Climbing in the Phoenix Gym

It was just another day of climbing after school in the Phoenix gym with the staff kids, when a staff member, who had climbed with me fairly extensively last year, turned up to climb.  She had purchased a harness and shoes over the summer break, and did a little climbing back home, but hadn’t managed to get out to break them in the in two and half months since we had been back at school.  I put her on belay (To belay is to bring in the rope to prevent the climber from falling.) and had her climb the easier of my two marked routes.  Then I decided to climb the route myself to show her a few of the trickier moves.  I had her put me on belay.  As she took in the extra rope, I noticed that she was doing it incorrectly.  I stopped her and reviewed belaying techniques.  It didn’t occur to me that I should review lowering as well.

When I reached the top of the wall I asked for a take.  (To take is to pull the rope tight so that when the climber lets go of the wall he will not fall in the slightest.)  She gave me a good tight take and I looked down to ensure that she had locked off the rope before I committed myself to it.  Then I gave the command down.  And man did I go down!  Rather than keep the rope in the lower breaking position and letting it slide slowly through her hands, she lifted the rope, entirely releasing the brakes.

I yelled, “WHOAAA!!!” as soon I felt the surge of uncontrolled acceleration.

It takes about 1.3 seconds to fall the entire 8 metres (26 feet) from the top of our school climbing wall.  There was some friction in the rope, so maybe, I had 1.4 seconds to think about what was happening.  The whole way down I was certain that my belayer would hit the brakes and catch me anytime now.  Then I hit the crash mat.

It felt like being hit in the ass by a Mac truck while bending over the tie your shoes.  I struck the ground in a seated position.  My butt drove all the way through the 40 cm (16 inch) thick mat and was crushed into the hardwood floor.  The force of the blow was so incredible that my head folded down until I drove my chin into my chest and bit my tongue.  My lower back folded forward as well, tearing the paraspinal muscles as I nearly head butted myself in the nuts.  My body snapped back and I found myself lying flat on the mats.

In reaction to the searing pain of the muscles tearing, I screamed an explicative at the top of my lungs that shouldn’t have been used in front of children.  At the shear horror of the thought that I may have just broken my back, I screamed it a second time even louder.  As the red haze of pain and terror faded, I became aware of four faces looking down on me.  I was in too much pain to move and most of the wind had been knocked out of me.  I laid there for a moment trying to evaluate the extent of my injuries.  Could I move?  Did I need an ambulance?  The pain began to fade and I realized that I could still feel and move my extremities.  If I had indeed broken my back, an attempt to stand up would cause instant excruciating pain, wouldn’t it?

I decided there was only one way to find out.  Against everyone’s advice I attempted to stand up.  There was pain.  I was definitely injured, but this was something I could walk away from.

I enjoy high risk activities: scuba diving, single handed ocean sailing, and of course rock climbing, so I’ve had my share of close calls.  One thing they have taught me is the importance of getting back on the horse.  If I didn’t get my belayer climbing again immediately, she would probably never climb again.  As soon as I felt comfortable in my ability to stand, I reviewed belaying AND LOWERING techniques.  Then I climbed up to three metres and had her lower me.  I was definitely hurt too much to climb any more than that.  I put her back on belay for one last climb, then we put the gear away and I went back to my lab to work for a bit before the staff bus left for the day.

As I worked, the pain didn’t improve.  I was pretty certain that it was just torn muscles, but with the risk of a back injury, I decided it best not to be a macho idiot about it and went down to see the school nurse.  There was no external injury to the spine, but she recommended that I see a doctor.  Of course, she was probably legally required to tell everyone who visits her to go see a doctor.  But, when she called up the hospital and made me an appointment, I realized that she really was serious about it.

It turned out that the hospital was across the street from the building I live in.  It occupies the tenth and eleventh floors of the office building next door.  I had never even noticed it among the signs for the dozen or more other businesses in the building.  The x-ray showed my spine curved laterally like a snake from the impact but no visible fracture.  Still, the doctor wanted me to take the next day off to rest and get an MRI.

Operating Table aboard the Enterprise

I returned to the hospital the next morning for my scan.  An MRI works by placing the body in a powerful magnetic field causing the nuclei of your hydrogen atoms to line up.  Then you are subjected to radio waves that cause these nuclei to resonate releasing their own radio waves which are detectable by the scanner.  I was led into the room an ordered to lie on the table next to the enormous white magnet suspended from the ceiling.  Then the technician proceeded to clip a white plastic detector into the table forming an arch over my chest.  He continued clipping in detector arches as he worked his way down to my feet.  I felt like I was being prepared for surgery on Dr. Crushers operating table aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise.   He returned to my upper body and clipped more arches over my arms effectively binding me to the table.  Where was this going?  Lastly, he took what appeared to be the front of a Storm Trooper’s helmet and clipped it in over my head.  I was now a cross between a Storm Trooper and Gulliver staked to the beach upon arrival in Lilliput.

Anakin and Obi-Wan Battling it Out Above Me

He then slid the table under the magnet, ordered me to keep my eyes closed, and left the room.  Would the magnetic field be so powerful that my opened eyes would be torn clean out of their sockets?  Would the radio waves scorch my retinas blinding me for life?  Neither seemed likely, but there had to be some reason to keep my eyes closed.  Then there was a deep haunting thump which began to repeat slowly and rhythmically like the opening beats of some ancient tribal ritual dance.  Then came the distinct sound of two Light Sabres energizing.  Clear as day I could hear Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker battling it out with Light Sabres over top of me.  Every time a Light Sabre swept over me I could actually feel its hum causing my hydrogen nuclei to resonate, and waves of vibration rolled through my body.

When the sounds died away, the technician repositioned me.  The tribal drumming and Light Sabre battling repeated twice more.  Then he announced, “Compression fracture.” before removing all of the detectors and placing a different one over my chest.  I went back under the magnet for a fourth round, this one a detailed scan of the injury.

Back in his office the doctor declared that I had a compression fracture of my T-10 vertebra.  My worst fear had been realized.  I had actually broken my back.  Then again if it didn’t show up on an x-ray, how bad could it be?  He explained that I would have to be admitted to the hospital and fitted with a temporary brace while a custom brace was manufactured to keep my spine as stable as possible.  And what ever I do, I should not sit down.  I asked if I could go home and get a book and a few other necessities first.

“No, you have a fracture.  You must be admitted.”

“But, I live just across the street.  That’s my building just outside your window.”

“No, you must be admitted immediately.”

“I was injured 14 hours ago.  What difference will another 20 minutes make?”

“You have a fracture, you may not leave the hospital.”

“But I’ll die of boredom!”

“Your health is more important.  You must be admitted.”

This was my introduction to the rules.  The next rule was that all admitted patients must provide a blood sample.  I was sat down at a desk; exactly what the doctor had explicitly forbidden me to do.  The nurse whipped out some latex tubing and a needle the diameter of the barrel on a Magnum .44.  Whoa Nelly!  What did she think she was going to do with that?

“You must give blood.  You may have an infection.”

I was pretty certain that it wasn’t an infection that had broken my back.  Despite her insistence, I politely declined to give any blood.

Rule number three was that all patients with spinal fractures, after being forced to sit to give blood, must be transported around the hospital on a Gurney.  Rule number four actually proved to make a lot of sense: all patients on Gurney must wear a seatbelt.  I watched the ceiling whizz past while I was bounced off of walls and crashed into doors.  The seatbelt actually prevented my complete ejection onto the floor on more than one occasion.  Then we arrived at the elevator.  Here was where the complete absurdity of rule number three reached its pinnacle.  The Gurney was too long to fit in the elevator.  It had to be folded up into the forbidden seated position.  As they bent me forward, the torn muscles of my lower back screamed with the sort of agony they hadn’t seen since the actually injury.  All this when I could have walked with no discomfort whatsoever!  It was a great relief when they straightened me out and began ricocheting me off of the walls of yet another hallway.  With a crash through a final door I arrived in my room.

I was slid onto the bed and introduced to rules number five and six: no one except the doctor can speak English, and all admitted patients must have an I.V.  The nurse whipped out another .44 gauge needle.

Rule #2 - All Patients Must Give Blood, Rule #6 All Patients Must Have an IV

“No way lady!  What do I need that for?”

She spoke a lot of Korean then came up with, “Dehydration.”

“I’m conscious and mobile.  I can drink water from a cup.”  I pantomimed drinking.

More Korean.  She pantomimed injecting drugs into the I.V. and said, “Swelling.”

I pointed my finger into my mouth and said, “Oral anti-inflammatories”.

She went on in very animated Korean, then came at me with the needle.  I made a big X with my forearms, the Korean signal for “No way in hell!”.  She shook her fist at me and left.

A while later a different nurse returned with a glass, a pitcher of water, and some pills.  The next nurse arrived with my temporary brace.  Someone must have told her to find one that would fit a waegook (foreigner).  The Hangook (Korean) impression of waegooks is we are a rather large and portly lot.  This brace looked like it was left behind by Cass Elliot after doing a gig for the USO during the Korean War.  I did my best to pantomime “morbid obesity” and attempted to point out my distinct lack thereof.  It was to no avail.  She insisted on attempting to fit me into the thing.  Once it was strapped as tightly as it would go, there was still room for two of my closest friends to climb into it with me.  She was forced to admit that perhaps it was a shade too big.  She returned with a brace that was a little more mid sized.  I’m not even mid sized, but between the two of us we managed to figure out how to tighten it enough that it made some contact with my body.  With the brace fitted I was now free to get out of bed to use the washroom and to sit up to eat.

And just in time, lunch arrived.  It was loaded full of tiny pieces of meat.  I attempted to explain that I am a vegetarian.  The best I could come up with in my extremely limited Korean was, “No golgi.”  Vegetarianism is a very foreign idea in Korea.  This is compounded by the fact that “golgi” while roughly translating to meat, does not include seafood or pork.  I’ve had a heck of a time with my diet at the best of times.  This wasn’t the best of times.  Without a word of English, the nurses made it very clear that the only vegetarian food I would be getting would come through an I.V.  And if I didn’t eat what was being proffered, I would be held down so that said I.V. could be forcibly inserted.  I cursed silently and attempted the hopeless task of eating around the rice grain size chunks of meat.

After lunch, the brace man arrived to take my measurements.  Then I was left to stare at the ceiling while I waited for him to return the next day with the completed brace.  This gave me a lot of time to think.  Exactly how was lying in this rock hard hospital bed staring at this ceiling better for my back than lying in my own bed staring at my own ceiling?  If this had occurred in Canada where it would have been a six month wait for an MRI, would I have just been sent home after the x-ray and told how lucky I had been?  A later close examination of the x-ray answered that question.  Now that the MRI had told the doctor where to look, you could clearly see that the once rectangular cross-section of the vertebra was now more of a quadrilateral 1 or 2 mm (1/8 inch) shorter in the front than in the back.  That also means that I am now about 1 or 2 mm shorter.  Like a wasn’t short enough before!  I’m guessing a Canadian doctor would simply have examined the x-ray more closely.

Another thought occurred to me:  How was I going to contact my school to let them know what happened and to send in lessons for the next day?  Everything at KIS is done via computer.  I had been forbidden to go home and get mine.  I hadn’t brought my cell phone as all I had been expecting was the MRI to confirm that I just had torn muscles.  The phone in my room wouldn’t dial out.  I was completely cut off from all communication.  Then it dawned on me.  The Light Sabre noises in the MRI and the repeated attempts to jab me with things while speaking a language I couldn’t understand.  I had been abducted by aliens!  If I wasn’t really careful, they were going to give me an anal probe!

I discovered that the tiny television 6 m (20 ft) away at the far side of the room actually had one or two channels that were in English.  It was really hard to see anything of the TV since I was required to lie flat on my back, but at least I could avoid dying of boredom.  The rest of my problems were solved by giving the nurse my Director’s card.  She was able to call him then put the call through to my room.  I explained the situation, and he sent Shaul from the Business Office to my apartment to feed Spot, and get me my book, my computer, and some toiletries.  Now I could keep myself occupied, but there was no internet access, so I couldn’t send in actual lesson plans.  I figured my circumstances were extreme enough to warrant such an omission.

Soon after I received my delivery from my apartment, my belayer arrived.  She was guilt stricken, and came bearing a loaf of banana bread.  The company was greatly appreciated and it sure was nice to talk to someone who could speak English.

I'm stuck in this baby to two months!

My custom brace arrive the following afternoon.   It was a rock hard piece of polyethylene with three velcro straps across the front.  The brace man stuck his knee into my chest and strapped the thing so tight that I couldn’t breathe.  This was how it should be adjusted for standing up.  He then loosened it off until it barely touched me at all.  This was the adjustment for lying down.  I was clearly going to do a lot of lying down.

Saturday, a day after getting my brace, and 52 hours after being admitted I was finally released from the hospital.  I was pretty sure the doctor would have kept me there for a week if I hadn’t made it clear that I wasn’t staying any longer.  He told me to take the next two weeks off work and to come see him two days later for a check up.  It was such a relief to get back to my apartment.  If a man is going to be forced to lie on his back for days on end, it should at least be in front of his own 52 inch big screen with Dolby 5.1 Surround Sound!  Monday I went back to work.

I’ve had to make adjustments, like setting a box on my desk so that I can work at my computer while standing.  The brace was very painful at first and for the first week I spent most of my prep periods lying on my camp mattress on a lab bench so that I could loosen it off.  Since then my ribs and hips where the brace digs in have gone numb, and I’ve learned a method for shallow breathing so that I can comfortably breathe with the brace strapped tight.  After three weeks I was given permission to sit, but I can’t do it for long or my right leg starts to go numb.  I think the brace is pressing of some magical nerve when I am seated.  The most heartbreaking thing has been watching all of the beautiful Fall days for hiking, climbing, and mountain biking pass by outside my window while I’m stuck inside lying around waiting to heal.

Obi-Wan Kenobi

Thinking back on the Light Sabre battle going on above me in the MRI has made me feel a lot like old Obi-Wan.  All Padawan learners were supposed to go to Yoda to learn to become Jedi Knights.  Obi-Wan took Anakin on as his own apprentice, despite the warnings of Yoda and the rest of the Jedi Council.  Anakin ended up nearly killing Obi-Wan and became Darth Vader.  All climbers are supposed to seek qualified instruction.  My belayer was someone I taught to belay.  She nearly killed me.  Now like Obi-Wan I am stuck in my cave waiting.  Hopefully, in the spring when I am good and healed I can continue my training, and one day I will return as the Jedi Master!

Darth Vader's Profile Clearly Visible on the Right Side of Insubong. My favourite climbing route so far in Korea is Chouinard B, which follows the crack between Vader's Cape and his body.