There’s a camera shot you’ll see in most movies or TV shows that have a drowning scene: The camera is in the water, pointed up toward the sky above. You see the drowning person’s POV as they presumably look toward the air that they need to survive. It might be a few inches away or many feet, but the point is to show the desperate distance between where they are and where they need to be.
Speaking from real-life experience, that camera angle is incredibly realistic.
On Sept. 24, 2022, I was lying on my back on Kaanapali Beach in Maui with probably six inches of water above me, unable to breathe and, worse, unable to move. I remember looking up, my head on the sand, and seeing the gorgeous blue sky above the water, desperate to get one more breath of that fresh Hawaiian air. But the six inches of water felt like a mile, and I felt like I’d taken my last breath on earth.
Today, exactly four weeks later, I’m sitting in my office chair, writing this blog post generally pain-free. There’s a minor tingling in my arms and hands, but it doesn’t impact my ability to type. I’m wearing a long-sleeve shirt without pain, which is remarkable because a day or two after the accident, I screamed in pain when Cari gently touched my left arm. My lower legs are still fairly weak, and always feel tired. But earlier today, Cari and I spent probably 45 minutes walking and shopping at Target — my first real trip outside the house, other than doctor visits and physical therapy sessions.
At the risk of hyperbole, this all feels like a miracle.
The morning after the accident, the neurosurgeon at Maui Medical Center came to see me as a physical therapist was gently helping me walk from my room to the nurse’s station. The neurosurgeon looked surprised, maybe shocked. I sat down in the wheelchair as he spoke. “You really dodged a bullet,” he said. “We see a lot of people who go through what you did, and we send most of them home in wheelchairs.”
Cari and I had planned to celebrate my birthday (Sept. 23) with a 5-day visit to Portland and Seattle. My favorite band, Gang of Youths, was playing in both cities right before and after my birthday. We were gonna see both shows and then do a bunch of touristy stuff on our free days — we had reservations for a whale-watching boat tour in the San Juan Islands northwest of Seattle, for example. But when the band canceled their tour, we decided Plan B would be a quick trip to Maui.
On the 24th, Cari got a spa massage in the morning while I hung out in our hotel room catching up on emails and watching college football on my laptop. When she got back, we decided to get in the ocean for a quick swim before some touring and driving around the island in the afternoon. The water had been choppy the day before, but we knew that high tide was still 3+ hours away.
We’d been in the water maybe 5-10 minutes when the tide got really high really quickly. Cari was a little further out in the water than me as I saw a big wave forming behind her. “There’s a big one coming behind you,” I said as I pointed behind her. “We should go in after that one.”
As the wave reached Cari, she says it grabbed and tossed her around, but she got through it without anything bad happening. I wish I could say the same.
As it got to me, I dipped myself underwater to let it go over me. But I was apparently right at the spot where the wave began to break. It grabbed and tossed me like a ragdoll. You think you know how powerful water is, but you have no fucking idea. I’ve tried to explain to others what it felt like, and the best analogy I can come up with is that it was like how Hulk manhandles Loki in the Avengers movie.
After twisting me in every direction, the water slammed me headfirst into the sand. I felt the left side of my head hit bottom, and I instantly thought, “Oh, that’s not good.” The hit left me unconscious for a few moments. I remember saying to myself, “OK, God, if this is it, if this is how it ends, come get me.” Then I saw an image of Cari’s face and said goodbye to her.
The next thing I remember is what I described at the beginning — laying on my back, looking up through the water, desperately trying to breathe. The sky was so perfectly blue.
I don’t know how long I was like that, but the tide eventually went out and I was able to breathe!!! But I still couldn’t move. The hit had left me paralyzed. I started yelling, “Help! Help!” as loud as I could.
Angels Among Us
A few moments later, people started to arrive! I must’ve still been pretty far down the beach because another wave came up and covered me again, leaving me unable to breathe for a few seconds. But people were at my side. They held me as the water receded again, then they started wedging themselves — planting their feet in the sand so the powerful waves wouldn’t knock them over.
The group eventually got a good grip on me and started dragging me up the beach to higher ground. But at one point, I heard someone say “We shouldn’t move him, he might be injured and we could make it worse.” So they put me back down on the sand and I got really angry. “Don’t worry about that, just get me out of the water!!” I’m pretty sure I included an F-bomb or two. I was worried that the water would keep coming up and eventually drown me, especially since the tide was getting higher. They listened to me and started dragging me again, eventually getting me far enough away from the water that it felt safe.
I think it was 4-5 people who rescued me. They started talking to me. The first guy to arrive, and the one asking me the most questions, was a guy named Aaron from Minnesota. He was a retired first responder. (What are the chances!?! Are you kidding me?!?) Someone called 9-1-1 and while we waited for official help, Aaron was directing traffic and telling everyone how they could help.
At one point, he started touching my feet, then my legs, then my knees — “Can you feel this?” No, I couldn’t. That was really weird to see someone squeezing your leg and yet not feeling a thing. I remember thinking, “Okay, maybe I’ll spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair. At least I’m alive.”
They asked if I felt nauseous and I said I did. Not wanting me to vomit while lying on my back, and potentially choking on my own vomit, they propped me up. One of the guys sat behind me, his back to my back, so I’d be somewhat upright. I never did vomit, but I did pass out.
I’ve fainted a lot in my life — probably 20-30 times — but this was the trippiest of them all. Most times when I faint, all I can “see” is the color black … i.e., a blackout. But this time, I saw white and streaks of colors and I felt like I was flying or gliding through the air, or maybe being propelled through the water. If you’re a U2 fan, it was kinda like a brighter/whiter version of the PopMart video screen during “Streets.”
I eventually came to and everyone was still around me. I didn’t notice this, but at one point, Cari says two of the guys laid at my feet, perpendicular to my body, forming a blockade to keep the rising waves from reaching me. (Are you kidding?!? Who does that for a total stranger!?!) I’d kept my eyes closed through most of this, but at one point when I opened them, a woman was standing over me, propping up a big, blue beach umbrella — protecting me and the people caring for me from the hot sun. (Again … are you kidding?!? Who does that for a total stranger!?!)
At some point, I was able to move my toes!! I think I told Aaron to look at my feet, and I think he was like, “He’s moving his toes!” That gave me hope I wouldn’t be in a wheelchair for life.
The Maui Police were first to arrive, and they asked a bunch of questions that I answered pretty darn well, IMO. I was fairly coherent considering all that was going on. Cari and Aaron also answered a bunch of questions, too. EMS showed up shortly after, and they started prepping me for the 45-minute drive to Maui Medical Center. The ambulance was last to arrive, and when it did, the EMS folks got me on one of those stability-type boards and carried me from my spot on the beach to a gurney that was waiting up on the Kaanapali Beach walkway. You can see them doing that in the last 15 seconds of this video.
That video was shot by a guy named Tod who shared it on a Maui community Facebook Page. I’ve tried to connect with Tod for permission to share it, but never got a reply. I’m hoping he’s okay with me putting it on YouTube unlisted.
In the earlier parts of that video, you can see how violent and high the waves are; Cari and I have been to Kaanapali Beach probably a half-dozen times and I don’t recall the waves ever getting like that. It’s very difficult for me to watch that video, especially at the :45 mark when you see the boogie boarders narrowly avoiding what happened to me. I sure hope nothing happened to them and the other people still in the water.
The people who dragged me out of the water and saved my life are heroes. More than that, they’re proof that angels exist. What are the chances that the first person to reach me would be a retired first responder? And who else but angels lay themselves down in the path of a rising tide, letting the waves hit them so they wouldn’t hit me? Incredible. I continue to feel so blessed.
The Medical Pros Step In
The ambulance ride was looooong. Maui only has one hospital, and it’s about 45 minutes from where the accident happened. While in the ambulance, I heard a call on the radio that sounded like a similar accident to mine was happening again. I asked the EMS gal if that’s what it was, and she confirmed. A female swimmer had the same thing happen, but at a beach in south Maui. I heard something about “deformities” over the radio, and the EMS gal confirmed that they’re saying she had multiple broken bones. She said it sounded like the bone was visible. 😬
The care I got in the ambulance and at the hospital was very good. I was in the emergency room for about 3-4 hours then moved to a regular room. They did an MRI and CAT scans and all kinds of other tests: no broken bones, no life-threatening medical issues, nothing. As I look at the ER report now, it says I had a neck sprain and something called Central Cord Syndrome. They put me in a cervical collar (neck brace) and said I had to wear it around the clock. They said I might need spinal surgery, but that was a decision to be made by my doctors at home. Cari and I got a kick out of this description of me from the emergency room summary: “Well-developed, boarded, and collared male.” (Thanks, I suppose.)
They said I’d be spending at least one night at the hospital, and could maybe be discharged on Sunday if I continued to test/monitor well, and if I did well with the physical and occupational therapists the next morning.
And that’s exactly what happened! Best of all, they gave approval for me to fly home on Monday, which we did. The 5-6 hour flight was pretty awful — all kinds of turbulence, which made it impossible to sit still and pain-free in my cervical collar — but we made it home safely.
The Miracle Month
As I mentioned above, the past month here at home has been mostly about doctor visits and physical therapy sessions.
My primary care physician (the same guy who prescribed alcohol 11 years ago!) was really optimistic when he saw me, and he’s proven to be pretty accurate. The Maui doctors told me to wear the neck brace for at least six weeks, but my doctor said I wouldn’t need it that long. He was right; when I saw a local neurosurgeon eight days later, that doc told me I could stop wearing it. (Hallelujah!)
The neurosurgeon said I have two degenerative discs that, while not fractured, are basically worn out. These discs are what’s causing the tingling in my arms/hands and the weakness in my lower legs. He also said I don’t need surgery right now and might get away with never needing it! But if I ever start to regress and the pain/tingling gets worse in my extremities, that’s a sign that surgery is probably needed.
When we first got home, I couldn’t type at all — the pain in my arms and hands was too much. I used the voice-to-text capabilities on my iMac when I needed to type. Today, I’m typing as well/fast as I ever have — the pain in my arms/hands is 95% better in just four weeks.
When we first got home, I couldn’t throw a ball more than about 3-4 feet. Today, I’m able to throw underhanded about 50-75% across our back yard, which makes the dog happy. She loves fetching balls. I’ve even done a couple overhand throws without pain.
In the beginning, Cari had to accompany me if I wanted to walk from one room to the next. (She’s been soooo amazing this whole time!) Today, I’m walking wherever I want, whenever I want, as often as I want — no accompaniment needed, knock on wood. That said, I’m still being careful not to overdo it.
Our friends and neighbors have been incredibly generous. Some cooked and delivered meals in the first couple weeks. Our neighbors across the street (hi Rob and Tara!) came over and installed one of those handheld showerheads to make cleaning myself easier, since I was in no position to install a showerhead myself. Cari’s admin (hi Lisa!) bought a shower chair (and the new showerhead) and had them waiting for us when we got home from Hawaii. People have been amazing. Thank you. 🥰
Overall, I’m probably about 80-90% “normal” in just four weeks. I still can’t lift really heavy stuff and need to be careful about that. But I can cook and type and brush my teeth and do all those basics that I needed help with four weeks ago. I’m working mostly full days during the week, but I still get tired very easily, so it’s not unusual for me to nap or just lay down and rest in the middle of the day. I think that’ll change as I get stronger.
I’ve had four physical therapy sessions. They wipe me out, but they’re really great. I imagine I’ll continue going for at least several more weeks, if not longer. At least I hope so. They’re super helpful.
Four weeks ago, as I lay on the sand looking up through the water at that perfect blue sky, I was probably a few seconds away from drowning. Then the angels showed up, dragged me out of the water, and took care of me until the pros arrived and did their job.
Today, I’m not far from living my “normal” life. What a blessing. What a miracle.