I Hit a Tree
IT'S NOT HOW HARD YOU HIT.
IT'S HOW HARD YOU CAN GET HIT AND KEEP MOVING FORWARD.
One year ago today, exactly, I was skiing with my middle son, Jesse, on the beautiful Telluride mountain, when I got too close to the edge of a run, caught my ski on an ice patch and lost control. A second later came an involuntary rendezvous with an unforgiving spruce.
It was a perfect spring day for skiing and boarding. After just finishing a grueling six months in Halifax, Nova Scotia as the Executive Producer of the Sony and Lifetime television series THE LIZZIE BORDEN CHRONICLES (with the amazing Christina Ricci, Clea DuVall, Cole Hauser and Jonathan Banks), I was ready for some well earned R&R with Jesse and his college pals. It was our second day on the mountain and we already had gotten in a few good runs. Lunch was coming up soon.
Bouncing off the massive trunk, I was rocketed backwards into a deep snow drift, my ski gear littering the slope like a yard sale. The brunt of the impact was at my right hip and as I struggled, in vain, to pull myself out from the snow hole, I began to take stock of my injuries. All of my extremities were moving -- and I hadn't hit my head or lost consciousness. So far, so good. I continued to lay there in the snow as minutes felt like hours. Finally, a couple of kids snowboarded by and saw me. They offered to board up ahead to find my son, who, by now, was heading up the hill to find me. Eventually ski patrol arrived and I was transported down the hill, dragged behind a bright red snowmobile; from sled to truck to Emergency Room. The snow drift had dulled the pain which then began to arrive like the front end of a hurricane.
Clothes were cut off, IVs installed and X-rays taken. My eldest son, Simon, a ski instructor on the mountain, immediately met us at the Emergency Room. Eventually an ER doc arrived to inform Jesse, Simon and me that I fractured my pelvis. Jesse called my wife, Tanya, who immediately left a business meeting in New York and caught a plane to Colorado, informing our youngest son of the news. I needed to be transferred to a hospital in a nearby town (an hour and a half away). As the pain meds started to take effect, things began to get foggy. Eventually the ambulance arrived at Montrose Hospital and I was met by the local Orthopedist, Dr. Rhonda Parker. Barreling into the room like a comedian running up to the Comedy Store stage, Rhonda pumped the hand on my IV arm and spoke with candor and humor. Hope you like hospital food -- cuz you're gonna be here for a spell... You did quite a number on yourself today. Unfortunately, you broke your pelvis in five separate spots -- it's gonna be a while until you're walking again. I trust you left a sweet mark on that tree.
It wasn't until that very moment I realized how serious this was. I was supposed to be on a plane the next morning to get back to Los Angeles to teach my Producing Class at The American Film Institute. You're not traveling anywhere -- not for several weeks, anyway. First we need to make sure you don't have any internal injuries. Once we have you stabilized, we'll move you to our Acute Rehab Unit. You'll be seeing a lot of me.
And with that she left the room. I'll be here all week. Be sure to tip your waitress.
What followed, in the days and weeks to come, was a blur of mind-searing pain, moments of lucidity, encroached by longer periods of foggy consciousness. I spent two days in the hospital, with incredibly compassionate care from a nurse named Paige, then two weeks in Rehab being slowly transitioned from bed to wheelchair to my first step with a walker. Wonderful medical attendants, with memorable names like Soozie, Nima, Danu and Corey, showed a level of attention and compassion I couldn't have imagined -- and just might not exist in big city hospitals. When Humpty Dumpty hit that tree -- it took all of these kind king's men and women to put me back in one piece. It took this single person to break me, but a village to put me back together.
Eventually, three weeks after the evergreen made me tap out, Dr. Parker felt I was able to move enough to survive a flight home. Together with my wife, IV in arm and drugs flowing -- I made it back to Santa Monica and my house. Stairs were out of the question, so a hospital bed was installed in the downstairs guest room. While my wife, son and dog were upstairs, I took to the mechanized bunk, walker by my side. Handles and rails were installed on the toilet and in the shower.
And now the real fight began. No longer was there a loving staff to get me up and around. No longer was there an IV or drug button at the ready, if I was struggling against pain. My wife checked in on me before heading up for the night, then again in the morning before disappearing to work. My youngest, Eli, would peak in and we'd watch a little ESPN together.
But, mostly, this was a solitary fight. This was my heavyweight title fight -- a twelve round brawl.
Me versus the pain, versus the uncertainty, versus the self-doubt and oncoming depression.
Would I ever be able to run or ski or bike again? Would I be able to drive and be independent? Would I ever be pain free?
There were no secrets to healing. There were to be no magic wands or potions. Every day I had to struggle past the aches, the agony, the fog of opiates, and take that little step forward. For months there was no light at the end of any tunnel -- there was no tunnel, for that matter. I sported a playoff hockey beard, determined to not shave until I could resume my life of driving and jogging and being independent. I wheeled around the house for a month and then convinced a friend to come by for lunch and take me to the movies. As uncomfortable as it was, it was invigorating to do something on my own and free from the bonds of hospitable beds, bedpans and seated showers. With a field trip under my belt, I took the advice of Simon, who had moved back home to help with my care; together, we went twice a week to the beach to wheel myself up and down the Santa Monica boardwalk.
Me versus the pain. Me versus the boredom. Me versus the depression. Rounds 1 through 4.
Let's go to the judges scorecards and Harold Lederman -- It's ME in every round so far.
Physical therapy began with home visits and I got to be a regular customer with Beverly Hills Cab, the only ones with a wheelchair van.
And then came the first major setback. On one of the days I wheeled myself outside, I tried to throw a tennis ball to our Australian Shepherd. I felt a sharp pain in my shoulder. Another toss and another stabbing twinge.
Doctor trip. Lots of frowns from my Orthopedist. MRI scheduled. I pleaded with a former student to chauffeur me and my wheelchair buddy to the X-Ray center. The results were quick and what the doctor feared... When I hit the tree I also dislocated my right shoulder. Because of the pain and trauma to my pelvis, my brain kept the shoulder pain under wraps. Now that I was finally on the mend, the damaged shoulder decided to rise up and be counted. The brain is a pretty amazing little computer. Who knew it could keep certain pain in the darkened wings while the most serious trauma took center stage?
The fight continued. Me versus the shoulder and the setback and prospect of more pain.
Harold Lederman scores rounds 5 through 8 to the pain and suffering. The match has turned. It's no longer looking good for ME.
April 6th rolled up on me. Dodgers Opening Day. It had been a tradition that my dad and I attended the Dodgers first game together. But, still stuck in that wheelchair, unable to use my shoulder, certainly unable to walk down the stairs to our seats, there didn't seem to be a way for us to go this year. On a visit to the house, while fighting back tears and resignation, I told my father he would have to find someone else to join him.
I hit the mat, the Ref was standing over me starting an eight count.
Dad wanted nothing of it. You will hardly be the first person in Dodger history to attend a game in a wheelchair. Now suck it up. We're going.
Eli wanted no part of my self-pity or refusal to fight on. Simon kept showing up and taking me to the beach to wheel up and down. Tanya encouraged me to make the trek to Dodger Stadium and beyond. I took strength from their support. I was up off the mat.
The trips to the beach and wheeling up and down worked. I was finally strong enough to give up the chair and move to the walker. A month of the walker and I was okayed to graduate to a cane. By July I had gone quickly from Professor Xavier to Doctor House.
Me versus the wheelchair and the walker and the surrender. As they go to their corners, twelve rounds in the books, how do you score it Harold?
Well Jim. It's eight rounds to four in favor of the challenger. ME wins.
Justin Trudeau, the, newly minted, GQ cover-ready, Prime Minister of Canada (my adopted country) was profiled this past weekend on 60 MINUTES. During the interview he spoke of his love for boxing (watching and participating) and spoke of the life lessons he's learned in the ring. Boxing is all about how hard a hit you can take and keep going.The truth is -- I just learned that same lesson too. (I'll let Mr. Trudeau slide on liberating that line from Rocky in the ROCKY BALBOA movie.)
Hitting that tree was the only time I've ever broken a bone or spent more than a day in a hospital. There were ample opportunities to give up, stay in bed or just hope for the best. Yet, it's not about how hard you hit, but how you take a punch and keep going. I was blessed to have amazing doctors and nurses at a small town hospital -- and I'm guessing there are thousands of equally compassionate caregivers around this country. I am equally fortunate to have a loving family that refused to see the present, constantly averting their gaze, instead peering into the future (even when I looked like a deranged Saint Nick as my hair and beard grew wayward).
In the end, I had to be the one to get up every day and be thankful for the tiniest of victories. To take it one frame at a time, knowing that the victory would only come if I stood in the ring for twelve long, grueling rounds.
To those who are still in the first round -- take solace from someone who thought he could never take a punch or last until the final bell sounded. You can do this. You too can fight the good fight and win.
One year ago today I hit a tree.