My Wheel LifeThe stories of how I got this way, and the motivations that keep me rolling.
Day 1 – In the Moment (Part 1)
I was paralyzed in between a mini-trampoline and a basketball hoop, the result of a stunt gone terribly wrong. Instead of catching and dunking a basketball, like many NBA mascots do at basketball halftime shows, I missed a pass from my teammate and consequently fell from over 10-feet to land on my head. He, a person I had once dated, had thrown the basketball too low. Not knowing the consequences, I reached down for the ball while in mid-air regardless of its position below the rim. The split-second decision caused me to start flipping forward, with not enough momentum to dive roll to safety or perform a successful front flip. So the ending result was that I fell, or practically dove, head first into a six-inch water-logged and sun-damaged mat.
I don’t know the exact sound my body made when I hit the mat, but I imagine there was a crunch. Or a crack. Because that’s the sound I associate with breaking bones. I hadn’t known it then, but I had broken my neck badly. So severely that my C5 vertebrae and C6 vertebrae were now in the opposite places. But no one could have known that back then, when I was laying on the hard, 6-inch mat spread eagle. All I knew was that I needed to stay still. As a gymnast with over sixteen years experience, that’s what you’re told to do when injured. So I practiced staying perfectly still. And told myself to do so continually because I knew people were watching.
Laying on the stage of Bayside Stadium at Sea World, Orlando, over a thousand people sat in the blue stadium seats watching me in horror. The feeling of over one thousand pairs of eyeballs staring at me wide-eyed was concerning, but what scared me more was the silence that followed afterward. Even the tourists knew something was terribly wrong.
Stay perfectly still.
To my right was a lake, a small platform of water that was just large enough for the most talented water skiers to perform and entertain. It was the lake I learned to ski in and also the stage for barefooters, pyramids, fast boats, wakeboarders and wave runners. Above me was the basketball rim and net among a background of the most lovely, blue sky, the kind Florida only offers in November. To my left, was the stadium, where the tourist sat watching and where I could see my coworker Stan now leaping towards me. He had been sitting on a bench, just ten feet away.
“Jana! Are you okay?” he asked, leaning over top of me. He was the first to arrive.
“I’m not sure,” I replied. I hadn’t tried to move. And I wasn’t in any pain. I do recall feeling flushed, a warmth running through my body that I had never experienced before. I also felt a tingling throughout my lower extremities, but in a new way. Not like what happens when an arm or leg has fallen asleep, this tingling was more of a burning sensation. I noticed my chest seemed heavy and my lungs restricted, like I was receiving a bear hug. Upon some thought, I chose to attribute the tightness to having the wind knocked out of me. Because that’s possibly what could have happened, I decided. Then it dawned on me that I could speak aloud, and for some reason this surprised me. So I smiled.
“Get a backboard,” I heard someone shout to someone else.
One by one, the faces of my teammates, the other athletes performing in the 4 o’clock Intensity Games show, started to appear in front of me. I couldn’t be sure what they were looking at but I knew by the reactions it couldn’t be good. So I smiled. It seemed like the right thing to do while being strapped and carefully placed onto the back board.
“Can someone tie my feet together? In that figure eight thing?” I asked, feeling helpless and a smidgen of embarrassment. The entire ski and gymnastics team had just recently participated in a mandatory backboard safety class. So I felt somewhat knowledgeable about what was happening to me, except we had concentrated more on pulling people out of the water. I guess no one thought the gymnasts would need a backboard.
“They’re already strapped together,” Stan stated.
‘’Oh cool, thanks,” I said nonchalantly. Although the answer terrified me. My legs still felt separated, spread-eagle and in a straddle position. What did this mean?
“Is everyone ready?” someone called out. “Ready…1…2…3…”
I was lifted up off the mat by at least four of my coworkers and carried on a backboard into the tunnel. The tunnel was the area just below the sound booth and also the open area of the stadium that led to the locker rooms and the back offices. The tunnel was also the place we had meetings, and the area we hung out before and after shows. I was being placed gently on the hard tiled floor when I heard the show music stop and the announcer take to the stage.
“Hello everyone. It’s our apologies for the show delay. Jana is fine and doing well. We are just taking every precaution possible to make sure she stays in the best of health. The show will continue in just a second.”
Jana is fine and doing well. The sentence replayed in my head over and over again. It led to this internal debate: I’m fine, right? Yeah, of course. Even Johnny says so. Stay calm. Don’t over react. You’re fine. And apparently doing very well.
The EMTs had already been waiting for us to arrive in the tunnel. Within seconds, the small team of men began feverishly working on me, yet I had no idea what they were doing. I just saw a lot of bags being opened and closed, and gloved hands working down towards my feet. Finally, one of the EMTs turned to me to ask a question.
“What day is it Jana?”
“I’m not sure,” I teased. It seemed like it was the appropriate time to lighten the mood. Proudly, I continued my skit, “I never know what day it is.”
“This is serious,” he continued. “I need to know the day.”
“Do you know where you are?” Apparently, he was very serious.
“Yes. I’m at Sea World.”
“What is your birthday?”
“Can you feel this pen on the bottom of your foot?” he asked, and then held up a pen-like object so I could see it.
“No,” I replied.
“Are you sure?” he repeated. “I’m pressing this pen very hard on your foot. It should hurt.”
“Well don’t you think if it hurt, I’d say, ‘ouch,’” I replied, not realizing what not feeling the pen meant exactly.
The EMT clinched his jaw, as if irritated. So I made a mental note to stick to yes and no answers. “Sorry. I mean, no.”
Over someone’s radio, it was broadcasted that a helicopter was on the way. I still would need to be transfered to a different part of the park via the ambulance, but someone had requested I travel to the hospital via air transportation. This meant two things in my mind: either I was receiving special treatment because I was in a theme park or I was dying. With all the commotion happening around me, it was too hard to decipher the probable outcome. And since nobody seemed to know what was wrong, or at least could tell me what was wrong, I concentrated on the upcoming helicopter adventure. Where was I going? And where were we going to land? On a roof? In a field? And why was no one asking my opinion about what I thought should be happening?
I looked downwards to my side to see Buick, the guy who had thrown me the ball and the person who I felt had gotten me into this predicament to begin with. He was holding my hand.
“Is that my hand you’re holding?” I asked bluntly. He looked down to it confused, and looked back up at me.
Hearing that answer, I knew I was in serious trouble. For some reason my mind comprehended my body shutting down, and not feeling my legs. But to not feel someone squeezing my hand—it was becoming too overwhelming to process. Still, careful not to give away my fears, I smiled at Buick, as if to say thank you. It was important to me I play it cool. Everyone else–the concerned EMTs, my hovering coworkers, the frantic tourists–they all appeared to be so frantic and fearful. And yet, someone was shouting that the show must go on.
“We love you!
“Get well soon!”
“I’ll be there as soon as the show is over!”
It was time for me to make my way to the ambulance. As quickly as they had arrived, one by one my coworkers wished me well and then started to step back and prepare for the ending of the show. I spotted a fellow gymnast Chrissy in the crowd, and made eye contact. “You’re going to be okay,” she said confidently and as her eyes welled with tears.
She knew, just as I knew, I was not okay.
“I’m not okay,” I replied, smiling. “I’m definitely not okay.”