Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Bonus Days

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 and that I was alone, but curious as to progress of my retirement home and desirous of documenting the construction with photos -- photos which in my prior homes I often referred to 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 then 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 basement. I had pointed out the error to the construction superintendent, Jon, 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 (on the left in photo above) 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 the 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 later reconstructed the missing hours for my memory.

There were no stairs into the basement yet because the concrete basement floor had not been poured due to several inches of 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 on 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 (photo below), so I obviously stepped onto the loose plywood thinking it was secure and went down with them, nine feet to the ice floor. My cap and blood are also evident below...

The photo below, taken by my son 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 (they are missing in the photo 2 photos above.). “No trespassing” signs had also been posted outside the garage. In the photo below, you can see the opening on the far right where the loose plywood flooring took me downstairs.

The photo below was also taken by my son and shows the 2 pieces of the plywood flooring that took me down when they fell, as well as the 2x4s that had been leaning vertically on the plywood.

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, and could go no farther. 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 nearly 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 the next day to remove bone chips, but an MRI the next day revealed surgery was unnecessary, though I had to wear a neck brace constantly for three months.

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. Ten years later now, 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 Surgery Intensive Care Unit. 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 to their future homes. So despite my lawyer and others encouraging me to sue the builder because he hadn’t abided by OSHA 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 few weeks of construction and needed naps after only 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 the project was done. Here's part of the finished basement...

That Fall, 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, a guide 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!


friend said...

I am grateful to God that He spared your adventure to heaven in 2005. You have certainly influenced my way of seeing life and living day to day. Thank you.

Your story is incredible and scary. Looking forward to reading more.

Goldenrod said...

A remarkable story, Chuck, and I was interested in reading about your misadventure. You told me about this when I met with you and Ellen last year, but this post had even more details.

I'm with you on decrying the inordinate number of frivolous lawsuits.

Here's to many more "bonus days"! :)

Chuck said...

Thanks, Lorraine and Helen -- It did take me 4 years before I could write about it and another before I posted it!

Neil Fiorenza said...

That was pretty scary, Chuck. Thank heavens there were people who helped you there. How's your retirement home now? Perhaps the reason why you cannot remember anything about your fall is it's not worth remembering. It's admirable that you refused to file any lawsuit against the builders, and amitting your mistake. We always learn from our actions, anyway. Hope is well with you.