The Day I Broke My Neck
In 2008 I went on a trip with a friend to Australia. That's where I bought my first DSLR (big ass camera) a Canon 1000D; it was one of the best things I ever bought in my life. It cost me $1000 and I didn’t put it down. I'd just spent 8 months in Australia and the last 4 weeks travelling the East coast with my girlfriend Aimee. I left her to go to New Zealand and Aimee flew home. I took my shiny new camera to New Zealand a week after I bought it and shot hundreds of photos. On the 18th January 2009 I took a photo of this duck:
Minutes later in a twist of fate I managed to break and dislocate my neck.
I was 21. That’s what this photo reminds me of, the 10 minutes before it happened I was taking photos of this little fella oblivious to the fact that things were about to take a turn for the terrible. I was jumping about with a few friends on this thing:
We were bouncing around on a nice cool summer’s day in Wellington after coming back to the campsite after a day at the beach. My whole trip I had been trying to learn how to back flip and on this occasion I had landed a few picture perfect flips. I was getting boastful. After getting a few spot on, I decided to up the excitement and try a running back flip. I landed really awkwardly on my neck and it knocked the wind out of me. The rubber was really thick and there wasn’t much give when you landed but I got up, brushed it off and continued to bounce in the sun. I tried the running back flip again after regaining my confidence (cockiness) but this time all I remember is opening my eyes and seeing a completely blue sky and feeling searing pain in my neck and the back of my head. I had knocked myself out by landing on the top of my head. My face had touched my chest and my friends later told me that I made the most horrendous exhale/gasp, like I emptied my lung in a split second from folding myself in half. I tried to lift my head but nothing happened. It was the strangest thing I’ve ever felt and at the same time completely perplexing; it was like telling your foot to move, feeling the sensation, but your foot doesn’t budge. I then tried to move my right arm and nothing was happening. Straight away I was yelling ‘I’ve broken my arm!’ I knew there was something pretty wrong. My friends told me ‘you didn’t land on your arm’, then instantly I responded, extremely panicked – ‘I’ve broken my neck! Call an ambulance!’ Now, rule number 1 when you break your neck or back is -DO NOT MOVE. So, because I always know best, I thought it would be a great idea to slide off the ‘jumping pillow’ and into the sand. The reason being there were loads of kids jumping around and my head was bouncing all over the place. So with my healthy left arm, I pulled my fringe, and my friend James cradled my head and sat me up as I slid my sorry self into the sand. Now I don’t know how we didn’t do any more damage but I found out later that that was the worst thing I could have done. After one of the boys called the ambulance what felt like a lifetime later it arrived. All I could feel was a warm tear streaming out of my eyes and into my ear and cold, coarse sand in my hair. I was in a lot of pain, from my upper back through to the top of my neck and I was seriously concerned about my arm and neck not working again. I kept thinking about my mum and how she would be saying ‘Craig you silly boy!’ in a mothering/worried sort of way. I was thinking about my girlfriend and her crying when I tell her and mostly how much I didn’t want to be this side of the world at this point. The paramedics arrived and calmed me down and I demanded as much morphine as they had in their possession. By the time they loaded me into the ambulance I was high as a kite and loving life. I was wheeled into a waiting room high on morphine and James came in to see me. The last few nights James and I had been sleeping in a tent, and we were really ill prepared for the cold in New Zealand. We had these silk liners and would sleep in all of our clothes in the night, sometimes spooning to preserve body heat... As I was laying in this room I spotted the biggest fluffiest blankets I had ever seen. I told James to get a backpack and fill it with blankets. I feel terrible writing this but it was freezing in that tent, and at the time i thought I had just sprained my neck and would be out in a few days. James proceeded to come back with an empty backpack, stuff it full of white fluffy blankets and walk passed all of the nurses smiling like butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. I then had a few X rays and I remember being in a hallway looking at the ceiling. One of the doctors told me that I had ‘technically broken’ my neck and to add insult to injury I had also dislocated it. After that I couldn’t take in anything he was saying, my mind drifted somewhere else trying to process the news. There was a mention of ‘checking my nerves or reflexes via my rectum’, and as the news sank in a tear trickled down my face. Then I heard my friend James having a giggle and having to walk off, I thought what an insensitive ass hole. He later told me ‘he told you you’d broken your neck, and you were fine. Then he mentioned putting a finger in your bum and you started crying’. It was safe to say that a finger in my ass was the last thing on my mind at that point. I was convinced I’d just sprained my neck and I’d be as right as rain in a week or so. Oh how wrong I was! As soon as they discovered the extent of my injury everything went very serious. I was rushed around for more x-rays, CT scans and MRI scans. There were phone calls made and luckily for me, one of the top 10 orthopaedic surgeons in the world happened to live in New Zealand and was in the hospital that week. Here’s a snap of me feeling sorry for myself in the waiting room not long after it happened:
Then the inevitable happened. They wheeled me into a room where the doctor snapped on a rubber glove (just like in the movies) and persisted to check my reflexes after I protested that my legs and anus did in fact work. The worst experience was the catheter. I would be bed bound for a while and I couldn’t get up to pee, so the nurse explained that I would need a pipe in my pee pee. The pain of the pipe going in… in my pipe was like a hot stinging rod snagging its way through, all the way into my bladder. Then I had an overwhelming sensation like I was going to burst. You know when you desperately need to pee? Well, that what it felt like, to the point where you feel you should tie a knot in it. I asked the nurse ‘I really need to go! What do I do’ to which the nurse explained ‘you’ve already been’. I was so confused, the sensation was telling me one thing but my bladder was empty. So that’s how I felt for about 10 hours. After all the excitement of having my private bits vandalised I then had to deliver the news to my loved ones (not the private parts bit the broken neck bit). I was rolled into a room, and the nurse gave me a phone to call home. I called my mum first, who was on her lunch break with her friends. I can’t remember the exact words but I remember saying ‘hi mum, you ok?’ and she was kind of like ‘I’m a bit busy at the moment’, and I said ‘it’s kind of important’. Then when I told her she said ‘ohhhh crraaaiig!’ it was a concerned yet classic mum response. She was worried but annoyed at me for being a dumb ass. She told me she would fly out as soon as she could and that was a great feeling, as I hadn’t seen her for 8 months. It’s funny how when these things happen, no matter how old you are you just want your mum. Then I had to phone my girlfriend Aimee. As soon as I said ‘hiya, are you ok?’ she instantly quizzed ‘what’s the matter?!... ‘I urm… I’m in hospital, I’ve broken my neck..’. *Bursts into tears* - hardly audible ‘are you in a wheelchair’, ‘No, no I’m fine, I just need a bit of surgery’. Aimee couldn’t talk so I had to explain to her mum what was going on and that I wasn’t quadriplegic. So that night I stayed in Lower Hutt Hospital in Wellington. I was strapped with a neck brace and a head guard with my head selotaped to the bed to prevent me moving at all. I was in a badly lit room that felt like an atrium with strip lights on the ceiling and the strong smell of old people.
At about 6pm a nurse came around with food and decided to leave mine next to my bed. It smelt incredible, as I hadn’t eaten for ages. It was some sort of beef casserole. I had to call the nurse and explain that I couldn’t sit up and eat and that she would have to feed me. The first mouthful was difficult, I had to block my throat with my tongue to avoid choking and chew the food at the same time. The second scoop was dropped half on my chin and half in my mouth. The nurse mopped up the mess and I swallowed my second mouthful. By the third scoop she’d given up, it went on my chin and all down my front. I dribbled the food out in pure frustration and told her ‘forget it’. In hindsight it was probably a bit rude but I was so hangry (hungry and angry) and she was drowning me in gravy and doing a terrible job. In the bed next to me was an old lady who didn’t stop moaning all night. I was in and out of sleep, being constantly woken up by her squawking – ‘NURSE! NURSE!’ and the nurses in this place weren’t budging in a hurry. She’d be waiting a good 10 minutes for them and when they turned up she would have some mental request to go ballroom dancing or go for a walk in the sunshine (even though it was the dead of night). I lay there thinking about my right arm and how it was just there, laying lifeless on the bed. I couldn’t move it at all. I could use my fingers, and my wrist was fine, but from my shoulder down it was totally comatose. I kept thinking about a friend from school, who had a bad accident and the nerves in his right arm shut off. I was so worried that my arm would never work again; it was really getting to me. Yesterday I was excited to be getting on a boat to visit South Island New Zealand, and today I was in a hospital bed with a broken neck and a limp right arm and the boat had left without me. The next day one of the doctors came in and explained that they were going to attempt to pull out the dislocation in my neck and correct the break using a ‘Halo device’. I was just like ‘yeah, yeah, sweet do what you need to do doc’, thinking that I would be unconscious for the duration. I’m the type of person that doesn’t worry too much about details and cares more about the final result – my neck and arm being fixed. So after the explanation I was given some drugs of some sort and wheeled into a room. This is where I met my nurse, Jennie, or as she pronounced it ‘Jinny’. She had a really friendly face that was always smiling, she wore glasses and had a thick New Zealand accent. She was with me a lot of the time because I was pretty much alone apart from the hour or so my friends would come to visit each day. She was like my New Zealand mum. The room was huge and white and there was no one else there. There were about 3 nurses including Jenny and a Doctor. The doctor explained I was to have 4 injections in my head. I questioned ‘whoa, whoa, whoa… I’m not going to be unconscious for this?’ The doctor explained that I needed to be awake in case there were any ‘complications’. Just what I wanted to hear The four injections went in - two in my forehead and two behind my ears. My hair was quite long at the time so they had to shave my hair behind my ears so I had two bald patches for weeks. After about 5 minutes they brought out the medieval looking device, the notorious ‘halo’. It came complete with sucker pads that went on my forehead. Then, as if I was on some sort of sick hidden camera show, the doctors pulled out a Phillips screwdriver. These bolts were going in my skull, and I was going to be conscious for the whole thing. The pain was on another level to anything I’d ever experience. Although I’d had injections in my head to numb the pain, it did nothing to numb the sensation. Every twist of the screw I could feel. I could literally hear the screws squeaking into my skull after they’d pierced my skin and the tension and tightness of them was indescribable. I squeezed Jenny’s hand so tightly with my left hand I’m surprised it didn’t break. I know at this point I have already cried twice… and I’m not a big crier by any means but the tears were streaming out of my eyes from sheer anger and agonizing pain. I felt like I was in a horror movie and I was being tortured for the amusement of the doctors. The onslaught continued with 4 bolts being screwed in. they started with the ones in my forehead and ended at the back. They were the worst; it was like having your head in a tight, four point vice. The shape of the Halo and the length of the bolts at the back meant they had to prop my head up with sandbags either side. This made the bolts behind my ears even tighter and more uncomfortable in my head and it would agitate me for days to come. So now it was installed, I was part man part scaffolding laying there flat on my back staring at the ceiling and the doctors and nurses peering over me. There was a bar that went from ear to ear over the top of my head and connected to the frame. The idea of this thing, which to this day boggles my mind and makes no sense at all, was to stabilise my neck. Now what happened next I couldn’t even write or make up in my wildest dreams. They tied a piece of rope to this bar, and slowly attached weights to the rope in order to pull out the dislocation… now just read that all again and tell me if this sounds mental? If I was in charge, I would have had one doctor grab my ears and pull them from the back of the bed; way less pain, no screwing things in my head and no f*cking sand bags. To my surprise, when they started hanging the weights off the back of the bed, the release of tension in my neck was euphoric. It felt so great, that’s not to say it was worth the screws in my head but it was a spectacular feeling. It was like my neck was being stretched and all the pain and tension drifted away. By this point I was exhausted from all the drugs and adrenaline, I just wanted to sleep. So that was that.
I was fully fatigued at this point from the amount of drugs in my system and feeling very queasy. I mentioned to the nurse I felt sick and she assured me I couldn’t be as I was on my back. ‘Nurse, I really feel like I’m going to be sick any second’. ‘No, no you can’t.. *BARRRFF*. If you are squeamish you might want to skip the next paragraph… So let me set the scene, I was flat on my back, metal frame screwed in my head propped up by sandbags, in a white and blue hospital nighty. Feeling my mouth rush full with saliva and like slow motion, I saw what could only be described as a perfect pipe of orangey brown vomit that grew to about 2ft. I don’t know if they used a spirit level on my forehead but the angle at which the sick came out couldn’t have been more inconvenient. As is stopped growing, it all came down the exact same way it went up, landing on my face. It was like a battle between the sick coming out at force and the sick coming down with gravity. Annoyingly the only option for all of it was to end up on my face. As it was landing in my eyes all I could see was a cloth scraping at it and through the sick-blurred vision was the look of a terrified and guilty nurse trying to save me. After about 10 seconds of projectile vomiting I spat the last bit onto my chin (by this point I had no dignity, and it would only get worse) and said to the nurse ‘I told you I was going to be sick’. To which she replied ‘I’m so sorry, I’ll go and get the other nurses to roll you over and clean you up.’ This is when my dignity went in the sewer. Not only did I still have sand in my hair and ears from the initial accident, I now had sick in my hair and ears as well. Because I was on a plastic hospital bed, the sick was making its way down the plastic mattress to my butt. I wish I could have seen the look on my halo-enclosed face at this point, I was furious, and now butt naked, getting clothed down by 5 nurses.
he next day they had to drive me to another hospital. They loaded me into an ambulance and my New Zealand mum Jenny came with me to hold my hand again. The ambulance drove so slowly but every knock, bump and pothole vibrated all the way through my halo and into my brain, it was painful to say the least. Once I got there my friends Adam, Carly and James came to see me and brought me a few presents to cheer me up. I remember Carly making me laugh so much I had to tell her to stop in case I did any damage. She told me I was rude because I emptied my bladder whilst she was there. I explained that it was out of my control and we laughed some more whilst my pee bag filled up. The halo didn’t give my face much room for expression though; it was like having a face-lift. By this point my mum was on a flight to come and rescue me. I only found out a few months ago that she made 5 stopovers and was traveling for 24 hours and spent the whole time wondering how to renovate the downstairs of our house to accommodate her wheelchair bound son. When she came into my room I was so overwhelmed to see her, she looked beautiful and it was the best feeling I’d had in days; I felt safe again. At the sight of my halo, or in fact the first words she said to me were ‘oh craaaig!’ as if to say ‘you’ve got a metal frame in your head you idiot’.
I laughed, embarrassed and asked if she liked my new headband. A few hours later we met the surgeon who explained what was going to happen. My mum turned a pale shade of green and had to leave and I was nodding along because this time, luckily, I was going to be unconscious for the whole thing. They were going to take a bone graft from my hip, go in through the front of my neck, take out the shrapnel of the shattered bone and replace that with a piece of my hip. Then they were going to screw on a titanium plate two screws to hold it all in place- Easy peasy! The best part was that they were going to remove the halo, which had been a pain in the ass for the last few days. Surgery day. The morning was a bit of a blur. I remember them giving me the general aesthetic and counting down from ten, getting to about 7 and dropping off. Then I woke up high as a kite with my mum and two nurses by my bedside. The halo was off and the pillow was so comfortable compared to bolts and sandbags I’d been lying on for days. I was covered in purple disinfectant and I could see a bandage on my hip. There was also a pipe sticking out of my neck on the right hand side. The nurses came in and did a few tests. Because I was so high I thought it would be funny to mess them about. One nurse said ‘wiggle your toes for me’, in her soft Kiwi accent. I didn’t move them, and said ‘Ok’. She asked me again ‘Craig, wiggle your toes please’. ‘I am!’ I left it about 10 seconds and the nurses looked at each other with disbelief, then I wiggled me toes and mocked ‘AAHHHH’. My mum was trying so hard not to laugh and the nurses did not look pleased. They eventually cracked a smile and shook their heads in relief. Me after surgery minus the halo – what a relief!
The surgeon came in shortly after and told me he rated his work a ‘9 out of 10’, I laughed nervously hoping I wouldn’t be walking backwards or anything. He then told me that ‘I was lucky to be alive, let alone being able to walk.’ I knew I had been very lucky, I used to think that breaking a neck was the end of it. Or like Christopher Reeve, you would be paralyzed from the neck down. Here are my X-rays post surgery. You can see the plate holding together the piece of my hip with the two screws. I am part man, part machine.
So here’s the sciencey bit. I had shattered C4 and damaged C5. To put it in to perspective here is a diagram of the spinal segments: These are the bones I broke and what they are linked to:
- C4 results in significant loss of function at the biceps and shoulders.
- C5 results in potential loss of function at the biceps and shoulders, and complete loss of function at the wrists and hands.
There are mnemonics in the medical world of remembering which nerves correspond to which body part or function. For C4, the medical mnemonic is ‘Cut C4 breath no more’ as it controls your diaphragm (the thing that makes you breath). So that was the seriousness of it. I had broken the bone, but luckily only pinched the nerve. If the nerve had severed I would have stopped breathing and would have been completely paralyzed. This is why my right arm wasn’t functional; I had pinched the nerve and shut off the function of my right bicep and shoulder. It was just a case of waiting now to see if I could ever use my shoulder and bicep again. The next 3 days I spent drinking high calorie shakes and going through physiotherapy. I was bouncing between being relieved that I wasn’t paralyzed, and completely pissed off with myself for being in this situation. The first time I got out of the bed was intense. I had a soft neck brace on but I felt pretty dizzy and weak. I sat in my chair feeling really sorry for myself. Then a nurse arrived and gave me a card. I wondered who on earth could have sent me post so quickly. I opened the card and it was from my nurse Jennie. She had to go back to her hospital and couldn’t be with me for the last part of my stay but the message she wrote really picked me up. I was so stoked with it. She had put a kiwi river stone inside with a Maori pattern on it and told me that it represented strength and bravery. It was just what I needed. My mum came in later in the day and brought me some bananas in pyjamas style nightwear, the pinstriped light blue and white PJs that can age any man by 30 years. (Another snap of me after surgery – the PJs on the left!)
The physiotherapist and my mum helped me up and tried to help me walk. The pain in my hip from where they took the bone was very sore. I was walking with an extreme gangster lean, dipping super low on the left and normal on the right. I took about 10 steps up the corridor then needed to come back to rest. It was like using your legs for the first time. I’d only been on my back for 7 days but walking like a toddler. After my rest they said I could go for a shower, which was amazing. My hair was still covered in sand and hadn’t been washed for a week and I probably stank to high heaven.
I took my wash bag and my PJs to the shower room. They had placed a tiny stool underneath the shower so I could sit. I managed to start the shower, take my clothes off and slump on the stool. The water on my head was sensational, what a feeling! Trust me, if you want to know what it felt like, go to the beach, stick your head in the sand, throw up on your own face, then lie in a bed for a week and then have a shower. I felt like a new man. Whilst I was washing my body, I dropped my shower gel. I couldn’t reach it, as I couldn’t bend my neck or legs that far so I called for the nurse. ‘Nuuurse?’ ‘Yes?’ ‘Can you get my shower gel please? I’ve dropped it’. The door creaked open and the nurse walked in. By this point I thought f*ck it… ‘Can you wash my back please, I can’t reach it’. ‘No worries’. I was sat there, on a little plastic white stool, butt naked covered in purple disinfectant and about 8stone with a little Indian lady scrubbing my back; I was the epitome of pathetic. After she washed my back she left me to it and I slowly dried myself and put on my new old man PJs. My mum came in to give me a hand with my top half, and I remember looking in the mirror for the first time in a week, whilst my mum combed my wet hair into a side parting. I felt like I was 7 years old again. I was trying to arrange a flight home for me and my mum through my insurance; they wouldn’t book any flights until I had checked out of the hospital. I probably should have stayed in another week for physiotherapy and to just recover. Instead, I checked myself out. The flights were booked and we had 2 days to hang about before flying home. Here’s a snap of mum and me at the campsite on my first day of release:
We went back to the camp site where it had happened and I pointed my mum in the direction of the ‘jumping pillow’. She disappeared for a while and came back red eyed. She wasn’t high, she had been crying. She told me she got emotional thinking this is where I could have died. What a drama queen! The flight home was business class, so we had the luxury of the lounge with free food and drinks before we left. It was immense. I took advantage of the free drinks on the plane as well and stupidly had a double jacks and coke… along with the tremadol I was taking – BIG MISTAKE. I was knocked out and we had to get off the plane to change in Hong Kong. I was asleep on the floor of the airport for 4 hours before we carried on.I visited my doctor when I got home and he couldn’t believe it. He could see I was really down about my arm and said there is a chance it will work again. Everyday I worked at it, trying to lift it from the shoulder up. It was so difficult but everyday it got higher, only by a centimeter or so. One day I lifted it above my head. I screamed for Aimee, ‘Aim! Aim! I did it! My arm works’ I showed her my newfound ability to direct my arm and we had a good old smile. I was so chuffed. It took months to get the strength back. I remember picking up a 1kg dumb bell and I couldn’t lift it. My arm was so weak. I wore the neck brace for 3 months then I retired it. I didn’t have any physiotherapy because the wait was so long. So that’s my story. A 21 year old who miss-timed a back flip and ended up in hospital with a broken neck. I was very, very fortunate. I’m now fully recovered. My neck gets a bit stiff in the winter but other than that I am 100%!
It’s safe to say I will be avoiding most trampolines and jumping pillows for now...
Peace & Love,