Seeing is Believing
When Life Goes Off Script
An out-of-body experience leads to introspection.
BY THE TIME you read this, I’ll be having an anniversary of sorts. Commemorating, not celebrating.

Your life can change in an instant. Let me explain.

Two years ago, at the end of May 2019, our team exhibited a new CT scanning machine at an aerospace trade show in Southern California. Nothing newsworthy there. Display the machine, a kind of entry-level CT scanning system; answer questions from any and all; harmlessly scan a few souvenir water bottles to interactively show the novelty of nondestructive 3-D imaging. Do the usual glad-handing and manufactured sincerity that comes with the show gig. Expectantly snag a few promising leads over three tedious days. Inspire somebody to part with their cash. Show team solidarity around our maypole of a machine by memorializing the moment with a group photo. Say kumbaya, crate it up and dodge forklifts while prepping for shipment back north to our facility. There the system will go into working display as a demo unit. Goodbye, crate. Mission accomplished, take the rest of the week off and enjoy the sights and sounds of Southern California, rekindling my youth and visiting friends, savoring the week’s success over cocktails with broiled fish in Seal Beach. Life is good.

That was Thursday.

Then came Tuesday.

The truck arrived at our back door at 7:30 the morning of Tuesday following Memorial Day. May 28, 2019. A nice, sunny Spring day. What could possibly go wrong?

The driver came alone. No helpers to move a 1550 kg (3417 lb.) load. Warning sign. He asked us for help. Do we have a forklift? No. Do we have a pallet jack? Yes, rated for 2500 kg. Could he use it? Yes. Could we help him? Yes.

Bad decision. One of our technicians jumped up on the liftgate of the truck to help. Not enough. I was out back, watching. I volunteered myself without hesitation. Or thinking. Guy needs help, you help him. Too bad actions have consequences. I jumped on the liftgate and pulled on the crate/pallet jack while our technician and the driver pushed. It wouldn’t budge. One wheel of the pallet jack was wedged in the panel demarcating the two sides of the folding liftgate. Pushing and pulling by three strong male individuals wouldn’t release it.

Until it did.

Force equals mass times velocity squared.

What happened next remains quite blurry. I remember something massive rushing toward me, then impact, then darkness. Nothing much after that until I woke up in an ambulance, with a paramedic’s face 5″ from mine, screaming my name. Frantically trying to get any possible recognition. Or cognition.

I’m told a lot happened during the blurry part. I know this from two eyewitness accounts, the fire department’s report, and the intake report at the trauma center.

Force equals mass times velocity squared.

I’m told the crate abruptly freed itself from its captivity, but my back was partially turned, so I didn’t have time to turn, react, and jump clear of its lurching forward movement over the edge of the liftgate. Where I was standing. Until the impact knocked me over the edge of the liftgate and to the ground. The crate followed in pursuit. Eight feet high by six feet wide by four feet deep, 3400 lb. gross weight, crate plus machine enclosed. Special delivery.

Witnesses say the crate and its contents then pitched over the edge of the ramp and did a half-cartwheel, with one corner of the crate striking the asphalt first, deadening its energy, before falling on top of me. This probably saved my life the first time. However, this then created a predicament, in that I was pinned on my side beneath it, unable to breathe. One of our employees rushed out of the building to find my (barely visible) exposed skin turning an unflattering shade of blue. Thinking quickly, this employee noticed and beckoned the warehouse manager of a neighbor company, whom he knew had a forklift. Our neighbor hurriedly fired up his forklift, drove across the driveway separating our two companies, and used the tines of the forklift to raise the crate off my side, just enough to loosen pressure on my diaphragm and enable breathing. This probably saved my life the second time.

Everybody’s entitled to a bad day once in a while.

According to their report, six fire department units, with 13 personnel, responded to the incident. Plus the police. They found “… an estimated 60-yo-male who was trapped under an estimated 3500 pound piece of mechanical equipment … laying on the victim’s hip, lateral chest, and head. Numerous pieces of block cribbing, flat cribbing, airbags, and chocks were used to support the machinery. The airbags were inflated and lifted the machinery an estimated 6″, which provided enough room to remove the victim to a safe location.”

Another portion of the report referred to me as “an elderly male.” Crushed literally, then figuratively.

The report said biohazard material was also present on the pavement. That’s an elegant term for blood.

All this qualified me for an ambulance ride (not free) to the nearest trauma center, about eight miles from the back door of our office. There, in the ultimate karmic irony, my entire body – virtually every cubic inch – was CT scanned.

Scanning revealed the following (taken from admitting diagnosis report):

  1. Crush injury to face and neck
  2. Right 9 through 12 rib fractures
  3. Left third rib fracture
  4. Left sacral ala fracture
  5. Bilateral superior inferior rami fractures
  6. Left iliac wing fracture
  7. Right SI joint diastasis
  8. Right T12 through L4 transverse process fractures
  9. Left L5 transverse process fracture
  10. Left subacute DVT (deep vein thrombosis – blood clot) of popliteal vein, left lower extremity.

Other than that, I was fit to take the field and play rugby.

Next came surgery, which evidently I signed for, between bouts of delirium (pain does that). The surgeon’s report states matter-of-factly that they discussed surgical options with me, prior to putting me under. I simply don’t recall the details of that pleasant chat, nor if beverages and scones were served, accompanied by soothing ambient music. What I do know is that a 90mm titanium screw now makes its home embedded in my left pelvis. A TSA conversation starter should words fail at the security checkpoint.

Those were the preliminaries. The next 48 hours were sheer hell in Room 122, bed 1. The human body has a decisive way of telling its inhabitant that movement following injury is prohibited. Nerve endings react in cascading fashion, inducing spasms with every cough, sneeze, hiccup, turn of head, muscle twitch, or blink of an eye. Even bad dreams induce spasms. Each time, I was eager to disclose name, rank, serial number, and all pertinents of who shot JFK from the grassy knoll, what happened to Jimmy Hoffa, Judge Crater, and whether there really is a God – and what she has to say about us (a lot, and she resembles a paramedic). Absolutely nothing was worth hiding under such pain. Nothing. The only relief at certain moments was opioids (yes, them). The best one is called dilaudid (hydromorphone), administered intravenously. The journey from barbed wire to nirvana lasts about 45 sec. I took oxycodone and oxycontin for a while, too, until the pain became bearable, and I could swear it off and not have to stay awake through the night counting spiderwebs. I understand now why some can’t swear it off. I was fortunate, but that’s another story.

Xray shows screw in author's midsection
Figure 1. Failure analysis of author’s midsection, held together by a 90mm screw. We have long-term reliability concerns.
Speaking of no mercy, next came the physical therapists. Introduction to their tender mercies begins on Day 2. They demand you get moving right away, spasms or not. They love their work. They don’t call it torture. Physical therapists smile sardonically for some reason. Like their trade was learned in some secret, undisclosed location, under government auspices. They smirk. For some reason, their sense of humor is not infectious.

Medical insurance companies have no sympathy either when it comes to deflecting payment responsibility. After three days, our carrier felt that I, the proud owner of 14 fractures, deserved discharge. I was ready to run marathons, and at my own expense, in their opinion. My doctors felt otherwise, and, fortunately, won the argument, considering at that point I was unable to put any weight at all on my left leg.

Eleven days in a rehab center followed nine days in the trauma unit. I was the youngest patient in a care facility otherwise populated largely by Alzheimer’s cases. This made for interesting entertainment around the dinner hour each evening as some of my floor neighbors drifted into my room for a postprandial stare. Posting a large STOP sign on the entrance to my room put an end to uninvited incursions. Even dementia patients obey the rules of the road.

Nurses and technicians are unsung heroes. God bless ’em. They aren’t paid nearly enough for what they must put up with from the likes of me. As we have all learned these past 15 months.

Home rehab lasted an additional three months. Another humbling experience: using a walker at 60 years of age. Also selling the physical therapists on my ability to negotiate the stairs in my own house, as a prequalification to resume living there. Three months’ home sidelining drew the ultimate punishment: being voted onto the board of directors of my favorite trade association. Serves me right for not jumping off that ramp. Next time I’ll look up.

My wife, the ultimate angel in this episode, would like that. She’s lived the vows we gave each other nearly 38 years ago, notably the sickness-and-health clause. Especially since May 28, 2019. This column is a miniscule down payment on a big debt of gratitude.

So, why did I write about this, you ask? Partly for therapy, and partly because your life can change in an instant, when your back is turned, for a split second. Oh, and it involves CT scanning machines, before, during and after the event.

I knew about big life changes in theory. Now I’ve faced them in practice.

Spoken as an older and wiser fool.

Robert Boguski headshot
Robert Boguski
is president of Datest Corp. (datest.com); rboguski@datest.com. His column runs bimonthly.