Tuesday morning could’ve turned out to be something entirely, brutally different.
It was clear and cold. New snow had fallen overnight and the morning sun seemed to light it from beneath the blanket. I woke at 7:30 or so and lied in bed till almost 8, listening to my girlfriend’s soft breathing next to me in the morning’s stillness, both filling the long pauses between the distant sound of passing cars on Main Street and the furnace kicking on and off. The kids were with their mom. It was a slow morning, and I couldn’t have been more thankful for it. 11 hours earlier I was in an ER bed at Thompson Hospital being evaluated for a possible Stroke or aneurism.
Rewind to 6:30 the night before. I had just arrived at Bristol Mountain to meet my middle child, Cam, for ski club. I was going to make some turns with him, let him run with his pals while I ran solo looking for good snow in the margins, and then give him a ride back to his mom’s so he didn’t have to ride the bus. I saw him for about two seconds before he boogied with his friends, but managed to coordinate our meet-up at 8 at the lift. I headed up the mountain.
My first run was good. Given that I’m still breaking in new telemark skis, bindings, and boots (as well as still breaking in telemark technique), I was happy that my gear was actually starting to feel right under me. Mid-mountain I stopped to get a breather and my head was pounding at the base of my skull. Figuring I just needed to warm up some more, or stretch, or just push through it, I set my jaw, finished the bottom half and grabbed another chair to the top.
Four turns into my second run the wheels came off. My head hurt so badly that gave up trying to make the signature kneeling telemark turns and simply made wide, easy S-turns, stopping again mid-mountain. The edges of my vision stared to narrow. The back of my head pounded down into my neck. At this point I knew the whole deal was going to shit. But I told myself You’re not going down on the fucking mountain, Matt, thus committing to reach the bottom and the lodge.
I could see, but nothing really registered except the gravity of my body on the hill, so I finished the bottom of the hill largely by feel, eventually sliding to a slow stop as it flattened out. I couldn’t swallow. I was standing, half-inert and completely limp inside, held up by some sort of instinctual defiance. I’m not fucking going down here. I felt the need to cry, but I couldn’t get it from thought to action. Death-thoughts started to creep in. No. No. No. I’m going to be here for Cam at 8:00. It took everything I had to lean forward and release my bindings. I was now operating on sheer will. It was 7:10.
I managed to get my gear off and into the car, and walk back to the lodge. I texted my girlfriend, Amanda, that I was done skiing because of a blazing headache. She offered to come out and get us, but I said I’d be ok. I just needed to sit for a while. Upstairs, I sat alone at a table in the bar area (the only place not over-run by high school ski clubs from 10 different school districts) and blindly stared at the Alabama-Clemson pre-game coverage on a TV across the room. I couldn’t get words out audibly and reminded myself to keep breathing. My head was immense and so damn angry. I still couldn’t cry. Sitting still calmed me some and I kept running through a mental inventory, wiggling fingers and toes, blinking, raising an eyebrow, clearing my throat, and rolling my neck a couple times. I just need to get Cam home and get home. In spite of the pain, I was fierce.
At 8 I picked my way back out to the lift and ran into a close friend who also offered us a ride, which I declined, saying Naw, I’ll be ok. Just need to get home. I corralled the boy and we loaded up for the ride home. He knew I was hurting and chatted with me about everything that came to him — school, friends, antics on the mountain, his dislike of his Health teacher. I couldn’t get a word out but everything else functioned, so I smiled and nodded and patted his leg and head. I felt so bad for being so unable to respond. He stayed calm and ran distraction for me while I got him home safe. Aleida, my oldest, came to the door when we arrived and with one look knew something was up, too. A strong hug and I love you, dad and I went home. Now the tears started to come. Hot as hell.
As soon as I walked in the living room Amanda had the same immediate reaction as Aleida, listened to my symptoms as I piled onto the couch, and told me we need to go to the ER. And that she was driving. The triage desk moved me immediately to the intake room, where I was asked a few cursory questions, given a wheel chair, and then ushered to an ER room with Code 12, room 15. Code 12, room 15 echoing from the all-call PA system announcing my arrival on the floor. The nurse, a PA, and two assistants were already there waiting.
Then everything went into full-speed. Shirt off, gown on, a lot of things are going to be happening very quickly — we’ll talk you through each one, don’t worry, heart monitor points stuck to my chest and legs, wires hooked up to them, IV hooked up, blood drawn, temperature check, we’re going to be taking you back for a CT scan and angiogram so we can get a look at your head and neck area, heart monitor beeping, numbers reported, orders given, we’re going to be checking for signs of Stroke or aneurism, ER staff in and out in a perfectly choreographed flow of every-second-matters, curtain open, curtain closed, tell me what time your head started hurting, Amanda in a chair three feet away, wide-eyed, holding it together and texting updates to my mom and sister, and then my bed being wheeled down the hall for my close-up.
After everything was said and done, after the scans, dye injections, touch your finger to your nose and then my finger, reading simple sentences and identifying pictures of trees and birds and kids raiding the cookie jar, people in and people out, the Doc came back with a couple final motor tests and the news that all the tests came back negative. Everything looks good, he said.
Negative. Holyshitthankgodnegative. My kids and family immediately flooded my head. I looked over at Amanda and thanked God for her, too. Their estimation is that it was likely a perfect storm of elevated heart-rate, low blood sugar, dehydration, latent headache, adrenaline, and cold weather. A freak occurrence. Better to be safe than sorry, they said. But I am sorry, regardless.
Tuesday morning turned out OK, but Monday could’ve gone wrong in so many ways. And even as scared as I was, in as much pain as I was, facing the realities I was — the terrible gravity of the whole situation — I was still too prideful, stupid, and bull-headed to accept help or admit weakness. I had nothing to prove, but I chose to gut it out and be tough as I always do when I’m hurt, or on the rare occasion I get sick. I don’t have time for down-time. As my mom scolded me after, just like your father.
Therein lies the reason I’m recounting this story. I know I’m not alone in thinking that I’ll recover easily if I get hurt, that I live a very active life and and eat pretty well therefore I’m healthy and won’t get sick, that bad things won’t knock at my door because, well, they just won’t. Worst of all — when I am sick or hurt, it’s best to just soldier on. All of that couldn’t be further from the truth. And I want my people to know that. You, dear reader, included. Some shit simply shouldn’t be soldiered through. Especially when considering your own mortality.
As excruciating as it was, I was given a gift. And it got my attention. I’m making some changes. If I’m going to be around for the long haul, it’s time. For me and my family and friends. Not off-the-deep-end shit, but I’m most definitely taking steps toward a more mindful, present, healthier life as a whole. To take better care of myself. And that includes listening to those I love when they’re trying to take care of me.