"When the Wicked Wind Blows"

(or, the story of the accident) by L. Lisa Lawrence

(author holds copyright on all material.  Permission granted to link to original pages, please use contact link on webpage for any requests for reprinting or publishing)

Lisa (in the middle of the raft wearing a red PFD), rowing a raft load of passengers through a rapid on the Colorado River near Moab UT.  The 5 passengers in the front of the boat are obscured by the wave.

As I opened my eyes, the contrast between the red rock of the Colorado River canyon and the blue autumn sky came into view. I was lucky to be in the middle of paradise, instead of in some office in the city. I yawned and stretched, when suddenly, my body was racked with pain so severe that I couldn’t take a breath. As my eyes began to focus, and my dream induced haze began to clear, the “red rock” became a red brick building. I surveyed my surroundings and noticed: the intravenous lines in my arms, the catheter, the strange devices strapped to my legs alternately inflating to circulate my blood, and flowers, lots of flowers. “Damn!” I muttered to myself as I realized I was not in my beloved canyon. Instead, I was beginning the third of eight days in the orthopedic ward in St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction, Colorado. My pelvis was fractured in three places, and my spine was fractured through the hip joint. I had been in and out of consciousness for most of the previous two days due to shock, pain and medication. Images flashed through my mind: the storm front blowing in, the boat flying through the air, popping and snapping noises coming from my body, a woman holding my hand saying “Lisa, hold on, stay with us," and a haze of blowing sand and pain.

The morning started out like any other day. I awoke in Castle Valley, Utah, greeted by red rock, blue sky and the sound of Nelson, my friend's dog, drinking out of the toilet. I staggered downstairs in my usual semi-comatose state while my friends teased me about my inability to function in the morning without caffeine. Then I headed to Moab to get coffee and rig the day’s river trip.  I looked forward to guiding these late season solo trips and the peace and tranquility, which were a pleasant change from the crowds, stress and frantic pace of summer in a tourist town.  It was a beautiful, crisp, autumn day--vivid reds and blues and glassy water, just like a postcard.  A storm was brewing however, and the winds were howling when we reached the put-in.  As I watched two guides from another company rowing with all their might, getting blown back up the river, I muttered to myself sarcastically, “I love my job.” Clyde, our driver and I pulled the boat onto the ramp so we could tie it to the trailer, rather than allowing it to blow farther into the water and up the river. I took my time rigging, in hopes that the front would blow through or it would get bad enough to call off the trip.  So there I was, standing in the boat, strapping gear down and rethinking the wisdom of attempting to row against such a strong wind, when suddenly I was blinded by sand so thick I could barely breathe and was launched into the air. I looked up in shock and disbelief to see that the raft was flying through the air as well. I hit the rocky ground, stunned and bruised, and tried to scramble away from the boat, knowing it could kill me if it landed on me. Then I heard a sickening crunch as the frame crushed the right side of my pelvis and lower back. I tried to scream, but all that came out was a pathetic whimper. After a time, Clyde came around from the front of the bus and found me pinned under the boat. He attempted to lift it off me, but it was too heavy and the wind too strong.  My legs would not move and every time I attempted to help free myself by trying to pull myself out with my upper body, I nearly passed out. Help finally arrived in the form of shocked and horrified customers, who helped Clyde lift the boat and get me onto a backboard. I knew things were badly broken but that nothing was grossly displaced. As a 12-year veteran paramedic, I also knew that one wrong move could kill or paralyze me, and that patients often die from the internal bleeding associated with pelvic fractures. 

In one freak moment, my life had changed, possibly forever. River guiding filled in time between my seasons as a park ranger doing law enforcement, search and rescue and fire fighting, and my winter job as a ski instructor. Everything I did to earn a living and keep my sanity required my body be intact.  I had given up financial security, stable relationships and a permanent home for most of my adult life, in order to live this active and adventurous lifestyle.  As I looked up at the canyon walls and passing clouds, I made peace with the fact that I might spend the last moments of my life on the banks of this river, waiting for help by ground (the storm was too violent for a helicopter to fly safely) that was too far away, without a phone or radio that would reach to the small  town of Moab, 32 miles away down a narrow winding canyon road.  I wasn’t afraid to die, and quite honestly couldn’t think of a better place to do it.  What I was afraid of, was being paralyzed for life.  After discovering I could wiggle the toes on my left foot, I decided I didn’t have time to feel sorry for myself and had to come up with a plan. I was going to fight with everything I had.

After 6 hours, and ambulance rides to two different emergency rooms in Utah and Colorado, I finally found myself off of the backboard and in a real bed. My survival was attributed to “dumb luck,” “divine intervention,” and the physical condition I was in at the time of the accident. My back, pelvic and abdominal muscles, strong from rowing, throwing boats and lifting heavy gear, held everything pretty much together and prevented me from bleeding to death on banks of the river.

The next few days were touch and go, surgery and blood transfusions were still a strong possibility, but in the end, neither was required.  Since all four fractures were on the right side of my SI joint and pelvis, I was soon encouraged by the staff physical therapists to try to get up on crutches and move, to avoid muscle atrophy, pneumonia, and blood clots that could move into my lungs and cause respiratory arrest.  The first time I tired, I made it up, tried to take a step and collapsed back into bed.  Later that evening, I made it to the door of my room.  After that, they couldn’t keep me down.  My mantra after that moment was, “I’ll do it myself” and only allowed others to stand by in case I started to fall.  I was a woman on a mission, and that was to be able to teach skiing that very season, which was a mere 7 weeks away.  The staff at the nursing station used to joke, “There goes Superwoman” as I would hobble by on my crutches to the physical therapy room, catheter and IV lines dangling at my sides.   Little did they know that “Superwoman” passed out in physical therapy several times because of the pain, or that often, she lay awake in her room at night and cried.

Two weeks after the accident, I started swimming, (more like  flailing my arms while my hips and legs were strapped to a float to keep my spine from twisting). A few days later I began "riding"  a recumbent stationary bike set to no resistance, and using weight machines with no actual weight to keep my body moving.  Soon, I became known as “The Bionic Woman”, as the rehabilitation center staff used mimic lines from the show, “ We can make her better, stronger, faster”.  Even my sports therapist said she had never seen anything like it and she wasn’t sure if I was “mortal”. I became obsessed with getting better (as if I had anything else to do with my time), and the “Bionic Woman” jokes started in earnest at the rehab center and later the gym.

Soon, I realized that I needed to help my muscles to remember how to walk but couldn’t yet bear weight without risking permanent damage.  I began the painful task, first in chest deep water in the therapy pool and later by leaning on the counters in my friend Dusty’s tiny kitchen.  On the day of my six week follow up appointment, I was able to walk into my doctor’s office without crutches, knowing that he would probably be pissed off. He looked at me; laughed and told me that I was “healed enough to start learning how to walk now.”  Luckily, he was a skier and understood my need to get back to the mountain and to work.  I don’t know how, but I finally convinced him to write me a prescription for rehabilitative skiing.  He made me promise to stay on flat terrain for the season, although I don’t think he really trusted me to do so.

On Thanksgiving Day, I nervously stood above the beginner lift at the Snowmass ski resort near Aspen Colorado.  As I stepped into my bindings, I said to myself, “What are you thinking?  This is crazy!  It’s only been 7 weeks since your pelvis was crushed!”  Once I pushed out towards that lift below, there was no turning back, the only way to return to the village was to take the lift up and ski down.  I took a deep breath, stepped out onto the snow and the rest is history.  With a friend skiing above me so that no one would run into me, I made not one, but four nervous trips down the bunny hill.  As I sat down to dinner that night with good friends, I truly understood what it is to be thankful.

My life is still about intense pain and recovery, and will be for several more months and perhaps years. But the accident reaffirmed how important it is to live every day to its fullest. I am looking forward, and am constantly setting new goals for my recovery. I will pass my physical efficiency battery and work as a ranger protecting lives and resources, fight fires, and row the river.  I feel good about my life--but I still get a cold chill down my spine every time the wind blows.

            -- L. Lisa Lawrence, Aspen, Colorado, 1998


5 Years Later

I did teach skiing (albeit mostly to beginners) for the entire 1997 ski season at Powderhorn ski resort in Western Colorado.  Despite the government doctor’s best efforts to fail me, I also passed my physical efficiency battery and was granted my law enforcement commission and firefighting certification renewals for the season.  I ran Cataract Canyon during spring runoff, less than six months after the accident in a paddle rig with several other guides (all kick ass women) and the host of the French version of the discovery channel for a special they were filming on the river.  We “saw god” in a huge nasty hole in “Big Drop Two” when our raft got sucked in sideways, but somehow managed not to flip (we still tell the story whenever we get together).  Our driver Clyde, who was the first person to find me after the accident (and had no clue I was out and about on the river), about fainted when I hopped off of a boat at the take out, and tossed him a water cooler.  I don’t think he expected me back so soon <grin>.

One day, about three years ago, almost exactly on the two year anniversary of the accident, I realized that I was no longer in constant pain; it came and went, and soon, I had more pain free days, than painful ones.  Since then, my back rarely hurts unless I lift improperly or do something stupid to strain it like anyone else.  I have since relocated to Washington State.  I work in environmental advocacy for a local non-profit organization,   spending a lot of time boating and kayaking on the Puget Sound in my effort to protect it (and unfortunately doing a lot of grant administration and paperwork), serve as Vice Chair of the Puyallup River Watershed Council, facilitate the Gaia's Grove at the Unitarian Church in Tacoma, and keep busy as a freelance writer.   I’ve stayed active in outdoor sports: skiing, snowshoeing and hiking.  I am playing competitive tennis again, and will be running the Seattle Marathon in celebration of my upcoming 40th Birthday.

-- L. Lisa Lawrence, Puyallup WA, October 2002

(author holds copyright on all material.  Permission granted to link to original pages, please use contact link on webpage for any requests for reprinting or publishing)

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