Surviving a fall into grace


revised March 9

In my line of work I've been around chaos and havoc most of my life. It seems pretty normal.

Growing up in the coalfields of southern West Virginia it was all around me. At my first newspaper job in 1972 at Logan, W.Va. I wrote about it daily. It was part of the fabric of hometown life.

I've written about war, insurrections, death, destruction, hurricanes, bankruptcies and falls from grace. The evil twins, chaos and havoc, were never far away.

A split second decision about hiking instead of cycling brought chaos and havoc to my family. Nancy and I hiked along the high bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River near Savanna, Illinois. It was July 10, 2016.

Standing on a rocky crag next to the Pinnacle I saw three young men with mountain climbing gear scaling the tower barefoot. Barefoot mountain climbers are worthy of a memorable photo.

A slip and fall from a three-foot ledge at Savanna State Park almost ended my life. It propelled Nancy and me on adventure neither of us would have chosen.

On the job included 11 newspapers in five states. Sprinkle in a famed wire service, an all news television station, editing news websites for a major telecommunications company and freelancing for three-letter networks, chaos and havoc were there for the taking. People will look at the number of publications and wonder if I had a hard time holding down a job. Most of them were with one company.

In 1989 I was a reporter and editor for United Press International based in Raleigh, North Carolina. It was great fun. We got to cover all the big stories.

A colleague called a professor at the University of North Carolina to get a comment on winning the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. The chemist didn't know she was a Nobel Laureate. She found out from my co-worker.

I covered the escapades of the infamous televangelist Jim Bakker of the PTL Club. I was there when James Brown got out of prison. And then there was The Swamp Thing in Francis Marion Swamp. We thought The Thing, Elvis and Jim Bakker were all the same person. Have you ever seen the three of them in a picture together? That story never made the wire.

There were fun stories. A tree-climbing dog often seen on late night TV got a heart pacemaker at the N.C. State Veterinary School​. A naked woman on a horse rode through the streets​ of Winston-Salem befor huge crowds to protest taxes.

Unlike Lady Godiva the tax scofflaw wore a body stocking.​

In Winston-Salem I was face-to-face with accused murderer Blanche Taylor Moor.  Authorities said she poisoned five of her husbands. It's hard for me to understand how to poison  a man with arsenic without knowing it. It is a vile tasting poison.

I got a chance to find out. At the hearing there was one seat left at the railing. I sat there with my reporter's notebook. A bailiff brought her in and sat her down in front of me. The court room was packed. She looked around and asked if I was a reporter.

I nodded yes.

I said, "Ma'm, arsenic is such a vile tasting poison."

She smiled that knowing smile.

"My husbands all thought I was the greatest cook in the world. They loved my cooking."

What a discovery that was.

I was also there at Fort Bragg and Pope Air Force Base, known as Smoke Bomb Hill, when the 82nd Airborne got orders to free Kuwait from Sadam Hussein.

I spent a great deal of time ferreting out stories. At Fort Bragg I heard the cadence of grim-faced battle-hardened paratroopers.

"I want to flirt with death and danger, I want to be an airborne ranger."


"Hold you head to the sky, airborne passing by."


Airborne, airborne where you been
Around the world and going again"

A trip here. A trip there. I am way past flirting with death and danger to be an Airborne Ranger.

Good things usually come to an end. United Press International filed for bankruptcy for the fourth or fifth time.

Guess what happened next? I lost my job along with 500 others. I thought I would jump over to Reuters, but they axed 500 people that same week.

I want you to know I'm an ordinary guy. There is nothing special about me. I do have a lifelong knack of being in the right place at the right time. More about that later.

(He often sends us powerful signs of what we should do like those flashing signs along I-4. Instead, we exercise freewill and splash right into the St. Johns River creating all kinds of chaos and havoc.)

During the hike I moved to get a better picture and slipped off a three-foot ledge landing upside down. Nancy got on the ledge to keep me from moving. It seemed like seconds before one of the climbers were next to me.

"Don't worry, we are experts in wilderness rescue." he said. They sprang into action.

I crushed and dislocated both my left elbow and knee. I fracture my left left femur and bruised my spinal cord. More injuries were discovered later.

The incident was anyone's worst nightmare.

I vowed not to move fearing any motion would inflict more injuries. Nancy got down on the ledge with me. She helped me keep that vow until a cadre of new found friends were ready for the rescue.

I don't wear jewelry, just a beautiful carved wedding band. I asked her to take it in case my hands swelled and it would be cut off. I finally wore it again Christmas day 2016.

The rescue squad, fire department, ambulance, the Carroll County Sheriff's Department and the Illinois Highway Patrol aided the rescue.

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During the rescue, I recited the Jesus Prayer. It's simple to say. Lord Jesus Son of God have mercy on me a sinner. A friend from church, Steve McCourt. taught it to me during a group prayer. I told him that I never knew what to say in a group prayer.

"Try this, he said as he recited it.

Eight months later I stood at his bedside at Orlando Regional Medical Center. His injuries were more severe than mine.

It was an act of sheer will to stand by his bed on my own two legs. It was a challenge to walk from a parking garage, through the entrance and take the elevator up 12 floors. The sheer will was keeping my composure while I thanked him for teaching a simple prayer that saved my life.

I experienced some of the same hellish recovery. Steve collided with the rear of a truck carrying steel beams. Emergency workers had airlifted him to ORMC. Church friend and neighbor Bob Moricle drove by the wreckage and rescue scene not knowing it was Steve McCourt.

Bob was my sponsor when Nancy and I changed to a new church. God puts us with people we know in in unusual ways. I no longer consider it to be heavenly irony.  I don't try tofigure it out; I just know. People wanted me to visit Steve so he could see recovery is hard but possible. I just wanted to thank him.

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They helped Nancy from the narrow ledge.

While I was laying upside down, rescuers strapped me to a rigid back board. Several people flipped me over into a wire mesh strecher known as a Stokes basket.

Fifteen people worked in a perilous hand-to-hand belay and relay to get me off a rocky ledge. I remember dozens of hands holding multi-colored mountain climbing ropes attached to hardware called carabiners.

The rescuers deftly put me into the back of a four-wheel drive ATV.

Then came an excruciating one-mile ride to an ambulance waiting in a parking lot. When the ATV hit a bump, I felt the pain and screamed.

Every time I howled, the driver apologizeded. I told him to ignore me because it was my way of coping with the pain.

In the ambulance the paramedics helped me lose my last shred of modesty forever.

"I hope these aren't your favorite shorts," he said as he cut them off.

Over the ambulance radio I heard of a dangerous, fast moving thunderstorm approaching from the west.

I asked what hospital I would visit. "We're not taking you to the hospital. There is an evac chopper in a field waiting for you," one of the paramedics said.

What I overheard was the pilots via radio urging the ambulance crew to hurry because of the approaching storm front. They sped down the hill escorted by the highway patrol.​ Flashing lights and sirens all the way.

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After Nancy got off the ledge she still had my trusty Nikon camera. She made videos without realizing it thinking she was taking photos. The audio is chilling. My rescuers were talking on the radio about me and briefing the pilots about the location of power lines to avoid a wire strike.

[Savanna, Illinois fire chief here]

As a reporter I've seen all sorts of flashing emergency lights. This time, I was the reason for the rush and sirens.

The chopper was idling in a field next to a highway. Officers blocked traffic in both directions for the chopper's departure. People were standing next to their cars taking cell phone videos.

Two paramedics loaded me into a LifeFlight helicopter. I could hear the pilot spin-up the jet turbine rotors. The crew raced ahead of thunderstorms for 50 minutes before landing at St. Anthony's Medical Center in Rockford, Ill. I

I've been around commercial aviation for decades. I even had a pilot's license that I promptly abandoned it because of the cost. My instructor was a World War II fighter pilot that flew across the Pacific in thunderstorms to avoid radar on Japan's armada. Once when I was very frustrated transitioning from two-minute turns to straight flight on proper heading. He smiled and gave me a tidbit about the Cessna 150.

"This airplane can fly better than you if you let it," Edsel Varney said. "Remeber it and it will save your life."

He told me to rely on his Cessna 150. After that episode we made a tricky but flawless landing at McDonald Field at Taplin, West Virginia. The grass strip runway with a dog leg is located between two mountains and a river. There is one way in and one way out.

Once we were at a fly-in in a neighboring county. During a bull session one pilot bragged about his landings on a grass strip. Other pilots were weary of his talk.

Edsel nudged me. Tell him where you land, he said.

"I've never landed on anything but a grass strip," I said.

"Oh really? Where is that?"

"McDonald Field," I replied. To this day an aviation sectional labels it hazardous in capital letters.

He gasped, changed the subject and left. Braggarts never prosper.

The LifeFlight pilots were pros.

Details and quotes here.

I remember being quickly loaded in the stretcher bay. It wasn't long before I passed out. I don't remember the flight or the emergency room.

Being at St. Anthony's was not my only stroke of luck. It's is one of the highest ranked trauma centers in the U.S.

Nancy drove for two hours not knowing if I was alive or dead. All she had was prayer and an iPhone that guided her along back roads away from heavy traffic.

When she finally arrived at the emergency room, she said I had doctors and nurses in stitches.

I don't remember a bit of it. I don't know if my lack of recall is by accident or if I chose not to remember. If we're retelling the story, she fills in the details I can't. It's as if she read every word of the 2100-page hospital abstract detailing my care.

We wrote our wedding vows. During a critical part, I forgot some of the words. She whispered them to me. When her turn came, she forgot a few words and I coached her.

{Her recall of the incidents and trauma}

There were two surgeries each on the shattered elbow, knee and femur. I have enough titanium implants to start my own scrap yard. In all I had seven surgeries. ​

Early in the first hospital visit  the doctors worried that I would not walk again.

{explain lag about timing learning of spinal bruise]

Yep, that's right, I was in the same hospital three times, once for two surgeries to mend my broken bones, once for removal of my gall bladder, and the last time to repair an arterial bleed in the small intestine.

The last one almost killed me. People confined to bed for long periods can experience deep vein thrombosis. The DVT came along while I was in the rehab hospital. DVT treatment is usually warfarin, also know as Coumadin, a blood thinner also used in rat poison.

During surgery and recovery for the arterial bleed at St. Anthony's, I received six pints of plasma and six pints of blood.

The second and third trips to the hospital interrupted the continuity of rehab. Each one was a setback.

Now that I can walk with a wheelchair or walker i'm no longer accurate: Technically I am paraplegic, a term for people paralyzed.​ I have use of my arms and legs but they were weak from atrophy while I was in bed.

Each time I was released to Van Matre Rehab Hospital, less than a mile from the hospital. The physical therapists pushed me to tears. They have a national reputation of making people walk. I wanted them to push me to the limit. Their goal was to strengthen me so I could transfer from a wheelchair to a seat on Southwest Airlines and endure a drive home from Orlando

Between St. Anthony's and Van Matre I was in the hospital 85 days.

It seems silly to say recovering from an accident is far from easy.

My son and grandson traveled six hours each way from Louisville. They did that twice just to cheer me up. It helps appreciate that family is everything and requires faith. The visits from Patrick, Michelle, Riley and Sawyer buoyed my hope when I was at some very low points.

There were other low points. On one of the trips back to the hospital, I was in a hallway on a stretcher. The pain was intense. I tried to pray for relief but the words would not come.

I must have imagined being surrounded by the walls of hell, like underground miners from my youth who touched the walls of hell every day.

Finally I managed to blurt out, "God, help me." It was an instant relief. I was at peace and could pray again. I must have repeated the Jesus Prayer taught to me by Steve McCourt. My memory is vague. I awoke and Patrick and Nancy were sitting near. I knew it was OK and drifted back to sleep.

Many parts of the hospital stay feel like a dream. But the memory of the pain jolts me awake. I know I wasn't dreaming.

At Van Matre I had four hours of strenuous physical therapy every day. I  was near exhaustion. Jen Rollie would look at me and use words I heard from her often. "Let's try it one more time." She had an instinct about when to ignore my complaints.

Lauren, my other therapist, had a different approach. She often took my hand and said "I know it's hard but you've got this."

For most of those 85 days, Nancy slept in a recliner next to my bed. At low moments she was there to help God lead me out of it with the Jesus Prayer.

Today, I can walk a mile using a walker. Not bad for a guy isn't supposed to walk again. Before the accident I cycled up to 100 miles a week.

That helicopter ride cost $27,000. My medical bills are approaching more than $​1,119,000. Yes, more than a million dollars. I realize skilled care is expensive. Insurance paid less than the total of the bills.

The people, the health industry and congress have allowed the costs to spiral out of control.

How did I survive? God. Prayer. A devoted but stubborn wife. I got lots of cards with notes of encouragement. Many of them came from people I don't know.

[Joe Prince trainer, description of walking]

[Ryan Cahill, physical therapist]

Angela Link, therapist