The amount of experience doesn’t matter as much as how quickly you can learn new things.
Hey look, we have a baby. He was born in our home in Princeville, Hawaii on 4/10/2012 at 8:05PM. He weighs 9 pounds, 10 ounces.
Announcement - November 2011
I recorded this before my accident, but didn’t get a chance to edit it until after the painkillers wore off a bit.
On October 23, 2011, I had a serious accident in the ocean. The short version is that I fractured my neck and skull, spent a week in the hospital, and that the doctors expect a full recovery.
The long version is longer.
I love the water. My childhood home was on a small lake in Michigan where swimming and boating happened every summer. In January of 2011, our family moved to Kauai, where we have easy access to clean, warm, ocean water. We have 2 young children at home, and I’m still committed to the small software company in San Francisco that I helped start. As a result, I haven’t spent as much time in the ocean as most people expect. I probably get in the ocean once every other week or so, and I generally do a long swim. You know, really get the most out of it. I’d also recently started taking 4 year old Thomas out on our stand-up paddleboard, which was working out quite nicely, because it gave us more time together, and gave us both more time on the water.
October 23 was a beautiful Sunday. The day before was filled with non-stop rain, so everybody was eager to go to the beach on the weekend. Mindy, Thomas, Tabitha, and I brought all of our gear and dogs to Kalihiwai Beach, which is a small local beach near our house. A river enters the ocean here, which makes a safe, shallow place for children to play in the water.
Meanwhile, on the ocean side of the beach, the surf raged. Smooth, towering columns of water swelled up from the deep, gracefully toppling over in a furious crash. In the water bobbed many heads of brave wave riders, mostly on boogie boards, but a few on surf boards or just body surfing. I was eager to get out there and enjoy those splendid waves.
First though, I spent some quality time playing with the kids in the river, managing the dogs, that sort of thing. After a while Mindy turned me loose saying, “OK, you can go play in the waves now. Stay out at long as you like.”
The right tool for the job seemed to a boogie board, so I talked Thomas into letting me use the one we’d brought. I caught a couple of absolutely astounding waves on that board, but since I didn’t have fins, swimming back out with the board proved to be too much work. The crashed waves were so turbulent that it was hard to take the buoyant foam board either over or under them. I gave the board back to Thomas who was happy to use it to simulate a garbage barge by loading it up with sand until it sank. I told Mindy, “the waves are too big for me without fins. I’m going to go swim around in them a while.”
I had been body surfing at this beach before, but in much smaller waves. The act of body surfing is primitive and dangerous, yet exhilarating and almost spiritual. When a wave propels you though the sea, it is a fluid, graceful dash that is almost completely out of your control. You can pick which wave you want to catch, but once the ride starts you essentially yield control of your path to the ocean.
There were lots of people riding the waves on this sunny day, including a lot of kids. While the waves were probably the largest I’d ever been in, it didn’t seem dangerous. Everybody was having a great time, giddy with excitement from their last ride. Caught up in the atmosphere of fun, I decided to body surf one of these waves.
What a ride. I linked up with that wave perfectly, and it launched me toward shore in a beautiful and slightly terrifying line. The sensation of acceleration and speed was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, and at the end I gracefully stood up like I had planned the whole thing.
Most of me wanted to get back out in the water and do that exact same thing again. On the way back out though, I was noticing that I was getting a little tired. Drawing in a deep breath before diving under a wave was a bit more deliberate, and my arms weren’t feeling quite as strong. My internal majority opinion was still to take another ride on these amazing waves, but dissent was growing. I treaded water for a while and watched people catch rides on these monster waves. Sometimes riders would head right for me, and I’d have to dive under them, just like in surfing movies.
I was getting tired and the waves were starting to get intimidating. It was time to head for shore. As I made my way back, I saw that I was perfectly lined up to ride a rather large wave. I could either swim hard to catch it, or dive under to let it pass by. Instead, I hesitated, then swam.
Surfers have a term for what happened next, “over the falls.” Instead of being propelled forward by the rising face of the wave, I was sucked up to the top, then pressed down by the crashing wall of water. In many cases, going over the falls has you spending more time underwater than you had planned on, but you emerge unharmed. In my case, the wave had thrust me, face-first, right into the sand.
Inside the wave, I had the sensation of being yanked quickly backward, then shot forward into the sea bed, as if by a giant bungee cord. I heard cracks and saw stars. My body went limp.
The framerate on my life slowed into a series of discrete images and actions, all simple and in the present. I opened my eyes. Underwater. I just broke my neck. I’m probably paralyzed. Try to move something. Legs move, arms move. Neck, does not move. Shit. I’m paralyzed. New problem, can’t breathe. Still very underwater. Reptilian brain engages legs. I stand, head barely above water. Gulp of air and I am tackled from behind by another wave. Can’t stand and can’t breathe. I move my neck slightly. Hopefully I’m not paralyzed.
Through disconnected mental magic, I’m on my feet again, now above water, definitely breathing and walking. Blood pours from nose like a stream, and my head spins. I groan as I try to yell. A low murmur is the only sound I can make. I struggle past the wet sand and sit down next to a man.
“Hey buddy, do you need some help?”
“Yes.” My brain is not connected properly at this point. I should have said, “please call an ambulance and then call my wife.” But I just sat there groaning for a while.
“Shall I call an ambulance?”
“Yes.” A crowd of very helpful and well-meaning beachgoers gathered, including two nurses who tried to slow the blood loss from my nose. As the swelling started to build throughout my face, head, and neck, I managed to telegraph out, “please tell me wife, she’s over by the river, her name is Mindy.” Time swirled by, and eventually I heard Mindy’s voice, then I swirled away.
The crowd was trying to decide on the best way to help me. I was still sitting up and a man was supporting my weight by putting his back to mine. Some were concerned that my neck or back was broken, and that I should lie down. In a bizarre moment of clarity I said, “When the paramedics get here, they are going to strap me down to a board. Please do not move me until then.” I assume that this happened because I’ve watched too much TV.
I swam through time and heard sirens approaching, then a calm, confident voice, “Matthew, this is [Name] from the Kauai Fire Department. What happened to you?” Thankfully the professionals were here. Indeed, they strapped me to a hard board, then hauled me away in an ambulance. My brain began to rejoin my body in the ambulance, and it was not happy. I started to hurt basically everywhere and began to hyperventilate. The man in the back of the ambulance with me mercifully gave me some drugs, and I checked in with reality only occasionally for the next 24 hours.
Apparently what happened was that nice people at Kalihiwai Beach had packed up all of our gear into our truck, and Mindy drove the kids back home. Our friend and regular babysitter had agreed to watch the kids while Mindy went to the hospital. Our house is roughly one hour by road to the only hospital on the island, Wilcox Memorial. Mindy joined me at the hospital while they did some imaging. There is no neuroscience team at Wilcox, but they were able to show the images to doctors at Queen’s in Honolulu.
The images tell a pretty scary story. I have fractured my skull in several places, and my nose has pushed back slightly into my brain. There is air and blood inside my brain. Further, I have fractured the C1 vertebrae in my neck. So this is bad.
In a move that I really wish I was conscious to appreciate, an emergency transfer was ordered from Wilcox on Kauai to Queen’s on Oahu. The ambulance drove from the hospital, right out onto the tarmac at Lihue airport. As I was being loaded onto the plane, I briefly came back to reality. Mindy said, “we are putting you on an airplane to Honolulu.”
“Oh, an airplane? What kind of plane is it?” I disconnectedly dribbled out.
“King Air.” said the pilot, with the kind of voice that reassured me, “yes, this is pretty badass.”
Air traffic was cleared at Honolulu, and our landing was magically smooth, so they tell me.
After being poked and scanned and drugged and measured intensely for a few days, I settled back in to reality. My neck and head hurt, a lot, and I’m wearing one of those collars that people who fake neck injuries on TV wear. A dizzying array of physicians, residents, nurses, assistants, and other caregivers assure me that I am very lucky.
“Everything so far is stable. We aren’t going to do anything to you except watch. You should heal up as long as you are careful.”
Mindy had to fly back to Kauai to take care of our kids, but thankfully my friend and colleague Jim flew out to spend a few days with me. After 7 nights in the hospital, I was discharged.
Since then, I’ve been in a lot of pain, but I’m also getting healthier every day. I’m thankful to be with my wife and my children, and Im also grateful for all of the support, encouragement, and love from my family and friends.