Ger O'Sullivan: "I died twice on the operating table before being resuscitated"
Limerick student Ger O'Sullivan almost lost his life after falling from a Zip Line tower in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. He tells his story to JOE...
Ger originally wrote this piece for the University of Limerick's Ogham Stone literary magazine, which launches in March, but approached JOE with his story because, "no matter how hard life can get with a positive attitude, support and motivation you can come out the other side.
"I guess (I wrote it to see) if I can help people who cannot talk about their mental problems, and to show that the mind is a powerful thing.
"It's a good news story I think..."
by Ger O'Sullivan
It was Friday 13th July 2012 when I fell from the Zip Line tower.
It was a regular morning - nothing out of the ordinary. I woke up, had a shower. I had nothing to eat, of course. I woke my friend, Malley and when he was ready we walked the ten minutes it took from our house on 2nd Avenue North Flag Street to the Zip Line Adventure Park, where we worked. We stopped off in the Cash Grocery to get a drink and I got my usual twenty-box of Red Fortuna cigarettes. I was surprisingly fresh, awake and not hungover.
Malley, on the other hand, was slowly dying.
Work began in the same way as usual. Malley and I put on our harnesses and went straight up to the sending tower to zip off. This would usually wake us up.
‘Zipping’ entails being hooked onto a line from the sending tower that descends to the receiving tower at a forty-five degree angle. You travel from one to the other at a height of sixty feet.
After the first ‘zip’, our morning routine was to go back to the sending tower to relax, smoke cigarettes and talk about the previous night’s antics undisturbed while it was quiet.
We worked the tower all day. Customers would come in groups of around 10. I would regularly lean back while explaining what to do while ‘zipping’. I wanted to enhance customers’ experience and make them feel at ease, but also to clarify what is safe and fun.
But this time I did it... off I went… I walked backwards directly off the sending tower.
I had fallen 60 feet onto the hard concrete below me. A fall from that height to the ground takes three seconds, and in those nominal moments I knew my life would never be the same again.
My safety line was not hooked on. Of course, I didn’t know this at the time.
Malley recalls that he heard “OH FUCK” and as he looked back he didn't see me. When he glanced down, I was there lying static on the ground. He thought I was instantly killed and I don't blame him. We sometimes joked while we were working saying: “What would happen if someone was to fall from this height?” and, inevitably, death was the preferred answer of choice.
I was conscious for a few moments after I hit the ground. I tried to get up - of all things to attempt! - but to no avail. I felt a searing pain shoot all over my body. I knew I was in trouble. I remember my friend Frawley telling me the day and the time, as I lay on the ground, helpless. I was taken by ambulance to the hospital. Podge was with me. He sat up front. I was on a stretcher in the back. I drifted in and out of consciousness and shock hit.
I would later find out that the doctors gave me a 5% chance of surviving past midnight. I fell at 3 p.m. on that Friday, an hour from finishing work.
"My close friends stayed in the hospital for six days straight..."
In the ambulance I have vivid memories of not being able to catch my breath. One of my lungs had collapsed and the other ended up collapsing when I arrived at the hospital.
I was taken to the Grand Strand Medical Regional Hospital in Myrtle Beach. My first memory of ICU was waking up, not being able to move or speak and trying to sound out: "what are you doing here?” to my mother.
My parents had arrived four days after the fall. According to them, day-by-day I would wake up in the same distraught manner with a look of fear in my eyes. This lasted six weeks while I’d drift in and out of an induced coma.
My close friends stayed in the hospital for six days straight. I was so drugged up that I only have vague recollections of my friends visiting. I was "off my face" and "happy out" according to Podge so maybe those six weeks were the best of my life? OK, maybe not.
The thoughts that ran through my head were: “Well I’m fairly fucked, sore and lucky to be still breathing. Still here. Relatively in one piece."
But I was a shadow of myself.
I didn’t know how many weeks I had been in intensive care. My mother told me that my legs were broken and I needed the machines to keep me breathing. The true extent of my injuries was kept from me, I guess to save me mentally.
I was asleep for a long time so trying to piece it all together is very difficult. All the weeks and numerous visits from friends and family all seem like one big dream that lasted for a day.
"I died twice..."
My injuries included a compound fracture to my left leg, a shattered right ankle, a shattered pelvis and a broken right elbow. I had multiple organ failure, which resulted in pneumonia; jaundice whereby I had to receive dialysis. I needed a tracheostomy in my throat that caused many complications and I had a huge hematoma in my back.
I died twice on the table where I had to be resuscitated.
It's a surreal feeling waking up and being completely devoid of your primary functions. Lying there, I was defenseless, still, and stuck. It's the feeling you get in your stomach when watching a scene in a horror film. But actually experiencing the pain, rather than watching it on screen, is a different story. You want it to be fake – a horrible nightmare. But for me it was my very own horror movie. I was the main protagonist.
I found my time in the ICU very difficult.
It consisted of routine and not the good kind. My family would usually arrive into my room at eight or nine in the morning and stay all day, until about eight in the evening. The hours in between were a combination of struggle and endless frustration. Being unable to speak or move made communicating near impossible. The anger induced by my inabilities to function used to build up inside me - I would be screaming, in my head, the words I could not say.
Struggling to cope
Nights were the hardest. It was a mixture of no sleep and lots of interruptions. I would have to get washed, x-rayed, bloods taken, medication, and check ups, and there would always be noise. My days were like nights and my nights like days. I was left awake and alone at the times when I should have been asleep. Left unable to move in excruciating pain, naked and frustrated; most nights I struggled to cope with what happened to me. And I would be thinking: Was this worth it? Was it worth being alive? Was it worth suffering this much physically and emotionally?
There’s one night in particular that I’ll never forget. It was the hardest night of my life and my mental strength was pushed to the limit. I found myself as a 23-year-old man unable to control bowel function.
With whatever medicine they were giving me, it happened four times in the space of an hour. I was literally stuck, trying to summon the mental strength, lying naked in a hospital bed, in my own shit, having to get cleaned up by both male and female nurses. I felt fragile, vulnerable, exposed, pathetic and embarrassed. It was hard to take. Of course you hear: “Well that’s just a part of the their job. They face it every day," but to me it’s alien. I shouldn't need this to be done for me. I should be able to control my body my way, with dignity.
I remember, while getting cleaned for the fourth time, just crying, looking at the nurses with tears in my eyes, and being unable to apologize for this act. It was impossible to deal with at the time. I was given something to help me sleep. Sleep was restless. I would switch from being too hot, to too cold. I would throw the hospital bed covers off my body numerous times during the night. Even the slightest pressure on my skin caused me pain. It was unbearable.
Last year I was on my second trip to the U.S for what I call corrective surgeries. I had recovered to the point where I was able to walk with a cane, but I knew if this were to be taken away I would have to do it all over again; back to a wheelchair. Having to go back under the knife and become immobile yet again is a daunting experience. Daily activities like taking a shower and dressing myself would become a struggle again.
I had three surgeries this time around on five different parts of my body. I wasn't nervous about the procedures even though they were all risky and big in their own right. I managed to get through all my surgeries and I am now back home in Ireland recovering. I still have to go to physiotherapy and to the gym to strengthen my body.
Recovering from my injuries is filled with various frustrations: from having to constantly explain how I’m feeling, to what my progress is, to what the timeframe is and so on. This is all well and good from the outside. Friends, family, and even strangers, all with the best intentions, ask me. But nobody understands the daily frustrations and the new limitations my body has to get through.
I once said to a very close friend of the family, who I consider another brother, that if I hear: “You’re lucky to be alive” one more time, I’ll kill myself out of spite. This was said jokingly. I do not want to kill myself, of course, but it is extremely hard to hear opinions on my accident - opinions on me, and what people think I’m going through.
"Exaggerated ideas of things you know nothing about."
This quote from the novel ‘The Outsider’ is apt. It shows exactly what I mean about people’s perceptions of what happened:
"You always get exaggerated ideas of things you know nothing about."
People naturally don’t know what to say when they meet me, other than asking me how I am and reminding me of how lucky I am. Yeah, I'm lucky to be here on this Earth but my whole life has been altered and I’ve had to endure a lot of pain both physically and mentally. Subsequently the objective view is always the same - I should be happy I'm alive.
I had a total of twenty-six surgical procedures, thirteen of which were putting my body back together again. On the plus side I didn’t damage the ‘money maker.' My body is scarred but my mind is not. I have overcome huge mental obstacles and this can be achieved with a support group and a positive attitude.
This whole ordeal has been very tough to deal with, but with the help of my friends and family I have come through on the other side and the sense of gratitude I have towards everyone involved with my accident and recovery is something I will always hold dear.
Sometimes I wonder is this just the start of my journey. My recovery continues and I’ll have future surgeries to deal with. I have done remarkably well considering the extent of my injuries and it has taken a lot out of me physically and mentally. The way my body has recovered to the point where I’m currently walking with one crutch is a medical miracle.
It is the best possible outcome I could have achieved from the worst possible accident I had to endure.