FREE FALL: LIFE AFTER A NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCE
I’ve written this blog as much for myself as for my clients, friends and followers who have asked for all the details. It’s a bit long as I just wanted to get it all out of my head. If you stick with it, thanks. It is just my musings, learnings, my story. It feels odd to be writing a blog that is not about branding, disruption or business success. But then, if my recent accident has taught me anything, it is that life’s lessons are unlikely learned in blogs or boardrooms. They are learned in moments.
On the 17thof December I took a 9-metre, 30-foot free fall, causing 31 devastating fractures and bone fragments in my leg, arm and back.
I’ve been a rock climber for many years, and it is something you always worry about. What if? What if the carabiner opens or fails on a fall? What if the anchor bolt works itself free? How would it feel to hit the ground falling at 50 km/h, the speed you instantly reach from even a 10-metre fall (force of gravity is 9.8 m/sec – the things you learn!)
Part of the draw as a climber are these whisperings in your head. The adrenaline surge, the breath shallowing on the moves that might result in a fall, your trust put in the ropes, equipment and your climbing partner as you drop a metre down the rockface after missing that hold. But you never expect there to be a day when you test how it feels. That total free fall.
I’d like to tell you a story. A story involving a fall while climbing the Black Pyramid, one of the lower faces of K2, one of the most dangerous mountains in the world, from a climbing perspective. The story of a dramatic climbing accident, of my struggle to survive on an exposed rock face until the helicopter rescue and evacuation.
A story of survival suits and dramatic Hollywood movie style rescue. That is the story I’d like to tell you. It would be far more exciting than what actually happened me. But alas, the story I’d like to tell, but can tell, are very different.
I actually fell off my own 2-storey roof while attempting to fix a small roof leak (those photos above aren’t me – survival suits disguise everyone!). I had the same 9-metre fall. Same 50 km/h crash to solid concrete below, but none of the glamour and drama of the climbing story above. After all the hours spent on rock faces, worried about what might happen if I fell and the equipment failed, to then just slip on my own roof slates, falling to my death without a rope or harness to stop me. Except I didn’t die. Weirdly, here I am. (and I didn’t even get to fix the leak!)
There were no helicopters or failed climbing equipment. No torn survival suits, no dramatic pictures from a snowy mountain rescue. After all the sky-diving and climbing, canyoning and bungee jumping, my own stupidity and some icy roof slates nearly killed me.
The fall lasted 1.3 seconds, I’ve calculated it (my school physics flooding back to me – that’s a lie, I had to Google the formula for velocity and acceleration). I recall trying to grab the roof gutter as I shot past, but remember nothing of the actual fall. No spinning horizon, no life flashing before my eyes. Just horrendous sudden pain. Such a fall is usually fatal, the head and neck not being overly forgiving to hitting concrete at 50 km/h. I was incredibly lucky, ridiculously so, comically so.
Karma, fate, luck – call it whatever, but even though I fell backwards, it was my right foot that somehow made initial contact, micro seconds before the rest of my body, absorbing most of the initial impact (and injuries). Next was my back, breaking 4 vertebrae but again, luckily, they were lower ones and not more serious upper ones that would have likely resulted in paralysis. My wrist suffered a minor fracture (which was just annoying more than anything serious). And that was it. My head and neck never did make contact. My ribs never fractured disrupting internal organs. There were no skull fractures, no haemorrhages. My body was bruised like an over-ripe banana but, in the scheme of things, it was somewhat of a miracle.
Just how lucky I’d been was driven home to me a few days later by one of my medical consultants. While showing me an X-ray of the 26 fractures and fragments in my leg, he was shaking his head, explaining the complexity of attempting the fix and the unusual nature of the injury. I was confused. Surely people fall from things all the time – high walls, scaffolding, horses, motorbikes. Why was this injury so different? His answer was delightfully blunt. “Oh, I do see injuries like this all the time” he said. “At this level, it’s just usually in the morgue”. It turns out that an impact of this nature would usually be a Game Over injury.
And so, having realised just how close I came to both paralysis and not being here at all, one would be very foolish if there were not lessons to be learned. Mistakes and failure are only negative things if you don’t learn from them, and so here, in no particular order, are 10 things I have learned from coming ‘that’ close to being the one in the box.
You will never achieve anything unless you take some risk. Pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone, beyond what you thought yourself capable of is how we grow. I am a strong believer in everyday risk, everyday growth, everyday challenge.
However, there is clearly a difference between calculated risk and foolish risk. Up until the accident I was always a calculated risk individual. I’d always check the equipment twice, in climbing or in scuba. But the day I stepped on to that roof, I failed to listen to my own inner voice. We all have one. It is the voice of Fear. Sometimes we have to quieten it, when we are trying to do something new and it just wants the status quo. But there are times you should listen to it.
As I slowly transferred my weight from the upright ladder, I could feel the roof ladder slightly move on the icy wet slates (what am I doing stepping on to a roof on a day when the slates are icy is not a thought you have apparently, when jet-lagged after a 12-hour flight!). I moved a little more weight and felt the slight move again. THAT was the moment I should have listened to my fear. It screamed in my brain on two occasions, seconds apart. It was very clear. This does not feel safe. There are too many uncertainties. Don’t do it. But I didn’t listen. Driven by jet-lag, a desire to tick another job off the list, perhaps even a typical male ego ‘of course I can do this’ thought, I continued. And paid the price.
So, learning one. Yes, live a life where risk is an inherent part of who you are, but always respect and listen to fear. It has a purpose. ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’ applies to many moments in your life, but not them all. Don’t be strangled or stifled by fear, but do listen to it. It is a good guide on occasion. Don’t dismiss or disregard it. Fear is not a weakness, in fact listening to it and making a subsequent choice is a strength.
Things change, always have, always will. Many of us are masters of our own change. Certainly, in business you have to be to survive. So, we all take steps to prepare for change, for the pivot. But what if change is forced upon you? What if there is no plan, just sudden impactful life-altering change? Are we all ready for that, even in our personal lives?
While 3 of the 4 back vertebrae were just fractures, one of the breaks was more serious. Breaking in two, it cracked into the spinal column, stopping a hairs’ breath of my spinal column and cord. A very talented lumbar surgeon decompressed the other side of the vertebrae, allowing the cord to move away from the penetrating bone, and fixed two titanium rods in there to keep things that way. My professional ballet dancing days may be over, but my legs work (however, I’m keeping the tutu).
The last 8 weeks of life, I have progressed from being immobile on stretchers, into a wheelchair, walking on a Zimmer frame and now on crutches. My leg is in a space-station like cage but I can move around. My life has changed fundamentally and the future of the right foot somewhat uncertain.
I’ve become fascinated by the need to adapt to change. I talk about this all the time on-stage regarding business, but never have I had such a masterclass. Embracing change is so important. Sometimes you will be your own change agent, other times things will just happen to you. Either way, the lesson is to embrace change and your new reality. Fighting it is like that moment I tried to grab the roof gutter as I sailed by – instinctive but never going to work out in the long run.
Change is like The Force in Star Wars – you can see and use it for Good or Evil, it really is a choice.
This one follows from the last. Learning Three – Accepting the changes that come your way, and accepting who you are and what you are capable of.
It is easy to accept the good things in life – love, friendship, laughter. It is much harder to truly accept the bad things. It is human nature. It has taken me a while to truly accept the implications of the accident. Initial acceptance is easy. You take a little time off work, denial kicks in and you think ‘this is fine, it’ll all go back to normal soon’. But as time passes and you sit with what has happened, you learn to listen. To the medical staff, to your body. My right foot and leg imploded but saved my life. It is the sacrificial lamb in this story. It may repair well and have a relatively functional pain-free form, or may not. To be honest, no one can tell at this point. It is too early. I hope all will be well but that is something I have limited control over.
I always loved to run. Nothing that competitive but 5k and 10k training runs and races were a regular part of my life. Perhaps no more due to the repetitive impact nature, but who knows? I love to hike, exploring mountains and valleys, but my ankle may be unable to negotiate uneven terrain as well in the future. Rock climbing requires an ankle joint that has a full range of movement.
I have to accept whatever new capabilities come my way. And I think the trick is to accept them openly and genuinely, not in anger or disappointment. If I can’t run, I’ll swim. If I can’t hike, I’ll sea-kayak and scuba more. If I can’t climb rock, I’ll hit the indoor climbing gym. Acceptance is any easy word to throw around, but I think you really have to live it as a value. There are many ways of achieving what you seek.
We all have problems and pain, but often I think we cause ourselves even more by not letting go and accepting our new realities. As you’re reading this you have your own problems. Sure, you’re reading about mine now, but acceptance will apply to yours just as easily. I am still learning to accept it all, but enjoying the journey. Accepting a new circumstance isn’t actually ‘acceptance’ if you do it grudgingly. You have to really lean into it (a bit like climbing on a roof!)
While some things you should lean into and accept, others you should challenge. Question everything. It is how we change, as individuals and businesses. Asking the tough questions and wondering if there is a better way of doing things.
While my back/spinal surgery was scheduled and completed relatively quickly, under emergency conditions, the medical team had more time to consider the leg. 24 hours after the accident, they had placed an external fixator frame on it, keeping all the bits in place and reducing the swelling. They scheduled initial corrective surgery for 7 days later.
I was told one of two orthopaedic surgeons would work on my foot. It was coming up to Christmas at this stage and the staff schedule was under understandable pressure. But as the patient, it did kind of sound like ‘whoever is around’. I then researched the two surgeons (from my bed, Google really is a wonder) and found neither specialised in feet/ankles. They were both distinguished surgeons, but not specialists in my particular injury. So, I pushed back and refused surgery, a somewhat weird thing to do lying there with 26 fragments floating around in your leg.
I started asking questions of the consultants, registrars and senior house officers. I wasn’t happy that no one seemed to be able to give me a clear answer or outcome from the proposed surgical approach (mind you I was high as a kite on all the pain meds too!). So, I went with my gut and refused surgery. Not generally the done thing in a hospital as you lie there injured. But it felt right.
Meanwhile, one of my best friends, himself a doctor, did his own research in his network. A few days later, we extracted my scans from the hospital I was in (itself a challenge) and dispatched them for that 2ndopinion. That orthopaedic surgeon recommended his colleague due to the severity of the injury. His colleague took one look and suggested an Ilizarov frame as the only way forward (external leg scaffolding). There was only one man in Ireland for that job, and so he again passed my scans along to be reviewed. A few days later that surgeon took the case.
I do not know what would have happened if I’d let the initial consultants work on my foot, as their hospital do not have Ilizarov expertise or capabilities. As no one knows the outcome of my recovery anyway, it is difficult to tell. But I do know that I am now under the care of one of the best foot/ankle specialists in Europe, maybe even globally. But only because I challenged the system and what was being offered to me.
Sometimes you have to go with your gut and challenge norms. The medical community have an interesting aloof culture, endemic in how they treat each other in the hospital environment. They are all over-worked, over-stretched and under paid. They are doing their best but when a patient challenges their approach, well they’re not really used to that. I’d say they hate Google, and rightly so as we all self-diagnose and claim to know better.
I have the utmost respect for the consultants who did that initial work on my foot. I respect their pressures, everything they did for me, their decisions, their advice. But learn to challenge what is taken as a given. You might not always win or learn, but I think there are times when challenging expertise is valid. Otherwise how will things change? Obviously choose your challenges (no one wants to be around someone who challenges everything) but don’t be afraid to speak up, to anyone at any time. Sometimes you’ll be right.
There’s an expression I’ve always loved – “If you think you’re the smartest person in the room … it just means you’re in the wrong room”. None of us know it all, and never trust anyone who claims to!
5.ACTIVE v PASSIVE
When you get injured you play a relatively passive role in your own recovery in the beginning. You hand yourself over to paramedics and doctors, nurses and surgeons, physio therapists and pharmacologists. It all seems like it is happening TO you. You are a passive passenger in the system. Everything is done for you, to you. It is an easy way of life to slip into.
Having spent 3 weeks in hospital, institutionalisation sets in fast. I finally escaped, but of course needed to be cared for at home. I still couldn’t do many things for myself, and so you remain a passive member of your own recovery. Until you cop on to yourself.
We can all be as active in a recovery or enabling change as we want to be. We can all push ourselves as far as we want any day. Sure, I can’t actually force the bone to repair, I have to be a passive passenger on that one, but I can do growth visualisation meditations a couple of times a day. I can make a smoothie every day, rich in iron and proteins to help things along. I can do my physio exercises and more. I can embrace energy healing, Qi Gong and other holistic approaches alongside the medical route.
I refuse to be a passive member of my own recovery. We all have a choice, every day, when we swing our legs out of bed (or in my case, leg and cage!). We can be passive and allow things to happen TO us, or we can be an active member of the change we want to enable.
I learned that while passive is welcome when you are in pain or the initial stages of grief or injury, the sooner you become an active participant in what you need to happen, the happier you will be. That goes for everything in life I think, not just recovery.
As in so many things, it really is your attitude to anything that will dictate both the destination and how enjoyable the journey. Thankfully, my nature is quite positive anyway, and even in the darkest moments, I found myself looking forward or finding the funny side.
Hospital is a mad place really. The orthopaedic trauma wards are like the walking dead, all of us shuffling along as best we can in various states of repair, hospital gowns fluttering, bare bottoms to the wind. I didn’t wear clothes for 3 weeks. It was Christmas and the hospital was coping as best it could. Private rooms were being used for palliative care and infection control. I found myself on a ward with 4 other men, some younger, some older, new arrivals and departures daily.
Every day brought a new first for me. Christmas Eve I sat up for the first time in a week, 3 days after the spinal surgery. I hadn’t felt pain like it since the accident, or since. Hopefully, I never will again. On Christmas day I took my first step. Singular. A few days later I was able to take the 20 steps to the toilet (about 50 for me as I shuffled along on one leg), wobbling on my Zimmer frame like a 95-year old. I still remember the comment one of the other patients made as I passed his bed, me dripping in sweat, pure resolve on my face that I would do this. We had only exchanged a few pleasantries up to that point. As I shuffled past, my gown had come undone, my breath shallow with effort as he quipped “Go on Ken. You’ll make it. We’re all behind you, and you’ve a lovely bum”. He shared my attitude to this entire thing – it was what it was and there was no point in losing your sense of hope or humour.
In the early days of spinal/paralysis watch, there were the catheters, adult diapers, and suppositories. Later the pain and frustration of not being able to sit/stand/walk all had to be overcome. But it is definitely all about your attitude.
We all have a choice, to approach adversity with optimism, hope, resolve and resilience or to drown in your own sorrow. While there will always be moments of frustration, anger or disappointment about our own progress, no matter what we are going through, it is very clear to me that the journey is much more enjoyable when you approach it with a positive attitude. Sure the end goal and destination may remain uncertain, but that does not mean that our journeys can’t be filled with curiosity, laughter and resolve.
This is something we all need more of. We are all so busy, doing our own thing, running around, doing our best. But sometimes we forget to take time and stop. Nothing like being made lie in a bed, staring at the ceiling, unable to move, to make you stop and consider what you’re grateful for.
My list is very long at this stage, from the love and support of family and friends to the medical staff who helped me through everything. The really obvious one is that I am grateful to be alive and that’s one we all need to hold on to. I’m hoping that post recovery I continue to do what I do every morning when I awake now. One deep breath and feel that I’m alive. I am here, another amazing day full of possibilities and potential (well with one leg, limited potential but that is but temporary!).
I am grateful for every hug I get from my kids, every opportunity to feel the rain on my face (I do live in Ireland) and all the other simple things. Being grateful is never about the big things. We will all end up in a casket or urn at some point. And every one of us would trade it all for one more day in the sunshine. One more day wiggling your toes in the sand, one more day kissing the one you love, one more moment feeling the breeze in your hair and rich smooth wine on your tongue.
I have learned to be grateful for everyone in my life, for everything I have, for all the small things. Sounds corny I know, but it is true. Being grateful for what you have is far more fulfilling than striving for what you want. I’m not saying don’t have goals and dreams, plans and things you want to achieve. Do. But never let those things over-shadow all of what you already have. We are all already richer than we ever thought possible, we just keep measuring wealth incorrectly. It is not about money, it is about love, laughter and health.
Which leads me to love. We all love and we are all loved. By our partners, family and friends. But we are all so busy that we forget to show it. We forget that it is important to say it. To remind those we love that we love them. To do things, small things, big things, to remind them. Love remains a concept unless you show it, action it, bring it to life.
I have never felt more loved than during this experience. The flood of love and affection from family, my children, my partner, friends, clients, even people I would only associate as acquaintances was staggering. I felt it all. I felt the prayers and good wishes, sometimes as a physical sensation lying in the dark at night, wide-awake in hospital in a pain-meds induced state (oh wait, maybe I was just high?)
Seriously – regardless of where you stand on religion, the power of prayer or the power of positive affirmation, I can tell you that not only does it work, but that the person involves feels it. You feel it from those at your bedside as much as you feel it across the world. The good wishes wash over you.
It is perhaps a pity one has to have such a traumatic experience to truly appreciate love, to stop long enough to really feel it. It is all around us and it is also ours to give, to share, and to receive openly.
I learned that I am loved more than I thought and that I have more love to give than I realised. But guess what, so do we all. Just don’t wait until you fall off a roof to find that one out.
I guess this learning runs through all of the above and more. Nothing like a traumatic or life-altering experience to bring some perspective to your life.
We really are all so busy with our careers and plans, our goals and the hamster wheel of life that we forget why we are doing any of it. I am really lucky to love my job. I love the stage, challenging an audience on who they are and what they could be. I wouldn’t change it for the world, and am back on stage in 2 weeks because it is my WHY. But it is not 100% of who I am. I am also a father, a partner, a son, a brother, a boss and a friend. Those things are equally as important, if not more so, than what I ‘do’. It is not about how much money you earn in a year, or what you have achieved, but perhaps the time and memories you have created with those that are important to you.
I think we need to re-think targets and goals. Sure, there is a certain amount of money we all need to function and have the things we want. But so too should we set some kind of targets about the time we spend with those that are important to us, and ring-fence it. Don’t miss out on life memories, events or even random weekends with friends and family because of something that seems more important. Plan and protect that time like a bear guards her cubs.
The research has shown, again and again, that those on their death beds rarely regret the things they did in their lifetime, just the things they never did, or didn’t do enough of. One of the biggest regrets is the time they wished they’d spent with family and friends on the little things. This is my (and your) reminder to do just that. We should listen to those that have lived long enough to know.
10.LUCK v KARMA
I’m not a religious person. Spiritual yes, but not overly ‘creationist God’ religious. But I do believe in karma, in a oneness, that we all are part of the one thing, and that therefore it makes some sense that you get back out what you put in.
There was so much luck involved in my accident. That I didn’t fall head first (certain death). That the vertebrae cracking into my spinal column stopped just short of impacting the cord. That the two emergency doctors who attended me at home arrived within 3 minutes of the emergency call (because they were having a break around the corner at a coffee shop!). It was that emergency doctor who manipulated my foot for 10 minutes (thankfully after knocking me out!) back into a normal position, opening up the restricted and twisted blood vessels, saving the limb. Minutes mattered. The fact I didn’t sustain any internal injuries. The fact that the spinal surgery went so well, without any nerve damage. That the foot/ankle specialist agreed to take a transfer patient from another hospital.
Fate, luck, karma, destiny – it’s all a jigsaw in the end. You could say that my initial fall was karma for the mistakes I’ve made, the people I may have wronged in the past. Or you could say that the lucky outcome from the fall is karmic payback for the people I’ve helped and the positive vibes I’ve sent into the world. There really is no way of knowing.
What I have learned is that while sometimes we make our own luck, there are other times when it is gifted to us. I’ve always enjoyed the Random Act of Kindness movement, that ability we all have to help a stranger. I’ve spent years paying the toll for the car behind, or leaving an extra candy bar in the vending machine for the next user to find. I once bought 20 people their morning coffee in a Starbucks, watching from afar as their faces changed from initial confusion, suspicion through to joy that a stranger paid for their morning coffee. Simple acts of kindness are the fuel that keep humanity alive I think.
I have two titanium rods in my back, stabilising the cracked vertebrae. As they will be with me for life, I decided I’d name them. They are near the base of my spine, my foundation. I named them KINDNESS and RESILIANCE. They are values I’d like to have as my foundation. The resilience to cope with whatever comes my way, and to live my life in as respectful and kind a way I can. I won’t always succeed, none of us will. But I think it is a good value to return to as a foundation.
So that’s it. The 10 things I learned from hitting the ground at 50 km/h.
To take risks but to listen to fear. To embrace change. To accept new realities. To continue to challenge the way things are done. To play an active role in who you want to be. To achieve through positive attitude. To be grateful for what you already have. To be more open to give and receive love. To gain some perspective on what is really important and to believe in positive karma and kindness.
They are all things we already know. All things that improve your life here on this earth. No one knows what comes after (although my drug fuelled hallucination in Accident & Emergency says it’s like the Matrix movie and you just get plugged out of this life and are then stuck in a white bright room – seriously – why are hospitals mostly bright, white rooms? It really is incredibly unfair on those of us just coming around after serious accidents who end up thinking “oh is this heaven”? The answer, by the way, is no. Hospital is never heaven!)
If you’ve read this far, congratulations, that was quite a commitment. Thank you. As I said in the beginning, it was mainly written for my own benefit, to get some thoughts down about what this has taught me. But hopefully, buried somewhere in my musings above, you might take away something too, without having to fall from a height to get the same perspective.
I haven’t mentioned any names above, of medical personnel, family, my partner, friends or clients. Afterall, this isn’t the acknowledgements of a book! Everyone knows how they have helped me individually and that it is greatly appreciated. I am really excited to get back on stage in 2 weeks and getting back, cage and all, to doing what I love to do.
The bones are all still healing but the learnings were and are well worth it.
Ken Hughes is now acknowledged as being one of the world’s leading authorities on consumer and shopper behaviour, blending his understanding of consumer & cyber psychology, digital anthropology, behavioral economics and retail futurology to explore the needs of the new consumer and predict the changes to come.
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