Stuck in a Hole...then the hospital
I wrote this story after my first river running experience. It was published in the November 1997 issue of American Whitewater Magazine.
As the alarm rings out, I slowly reach over to hit the snooze button. But wait, today is Sunday, the day that Koji and I trek north to the Youghioheny river to kayak the lower Yough. I by-pass the snooze routine and briskly hop out of bed. Although it is dark and quiet, there is a feeling of excitement in the air. A feeling that will fill the day and give Koji and I much more than we bargained for.
At 7:30 sharp Koji and I have the kayaks strapped to the top of my blazer and we hit the highway promptly. Listening to the Alice in Chains Unplugged, we head into the Maryland country side. It is shaping up to be a beautiful day. The sun is beginning to burn the mist off of Maryland's rolling farm land. Koji and I talk of the day to come, we talk of future kayak trips, and we talk about old times at school. The three hour trip to Ohiopyle Pennsylvania was over before we knew it.
After a quick lunch at the local greasy spoon, we put our boats in just above Entrance Rapid. Entrance Rapid is a relatively easy section with a few small holes for surfing and getting warmed up. Koji coached me as I practiced eddy turns and surfing in the small holes. I felt good. My boat, the river, and I were one....or at least as much as a guy with my level kayaking experience and skill could be. The day's first big challenge was just around the bend...Cucumber Falls.
The current really picked up as we rounded the bend to Cucumber Falls. I could barely hear Koji over the falling water as he pointed out the strategy for decent. Other than the strong current, the only threat Cucumber presented was a good sized hole in the center of the river about midway down.
No problem, just avoid the hole; piece of cake. Well, the game plan was simple enough and I started my attack. Before I knew it, I was headed straight for the one and only hole I had planned to avoid. Boofing over the hole, I managed to land successfully to be quickly sucked into the raging downstream current. I ran the remainder of Cucumber upside down. Koji bow rescued me at the bottom of the rapid and we discussed my run. Although Cucumber Falls had not gone to plan, I was still feeling good. I was happy that I was able to keep my wits about me and avoided swimming.
After playing in the lower rapids of Cucumber Falls, we headed down stream through Camel's Back Rapid, Eddy Turn Rapid, Dartmouth Rapid, and Railroad Rapid without incident. My confidence was continuing to build as we approached the next big challenge, Dimple Rock. Again Koji and I planned our line of attack. Straight down the middle and eddy turn behind Dimple Rock to avoid the large hole below. This time everything went to plan. High fives exchanged we continue down to the prize of lower Yough, Swimmer's Rapid.
Swimmer's Rapid is a relatively large hole perfect for playing and surfing. From a beginner's point of view, approaching Swimmer's Rapid is a little intimidating. Not only is the rapid large, but there are between 30 and 50 people watching all the action from the shore. Some are watching the expert surfers cartwheeling and hand surfing. Others are watching the carnage as beginners like myself venture into ominous wave. However, I was not be a spectacle this time. I crossed the rapid with confidence but without flare. Another victory for the rookie paddler.
We spent about two or three hours playing in the rapids at Swimmer's. I will always remember my time here as it was the first that I consistently pulled off my roll. Learning to roll is the largest single thing that a beginning kayaker can do to gain confidence. Once a paddler can roll, it becomes easier to try new moves without having to depend on fellow kayakers for a bow rescue.
With spirits high we headed downstream towards the remaining Double Hydraulic Rapid and Rivers End Rapid. Double Hydraulic consists of two relatively large holes one after another. I watched as Koji skillfully hopped off of each drop and over the hole on other side. He gave me the boof signal as I began my approach. I successfully hopped off of the first ledge only to be sucked backwards into the hole. Still upright, with Koji yelling "Paddle !!! Paddle !!!" I paddled my butt off but went nowhere. As I prepared for second attempt I felt the stern of my boat being sucked down into the hole. Koji was yelling "Yeah !!!! Squirt Man Squirt" As I squirted out of the hole I uncontrollably flipped upside down. Struggling hold onto my paddle and setup for my roll I was scraped across the bottom of the shallow river. Just as I gripped the paddle with both hands, my forehead and nose struck a large rock on the bottom. The impact of the blow was a shock, but the crunching of my nose is what really made my skin crawl. All I heard inside of my head was the sound like egg shell being chewed. I knew I had broken my nose. I immediately bailed out my boat and swam to shore.
Koji was shocked as I swam in spitting blood and my nose gushing a red river(class III) down my face and swearing up a storm about my broken nose. Although I was a tad bit pissed(no not drunk for you Canadians), I smiled as Koji documented the scene with his waterproof camera.
From the scene of the accident, Koji guided me down the remaining sections of the river with the goal of staying dry. As we approached the take out spot, the tacky rafting tourists were pointing and staring. Every now and then I heard a whispered comment of 'oh my god' or 'that guy is really messed up'. I was the freak show of the shuttle ride to the top of the river.
Once at the car, the mission was to get to the Uniontown emergency room... pronto(my second kayaking related trip to the emergency room in less than a month). The ER folks were quite fun. The nurses touted that only out of towners visited the hospital with kayaking injuries. I quickly reminded them that it is guys like me that give them job security.
The nurses also warned me to keep the wound clean if I were to engage in any 'dirty activities'. I assured them that not married nor having a girlfriend, that the chances of being involved in 'dirty activities' is highly unlikely. I don't think she will use that phrase again.
In good spirits, we headed back to Virginia talking about the day's adventure. I woke Monday morning feeling like a bullet was lodged between my eyes.
Tuesday morning arrived much sooner than I had hoped. It was the first work day after my nose breaking kayak trip and I was not looking forward to the ribbing the guys at the office were going give me. But the guys at the office would have to wait.
Hot flashes, chills, and fever, had kept me up much of the night. I had sweat through two t-shirts and drank close to two gallons of milk and juice; and that damn bullet was still lodged between my eyes. I decided to pop by the hospital and report my new symptoms to the folks in the emergency room. What I was looking for was piece of mind; someone to tell me that my symptoms were normal. But that is far from what the doctors would tell me.
"Mr. Henes, I am afraid that I am going to have to admit you to the hospital. The wound on your nose has become infected and infections in this area can be extremely dangerous. It does not take much for them to spread to the sinuses and brain." Within thirty minutes I was receiving IV antibiotics within my own private room at the Fair Oaks hospital.
Sitting back in my space age fold-o-bed with built in TV remote, I closed my eyes as the super cool medical tech, Linda, juiced the infection from the newly opened wound on my nose. Over the course of the next five days, Linda would squeeze more puss from my face than anyone on the hospital staff. I truly believe she enjoyed it. It seemed that whenever she had a spare minute, she was in my room working my face.
Although the hot flashes and chills were gone, my first night at the hospital was not a good one. It seemed as if every time I managed to nod off, someone who needed to take my temperature, check my breathing, or hook me into an IV was tapping me on the shoulder. I did manage to catch a brief wink though.
At 5:30 it was not an alarm clock that woke me. The overhead light switched on and a cheery medical tech bidding me good morning walked in. "Hello Mr. Henes, could you please sit up; we need to take a blood sample." "Holy shit !!!" I thought to myself, "these guys are hard core. The sun wasn't even up and they're thinking blood ? What are they, vampires?". Sitting up, I closed my eyes and cringed as she plunged the needle into my arm. Keeping my eyes closed, I waited for her to remove the needle and give me the much anticipated "Ok, I'm done". But that never came. When the needle was removed, the tech informed me she would need a second attempt. When she finally finished up, and turned off the light, I settled back into bed thinking I was home free. But I was not yet out of the woods. As the tech left she said "Alright Mr. Henes, that's it for now. I'll see you at 6:30 for a second sample." I learned to look forward to my morning blood samples as if they were double non-fat vanilla iced lattes. I hope you know I am kidding.
As the week went on I got to know my doctors and the hospital staff quite well. They are a fun bunch of hard working folks who made my stay... well... actually enjoyable. They were all interested in looking at the pictures which documented the infamous day of kayaking and exchanging stories of adventure and personal injury. This is my type of crowd. The week began to fly by, until Thursday afternoon.
"Mr. Henes.... they're ready for you right now. Please remove all of your clothes, put on a gown, and hop up onto the stretcher as soon as you can." In a matter of minutes I was on my way to what I had been dreading all day. The operating room! A cool draft blew up my gown as two medical techs wheeled my stretcher to the OR staging area. When I arrived I was greeted by anesthesiologist Dr. Chu who promptly asked "How is your tolerance for pain?". "Excuse me?" I answered, hoping I had heard him wrong. "Your pain threshold... how much pain can you tolerate? Kayakers must have a high tolerance for pain." Not knowing how to answer his question and feeling a wee bit of fear, I just laid there with a dumb look on my face. Dr. Chu went on explain that a decision regarding the amount of anesthetic to be used in the procedure had not yet been made and that he was just testing the waters. But it was Dr. Soltany who would make the final call.
Dr. Soltany is an ENT specialist who has been my primary doctor all week. He is the one who decided that I should undergo a surgical procedure to clean up my wound and decrease the swelling in my face.
When Soltany arrived, he was wearing his OR duds along with a hat that looked like something Princess Lea(spelling ?) would wear. The hat was smurf blue and wrapped around his head horizontally and vertically under his chin. I immediately burst into laughter and turned to Dr. Chu "His hat is all the anesthetic I will need". We all laughed and agreed that we would try the procedure without an anesthetic.
When doors to the OR opened I could feel how sterile the environment inside was. It was a good sized room with bright white walls and lights that would make Mile High Stadium proud. The technology was overwhelming. Machines and monitors of varying types lined the room's perimeter. I would be plugged into just two them.
As I slid over from the stretcher to the operating table, Dr. Soltany began to describe the procedure. He was going to remove the remaining stitches, pull back the skin surrounding the wound, and extract has much puss and infection as possible. When all was said and done he will have extracted about two cubic centimeters of unwanted debris.
In preparation for the procedure, sensors were taped to my chest and stomach to measure my breathing. A clothes pin type device was placed on my index finger connecting me to the EKG machine. The room was now filled with the beep...beep...beep of my heart. This immediately reminded me of the Levis jeans commercial where the ER patient's heart beats to tune of Soft Cell's 'Tainted Love'. I asked the OR crew if they would play 'Tainted Love' during the procedure but they just laughed and said they had something much better in mind.
As the operation started, bright lights shined through my closed eyes and Barry Manalow filled my ears. "Oh Mandy....you came and you gave without takin....and I need you so bad...oh Mandy.....". I busted a stitch laughing(just an expression), but midway though the operation I was ready for some Metallica. The OR deejay sensed this and saved the day by spinning the ever popular Neil Diamond Christmas Album. The operation was over in no time.
My last couple of days in the hospital passed rather quickly and without event. I became an expert on Princess Di, royal protocol, and the papparazzi. At least there was good TV on this week(just kidding). On Saturday I was switched from iv to oral antibiotics and discharged by mid-afternoon
Cover of AW Magazine story was featured in
Alex and Koji at the put-in parking lot
Alex at Entrance Rapid
Alex at the bottom of Cucumber Rapid
Alex Practicing Ferries at Bottom of Cucumber Rapid
Alex Surfing at Swimmers Rapid
Alex Swimming After Smashing His Nose in Double Hydraulic
Alex with gauze duct taped to his nose
Paddling to the takeout... all taped up
Alex and Koji at the Take Out
On the way to the Emergency Room
Cleansing the Wound
Local anesthetic being applied while blood running down side of nose
Stitches being applied
Stitches ain't so bad... chicks dig scars... right?