by Eileen Spillane
Like most years, 2016 had its shares of ups and downs. We lost my Dad in February, yet I was blessed to be with him when he passed. The hospital that I work at had a lot of staff turn over and changes in management that required creative scheduling adapting until things returned to “normal”. The summer brought me to Iceland as an active travel guide surrounded by glaciers, mountains and waterfalls.
However, the last 10 days of 2016 have brought more drama than I care for, along with uncertainty, pain, gratitude and wonder. I met my active travel guide colleagues in St. Kitts and Nevis in The Caribbean, to explore the region to ensure a perfect vacation for the guests we would be guiding. I studied the sugar plantations, rum industry, and the painful history of colonization and slavery. We were well on our way to make a perfect trip. We had one more trail to explore.
As my colleague and I hiked back from the waterfall, rain pummeled down on us like the intensity of a hurricane.
A muddy trail on St. Kitts was the doorway to my path as a trauma patient. One unfortunate step on to muddy unstable terrain dropped me at least 30 feet below into a dry riverbed. My partner was an efficient first responder and is the reason I’m alive today. My left eye and face looked like a bear attacked it. My radius bone was hijacked from its normal resting place. Because I couldn’t see my face, I was most disturbed by the possibility of losing my hand as the swelling erupted and my fingers turned blue and numb. He splinted my arm with a stick and an ace wrap, popped Advil in my mouth as he ran to get help. We were the only ones on the trail and were without cell reception. If I were hiking alone I would not have survived.
I waited alone for an hour and a half. My meditation practice carried me through in solitude waiting for the rescue team. I focused on my breathing and contemplated losing my hand. Aron Ralston, played by James Franco in the movie 127 Hours, inspired me. I tried to get up to start walking and soon realized that was not an option. I came to the conclusion that “this body” was not a body that was walking off the trail. The eight-person rescue team arrived with two EMT’s and placed my Humpty Dumpy body on a backboard. It was a tortuous, hair raising, four hour journey; one in which I dug deep to find peace with.
To say the hospital left a lot to be desired would be a tremendous understatement. Towels, pillows and even narcotics needed to be purchased at an outside pharmacy. Pain medications required a two RN sign off, creating time-consuming barriers to alleviating my pain. My co-leader provided most of my personal care in the hospital and served as a patient advocate, which was desperately needed. With eighteen broken bones and inadequate pain relief, it was hard to keep a smile on my face. I was lectured for my irreverent choice of words that I resorted to in pain.
My Caribbean nurse also told me that God saved me and that he punished me with this accident. She said that I had an opportunity to get on “the right path”. A Christmas miracle brought a Critical Care flight team to airlift me to NYC. I was transferred to NY Presbyterian Hospital for a full medical workup that revealed much more extensive injuries than the initial workup revealed. I was met with professionalism, warmth and compassion from everyone I encountered. The care I received at NY Presbyterian surpassed anything I could have hoped for.
Prior to moving to San Francisco, I spent ten years working across the street from NY Presbyterian at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC). I was back in the hood. In many ways, New York will always feel like home and the medical and nursing team treated me like I was one of their own.
In the meantime, I have several months of recovery and I get to keep living this awesome life. While it is a painful time, I have a renewed appreciation for resilience and abundance of the human spirit. I’m left wondering why I got this hall pass to escape death and what my life has yet to encounter. I’m grateful for my awesome life and the family and friends I'm privileged to know that light my life up!