The Story of How I Broke My Neck and Nearly Died: What I Learned And Why I’m Better For It

I broke my neck in a skiing accident last week, and it was both an awful and profound experience.

I was in beautiful Crested Butte, CO, spending a few days on the slopes, coasting about without a care in the world. It was delightful while it lasted.

Unbeknownst to me, a near-death experience was waiting to interrupt my picturesque vacation.

Bright Yet Foreboding Skis
Photo Credit: Anders Ljungberg (Creative Commons)

The Story of My Accident

On the third run of my third day of skiing (odd coincidence of 3s), I was barreling down a steep run, following a friend.

I knew the run became bumpy near the bottom. I thought I was exercising an appropriate amount of caution. Whether I was or was not is up for debate, but whatever the case, a collision was at hand.

The last thing I remember thinking before the crash was “Gee, these mounds are more treacherous than I’d anticipated. I probably shouldn’t be going this fast.” Still, I was almost certain I was going to make it through unscathed.

And then I didn’t.

The terrain threw me a touch off-balance, and suddenly one of my skis caught the ground and didn’t let go. I was launched forward.

IMPACT.

That’s about all I recall — a serious smack to my skull as it struck the hard-packed snow. My neck snapped back from the whiplash and momentarily, I lost consciousness.

I awoke a second later and was soon on my feet. Muttering exasperatedly, I rubbed my neck and attempted to convince myself that I had not sustained any serious injury.

“Everything’s fine,” I thought. “I can walk this one off. Painful, yes, but it can’t be that serious.”

I proceeded to replace my skis (which, along with my hat, goggles, and poles, had been knocked from my person and were scattered across about 20 feet of snow) and carefully coasted another 10 minutes down the mountain.

While skiing, I realized I was light-headed. My neck was aching and a peculiar tingling was coursing through my arms and hands. I decided that, as much as I despise medical facilities, it would be best to go to the clinic and have a doctor examine me.

After explaining the events and my injuries to the doctor, she opted to take an X-ray. When the results were examined, the atmosphere shifted quite noticeably.

“I’ll just help you over here,” she said. “Let’s take it nice and slow and get you lying still.”

I was hurriedly informed that my neck had been fractured in two ways and that things were serious. Basically, they thought a chunk of my spine could be wedging into my spinal cord. They needed to take me via ambulance to a hospital 40 minutes away to further investigate with a CT scan.

The next two and a half hours were an exceptionally uncomfortable and traumatic period of my life. Quite suddenly, I had gone from a simple walk-in with neck pain to a potential paraplegic in a frantic situation.

I had never been the center of attention in a medical emergency before, and let me tell you, this is not the place you want to be. Medical personnel were whooshing past, asking me questions, pulling curtains, whispering technical terminology, fidgeting with me, etc.

It was all very impersonal and frightening. The hint of genuine concern in the eyes of my care providers was largely shrouded by their professionalism and concentration.

A nurse produced an IV (I abhor needles) and proceeded to jam it into a vein in my right arm, but unfortunately, that arm “didn’t work”. So she grabbed my left, and luckily, found a suitable point of entry.

I then made the fatal error of admitting I had to use the restroom, to which they replied that I could not move and would thus need to relieve myself using a catheter (insert “Nooooooooo” scream in melodramatic slow-motion audio).

I’ll spare you the gory details and simply say that man was not meant to have a straw-sized tube forced down his urinary tract. I writhed in resistance as it pressured and scratched and burned and… Okay, I’ll stop. But really, I felt like I had been abducted by aliens and was being experimented upon. The catheter persisted to fester in my bladder for hours, somehow even after it was removed.

I had also complained of being cold, so they wrapped me in three blankets. Although warm at first, these fuzzy insulators proved excessive and would lead to profuse sweating for the duration of my immobility.

I was then encased in this foamy mattress-like thing that buckled around me. It would keep me from squirming or lurching in any dangerous ways during my transportation.

I felt mummified. For the next two hours, I could only move my feet and one arm. Otherwise, I was still as stone, drenched in sweat, slowly peeing what felt like lava, and wondering if I was going to need surgery.

Miserable, Mummified Me
Mummified Me Looking Miserable

After being debriefed, carried, jostled, driven by ambulance, reassured, hoisted, carted, and shoved into an enormous machine a couple of times, I finally came to rest, still unable to move, in a trauma room of the Gunnison Valley Hospital.

There I resided for an hour or so and contemplated the nightmarish scenario into which I had so impetuously stumbled.

Eventually, a doctor entered to explain the test results. I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear them.

“Less serious than we thought. Stable fracture. Neck brace for two weeks. Discharge.”

These are words I remember hearing. Immense relief washed over my mind like a moment of clarity. I gave the doctor a high five, then immediately requested to be freed of my IV-and-catheter shackles.

I left the hospital soon after. Over the next few days, I slowly came to terms with what had happened and how lucky I was. As one friend so plainly put it, “Most people who break their neck don’t survive, you know.”

This resonated deeply with me. As horrible as my time in the hospital had seemed, it was nothing compared to what could have happened. I could be dead or paralyzed right now very easily. That’s a heavy thought.

As with every experience of mine, I reflected on what was to be learned. I found that breaking my neck didn’t necessarily teach me anything I hadn’t already realized, but rather, it reinforced old lessons in a new way. A few things I thought I understood became exponentially more clear.

This seems to be the case with many traumatic or intense experiences — they make us feel a lesson in a more significant way, thereby deepening our understanding of said lesson. Since my accident, I’ve felt more rooted in my core beliefs. It has become more effortless to be mindful and appreciative. Life seems a bit more savory.

These feelings may fade, but I will remember them and return to them, I’m sure. I believe our roadblocks and slip-ups can teach us volumes, if we let them. I intend to do my best to carry forward what I’ve gained from my injury. I want to share 7 of my most important takeaways with you now, as they may be of use to you.

Lesson #1: Our lives are precious; we truly have much to be thankful for when we wake up each morning.

I’ve written previously about the power of appreciation, and I am always trying to practice gratitude in my daily life.

I don’t think any experience has ever pushed me to feel such poignant thankfulness as breaking my neck. It helped me to realize that everyday things I do — walking, riding my bike, exercising, dancing, breathing — are often overlooked but are infinitely valuable.

Our lives are filled with wondrous opportunities, and every little thing should be viewed as such. Every small action should be performed with gratitude in mind. Appreciation reveals the divinity in all things.

Appreciation for this world, air, food, water, and the chance to love and be loved should always exist in our hearts. Our health alone is an enormous gift to be cherished and protected.

Lesson #2: More people love and care about us than we know; we’re interconnected; it’s never only about you or I.

Since the accident, I have been blown away by the number of people who’ve told me that I really scared them, or said they were praying for me, or offered wishes for a speedy recovery.

Such kindness uplifts me and shows me that there will always be hope for humanity. We are all in this together, and in difficult times we cannot help but empathize with one another.

It’s also an extraordinary reminder — a reminder that my life is not merely my own. Many people have invested time and energy into being my family member or friend, and they are bound up in my life as well.

My accident showed me how many people are affected by our actions. Our deeds ripple outward with a tremendous capacity to impact others, and it is imperative to send positive ripples.

Spread cheer, joy, love, and kindness. Be generous and compassionate. Smile. Wage war against selfishness. It is in our power to better the lives of other people, and therein lies our treasure and purpose.

Lesson #3: Mountains are unforgiving; it is up to you to be shrewd and avoid crashing into them.

“Mountains” here can be applied to many things — life, society, your boss, the audience, or whatever obstacle you deal with.

It is unwise to go through life expecting mountains to turn to cotton candy the moment you’re about to crash into them. Similarly, it’s much better to think more and make fewer mistakes than it is to learn gradually through careless errors.

I could argue that carelessness didn’t lead to my accident, but the facts indicate otherwise. I wasn’t wearing a helmet. This was my second ski trip ever. The slopes were icy. I was pushing myself to go faster and faster.

In hindsight, those elements were a recipe for disaster, but I didn’t think so at the time. I pitched my good sense out the window in favor of an adrenaline rush, and I paid a price. Don’t do the same. Be aware, prepared, and considerate of your own health.

Lesson #4: It’s important to understand your limits, in anything, and to push them in a conscientious way.

As I briefly touched upon, part of what caused my accident was my pushing myself too drastically. I craved the wind in my face and the scenery whisking by, and that focus drew my attention away from the potential dangers.

If I had been honest with myself about my status as an intermediate skier still becoming familiar with some of the basics, I would have been more careful and not stretched my boundaries so rapidly.

This is the same for anything. If you’re a beginning writer, write 250 words per day, not 2000. If you’re newly adopting an exercise habit, jog half a mile twice a week, not three miles per day. Work up slowly and steadily.

Pushing limits too drastically leads only to frustration and quitting or, in my case, injury. As Das EFX once sang, “Check yo self before you wreck yo self.”

Patience and a knack for being honest about your abilities are key here. We actually have a cognitive bias that causes us to overestimate our own skill level in almost anything, so do your best to stay humble and objective.

Lesson #5: There’s a fine line between healthy risk-taking and recklessness.

I am a fan of taking risks. People are far too afraid of what lies beyond their comfort zone, and this fear leads to all sorts of problems and unhappiness.

Doing things that frighten us shows us that we are more powerful and resilient than we thought. Taking what we perceive to be small risks prepares us for larger risks later on such as changing careers or starting a family.

Skiing in Colorado was something I perceived to be a small risk. Skiing down steep slopes is scary and exciting for me, which is exactly why it seemed like a great idea. And it was, for two days.

Unfortunately, at some point, I crossed the line between healthy risk-taking and recklessness. Paradoxically, we are resilient, but we are also frail and weak. I chose to disregard that. I chose to act as if I was invincible and immune to the laws of physics.

This goes back to pushing limits. We can only responsibly take risks when we understand our limits and the possible consequences. If we don’t, we’re just being reckless and are likely careening toward a harsh reality check.

Analyze, ask for advice, reconsider, re-imagine. Do what you need to do to be sure your risks are well-calculated.

Lesson #6: Life is too fragile and short to spend time living on anyone else’s terms.

We live on the cusp of death. Most people reject this or are just plain afraid to confront it, but many things could kill us at almost any given moment. From the moment of our birth, we are slowly deteriorating.

This is not a depressing thought for me, and it shouldn’t be for you, either. The fact that we’re all going to pass on from this human existence gives life much of its depth, value, and beauty.

Realizing that I nearly died in Colorado reaffirmed what has been a mantra of mine for several years: Live on your own terms.

Everyone and everything will pressure you to be someone you’re not, work a job you despise, and do things you aren’t comfortable doing.

Most people succumb to this pressure, telling themselves it’s only temporary and that they’ll get around to doing what they really want to do sooner or later.

Then they don’t. They find themselves on their deathbed wondering where the years went.

Don’t join them. Chase the dream. Sing your song. Write the book. Paint the masterpiece. Build the business. Watch the sunset. Stay up all night. Spend time with your family. Do what you do with love and do it because it’s what you want.

This is the only way to really live, and you’ll wind up with regrets if you ignore it. Be yourself, always and unapologetically.

Lesson #7: It isn’t constructive to dwell on perceived negatives or things that cannot be undone.

After an ordeal like mine, some people would undoubtedly sulk and curse the gods for poisoning their lives with such dreadful luck.

If I wanted to, I could hone in on many unfortunate aspects and effects of what happened to me — the pain, the hospital experience, the bills, etc. I could bemoan the circumstance and ask “Why me? Why meeee?!?!”

I’m not doing that, though. I’m doing something much more uplifting: Living and appreciating the present moment.

Within minutes of being discharged from the hospital, I had come to terms with the situation. I accepted what had happened and that I was going to wear a neck brace. I accepted that I would receive many inquiries and curious glances, and that there would be an inevitable, hefty price tag for my treatment.

I accepted what I could not change, and I let it go. I am directing my energy and effort upon the present moment with a renewed sense of wonder and gratitude. You may find it freeing to do the same.

A Challenge: Learn Something From My Accident

So there you have it. Those are the 7 big realizations that seemed immeasurably clear to me after breaking my neck.

But, as always, I wrote this post not for me, but for you, hoping you can learn from me.

All 7 of the lessons I outlined here may seem somewhat basic, but it’s amazing to me how much more profoundly I seem to comprehend them after the accident.

Because of this, I assume it’s likely that many of you think you grasp and will live by these suggestions, but in actuality, you won’t.

This isn’t necessarily bad. That’s for you to decide, but for those of you who agree with what I’ve said here, please ask yourself:

1. Am I really appreciating daily?

2. Am I sharing my gifts to help other people?

3. Do I thoughtfully avoid obstacles or crash into them face-first?

4. Do I push my limits in healthy and conscientious ways?

5. Am I taking appropriate risks? Or do I act recklessly/avoid risk all-together?

6. Am I living on my own terms? Am I doing what I love first and foremost?

7. Am I wasting time dwelling upon or worrying about things I cannot change?

These are, in fact, big questions, and they deserve some attention and reflection. So that’s what I’m asking.

Take some time to consider these questions and what I’ve written here, and see if you can learn something about how you could change your lifestyle for the better.

All of us (myself included) have much left to learn. Learning isn’t always without pain (as I found out), but knowledge and understanding are always worth the struggle.

I hope my accident teaches you something. That way, we’ll both be better for it. Keep learning and take care of yourself. We’ll talk again soon.

Your Friend,
Jordan Bates

P.S. You should like Refine The Mind on Facebook here.

Also, please drop a note in the ‘Speak Your Mind’ section below. I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.

Avatar of Jordan Bates

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jordan Bates

In the Internet multiverse, Refine The Mind is a planet for freethinkers and daydreamers. Jordan Bates is the creator, an English teacher in South Korea, and the alter ego of Lostboyevsky. He savors time in the woods, dangerous ideas, and all things artistic. Read more and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.


  • http://www.facebook.com/brian.sullivan.90281943 Brian Sullivan

    out of fire steel is born

    • http://www.refinethemind.com/ Jordan Bates

      Absolutely. Thanks for the comment, Brian.

      • gibran

        crazy .i was in a car accident .broke my c7 and fracture the ones around it ,halo for 3 month neck brace for two months ,left hAND NOT FULLY MOBILE ,suck but happy to be alive

        • David

          I also broke my C7. I also broke my C6. They wanted me to wear a halo, but I didn’t want to so I asked if they thought it would be okay with just a neck brace and they said it should with the way they broke. C6 broke vertically, and the other diagonally. I was a passenger in a car that rolled and my side was the one that slammed into the ground 2 times. They said if I wasn’t wearing my belt it could have thrown me and rolled over me. Also that me getting knocked out and the damage done on my side probably saved my life also. I was not bracing myself and just a rag doll from being out. The driver only got a big lip. We are both lucky to have came out of that a live. I have neck pain everyday. Most of the time is is just annoying minor pain like a over worked muscle, or like someone punched my lightly in the neck. Other days it feels like someone stabbing my neck and leaving the knife there. The pain is just a reminder that I made it.

  • joshua

    I fractured my ceverical vertebrae as well…this read has given me a different perspective on what happened…thank you for writing

    • http://www.refinethemind.com/ Jordan Bates

      You’re very welcome, Joshua. Sorry to hear you had to go through that. It’s definitely a traumatic experience. It makes me really happy to hear that I helped you to see the accident in a more positive light. Take care, and stop back anytime. :)

  • Denis

    I dropped a squat bar on my neck right around the same time my parents split up. Luckily I didn’t break anything but the anxiety drove me up the wall for a good long while. Thanks for this post, it helps with putting myself back together.

    The fear that comes with neck injuries is truly gripping, it violates you down to your core. The fear of losing control, not being able to affect your environment. Good on you!

    • http://www.refinethemind.com/ Jordan Bates

      Denis,

      Dang, man. Really sorry to hear about the bar accident and your parents. Hope things are shaping up for you. You’re absolutely right — that fear of not being in control and the realization of how fragile your life really is can be quite overwhelming. At the same time, it can be a much-needed wake-up call. I’m glad this post helped you, man. Best wishes.

  • nickknight

    Hey
    that’s really a great post and a wonderful description out here, I really
    like the way things are being executed and discussed here.

    • http://www.refinethemind.com/ Jordan Bates

      Hey thanks, Nick! Glad you appreciated it.

  • James

    I just got back from Cancun today. Yesterday I was in the ocean near the beach and a huge wave hit me pulling me straight down head first. I felt my neck “crunch” as my head hit the ocean floor and the momentum of the water pulled the rest of my body forward. I suddenly realized I could have been paralyzed in that moment. Other people have been paralyzed while on vacation in shallow water with high waves. I came across your story Jordan while looking for other experiences online. Thanks for your words of wisdom because they are so true! I am living life on my own terms with appreciation that I can run, jump, and use my arms! James

    • http://www.refinethemind.com/ Jordan Bates

      Wow, James, so glad you’re alright. That’s very scary. Glad you’ve gained from the experience a similar appreciation and sense that life should be lived on our own terms. Try to hold onto that. It’s easy to forget about the accident, but I recall it from time and time and feel grateful to be alive. All the best to you and take care. Stop back here again sometime if you like.

      Regards,
      Jordan

  • J

    Interesting article. I almost broke my neck in September by hitting a mountain at a high rate of speed. Concussion, broken shoulder, strained neck muscles. Trauma center, Helicopter evacuation, 6 CT scans – Head, Cervical Spine, Pelvis, Thorax, Lumbar Spine and one other . . . You are correct in stating that you really do not want to be the center of that much intense medical attention. However, when you need it, it is nice to have.

    Two days later I was standing in the shower thanking God, fate, ancestors, that I could stand, and walk, and feel the pain in my shoulder. Everything that troubled me was quite insignificant, I was alive and complete! I find I am having a hard time holding on to that feeling of contentment. It frustrates me that it fades in and out and I allow the day to day crap to intrude. Maybe it’s post concussion syndrome anxiety and depression. Occasionally I can get it back though.

    Your story helped me to remember it. Thanks

    • http://www.refinethemind.com/ Jordan Bates

      J,

      Thank you for sharing your story. I’m so sorry that happened to you, and yes, being the center of all of that medical attention is… frightening.

      I can relate so closely to your strong feelings of contentment after the accident, as well as with your difficulty in holding onto those feelings. I try to remember and reflect on the accident from time to time, but inevitably, the mind forgets and finds new things to become hung up on. It seems to be the inevitable cycle of thought. We can’t always feel lucky, content, and grateful. I’m glad my story helped you to remember that feeling. Here’s to enjoying our time while we still have some. Thanks for the comment and take care.

      Best,
      Jordan

  • lorelei mortenson

    Thank god your ok jason….. obviously the fact that you went to the hospital right after injury means you were in much pain….. I broke my arm once and every move was excruciating if anyone even tapped my arm I screamed and cried….. very painful and scary….. the neck would be much more painful because of nerves and muscles spinal cord….. I know people say they broke there neck and had no pain but that’s ridiculous and impossible they must have been drunk or on heavy meds to not feel lots of pain its bs….. if you breask a bone anywhere in your body you would know it…..

    • http://www.refinethemind.com/ Jordan Bates

      Lorelei,

      Thank you for the comment. I truly am lucky to be okay. Honestly I must have been lucky because it did not really hurt to break my neck. I’m not sure why that is. Take care.

  • Shantala Wakelam

    my dad was in a similar situation. he was skiing (has been for 25 years) and went of the edge and started somersaulting, after about the second somersault he hit his neck on a tree stump and had immense pain down his right arm, like you he could move his arms and his legs and therefore he thought that he had whiplash and a possible broken arm. he skied down the rest of the mountain and then walked into hospital to get it checked out just in case. turns out he had fractured two of the vertebrae in his neck. they transferred him to a larger hospital which he claimed to be a horrible experience as he could not move. when he got there they did more scans and found that he had an unstable fracture which if left could severe his spinal chord. they had to operate and put a plate in his neck but also take bone from his hip to replace the discs that had been crushed between the vertebrae.
    your story and his reminded me how short life is and how things that we are so used to can actually be so dangerous

    • http://www.refinethemind.com/ Jordan Bates

      Shantala,

      Wow, your dad’s story is terrifying and made me shiver. I’m so glad he ended up being okay. Comments like yours allow me to revisit my experience and to remember how fortunate I am to be alive. Thank you. All the best to you and your family.