“I don’t think I’ll ever get used to this,” Frankie admitted, beckoning to the striking blue mountains that surrounded us in every direction. The sun cast golden circles across the snow-covered wooden rooftops that made up our adorable resort village.
I never adjusted. Then again, I never really got the chance to.
The two of us walked back to Rendez-Vous, the cute log-cabin restaurant where we had secured employment for the ski season. I glanced at my watch. “I’m going to hit the slopes before work.” Frankie nodded and silently adjusted her broken collar-bone back into her sling.
I met my other co-workers at the top of the board park. I knew the conditions were risky and my snowboarding skills were still growing, but Christian convinced me I was ready for jumps. “Humps,” as he called them, because they were really just small green bumps that gave me an adrenaline rush similar to cliff-diving.
The first jump was terrifying. I straight-lined my board, bent my knees, and hoppped up into the warm, light breeze. I landed perfectly in complete shock, staring back at Christian with a mix of surprise and joy fueling my impenetrable grin.
Without hesitation, I did it again. Five more times.
I instantly became a park junkie. I loved being aerial. I had always wanted to fly, and I finally could.
I headed back to work—if you could call it that—and wasted a few hours practising French with the diners. At 11pm, the other Seasonaires rolled in for an après-ski bevy. I fidgeted with the dangling bracelets on my thin wrists and combed my fingers through my fiery red hair until my bosses released me into the wild nightlife that accompanies every good ski resort.
I fell into bed at 6am with ringing ears, a phone full of photographs, and sore legs, knowing that I could wake up each morning for the next 4 months and do it all over again.
It still completely blows me away how I managed to throw it all away in a few rash seconds.
I wasn’t feeling too good on January 9th. I had been in Alpe d’Huez for two weeks and away from home for exactly 6 months. It hadn’t snowed in days, making the hill a dangerous, icy place to be. I considered staying in but was reluctant to waste the day.
I met up with Clarissa at the Beau. On the descent of our first run, I turned into the board park—like usual. My iPod was pumping dub-step into my left ear that fused straight into my veins, giving me a strong sense of self confidence. I carved onto my toes and steered towards the first green jump. I picked up speed in order to avoid colliding with another skier. I went over the “hump”, bent my knees, and landed on my toes flawlessly. I nearly “WHOOPED” out loud.
And then I fell.
I slammed down onto the hard-packed earth in a quick shock of motion. Thrown to my back, I immediately began screaming incomprehensible nothingness.
Some passer-bys stopped to help. I could overhear Clarissa on the phone. “Simon, Alison fell... No, I’m being serious... She’s going to have to be taken off the mountain... No, really... I’m not kidding.”
My iPod headphones were still blaring. “Turn off my music,” I pleaded, aggravated by the fuel that had launched me way past my limit.
Three sexy, unshaven, French paramedics pulled me down the hill in a stretcher at an alarming pace. I felt every bump in my screaming back. When people stared, I stuck out my tongue and made a funny face.
It was weird to see my surroundings by the sky. I didn’t care where I was going. “Make it stop hurting!” I begged. “I need—I need—“
“You have fractured a vertebra in your spine. It is a grande fracture. It affects two other vertebras. You must go to Grenoble Hospital for surgery tout de suite.”
“Morphine,” I replied, ignoring the doctor's diagnosis.
Frankie showed up with my green backpack. She had thrown my sweatpants, laptop, and contact solution inside. “Should I call your parents?” she asked hesitantly. Her eyes revealed the fear she felt.
For the first time, I realised exactly how serious my situation was. I was being transported to a hospital for surgery in a foreign country after breaking a major bone in my body that could potentially paralyse me for life.
And I was going to have to go through it all alone.
I let a few tears leak out. I nodded, smiled, and signaled for the medics to wheel me away.
I wiggled my toes as we drove down the hill. “Ouvert tes yeux,” the French ambulance driver requested. I consented and blinked up at him. He smiled at me softly, brown eyes full of concern. “Tu ne peux pas dormir,” he explained, forcing me to spend the next hour and a half engaged in a roughly-translated conversation.
He started filling out my paperwork and asked for my mobile number. I arched an eyebrow. “Tu veux mon number,” I joked. A few days later, my cell phone buzzed. Turns out I was right. He wanted my number, too.
I got into Grenoble and was manhandled onto various stretchers for CT scans and X-rays. The ambulance driver tickled my toes as he pushed me down endless white hallways. I giggled. I felt. I wiggled my toes. Relief mixed into pain.
A nurse shoved an IV into my arm and cranked up the painkillers. It was nowhere near enough.
“Water,” was my next request, but it was ignored. I was ignored. “L’eau,” I tried again, groaning in pain, but I was left alone for the night in a hallway packed with other beds being shuffled around because there were no rooms available.
I drifted in and out of consciousness for the next two hours. Every sensation was dulled by flaming pain. I woke to the soft crying of the patient next to me. “Are you alright?” I asked her.
“I’m in so much pain,” whispered the Welsh girl. “And none of the nurses will help.”
“Here.” I offered her my hand through the metal bars of our beds. “Take my hand, and every time you feel pain, squeeze as hard as it hurts.”
I lifted my heavy, aching head and began searching for a nurse. The strain in my spine made me bite my lip. “Madam!” I yelled into the dim corridor, as a white-clad employee stuck on night-duty floated by. “Aidez-moi! Elle est très mal!” Reluctantly, she came over, and wheeled the girl away. I lay back, satisfied.
A new bed was rolled into her place beside me. “Hey,” said a smiling British boy. “I’m Tom. What happened to you?”
“Broke my back,” I replied casually, as I would grow accustomed to do. “And you?”
“Fractured my femur. I wish they’d give me some pain killers,” he admitted.
“You haven’t had any morphine yet?”
“Nah, but it’s not so bad.” He turned away. Yeah, I wasn’t looking my best.
Around 6am, I was taken into a separate room. I couldn’t stop moaning. My roommate didn’t try to hide her glares. The nurse handed me a call button that didn’t work.
“We do the surgery in a few hours,” I was told. I was not allowed to eat or drink.
“We do the surgery at 5,” was the next decision, “the doctor’s last of the day.” The pain outweighed my hunger a thousand times over, but my thirst was growing with each passing second.
I begged for the wifi code to contact my parents. Someone had to know where I was. Someone had to care.
I emailed my mom and sent my dad a message. There was no reply. I posted a status on Facebook and immediately received a Skype call. “What do you mean you broke your back?” my daddy’s voice crackled through the long line of communication. Tears pricked my eyes. Someone cared.
“We do the surgery tomorrow morning,” the nurse said later. “First of the day.” I was too weak to open my eyes. I was given a wet cloth to chew.
I woke up in the night to a rush of commotion. My roommate was retching and screaming, retching and screaming. Suddenly, her body dropped backwards with a dull thud. “I can’t find a pulse,” a nurse said bluntly. I heard electric shocks and the whizzing of an oxygen machine and the bed’s wheels rolling across the plastic floor. And then, silence.
I huddled under my stained-white sheet, body shaking in fear. Shaking hurt my back but I couldn’t stop. I was traumatised. Reality hit me hard. For the first time since my accident, I felt lucky.
They put me under the next morning. The anesthesia was strange. They didn’t even ask me to count to ten. My entire body felt heavy. My blood felt warm. I began swimming through a mess of golden circles and wondering with mild carelessness whether or not I was going to die, too.
I don’t remember the next 8 hours, making them the best 8 hours I ever spent in that hospital. I wish they could have sedated me every day.
My next comprehensible memory is shoveling a thick, green, luke-warm liquid (supposed to be some sort of soup) down my dry throat before chugging 1 litre of water. I realised I hadn’t used the toilet, consumed any food, or drank any water for an entire 56 hours.
As the fogginess began to clear, the pain came back. This time in full-forced waves. I wasted all of my energy breathing.
My new roommate was the Welsh girl I had encountered on my first night. She had broken her knee skiing. Her sister, Victoria, brought us McDonalds in replace of the inedible hospital grub. Tom sauntered in on crutches one day. He and another Brit, Aaron, became our regular visitors.
My favourite visitor was my mom. I could hear her voice down the hallway before she arrived. We both immediately started crying when she entered the room. For the next two weeks she regularly brought me Subway, coffees, and simply sat with me so I didn’t feel so alone.
The doctor glanced at my X-rays the day after my mom arrived and told me I could go home. I hadn’t even sat up yet.
I did, though, eventually. At first, the light-headedness and headaches were nearly unbearable. “J’ai mal de tet,” I explained, laying back down. The physio didn't accept my excuses. She had me walking the next day.
A few days later, I nearly blacked-out in the shower. Instead of losing consciousness I lost my sight. Terrified, I began screaming “Je ne peux pas voir!” The nurses rushed my bed to me and my vision returned once I lay down, but the trauma remained.
The nights were the worst. I was left in the most degrading states, forgotten in pain, ignored in humiliation. I was treated worse than an animal in a zoo. My stomach churns at the memory.
My British friends were all released before me. I was a prisoner in my own body. The mental and emotion trauma was worse than the physical pain at this point. I didn’t want to leave Rendez-Vous, or Alpe d’Huez, or Europe. I wasn’t planning on returning home for another year and a half. The concept of going back to Northern Alberta was not an enticing one for me. All that I could think of was everything I lost.
I don’t know how I made it through the 20 hour plane journey. Everything went wrong-from the time I awoke to the moment I arrived. The ambulance nearly took us to the wrong airport. Every airport promised to have a stretcher ready and none of them did. Wheelchairs were of little use. Sitting hurt more than walking. Most of the airplane chairs didn't even recline. I was drunk with pain.
Eventually, we made it home.
I'm still struggling with accepting my injury, but it is a comfort to be in my own house, surrounded by balloons and flowers and far too much chocolate.
I cannot stand feeling helpless. I want to run and jump and play and board but I can’t. I have to take it easy for the next 6 weeks. I probably won’t heal until summer. I will probably never perform sports as well as I did. I highly doubt that I will ever be able to carry a backpack again. It's safe to say that I will never be the same.
This is a huge loss of identity for me. I’m not going to lie and say I’m okay with it. I’m not. But I am doing my best to stay positive and focus on healing. I am extremely thankful for the last six and a half months that I spent abroad. I did, saw, and experienced more than most people do in a lifetime. I lived, loved, and learned with no regrets. I had countless adventures with amazing friends. I love those who have been there for me, even just to talk to, more than I could ever express. Thank you.
This isn’t the end of my backpacking days. My adventure isn’t over. It’s just on pause. Things will be different when I start traveling again, but that’s okay. Maybe they’ll be better.
I'm already planning my next adventure. I’m taking this time at home to relax and write and recover.
After all, like my mom always says, this is just another story.