Falling 3.0

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the psychological and physical effects of falling. At the time, I had fallen a number of times due to leg weakness. Indeed, it was falling that convinced me, pre-ALS, to see a neurologist. Back then, I related how falling made me feel afraid, timid, less confident in my body. Over time, I mitigated the effects of falling by moving to more and more supportive and purpose built medical equipment including the power wheelchair in which I now spend the majority of my days. And I also sought to psychologically change the meaning of falling by associating it with the adventure of skydiving – the experience of falling out of a perfectly good airplane on two separate occasions.

Of the two effects, the physical are pretty straightforward. There are scrapes, cuts, bruises, and depending on the circumstances, broken bones. Luckily, my experience with falling has always been limited to the lesser physical effects. I have never broken anything, my pride notwithstanding, and anything that was physically affected required only a short amount of time before I felt it whole again. The interesting part of the physical is that for a few days or even weeks, it is there to remind you of just what can happen when you fall, the touch upon a forgotten place, the breath that stops at sharp pain, the scab present in the mirror and not even felt. The physical effects take place and if they are not too serious, begin to fade. That is not the case with the psychological effects.

I have always found the psychological to be more profound. After any fall, there is a psychological chaos that goes on both inside your head and your body. Breath feels shaky. Confidence has been disrupted, and presence is compromised. The mind is dulled by the experience, leaving one grasping for words and feeling at odds with one’s assumptions about the physical world, how things work, your relationship to the broader environment at large. For me the psychological bruising is a phenomenon from which it is far more difficult to recover than the physical. Given all of this, I thought I had taken enough control of my environment to put falling into the category of been there, done that.

Imagine my surprise, my shock, to experience the most significant fall I have yet to experience this past week.

Power wheelchairs are very technical machines. From time to time, it is important to change the settings, update the structures, and adjust the mechanicals. This can take anywhere from an hour to four hours or longer. My favorite wheelchair guy is Scott, a man who understands what it means to be in a wheelchair himself, having used one for the past 33 years. He knows a lot of tricks, how to avoid sores, and ways to make the wheelchair more comfortable. What I really like about him is when he is stumped, he turns to his very knowledgeable colleagues and they all put their heads together and come up with a solution. He is really quite remarkable, for he of all people knows that the space for people in wheelchairs between getting to where they want to go and disaster can easily be mere millimeters.

After my last visit to Mayo, we determined that I needed to get my chair adjusted, and I made an appointment with Scott with the understanding that it was going to be longer than usual. Wheelchair adjustment is highly individualized – what works for one person might result in pain for another. It is much more of an art than a science or technical skill, and the amount of trial and error required for this particular appointment kept me there for four hours. I was pretty blitzed by the end, but feeling confident that we had made the right changes I felt ready to take on the world again from the purview of my chair. A little after 5 o’clock Scott and I rolled to the front door of the darkened building, and he said goodbye. I rolled out the door, turned right, headed for the van and without meaning to, got too close to a curb.

To use a hackneyed cliché, what happened next was like a slow-motion movie to which I already knew the ending.

I knew I was in trouble when the wheelchair started to rock. I tried to kill the power to it immediately, but I couldn’t make the switch work. I saw myself rock right, then left, then farther right and completely over, my 190 kg wheelchair landing on top of me, pinning my elbow behind me and pushing my head and face into the pavement. Luckily I was wearing a neck brace, or I might have broken my neck. Unluckily, I was wearing a neck brace which pushed into my neck and chest so that each breath seemed slightly smaller.

It was a confluence of errors. Ev tried to stop me, an impossibility. Her phone was out of juice, and I wasn’t carrying mine. The wheelchair place was closed with no lights on. And its location is an industrial park where very little traffic is likely to pass after 5 o’clock in the afternoon. I remember thinking, “So this is how it will end…,” my breathing continuing to slow. Ev was pounding on the door and screaming at the top of her lungs for somebody to help. I was weakly calling, “Ev, just come and sit with me.” Miraculously, someone heard her, and after being down between 10 and 15 minutes, suddenly there were people all around me who had been working late.

I am so thankful.

Luckily, these folks know how to work with a power wheelchair. Between them, they were able to right me and get the chair back on its wheels. One of them used the attendant control and took me into the building to warm up. Another called 911. All were comforting and kind and very concerned. My first ambulance ride, and just to assure you that I am only bruised and scraped, the ambulance didn’t even turn on its lights or siren. After an exam at the hospital, my kids and Ev brought me home.

And here I am.

I have no words of wisdom this week except to say that even at what seemed like to me the very end, my body still mattered. When I could feel consciousness slipping, I remained present in my body, physically aware in spite of the psychological shock. I could discuss with you the philosophical failings of Cartesian mind-body duality at this point, but I am just a bit too tired, and still very sore, bruised, and shaken up. Even Ev is bruised from the ordeal, a goose egg on the arm and a big hematoma on the leg. We can talk about it another time, for my awareness of just how fleeting life can be, how narrow the tight rope on which those of us with disability roll, how lucky and unlucky the contiguity of variables leading up to and following any event, is hyper sensitized into a weirdly balanced consciousness. My lack of words is a failing of language, not of learning. I learned plenty in this particular fall.

Needless to say, I am just happy to have a little more time for discussion.Ev and I are not finished just yet.

17 thoughts on “Falling 3.0

  1. Thank you for sharing your deep wisdom. My heart is with you both. Love!
    Oh, by the way, that little granddaughter of yours is just too darn cute!

  2. There but for the grace of God, or a fireplug to the head on the way down, or a ratcheted neck brace or no neck brace, you could have gone, Bruce.

    It’s not a 16 mm Mack Sennet scene, either. It’s one of those new Super HD Slo-Mo, where the souped up brain has time to think, “This could be it!”

    My silly accidents or falls over the years have often made me laugh. Nervously, I guess. The pratfall, the tumble, the slipped-on banana. Well, darned if I didn’t survive it, I think. But then I remember Sgt Phil’s reminder to the Hill Street Blues cops, “Let’s be careful out there!” You never know.

  3. Bruce – Thank you for this very important reminder of how fleeting life can be. It is with this that we put other
    events in perspective and remain focused on those we care about and love, our precious time with them, and the importance of self-care. Sending positive energy and care to you and Ev.

  4. Hi Bruce,
    Glad you survived the fall as it gives me pause about my surroundings here in the northern wilderness of remote NE Minnesota…especially in the depth of winter. I have some physical challenges (juvenile diabetes) that make me consider every step and challenge I am about to take in this cell phoneless territory. Who will find me and help me if I pass out, break a leg or take a knock on the noggin? Silly accidents are just a fact of life that we all must try to avoid but seldom can. I’m glad Ev was able to offer and get help. I would love to come by and visit you soon as I travel through the twin cities often. Your journey’s story has been keenly written. Keep writing Bruce…I’m listening

    • John,
      I had no idea you were in Minnesota. And I have no idea about your own condition. It is very good to hear from you, and I would welcome a chance to get together the next time you are in the Twin Cities.

  5. Dear Bruce, I am deeply affected by each and every entry in your blog and am so very grateful for the opportunity you give me to pause, to feel, to reflect, to remember, to wonder, to grieve, and to cry. Every post, I want to leave a message for you but I always feel like I don’t really understand well enough and the words for what’s happening inside of me do not come. I am very grateful for your words and sentences and challenging thoughts. I am grateful that you are here (with Ev and all of us who care) and willing to share, enlighten, uplift, and frankly, sometimes scare us. Thank you, thank you.

    This writing brings back terrifying memories of Joan’s worst falls (and my own sobs of responsibility), and two bi-pap “failures” when Joan faced her imminent death (one by my own failure as I failed to remain calm and logical). Joan’s vulnerability and dependency were absolute, beyond what I can even imagine. This week, I jogged into an ice-skimmed pothole and got up with some scrapes and bruises, and walked home and thought of Joan and you and others who have lost so much to ALS. This week, you fell and your world changed as did Ev’s and others close. As did the worlds of all who read your words. Your experience hurts me on a very deep level within. And I thank you for that. I send my high regards and love. Your friend, Sandra

    • Sandra,
      I know that your dear sister felt every bit of your love and care for her. Think not of the losses, for the losses come. Your fall, another person’s looking down during driving, accidents that take place all the time and that we like to think we could have controlled their effects, all point to the real meaning of the story. Live life as if each minute is your last.

      I am glad you are not too scraped up from your mishap. I hope you know how much your care for Joan translates into care for everyone. I hope you know what a blessing you have been, and that you continue to be.

      • Oh my gosh, now my tears come again. Thank you, Bruce, for the blessing that are and continue to be. Heal well and appreciate each minute you have … as I will too. I am so grateful for you, your life, and your wisdom. Greetings to Ev and Jon. Love, Sandra

  6. Hi Bruce. Thank you for sharing the details of your fall. I was so scared for you when I first read Ev’s Facebook post, and I can only begin to imagine her fear and helplessness as she pounded on that door for help. I am so thankful you were not seriously injured. You are right that God is not finished with you yet here on earth. Thank you for reminding us that everything can change in the blink of an eye (or the slip of a wheel). Much love, Barb

  7. Sooo glad both of you are ok! This is one of your reflections of which I can relate. On May 31, 2010, I had what the docs call a traumatic leg/ankle break aka life changing event as a result of falling down, top to bottom, very steep cellar stairs in a 1920s home of a close relative. It took the fire dept over an hour to get me to the waiting ambulance that would deliver me to Rochester General Hospital, NY. Fortunately, my holiday working doc was also the orthopedic surgeon for the Baltimore Ravens! It took 16 weeks in a fracture boot, graduation from a wheelchair to a Zoom scooter, walker to crutches to cane to solo, many hrs of PT and the biggest challenge of moving on from the psychological raw FEAR of falling. While I can’t live in and feel your world of ALS, I know exactly what you are sharing with all of us today.

  8. Wow Bruce… I am so sorry that you and Ev had to go through that… You are two remarkable individuals …


    Sent from iPhone.

  9. Thanks be to God that you are ok although shaken up. Ev, God bless you too!! I’m so glad you will be ok, Bruce.. Alice & Don

  10. Bruce, I am so glad that you and Ev are not finished yet!! Sharing about the experience of falling-both physical and psychological-in such vivid ways reels me back to present moment and that is what we have. Now. And a wake up call to myself to be more awake about being alive, with our whole entire self and our interdependent selves. You are one of the most awake people I know, Bruce. Love,Jo

  11. Sending you and Ev the gentlest of hugs. So grateful for all who helped you in the aftermath of your accident. So grateful that Ev wasn’t pinned underneath the chair. So sorry for your mishap, so grateful for small mercies.

  12. Bruce… And Ev,

    It was like I felt and saw every step of this fall, since I can picture the location you were and because of course I am so familiar with your wheelchair, etc. I can’t stop to think that it could have happened with me being with you both. My heart is afflict with this happening, but I’m glad you are ok. This was an out of breath history. I wish I could help in any way. Hope I can go visit you again soon.

    My positive thoughts for you both.

    P.S.: miss you both!

  13. Oh BK – you make everything so real. The fall, the weight of the tools that help, the screams of love, the after-hours. The wish to just be together. I am so grateful for the help you got and hope both you and Ev are ok. You are much loved.

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