Hell year: From coding to coma – and back again
Written by Greg Jones and published
For the past decade or so, I’ve had a saying when discussing long-term development decisions and worst-case scenarios. We say it at Raven and you may say it at your office, too. It’s always some variation on “If I get hit by a car tomorrow…”
I never meant it. I don’t think anyone ever really means it. But many a developer has said it, either in regard to himself or another developer. I didn’t know it back then, but Raven would actually live the whole “if I was hit by a car” scenario – and so would I.
Last summer I started skateboarding again after a long hiatus. It’s something I’ve done on and off for most of my life, and I started shredding again at night to try to grind some health back into my stationary computing life.
Skateboarding is not a sport you go diving head-first into after a long hiatus. Your muscles remember how to do the trick, but the strength to do it has left. I was eating pavement a lot. Eventually I decided I was too old to be slamming my body into the ground. I need to be able to use my fingers to work, and they were getting banged up.
I started looking into lower-impact forms of exercise and settled on bicycling. I got my hands on a relatively inexpensive cycle and hit the road for the first time last August, riding it up and down my quiet street.
On Saturday, August 27, 2011, I had a small window to get a few hours of exercise. I decided to bike to the store down the highway from my neighborhood, come back, hit the shower and then join the other Ravens at a party that night. The store was only 4 miles away, and the highway is marked as a bicycle route – I saw plenty of cyclists tearing down it all the time.
At the store I grabbed some water and downed it, then started the trek home. The heavy chorus of Deathblow by Deftones kicked in as I stood up with determination to pedal up a hill in front of a cemetery. I didn’t know that behind me a young man was traveling at 65 MPH, slowly drifting off to sleep and off the road.
I don’t remember hitting the hood of the Mazda SUV, bouncing off the windshield and then falling face-first into the highway, my head in an oncoming lane of traffic. A woman who had been visiting the grave of a loved one at the cemetery ran out into the highway to wave off traffic. She probably saved my life.
For the next three weeks, my life became a very lucid dream. One minute I was in Hawaii. The next I was flying to meet Tony Hawk for a skating session. Then I was being kidnapped to fight in cage matches.
In reality, I was in a dream state as doctors at Nashville’s Vanderbilt Hospital began to repair my many injuries.
The right side of my body was devastated. Broken foot, torn ACL, torn LCL, torn PCL, shattered femur. My spine was separated from my pelvis. My index finger had a compound fracture. The doctors knew I had nerve damage in my arm and hand but weren’t sure the extent. I was in intensive care, but it looked as though I was going to make it through this mess with some new metal parts and a bunch of physical therapy.
Into a coma
Then came the first surgery.
The doctors still don’t see eye-to-eye on what went wrong during the process of putting a rod in my femur. One says fatty embolisms. One says low blood pressure from anesthesia. Another theory is that the sheer impact of the crash created tears in the brain that severed neurological connections.
Regardless of how it happened, something somewhere went wrong. I had internal bleeding that wouldn’t stop. My brain sustained damage comparable to a serious stroke. I fell into a coma.
Back at Raven, my coworkers were getting the news: no one knew if or when I would wake.
A daunting recovery
Six days later, I emerged from the coma. Doctors did an MRI to assess the damage. Parts of my brain that affect memory and processing cognitive abilities had suffered the most damage.
Suddenly my length of recovery had become unknown. The doctors recommended to my wife, Tonya, that I go to a special facility that could handle that kind of injury, presenting her with options and information.
My poor wife. She had to figure out what to do to help her husband, who might possibly never be the same person. She had to figure out how to take care of our two girls: Liz, now 13, and Kate, now 8. How to tell them that their father was very hurt. How or even if to tell them the doctors had no idea if I would even come out of this as the father they knew. There were so many thing to figure out.
One thing that gave her a little breathing room was the support of Raven. Our CEO, Patrick, told Tonya not to worry about my job. They were not going to abandon us or force us to deal with this alone. Raven was going to stick with us for the long haul. They meant it. With that knowledge, she set out to take care of all the other daunting logistics facing her.
Three weeks gone
I ended up at Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Georgia, a state of-the-art facility specializing in traumatic brain injury and spinal injury rehabilitation.
I don’t remember my first three weeks there at all. It’s very disconcerting to have weeks of your life – important weeks at that – completely gone from your mind. It’s probably for the best, though. It was mostly spent with more operations, trying to figure out where the internal bleeding was – things you don’t want to even hear about. I don’t want the memories, I guess.
Around the third week in September, my first post-accident memory was created. I remember thinking: “What is going on?” I demanded to call my wife. Brain injuries have a special kind of confusion that is very difficult to explain. Everything is distant, even when it is in your face. I became very confused, but fortunately had my sense of humor.
One gift I got while I was at Shepherd seems small but was amazingly huge to me. The team at Raven had taken a picture of the staff and framed it so everyone could sign it and leave me a message. I kept it where I could see it. It was a piece of my life that was normal, fun and exciting. That picture was such motivation to get out of Shepherd and get home. Especially towards the end of my stay.
Help all around
While I was in Shepherd, there was a flurry of activity going on at my house. The doctors guessed that I would be in a wheelchair for six months to a year, so my wife had to get the help of friends and coworkers to make our house wheelchair accessible.
My inlaws stayed there throughout the week and many weekends. The folks at Raven kept my freezer packed full of food so my wife didn’t have to worry about cooking. They even started a plan to come build ramps into my house if the contractors couldn’t do it in time for my return home.
My wife made the 4.5-hour trip back and forth from Columbia, Tenn., to Atlanta several times a week, spending most weeks at home and weekends at the Shepherd Center with me.
A flood of despair
During my last few weeks at Shepherd, my new reality really sank in. I remember when it hit me the hardest. I was bored rolling around in the wheelchair one evening. With Skrillex playing on my cell phone, I rolled into the therapy gym and looked around at everyone there.
The injuries surrounded me. Almost everyone was in a wheelchair. Several were catatonic, looking off into space. All the pain. All the suffering. The overwhelming panic of not knowing how this was going to end for me.
I went back to my room. There I was, sitting in my wheelchair, playing the same song over and over. Unable to move my arm. Unable to even get into my bed without help. A flood of despair drowning me.
All I could do was look at the picture of my team and the sculpture I had made of my children’s faces and hope with everything I could that I would one day be home.
My prison transfer
The next week I was given a release date. October 20, 2011 was, as I like to call it, my prison transfer.
I came home to even harder work. There was at least one doctor’s appointment a week, usually three. Occupational and physical therapy several times a week.
Doctors told me it would be six months to a year before I would be able to climb stairs. It took me four. I also returned the wheelchair way before the estimated date. There is something about not being able to take a shower or sleep in your own bed that will encourage you to beat the doctor’s estimate.
Mostly it was hope. The desire to have fun with my family again. The desire to get back to work. To be as normal as I can be after this.
Knowing that Raven was by my side, doing everything in their power to help me, was key to my survival. There was no gap with insurance. I had the support I needed to succeed – everything from food to new floors so I could roll around with ease. Everything I really needed came from either Raven directly or someone attached to the company.
Those endless days of doing hours of exercises were not coupled with fear that I might not be able to eat or afford my treatment in another month. I knew I was going to make it.
The silver lining
As I struggled to get through my new physical limitations and challenges, I also faced the mental limitations the brain injury caused. Programming? Heck, I couldn’t even remember the last projects I was working on before the accident.
But then I started researching SEO more in-depth. I started paying attention to what was going on in the world of online marketing. I took a step back from my role as a developer and for the first time began thinking about the “why” more than the “how.”
This shifting of gears landed me in a new position: on Raven’s product team. There, little by little, I started to work. There was no pressure, which was key. Anything unreasonable could have had permanent ramifications. But slowly it started coming back to me. Every day it got a little easier.
My new role on the product team has been a silver lining in this nightmare. I’ve been working on a secret project that is very, very exciting. It has been what’s renewed my enthusiasm and diminished my fear. It is also going to kick so much ass.
A new normal
As the days turned to weeks and months and now to one year (“hell year,” as I started calling it), I have worked hard – constant work that has no end in sight. My knee is still very weak. My hip doesn’t like too much activity. My bicep is paralyzed, which is possibly permanent. My right hand can’t even be used for typing. Pain is constant.
The doctors and therapists at the Shepherd Center were certainly miracle workers. I am very thankful for how much they helped me, and I am thankful that I work for a company that helps them.
Last year, the center received a $5,000 gift from Raven in honor of my family, and Raven is sponsoring the Shepherd Center and Beyond Therapy fundraiser from 5:30-7:30 p.m. on September 8. (If you are in the Nashville area, please join us!)
I’ll never be or feel normal again, but I have a wonderful family both at home and at Raven. The things they did for me were imperative for my healing and resurgence into this lovely world we live in. For this, they have my love, my loyalty and my thanks.