Twelve years ago today, I busted my tibia bone straight out into the broad daylight beneath Cedar Mountain. It was a beautiful fall day until I took the nastiest fall of my life. I was 26 years old, spending the summer working for a couple mountaineering programs in North Carolina at Camp Green Cove and Camp High Rocks. I had graduated from Prescott College a year prior, where I studied Adventure Education and spent 3 years climbing, kayaking, mountain biking, river rafting, and mountaineering. I got hands-on experience leading and facilitating groups in wilderness settings. After spending two summers climbing in the Western North Carolina Mountains, I felt more and more confident in my multi-pitch climbing skills.
This was going to be my last climbing trip of my busy season. Little did I realize it was my last day of climbing period. My co-leader and I were leading a group of 8 teenagers up the trail to set up top rope climbs at Cedar Mountain. For those that aren’t familiar with climbing in North Carolina – it is very challenging rock to climb. There are very little cracks in the rock to place your gear, or feet and hands, for that matter. Despite it’s challenges, I spotted a difficult route for my teenagers and decided to set up top ropes there. To set up top ropes, I had to set my hardware into the tiny cracks as I ascended the rock face, while my co-leader belayed me.
The moment that haunted my head for many days in the hospital was a decision I wish I could’ve taken back. I placed my “alien” piece, which is a small Camelot or “cam” that is placed into a crack and when released it opens wide so that it’s jammed in the rock. This piece has a carabineer at the end of it so the rope I’m connected to can be passed through it, securing me to the rock to break my fall. This “alien” cam is so small, so I consider backing it up with one more. I instead decide against it to save my cams for the rest of the climb ahead. Bad choice! As I traversed, I began to struggle with my handholds and had no footholds at all. So in the blink of an eye, I fell – a free fall that I have no recollection of. One second I’m climbing, the next second I’m on the ground looking at my bone protruding from my ankle joint.
My angels had my back, literally. By some miracle I didn’t land on the many boulders that were surrounding the rock face I was climbing. I happened to land on the only flat ground beneath my fall. Because I landed at an angle my ankle didn’t stand a chance unfortunately.
This was going to be a long, painful day. I was 3 miles from the trailhead and miles away from the nearest hospital. What was worse is that my co-leader and our group of teenagers couldn’t carry me out very easily. So he had to run down the trail and find the Outward Bound School, which had a metal litter or stretcher to carry me down the mountain. Finally over an hour later, my knight and shining armor came running to the base of Cedar Rock carrying this heavy litter on his head. Hand over hand, our group carried me over boulders then down the long winding path. The whole time I told surf stories of Maui to keep my mind of the pain.
Just when I thought I couldn’t take the pain anymore and my endorphins were fleeting away like a residing tide, I was whisked off in a suburban down a long bumpy dirt road. My foot wagged like broken branch in the wind, as we high tailed it to the Brevard hospital.
I had never experienced a broken a bone or such a traumatic injury for that matter, so I was in a good deal of shock and pain over all this. Thank god I had a great friend assisting with a group near ours that was by my side during this whole ordeal. I also had a great co-leader who muscled his way up that path with a heavy metal litter on his head. It’s my belief that in bad life circumstances, there is always an angelic presence to lift you up.
It was five hours from the time I fell until the morphine was spiked into my veins in the emergency room. Oh how I was relieved to get pain meds in me! But I wasn’t relieved when the ER doctor took a look at my ankle and said, “This is beyond me.” Another angel had arrived however, Dr. Graham. My boss at High Rocks requested Dr. Graham, a great local orthopedic doctor. Ironically Dr. Graham was a surfer from Florida, practicing in this little mountain town of Brevard. He shortly arrived at my bedside at the ER and took one look and asked me whom he should call in my family. That was also not a good sign. I gave him my dad’s number in Maui and overheard the conversation…that went something like, “We might have to fuse the ankle joint or amputate her foot.” Maybe I was in a fog of pain and morphine, but I swear I heard him say, “amputate” in the other room. But before I could ask for clarification, I was unconscious and swept away to the operating table. I seriously thought I might wake up missing my left foot.
I was freezing cold when I woke up on the operating table. The first thing I did was to make sure my left foot was still connected to my poor ankle. Thank god it was! I was filled with questions and anxiety, which Dr. Graham calmly answered. He explained that the surgery took longer than he had expected, but he put my ankle joint back together with a plate, a wire, and eleven screws. I tore cartlidge in the joint, that could result in arthritis someday. The way I looked at it — I had a bionic ankle now. I wouldn’t let it slow me down!
I was in the hospital for a week after the surgery to get IV antibiotics since my bone was exposed to the air for 5 hours. My other angel was Nurse Char, who was by my bedside each day trying to ease my pain with morphine and a smile. My mom and step dad drove up to North Carolina from Arkansas – they were also my angels that week.
The happy ending of this traumatic turning point in my life is that I did the (broken) legwork to starting my dream surf camp business back home on Maui. I had the time to research and develop Maui Surfer Girls. Nine months later, during the following summer I had 17 teen girls attend my first surf camp in 2001. Five years later I even surfed some 20-foot waves at Jaws and was among the pioneering women there. Without Dr. Graham’s incredible skills as an orthopedic surgeon, I might’ve never achieved my athletic and business dreams. This year, I’m attempting my first Ironman triathlon in Florida. Running is against Dr. Graham’s doctor’s orders…so I may walk the marathon if I have the gumption to finish the race.
My most heartfelt gratitude goes out to Dr. Graham, Nurse Char, and all my angels on that tragic day of September 10, 2000. On this twelve year anniversary, I honor them for contributing to all the success and health I enjoy today.
Dr. Graham, you saved not only my foot and ankle that day, but you saved my life! Can we please meet each other next time on a surfboard in beautiful waves?
My bionic ankle!
My ankle today…I tell my surf students it’s my “shark bite” scar 😉
My ankle holding up well at Jaws!