Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Skydiving Adventures and Misadventures

This last week, I experienced my first tandem skydive, my first broken bone, and my first orthopedic surgery.

When doctors and nurses asked me how I did it, I just said "Groupon."

Let me explain. Two months ago, my friend David sent out a Facebook message, announcing that a skydiving company in Hollister (an hour and a half south of San Francisco) had a tandem skydiving Groupon, 99 bucks for a jump.

I'd never been tandem diving. When I turned eighteen, I did do three static line jumps with my dad, which is where you climb out onto the wing of the plane, hang on for a few seconds, then let go and fall backwards. After seven seconds or so, your chute, which is attached to the plane with a cord, opens itself. You don't get to free fall for more than seven or so seconds, but you do get to float thousands of feet above the ground by yourself, and spend ten minutes steering yourself down to the landing field. It's an incredible feeling. The scariest part is before the jump, going up in the plane, and knowing that there's no way out of the plane except out of the door at eight or ten-thousand feet. That's the worst part, but as soon as you let go, there's no room to be afraid.

As soon as that chute was open, I sang "I'm on the Top of the World" and sailed through clouds and contemplated calling a friend and saying "guess where I am right now? in the motherfuckin sky!" Kinda glad I didn’t do that.

It was such an adrenaline rush. I contemplated getting my license, but I didn’t want to dive alone with a different company in Eastern Washington, where my college was. I needed at least one dive a month to keep progressing.

That was 2005. I stuck a pin in that dream. Honestly, I think that’s the last time I’ve had $2000 in my bank account. But I always thought I’d do it again, and maybe make a hobby of it when I had the resources. This was a good chance to experience an extended free-fall, so I bought the Groupon.

On Sunday, July 7th, I showed up at Hollister Skydiving with David, Brittany, and my boyfriend Verne (who had come for moral support). It was bustling with instructors, people waiting for their jumps, waiting for their friends, waiting for their photos and videos….the place was one big room, and nearly every inch of it was covering in Sharpie graffiti, saying “wooo I’m alive!” or “BEST DAY EVER” or “I flew!” I took a picture to send to my mom, because I knew it would put her mind at ease. It made me feel better, seeing all the evidence of survivors. I was a little nervous, but I remembered that it nothing compared to the feeling of being in the plane, so I felt…relatively fine. We put in all the paperwork, and waited.

Fifteen minutes before our jump, our instructors introduced themselves. Mine was a woman, in her thirties, brown semi-curly hair, big smile. She reminded me of Amy Poehler. I asked her a lot of questions. Her family encouraged her to start skydiving, so no, they weren’t freaking out about her job. She’d be diving with her co-workers for a little under a year now, but she trusted them with her life. At the end of the day they usually had time for a “fun jump” together, without a bunch of newbies strapped to their fronts. They could do all sorts of fun tricks, then go out drinking. Many of them lived together in a barn-type-building nearby. Adrenaline junkies. They really ranged in age, background, and even nationality. It takes a certain kind of personality to be a skydive instructor. What a day-to-day.

I was worried about her being at least six inches shorter than me. I thought instructors had to be of equal weight or larger. She said she’d jumped with people of all sizes. But the most dangerous thing that had ever happened to her was with a rather large woman who passed out in mid-air. She had to nudge her and somehow ascertain that she was breathing! yikes.

So I felt good, David and Brittany met their instructors, and we were all shooting the breeze. I mentioned that I had three static lines jumps under my belt, and my instructor said, “No way! Well…. you should totally land us! I’ll talk you down…” I agreed, after all, I’d landed myself three times before! I had no reservations about that.

Eventually the last jumpers arrived in the limo (yes, the company has a limo) and the instructors came in with their chutes billowing in their arms, hollering about something or other. They re-packed their chutes, and we all made for the plane. It sat about twenty jumpers. For a static jump, the planes were tiny…maybe eight could fit in the back. I liked the idea of a larger plane. It looked much more stable. We packed ourselves in there, new jumpers in front of their instructors. That was when I started giving David and Brittany the “holy shit!!” face. We were really doing this!

The propeller started whirring and that was enough to get us all squealing. Maybe the instructors were just cheering, but I must’ve been going “ahhhhhhhh” from then until the jump. The door to the plane was like a plastic garage door that wrapped around the middle of the inside, and surprisingly, it stayed open for the first minute after taking off. Poor Brittany, she had a front-row seat to the ground disappearing. David and I were further back on the benches.

I tried to chat with my instructor while she tightened our straps, and I managed to not sound too nervous, but this was terrifying. We were all crammed into a tin can, approaching 10,000 feet, the plane was loud, we were all yelling, and we were about to go hurtling toward the ground! The instructor in front of me opened the door. It was go time.

He and his jumper positioned themselves so they were holding a bar above the door and facing inward. Then they fell backwards, and our jaws must've all dropped at that point. Brittany was next. My heart was pounding as I watched her and her instructor tumble out. Then another pair. Then my instructor said “alriiiight, you ready?” and crabwalked us to the door. She told me sit with my legs out of the plane. We were going face-first. I stared at the Earth so far away, and within a second she had dislodged us. 

My stomach jumped. We tumbled a few times and I saw the plane disappear. This was free fall. But after a few seconds we were facing the Earth, and the free fall feeling stopped. Instead, it felt like air was being blasted into us from below. The feeling wasn't scary. I could imagine that’s how it felt to train in one of those chambers where the fan blows air up and you just float on it. It didn’t feel like falling, but it wasn’t as dainty as floating either. My face was plastered into a smile and my goggles were about to be lifted up. I tried to take someone’s advice and focus on the pretty sunset, but I couldn’t see for a few seconds with my goggles in my eye. Then the parachute was opened I was yanked up. My stomach jumped again, with the thought of something going wrong. We were jerked around a little bit, then the chute opened up fully and we were really floating.

It was finally quiet, and we could hear each other. I yelled, “holy shit!” My instructor laughed. She got me to grab onto the straps that control the chute, and showed me the position for landing. Shoulders, then boobs, then hips, or something. I remembered the motion from years ago.

There were some neighborhoods under us, but mostly golden fields. It was a beautiful view.

I abandoned the straps for a minute to fix my t-shirt and shorts. The straps had hiked everything up when the chute opened and I was in for a very unflattering landing photo. I did my best to scoot the straps down, but I did appreciate how snug they were. :) We did a few turns. I was hesitant to turn too sharply because I was afraid to go into a spiral. My instructor yanked at the straps a little harder to hang a left.

It happened really fast. We were approaching the landing field, and I could see the first two pairs had already landed, and another pair was approaching the field below us. I also saw Verne standing with his camera, and he was moving towards the spot we were closing in on. The ground was approaching. I lowered the straps to my shoulders, and tried to lower them more, but my instructor told me to wait. I didn’t know what to do. We were coming in fast and I started to panic. Worst of all, I didn’t have any sense of how fast we were going. I put my legs down and thought I could do a running land. The moment my foot hit the ground, I heard a pop, then I landed us front-first into the ground. After we finished skidding, I thought that overall it wasn’t a terrible landing. It could’ve been much more undignified. At least we made it. Even in that second I knew I was kidding myself, something was wrong. I felt sharp pains in my ankle and started shouting. My instructor sat me up and rubbed my back, and tried to comfort me. My ankle was swollen. I was letting out nervous cries of pain, and I told Verne we should go to a hospital first.

David and Verne lifted me up, and as soon as my foot left the ground, I knew it was dislocated. I flipped out, and put my legs down. David suggested I rest one foot on top of the other, and that’s how we got to the car. I was relieved to be stable, and relieved that I might be seen by a doctor soon. My instructor was able to remove all my straps without moving me. The whole interaction was so awkward, like “thanks for the dive, but now I’m all broken….” I asked for her number, so I could update her on my situation. It might’ve come off like I wanted to sue her. I don’t know, I really just wanted to tell her what the doctor said. Even then I hadn’t written off skydiving, or her. In the back of my mind I knew I was in for a long haul. At that moment I was just really bummed out that we couldn’t proceed like normal people into the limo and go back to the HQ and write messages in Sharpies on the walls and pick up Brittany’s skydive video and reminisce all the way home.

Instead, we drove to a nearby ER, which was too full to take me anytime soon, so we decided to book it to Oakland, where Verne’s parents, who are doctors, could help me find speedy ER care.

The drive was quiet, and really no fun for anyone. I was holding my ankle onto my other ankle in the front, while Brittany, David and Rusty the dog slept in the back. It was really hard for me to hold still for that long. I had to shift occasionally, and what freaked me out way more than pain (I was still in a little shock so it wasn’t a big problem) was the fact that my ankle bone started to stick out if I didn’t keep it splinted to the other ankle. It was a nerve-wracking two hours. We were nicely distracted by an NPR debate on whether science refutes God.

Eventually we made it to Oakland and Summit Hospital (al-hamdulillah!), where I got wheeled into the ER, and was seen within a few minutes. I was loaded onto a bed and given a splint, and over the next hour they got my x-rays done and I even got some morphine. It was lovely. The doctor told me I had broken my tibia and fibula, which I gathered was worse than just breaking one. I broke both my ankle bones?!? He told me I would need a surgery because I was so unstable, and they would need to put some plates and screws in.

Oh, sweet Jesus that sounds intense. I remembered my uncle had a lot of hardware put in when he broke his femur in two places while skiing. This must be a cakewalk compared to that, but I didn’t see myself ever having metal placed inside me to stabilize my bones. I have really strong bones. I just…didn’t expect this to ever happen.

Whenever a nurse or doctor came in, they’d ask, “so what happened here?”
I said, “a Groupon.”

That means trying something new because it’s irresistibly cheap.
“Maybe I’ll stick to happy hours.”

Eventually I was wrapped up in a new split and sent home. I wasn’t crazy about the idea of going home with broken bones and waiting for my surgery. My impression was that broken bones need to be stabilized right away, otherwise they’ll heal all wonky. I was told that the swelling needs to go down first. An exception would be if I was in excruciating pain, which I wasn’t.

So we went home to Verne’s, he stacked four pillows on his bed for elevation, and here I’ve been for the last eight days, elevating, watching movies, practicing some Arabic, and thinking about what I can do once I’m off pain meds and able to think again. It's been a smooth week of really good care, and I'm so blessed for that. The Verne’s found me an ankle expert, who saw me on Tuesday, and operated on my ankle on Thursday. I have great insurance from my parents since I’m still 25, and every time I say “it was skydiving,” clearly it could have been worse. 

The worst part of breaking my ankle is that I had to interrupt my Arabic studies. If this hadn’t happened, I would be in my 5th week right now. If it had been a milder break, I might have still been able to continue, but the pain and severity of the break are keeping me on my back, with my leg up until my next doctor’s appointment. I hope to hear good news. Until then, my biggest fixation is on how to stay comfortable. I’m adjusting my pillows every other minute, and I always settle on pretty much the same position, flat on my back with my right knee bent over four pillows. If the pillows aren’t right under my knee, my casted foot will roll off the pillow to my right. Try keeping your feet pointing up while relaxing completely. It’s damn near impossible!

Anyways, I’m only a week away from the break, and four days away from the surgery, so I think I’ve done really well. The pain is under control. Today my biggest problems were a stiff back and cabin fever.

I’ve been reading a lot of message boards and blogs about broken ankles. The breaks really range. Some people just fractured  their fibula, and went straight to a cast, and some people shattered their ankles into several pieces, and underwent a few surgeries with more hardware than I had.

Finding this blog made me really grateful for the internet, aside from all the healing tips I've found. This post got a lot of comments from people who seem to have found these kindred broken ankle spirits for the first time, and were really grateful to know they weren’t alone in feeling depressed and emotional during their healing.

The mental side of recovering from recovering from ankle surgery

One blog I found really interesting was this one. This woman didn’t have any insurance, so she had to jump through so many hoops and delay her surgery for three weeks. That would have really made me crazy. It was a really interesting window into our health care system. I’m so thankful for my insurance.

Diary of my broken ankle hell