, and I want to remember to be more generous in offering my help for tandem launches whenever possible.

Prognosis

On Monday, the orthopedic surgeon told me that my collar bone was beyond surgery -- it was shattered into too many shards. They call it severely comminuted. There's just not enough left to affix a plate or put in screws. The best hope is that the bone shards will fuse back together in their current skewed positions, creating a big lump of bone mass that will be structurally sound, though misshapen. Over many years that big lump might dwindle down to a more reasonable size. The same treatment applies to my shattered shoulder blade. It's not as bad as the collar bone -- it's cracked into a few pieces but they're still close together and should knit if immobilized.

The surgeon pointed out some good news as well, maybe because he could see from my face that I needed cheering up after hearing his description of my bones. The injury was not to my dominant side. Well, that's certainly a good thing. Also, the clavicle shattered outwards, rather than inwards, which could have been risky for all the delicate stuff underneath (lung, brachial plexus nerve bundle, subclavian artery and vein). And despite breaking both bones of the shoulder joint, I didn't have what's referred to as a "floating shoulder", where pretty much nothing is holding your arm onto your body but your skin. My shoulder blade break wasn't quite severe enough to make the whole thing float, thank goodness.

So the treatment for my shattered shoulder is basically just to immobilize it with a regular arm sling, and hope that the bones on both sides knit together well enough to provide reasonable function and range of motion. I'm taking Percocet for the pain, especially at night because it's very difficult to sleep with my arm immobilized and my shoulder so sore. But sometimes I take it during the day as well because the soreness can get pretty severe. As Woody told me in an e-mail, pain is a great teacher, but a terrible companion. I hope to learn the lesson the pain is trying to teach me, but I'm eager to kick it out of bed at the first opportunity.

I should be out of the sling in a few weeks, and if all goes well I can return to flying in three months, which is how long it should take for the bones to knit together solid enough for physical activity. I can resume driving once I have full use of my arm, which should hopefully be sometime after the sling comes off.

Aftermath

Out of all the lucky days I've had in my twelve years of flying, Wednesday was perhaps my luckiest. As I said, I've had a lot of close calls. But this was surely the closest of my close calls. If Cait had been hurt, I'm just not sure how I'd ever be able to deal with that. But the reality is that our passengers are always exposed to some amount of risk, so if I'm going to continue along the tandem path, I will certainly need to figure out how I'll deal with it.

This accident has been tough on my family. Amelia was crying when I got home from the hospital and was afraid to come near me. Logan hasn't said much, and I don't think he knows what to make of it, naturally enough. Dorothy is my shining light, making it all seem okay, supporting me in every way, even though I'm probably the worst convalescent patient ever. I know it's a huge burden for her to be my nursemaid and chauffeur in addition to all the stuff she already does.

Jetflap reassured me the other day with the notion that shit just happens sometimes, and it's best not to overanalyze it. Of course I'm analyzing the crap out of it right now, but I know he's right: it just happens. Maybe injuries are just the inescapable seamy underside of this noble pursuit we share. We can recite platitudes about luck versus skill, but the reality is we are always just one mistake away from popping pain meds and figuring out how to take a bath without getting our cast wet. Accidents are one of the unspoken common bonds that bring us together in a way we don't typically like to talk about. I never realized what it would feel like to share that bond - I'm sorry if I ever gave it short shrift before this, but I'm beginning to understand.

One of the strange things about getting hurt is how much you find yourself alone with your own sad thoughts. Just as paragliding is always an individual and solitary endeavor, no matter how much company or support we have, recovering from an accident requires the same sort of lonesome self-reliance. Doctors, family and friends do all they can to buck us up, but in the end we are alone and wrestling with our dreams and fears, our choices and our limitations. It's hard to see the way out of my sad predicament right now, but I guess I'll get there the way everyone does, one day at a time. What's going to make it bearable is reading your stories, seeing your pictures, and watching your videos. So get busy! And be careful out there.

I cannot say enough about how grateful I am to Duck, Larry, Doug and Thom for stepping up and taking care of me, my passenger and my gear. I will never forget what it felt like to know you guys were there for me when I really needed it. I am truly a lucky guy to have friends who are as capable and selfless as you. I hope I never have to return the favor but I hope I'm around to help out if you ever need it. Also, thanks to everyone for the calls and posts and good wishes. I know I am lucky to know such a large and upbeat group of crazy pilots.

One last funny note: Dorothy drove me back to Castle to pick up copies of the X-rays and CT scans. I was wearing an aloha shirt because it's easier to deal with button shirts than t-shirts when you're wearing an arm sling. The nurse at the Radiology desk handed me the CD, and she said with the greatest sympathy, "Here you go honey -- I sure hope you were here a while before you crashed." Well, dang it, after living here for twenty years and flying my heart out every possible day for twelve of them, I guess I can say I was here a while. And I plan to fly here for quite a while more, thank you.

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great Reflections Alex,
Incredible Cat Images too.
Yes,its so good that collar bone broke out and away from the best part of you , your heart of gold.
Even in pain you continue to inspire us to learn & access risks so as to enjoy tomorrow's chance to fly in paradise. So glad to know you . Just a call away if you need anything ,so please call.
thebeeman

Thom said...

Dam it, I couldn't wait till morning. Not the read I would care for to start my day or even end my day.

But, as usual, extremely well written. I hope you have ordered a new line for the tandem. While your at it order the 5 or 6 needed for the Peak as well.

As soon as your arm is willing I have some tile you can cut and set. Just to keep you busy. We will see you in the air sooner than you think I am sure.

Get Well Soon.

gXs said...

Daymn Alex, I had no idea that you had managed to do such a spectacular job on yourself. Even in crashing you managed to outdo us all!
Don't beat yourself up... sometimes sh!t just happens, and it tends to happen pretty quickly in this sport.
Looking forward to many more flying adventures with you when you're all healed up. I can't match Thom's generous offer to keep you entertained while you're grounded, but if there is anyting you need in the meantime, just let me know.

Ka'a'awa Larry said...

Alex-Your account was long on personal insight which is sadly lacking in the FAA incident/accident reports that I am used to reading. It's also the only one I remember reading that is in the first person.

It was satisfying that the tone was upbeat rather than edging toward reclusive. Sounds like you're on the right track, buddy.

You've been a friend to flyers visiting from all over the world and we stand ready to help you now.

Lots of love out here flowing your way!!

Ka'a'awa Larry

Waianae Jim said...

Mahalo for the great write up Alex, as always you're thoughts are well written and your lessons certainly apply to all types of PG flying. I hope you're healing process goes quickly. If there's anything I can do for you just let me know.

Anonymous said...

Hey Alex glad to see you are both alive, cheated death one more time! So sorry we will miss you charging the way for us. I busted the shit out my clavicle and sternum a while back, they come back, lots of push-ups and time in the pool when you get range of motion back. Please call if there is anything I or Laurel can help you and your family with during your time of healing. If you are like me, you are probably not laying down as I write this! Fast healing to you brother! GAZA

DaveZ said...

Alex-
I hate it when bad things happen to good people!
But I'm not surprised to see you selflessly sharing your experience and insights. That's so Alex.
Heal fast, I hope to see you flying alongside me again next time I'm there. Cheers.

Sharky said...

Alex, mahalo for sharing your experience, your personal thoughts, analysis, in your upbeat and always captivating writing style.

Over the years you've provided lots of encouragement and sound advice (all of my Monkey Mentors have!), but between you and Reaper, both of you have always been the guys I go to after I've come back from a long absence, or lose my mojo in France (Thanks Reaper!)

My thoughts are with you and your family. Heal strong and well. I'm still holding off on my first XC to make sure it's with you and some of my other mentors and Chamonkeys. I'm just a sentimental goofball that way.

I'm very appreciative of your writeup and analysis. You've obviously been thinking about it a lot...Now that you've written it up...let it go! :)

Take care, and if there's anything I can do as well, please let me know.

Sharky

Christopher said...

Alex, At some point in one's career flying you will get injured. Your a good man & Pilot ! We are all dealing with unknowns always changing in preparing to launch/land & in flight. Think about becoming a instructor, you have a gift. Mahalo, for selflessly sharing your experience, insight & thoughts as well as lessons, All are always well written. Everyone will learn from this. Tandems are Not to be taken lightly....Preflight & Practice... expect the unexpected & know when to say No, Conditions are not right to Go/Fly. My thoughts go out to You and Your Family ! Heal Well Bro, you'll be in the air again "Finding The Peace in The Air"
Mahalo For sharing,
Paraguide / Christopher

MauiDoug said...

Ouch Alex!!! That break sure looks nasty. I wish you all the best in a speedy recovery! Thanks for the over analyzing, it's really good to know what happened so hopefully it won't happen again.

That stabilo line is a pretty thick line and it needed a whole lot of force to break it. That rock or root didn't let go soon enough for you to get control back. Maybe we as a club could install some type of ground cover on our more snaggy launches?

Heal fast and hope to see you flying real soon!
Best wishes, MDoug

Brazilian Ray said...

I am glad to hear you both are okay!
I will take Cait anytime the weather looks great and our agendas match, whenever she is up for that (779-9013).
thanks for sharing it, Alex. the most painful thing is happening in your mind right now.... I have been there with every accident I had, specially the ones hard to understand and explain. the "what went wrong" and "what could I'd done differently" are merciless! but just like your bruises, it will go away! In an effort to help you with that, I can take you tandem if you'd like to get back in the air and possibly steer and fly (those thoughts away) for a bit when you start feeling better movement of your arm. you probably remember about the pictures when I just had to get back in the air even with my cast on... after that I was able to put my head to a pillow at night and go to sleep without being bombarded with questionable thoughts about THE flight, accident or about ever flying again (even though we always knew the answer to that one, you just can't help thinking about it). from experience I can say it will be in the past, one day, so take it one day at a time and count on me for anything you may need (but remodeling your house before mine).


Aloha
Brazilian Ray

Bill - FlySTRONG said...

Since I tend to like quotes here's two to carry with you:

"Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming "Wow! What a Ride!"
-Hunter S. Thompson

I can relate with being hurt and out part. Yes, one day at a time. When I was down, I used this one to snap out of it:

I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.
-William Henley

See you in the sky brother... ~Bill

JeffMc said...

Alex - man, I'm just gutted reading your account and subsequent diagnosis. Let me know if there's anything I can do for you. I hope to still at least see you on the beach, coaching us through our bay crossings. Just bummed I'll be above you for once.

-Jeff

JK said...

My first flight here on Oahu after my hiatus was from Kahana (regular/mid). A snag on launch did much the same to me, but it popped free after I fought it hard. LeeAnn was there watching over me and I remember her saying, "nice recovery!" Promptly after that, I was lifted and pulled horizontally into a tree on the steeps below launch. I was OK. Just a bruised ego and 30 minutes of hacking away at that poor tree to free my wing.

Thank you for relaying your mishap. That's a gift. Your well written description let me "see" it happen as though I'd been there. That one now goes into my own experience bucket. Although I'm not exactly sure what to do with it yet, it warrants a change in my launch protocol... at least at KNA.

Unfortunately, the well-written story also relayed the horror and regret. Like Jeff said, "I was just gutted." Heal fast and heal well. We all look forward to the day of your next flight. There will be much rejoicing and revelry, as in paaarty! Thom?!

Aloha, JK

Thom said...

Wow, kinda choked up. you all have written comments that should be published in some type of monkey memoir.

I have personally gotten calls from all over inquiring about Alex's condition. I told them 'Wait for the story'.

I am sure they are all reading it and the comments too.

Everyone that has flown with the Monkeys knows we are one big clan and they are apart of it too.

What a privileged.

Anonymous said...

Alex,

Good to hear your okay... and, more importantly your passenger. King Monkey Taratko taught me that when flying tandem... if it ain't coming up right from the get go... START OVER...

Mend quick, mend well.

Jon Malmberg

Tim Hallrud said...

Dear Alex,

Usually Windlines, and your write-ups in particular, are a source of joy for me sitting in rainy old Portland. After you and the monkeys were so beautiful to me when I visited last September, I consider you like family. I couldn't imagine a better brother than you. While I've been lucky in Paragliding so far, I've had plenty of crashes/falls on motorcycles, mountain bikes, climbing etc.

The best approach when dealing with injuries and recuperation is to focus on the fact that it could have been a lot worse. This approach may sound stupid, but it always gave me a lot of mental comfort. Dang man, you could have died. And like you said, imagine the guilt if Cait had been hurt badly. Usually, life is amazing gentle with us, given how many times we tempt fate.

When I get back to Oahu, I'll look forward to seeing you and the rest of the monkeys. They are great friends to have.

Heal well.

Love you brother,

Portland Tim

Anonymous said...

Buddy buddy buddddyyyyy, what the hell you doiiiing ! just kidding dude, sorry to hear that, but like others said, shit happens.
Glad to hear your passenger is fine and you will be too.
I have a few thousand tandooms in by now and i think i know how you feel. Luckily for me no real accidents so far, but occasionally i get a kick in a butt to remind me to respect those 42 sq meters every single time. Your kick was just a bit harder, that's all.
Look at the bright side, at least you get some work done while you're grounded :)
Heal well and say hi to Dorothy and everyone else from me. Miss hangin out with you guys !

Aloha, Czech Peter

P.S.: that ct scan picture is awesome !

Alex said...

Thanks to everyone for the kind words and positive thoughts, both your posts here and all the phone calls. I am truly humbled by the outpouring of support. I am feeling better each day, although it feels like pretty slow progress.

I had a nice surprise today. My would-be tandem passenger, Cait, stopped by the house with a nice card and home-baked gift, some really amazing chocolate truffles. I hear those are great for promoting bone healing by the way. Thanks, Cait! We'll get you on a fun tandem flight as soon as the weather calms down a bit.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alex,
Sorry to read of your misfortune. Get well soon.
Regards from Down Under
Phil