Every day is a bonus day for me since January of 2005, the day I committed one of the most egregious judgment errors of my life, one which nearly ended my life. I was visiting and photographing the site of my new townhome under construction, something I had also done throughout the construction of my first two homes. It was just after work hours and I was taking photos of the first floor studding, ever so careful realizing full well that I was trespassing, that I was alone, but curious as to progress of my retirement home and desirous of documenting the construction, photos, photos which in the prior homes I often used when hanging shelves, tracing electric and plumbing runs, etc.
The air was nippy in the upper 20s and snow adorned the ground. Dusk would soon fall. Realizing full well that I was alone, I was being very cautious, for work sites have boards and nails and the like strewn about, a veritable obstacle course fraught with danger. I had walked the wood decking the day before, and today I was checking the craftsmanship of the studding and window openings erected that day. After taking a few photos, I headed back to my car, but returned to see if the sump pump hole in the basement was in the proper location. In the model home, the plumbers had put it on the wrong side of the house. I had pointed out the errors to the construction superintendent, and he had assured me it would be placed correctly in my unit, an important issue since I wanted the sump pump to be in the workshop, not the family room when I finished the basement. So I cautiously ventured to the edge of the flooring near the cinder block common wall where I could extend the camera through an opening in the floor to take basement photos.
And that’s all I can recall for over 24 hours.
My sons went to the accident site the next day at the behest of the police to retrieve my blood-spattered vehicle. They talked to the responding officer, retrieved my camera, and talked to the construction boss. Scott, a licensed architect, snuck into the basement and took photos of it and first floor in an attempt to reconstruct what had occurred. We also secured the police report to assist in determining the sequence of events. Using my photos and those taken by Scott, along with the police report, we reconstructed the missing hours.
There were no stairs into the basement because the concrete floor had not been poured due to ice accumulation. On the first floor, the plywood covering the stairway opening was only loosely-placed plywood, not the secure solid wood I'd walked the day before. No guard rails blocked access to the loose plywood. Three 2x4s were standing diagonally on the loose plywood floor and leaning against the cinder block common wall, giving the appearance of a secure floor. A comparison with Scott’s photos from the next day showed the loose plywood and the 2x4s down in the basement, so I obviously stepped onto them thinking they were secure and went down with them, nine feet to the ice floor. My cap and blood are also evident below...
I was probably briefly unconscious from the fall. My head was profusely bleeding from a foot-long cut from the metal straps in the concrete wall. I somehow managed to crawl to the back window, climbed out, made my way alongside the building back to my car, turned it around, and drove two blocks to the corner. A grandmother awaiting the school bus bringing her grandson home saw me bleeding and flagged another driver who had a cell phone. He called 911, the paramedics declared me a “Trauma 1” case, summoned the Flight-for-Life helicopter, and I was flown to Lutheran General Hospital where three dozen stitches were administered...
...and a CT scan taken. The determination was made that I had cracked three vertebrae (C1, C2, and C5) and they planned surgery to remove bone chips, but an MRI the next day revealed surgery was unnecessary, though I had to wear a neck brace for three months.
The photo below from the day after my fall clearly shows that the builder had belatedly installed OSHA-mandated guard rails around the three sides of the basement opening and had even spray painted these guard rails orange to make them more visible. “No trespassing” signs has also been posted outside the garage. You can see the opening on the far right where the loose plywood took me downstairs.
For months, I had numbness along the head laceration due to severed nerves. Apparently I landed on my right side since my right elbow, hand, and shoulder were painful to move and my neck had some loss of mobility. Five years later, I still have no memory of the fall, of my self-rescue from the basement, or of driving my vehicle for help. I have no memory of talking to the police, of the paramedics arrival, or of my Flight-for-Life helicopter ride to the emergency room. I have only snatches of memory of being in the ER and snippets of the first day in SICU. But other than some reduction in neck range-of-motion, all has healed.
I have a disdain for the way Americans so readily file lawsuits, even when they are at fault for their own injuries. Examples of this abound in the news and such lack of personal responsibility is abhorrent to me. I realize I should not have been at the site unescorted and that it is a poor excuse to claim that “everyone does it” though the majority of new homeowners do make unauthorized visits. So despite my lawyer and others encouraging me to sue the builder who hadn’t abided by the safety rules, I refused to sue. Quite simply -- if I hadn’t been trespassing, I wouldn’t have fallen.
Two months after moving in, I began finishing the basement into several rooms, using that immense project as “therapy” for my body and my mind. I did all the carpentry, electric wiring, wall-boarding, painting, and trim work myself -- albeit slowly and for short stretches of time. I was still wearing the neck brace those first weeks of working and needed naps after a few hours of labor. As the summer progressed, the brace was unnecessary and I took fewer and fewer naps and worked longer hours in the basement and by October it was done. Here's part of the finished product...
My rehabbing of the basement had likewise rehabbed myself and I felt strong enough to embark on a five week trip to New England where I participated in a volunteer trail project and two Elderhostel programs -- one biking and one biking, hiking, and kayaking. That was when I truly knew I was fully healed.
But I feel eminently blessed. I am alive and fully mobile. Realizations of what “might have been” rush through my mind often and I cherish what God had done for me in sparing my life and mobility. To this day, my bedtime prayers still begin with, “Thank you, God, for another bonus day of life!” for that is how I feel. Every new day is an extra day granted to me, so I endeavor to make the most of each. My good pal Greg in Florida always introduces me to new folks with these words: “Here’s Chuck, who does more in one year than most people do in their lifetime!” May it be so for years to come!
This lifestory is truly a LIFE story, and for the record, I now use the stairs when I descend into the basement!