The Day The Mountains Almost Took My Mom
Lives change in an instant.
Our instant came deep in the woods, two and a half weeks ago, on an otherwise ordinary Monday afternoon. Though it has taken me time to do so, I’m writing about this in great detail so that others might glean some of the lessons this experience has imparted to me and my loved ones in the past 17 days.
Part I: The Accident
There’s no good way to begin this story. Do I tell George’s version, which begins with a scream, then a long and awful silence? Or my mom’s version, which begins with her foot slipping on a patch of black ice on a rock, then plummeting off the side of a rock cliff in the woods?
My own version begins with a phone call I received on my cell phone while I was at work. The call was from George; I assumed he wanted to let me know he, Glenn and my mom had finished up the hike they’d gone out to do together that day. Instead, there was static on the line, background noise, but no discernible voices. I almost hung up, thinking his phone had called me by mistake. But just as I pulled the phone away from my ear, I heard George’s voice, faint in the background: “Can you hear me?”
“Yes, I can hear you,” I said.
He stayed calm, but he minced no words: “We had to activate the SOS button on the SPOT tracker. Your mom took a bad fall and she can’t move. Her hip is in a lot of pain. Please call 911 and tell them we’re at Lake Lillian. We need help.”
Within a minute, the call dropped; in the coming hours, due to the remoteness of the area they were in, he and I would only be able to exchange slow, sporadic text messages. (On a side note, we hadn’t updated the contact information on our SPOT device since I’d used it for my summer races, so my phone number wasn’t one of the listed emergency contacts on the device for Search and Rescue (SAR) to call for details; they’d tried to call George’s phone but been unable to reach him due to the lack of reception where he was.)
My mom has always been good at finding the positive in situations. Despite her shock from the fall itself—she had tumbled over the side of a rock cliff, somersaulted down some 20-25 vertical feet, slammed against rocks, bounced off them, somersaulted again and landed on her back on more rocks—the first thing she did was marvel at the fact that she could wiggle her fingers and toes, could turn her neck from side to side. I’m fine!, she thought—a stark contrast to the thought that swept over her moments earlier as she plummeted: So, this is what it feels like right before you die.
It was only when she tried to sit up, and couldn’t, that she realized something had almost certainly broken inside her body. She could hear George and Glenn, who were not within sight, calling her name; it took a while before there was wind in her lungs again to be able to call back to them, and a while longer yet before they were able to safely get down to her.
After assessing her and then activating the SOS on our SPOT when his cell phone showed no signs of reception, George offered to stay with her while Glenn hiked out in order to call for help. (Later, George held his phone up to the sky and was able to glean a fleeting bar of reception to call me.) If necessary, Glenn could then also be able to guide a SAR ground crew to where my mom had fallen.
As the sun sunk over the ridge, the air and ground became icy cold. The hours ahead were long—longest of all for my mom, whose pain swept swiftly in after the shock wore off, and for George, who stayed by her side and tried to prevent her from freezing or falling asleep. The two of them could do nothing but wait interminably for an answer from the universe on how this all would end. My mom couldn’t be moved, so it wasn’t even possible to put her inside the SOL emergency bivvy he’d packed; he cut it open and wrapped it over her. She’d fallen on top of her backpack, so its contents were mostly inaccessible, too, though George was able to pull out a fleece jacket and wrap that around her head, neck and shoulders.
Meanwhile, after getting a call from George (and later Glenn), I called 911 and talked to the King County Sheriff’s Office, which had been assigned to the developing SAR mission. In a brain-dead frenzy, I then hurried into my car, only to realize I had no physical maps or details on what exact trail to take to reach them, and none of the supplies or clothing necessary with me to hike out there on my own and be of any assistance. Dusk was approaching rapidly.
Bless my coworkers at REI for remaining calm and helping me quickly assemble warm clothes, a large pack, headlamps, sleeping bags, food and water. Erik volunteered to drive me out there so I could continue communicating with the Sheriff’s Office, and with Glenn who gave us directions to the trailhead. It was also a great boon to have company—safety in numbers—on the hike in to provide additional/backup aid to my mom and George in the event that SAR wasn’t able to reach them.
The Sheriff’s Office called me back to tell me that, due to my mom’s age and nature of her injury as I’d described it, and to the remoteness of the area, they’d decided to send a helicopter. (A ground crew might have taken all night to reach them.) They said they planned to bring her to Harborview—the Level 1 trauma center for Washington, Alaska, Montana and Idaho. (It’s also (a) where George works, (b) located just a few miles from our home in Seattle, and (c) to my mom’s delight much later, the hospital that inspired Grey’s Anatomy.) Erik thought to have me ask whether George would be permitted to ride on the helicopter. The representative at the Sheriff’s Office told me he wasn’t sure, but that due to weight restrictions on the helicopter, George would probably need to hike out on his own.
Just as we reached Glenn on the service road in to the trail, George called me again. Nearly four hours had passed since my mom had fallen. This time, his panic was palpable: “Where are you? We’re so cold.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “We’re coming. The helicopter is coming. Just hold on a little while longer.”
I could feel the cold bite in the air myself, now that we’d made it to the foot of the mountains they were in—so close, yet still aggravatingly far away. Later, George and my mom would tell me how their hope eventually faltered in those long hours, silent except for the shivering of their own bodies and the occasional whine of an airplane engine that they’d mistake for a helicopter, only to listen to it disappear, oblivious, into the distant skies.
As soon as Erik, Glenn and I began hiking, a helicopter appeared at the top of the valley above us. It flew in circles, then away, then back. By the time we got up into the trees, we lost sight of it, though its blades never stopped bellowing above us.
We hiked for 10 minutes, then 20, then 30, all beneath the rhythmic roar of the helicopter. My anxious brain was certain the elapsed time meant the helicopter couldn’t find them. As we climbed higher, I felt equal parts grateful toward my body (for perhaps the first time in my life that the arbitrary sport I love might actually prove useful) and frustrated with it (for being deep into my “off season,” thus in the worst shape I’ve been in all year long). My legs and lungs seared. I pleaded with my mind and heart to stay calm.
Abruptly, above us, the sound of the helicopter faded. Everything fell silent. Relief swept over me. Then, a moment later, panic set in that maybe the helicopter had simply been unable to find them, and had given up. Adrenaline hurtled through me anew. Minutes later, just as we’d turned on our headlamps, Erik spotted George.
“Did they get her?” I asked him breathlessly.
“They got her,” he said.
Though he’d been shivering for hours, he said the adrenaline of witnessing the helicopter rescue had warmed him back up. We held each other in the dark, cold woods for a moment before starting back down; I could feel the shock thumping in his chest.
It wasn’t until later that I’d understand just how grave my mom’s injuries were, and what an incredible hoist mission had been pulled off by the Sheriff’s team to retrieve my mom. When they’d first moved her body off the rocks, George told me later, she’d screamed once, then likely passed out from the pain as they zipped her up into a bag and hoisted her up by rope into the belly of the helicopter.
Part II: The Hospital
What followed for me was a blur—our sober hike out in the dark, the drive back to Seattle, the hour or two spent in the ER waiting room, the social worker approaching at long last to let me know I could see my mom, but that he first needed to prepare me for what I was going to see.
Until then, I’d assumed the extent of her injuries were a possible broken hip and probably some level of hypothermia. I soon learned that in addition to the broken hip and an open wound on her thigh, she’d also broken her pelvis, her spine in several places, and 10 ribs—nine on her left side, one on the right. Her lungs had been punctured, and both had collapsed.
When I first saw her in the resus room (emergency/trauma department), she lay atop a small, dark pool of blood, beneath a reheating blanket, her neck in a brace, an oxygen mask clamped over her mouth, chest tubes (my mom would later nickname them “the garden hoses”) on both sides suctioning out blood and detritus from her internal injuries. Dirt and pine needles still clung to her skin, her face, the insides of her ears. One elbow and forearm were badly scraped, and her fingers on one hand were caked with dried blood. Her eyes were both swollen shut, ballooned up like ping-pong balls—a symptom of collapsed lungs called “subcutaneous emphysema” when the air from the lungs gets pushed into other parts of the body, yet stays trapped beneath the skin.
But she was awake. She could squint at me through her left eye. She recognized me, and I kissed and hugged her face, for it was the only part of her I could grasp without causing her pain. We talked. Even in the fog of the pain medication she’d been given, she wanted to tell me about the beautiful hike, the terrible fall, the sci-fi scene of waking up to blue lights in a helicopter and men in large, white helmets looming over her. Then she began retching with nausea.
Later that night, she was moved upstairs into the ICU. George and I got home at 4 a.m. and slept an hour. The days that followed were tense—a higher-risk-than-usual hip surgery the next day, a scare the day after that when her body reacted badly to a moderate dose of Oxycodone. Even now, she has almost no memory of the “Oxy afternoon,” in which her blood pressure and oxygen saturation plummeted to near-lethal levels. She began sweating profusely and could barely breathe, stay awake or recognize anyone, including me. The nurses administered Narcan (an emergency drug used to treat narcotic overdoses), which slowly helped revive her.
In the middle of the night on her third night in the ICU, my ringing cell phone pried me from deep sleep at home. My heart thudded as I imagined why the hospital might call me at midnight—but it was just to let me know she was getting discharged from the ICU and moved into acute care on a different floor of the hospital.
All told, she spent nine nights and nine days at Harborview before being cleared to come home with us late one evening.
Her road to recovery will be a long one yet. Physical pain is a constant companion now, especially in her pelvis and ribs. She won’t be able to bear weight on her hip for another 6-10 weeks, or sit upright without a TLSO (back) brace for an indefinite amount of time until her spine and pelvic fractures fully heal. It will likely be some time yet before she is cleared to fly home to the Netherlands.
Yet it is a true blessing to have her at home with us, and no longer in the hospital. If you ever want to feel better about the cards you’ve been dealt, spend some time at a Level 1 Trauma Center like Harborview. Seeing many of the other patients there made my mom feel like what’s she been through, by comparison, has been a cakewalk.
Of course, it hasn’t—but, you know … perspective. For years, anytime I’ve complained about anything in my life, my mom offers sympathy but also reminds me to have perspective; to think of the unfathomable experiences of the refugees she works with back home, many of them from Syria and other crisis-stricken parts of the world, where they’ve often lost their families, jobs, homes and belongings.
She’s told me how many hours she spent in that hospital, thinking about her incredible good fortune in this life.
Maybe falling off a mountain ain’t so bad.
Part III: Guilt, Gratitude and Other Reflections
My mom has been through some special hells in her lifetime, many of which I’ve not been able to be there to support her through—because I hadn’t yet been born, or because I was too young, or because I lived an ocean away and couldn’t get on a plane to be by her side. It is a gift to be with her now, through this, yet I can’t help but hate that this happened to her.
I struggle with guilt, thinking that if I didn’t love these stupid mountains so much, this never would have happened. She could have spent this time visiting her daughter doing “normal,” “safe” things, like eating in restaurants and watching movies. Instead, we crammed in adventure after adventure in the first nine days of her visit here—hiking, cycling, more hiking, waterfalls, mountains, rainy miles, sunny miles, snowy miles.
And yet, my mom wouldn’t have it any other way. She is such a big part of why I love mountains in the first place, and why I seek out the challenges I do.
She’s always been adventurous—an avid hiker, Nordic walker, cyclist, rower, cross-country and downhill skier, yogi, and student of judo, Taekwondo and Tai Chi. She is a strong, bold, independent woman who has backpacked through the mountains in Norway, skied in Austria, hitchhiked across Israel, cycled on mountain highways in Colorado, and hiked long distances through the forests and along the beaches of Holland.
She is my hero, through and through—for her love of adventure, of course, but even more so for her perspective on life, on mortality, and on what really matters in the blink of a lifetime we get on this planet.
One evening just a few days after her accident, she lay in her hospital bed looking up at me with a huge smile and glowing eyes, and she said, “What a truly marvelous vacation this is turning out to be.”
That night, I wrote in my journal: There was such love between us this evening when we parted ways, all this warmth and gratitude for the gift of this time together. We are scheming up a grand tour (“together on a scootmobiel!” my mom cried) in which we visit all the people who helped save my mom’s life, in order to thank them. George, of course. Glenn. The SAR folks. The helicopter crew. My coworkers, especially Erik. The ER doctors, the surgeons, the nurses, the hospital assistants, the various specialists. Trauma is scary, but it also can bring out the best in humanity. As with so many things throughout my life, my mom’s wisdom is spot on: You never know if something is good news or bad news. There are always silver linings.
It’s a lesson my mom imparted to me when I was just a child: that sometimes gifts come disguised as catastrophes. She was right, of course.
Throughout my childhood, she always kept a copy of Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata prose poem displayed prominently in our home. This experience has shown just how wholly my mom absorbed its advice to “nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.”
In these past two and a half weeks, she has taught me what kinds of miracles the human body is capable of when the heart and mind are determined, positive and graced with gratitude and humor. She made a hundred friends in her nine days at Harborview. She had nurses and hospital assistants from all over the world, from Eritrea and Japan and Germany and The Gambia—and she got to know them all. She asked them questions about their lives, told them stories about hers, made them smile and nearly pee in their pants laughing at times.
She accepted the pain she’d been given, learned to stay calm and even comfortable in its presence. When physical agony and beeping monitors and the cries of other patients kept her up at night, she used that time to meditate, to do stretches and breathing exercises with her spirometer. She told everyone, again and again, how grateful she was. I lost count of how many nurses said to her, “Can you please put on a clinic in this hospital for all the other patients on how to be a rock star?” To me, they said, “With her attitude, she’ll be out of here and hiking again in no time. You’re lucky to have such an amazing mom.”
To them, I smiled and said, “I know.”
There truly are so many things to be grateful for—that my mom survived, that she suffered no spinal cord or neck or head/brain injuries, that she’s recovered as well as she has already. For our SPOT device and cell phone reception, however sporadic, and the emergency gear George thought to pack on their day hike, including flashlights that he set face up in a clearing, on flash mode, to help the helicopter spot them from above. For George’s medical experience and calm demeanor and heroism in the face of crisis. For the incredible SAR effort on her behalf, thanks to the King County Sheriff’s Office, the KCSO Air Support Unit and King/Kittitas County SAR. For Glenn hiking out to call for help, and being there to guide Erik and me to them, and for being one of my mom’s first visitors in the hospital. For the world-class medical care she’s received from dozens of nurses, doctors and specialists at Harborview.
For all the love that’s poured in from people in my mom’s life in both Holland and the US—our family, her friends and neighbors, the refugees she teaches, her colleagues at the Salvation Army where she also volunteers. For the love and support that’s poured in from people in my and George’s lives—our families, friends, friends’ parents, housemates and colleagues. For the incredible support of my employer, boss and coworkers at REI through all of this.
Above all, I’m grateful for my mom’s bright spirit, which has given her the wings she needed to survive this whole ordeal intact and—I think she’d agree—emotionally richer because of it. As Max Ehrmann wrote, and my mom has quoted to me a hundred times before, “No doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”