Jesse Billauer surfing in El Salvador!
For those of you who are not aware of Jesse and his amazing story, go check it out: Life Rolls On is dedicated to improving the quality of life for young people affected by spinal cord injury and utilizes action sports as a platform to inspire infinite possibilities despite paralysis.
I have a special affinity for Jesse and this organization.
On Valentine's Day, in 1996, I was working as a land surveyor in Kitsap County, Washington, and my drunk boss cut down a tree while I was busy clearing brush with a chainsaw. We were not supposed to cut trees down because this was private property, but he was rushing it and did not care. And, he was already several beers into the morning. I did not see the tree coming. Thank God I was squarely standing, with my head down, and shoulders locked, as I cut with the saw. All I experienced was a sudden CRACK as if from a gigantic baseball bat, square on the top of the head and straight through me, and then blackness.
I woke trying to climb out of the dirt I had been compressed into, my eyes not working at all. My chainsaw was still running, I could hear it somewhere next to me. I spit out blood and bits of teeth. When I started to see again, through the blur and stars, I saw my boss running toward me from down our survey line, face white as a ghost. Then I looked at the tree that had hit me squarely on the head. It was about a hundred and twenty feel tall, an alder that was straight as an arrow and tapered to about seven inches in diameter at the tip. I took my chainsaw and cut the section that had hit my head, took out my sharpie and signed the chunk of tree. Then I sat back down in the dirt, lit a cigar, and tried to collect my thoughts. Breathing was sharply painful and my brain was not working well at all. I did not know where I was, why I was there, or what to do about it, but I did know that I was hurting from deep inside. The crack down the top of my head, where the tree met the little rivet in my Star Wars baseball cap was not painful at all. It was numb. The pain came from the middle of me, somehow. I had been compressed straight down and was sure something big was broken.
The boss tried to talk to me but one look from me silenced him. Eventually I stood up and began walking the mile back to the truck. He started to suggest we finish our line and get to the next quarter corner, but I told him to take me to the ER immediately.
When I got to the hospital, and finally got into the room, a bunch of cops and firemen came in to see my head, having been told about the guy who took a tree to the head.
It was obvious that the trainee running the x-ray machine was doing a very bad job, so when I was released with a note saying, "Jesse can return to work in two days" I ripped it up and immediately called an orthopedic surgeon who had worked on my knees, and was someone who I trusted. After getting a full MRI from him and heading back to my little cabin in the woods, he called that night with an urgent tone and told me to return to Kirkland first thing in the morning. He told me, "don't lift a thing... don't even pick up the milk out of the fridge! It could kill you!"
This was valuable news to have, though not as shocking as it might have been. Perhaps it would have been even better had I gotten this earlier that afternoon. Before the physical therapist who I had been assigned from the ER had decided to give me a deep tissue massage. It was so excruciating, I told him to please stop now. Then I just got up and told him he was done massaging me. Had he know he was massaging four broken and crushed vertebrae, I think he would have had a heart attack.
When I did get to the surgeon's office the next morning, he showed me why he had freaked out. He showed me the x-rays that the shaky trainee had taken at the ER which were so poor you could not see any detail clearly, and then he showed me his x-rays and MRI. There were crushed and fractured vertebrae and there in the center of my spinal cord, a tear that was filled with fluid, called a syrinx. Most of the tendons connecting the ribs to the spine had been torn and many internal organs had been bruised. I had chipped teeth and a whopper of a concussion, one that left me a brain with lobes that are a little more separated than most(aka. Boxer's Brain), and one that was unable to focus or finish simple sentences for months. (Not to mention the debilitating PTSD I suffered for years as a result of the incident.) And, to top it off, I was also one and a half inches shorter. No lie. Before the accident, I was 6'2.5" After, and still, I am 6'1.
The docs all said that I was lucky to be alive. Lucky to be walking. They said I was lucky, but that I may not be able to do anything active like soccer or surfing, again. It was at those words that I began to get a sense of the severity of my predicament. The idea of not being able to surf again filled me with sorrow. To taste such a thing, to experience the force of a wave ushering you into its flow, and then to have it taken away...
Well for all my pain and trouble, I count myself lucky! So lucky and so blessed. My spinal injury never worsened to the point of paralysis. I am playing soccer and surfing. I may have a long term problem of intractable pain that flares up weekly, as well as a marked change in my mental function, but it is nothing compared to losing the use of my legs or arms. And, so when I see people who have suffered such a great loss to their body I feel a combination of compassion and guilt. Why did I get lucky? Why aren't I in the chair? I have no answer for that. Nobody does. But dwelling on the question does nobody any good, and so instead, I want to pass along the inspiration I find from individuals who not only face their disability, but break through and live rich and amazing lives, in spite of the handicap that would shut most of us down completely.
Watch the video of Jesse surfing again, will you? Put yourself on his board. Put yourself in his life. If you, like me, are overwhelmed by the bittersweetness of life, find a way to support Life Rolls On, whether financially or by getting the word out.