KLIPSAN - Nov. 19 isn't much of a special day to most people. Unless it's your birthday or anniversary, it likely means nothing more than Thanksgiving is less than a week away. To me it will always remind me of how much I really have to be thankful for.
That day in 1990 I was driving home from teaching at Naselle High School like I had done about 5,000 times in the past quarter century. At Johnson's Landing a red car cut in front of me, a fairly common occurrence, and I tapped my brake to keep from smacking into him. Seeing an open lane I then passed the intruder.
The red car soon accelerated and was tail-gating me big time. When I got near the Willapa Wildlife Refuge corner I made a decision that saved my life. I slowed and pulled over to let the guy get around me. Suddenly there was a flash of white as a car flew around the blind corner directly at me. That driver's face was within two feet of mine, I heard the start of a skid, and I saw terror in his eyes.
The collision came behind the cab of my pickup, and the impact of his car on my "heavy-duty" bumper snapped me around harder than any tackle I had ever incurred while playing football. I gained control just as I was about to hit the bank head-on and was able to drive to the boat launch area.
I was hopping mad, but when I saw the white car up against the guard rail and the red car's rear axle roll off the road I knew getting mad wasn't an option. Fortunately no one was hurt, or so we thought, so I went to call 911 at the refuge office.
I did feel a stinging in my neck - hot and cold at the same time - but my main concern was that my pickup was operable. I drove home.
The next evening I went to the chiropractor, and he made the tightness in my neck feel much better. Soon I was going to the "cruncher" nearly every day. Eventually my neck was tight and uncomfortable by the time I drove the 8 miles home from his office.
One day while I helped a student with a computer project, I noticed a string of k's go across his monitor. I asked him to stop and he said, "Mr. H., you are the one typing the k's."
My right hand had been feeling numb, but I hadn't realized there was no feeling in the little finger, the ring finger, and very little in the middle finger. I was able to see a doctor after the first of the year.
I took a nerve test in Portland. The acupuncture-like needles were attached to an electrical shock device and computer that monitored my responses. Needless to say, the stinging sensation was very uncomfortable (it hurt), but what was even more disturbing were the large number of shocks I didn't feel at all.
The doctor set up an MRI immediately, but I chickened out when I was slid into the narrow tube and they closed the hatch. A week later she insisted I return for an MRI. The doctor sounded concerned.
This time I put a cloth over my eyes and pretended I was on the back porch sunning myself when I was stuffed into the MRI machine. The results showed conclusively my neck was displaced and my spinal chord was slowly being crushed.
The surgeon explained how he would have to cut completely through three vertebrae and relieve the pressure and that I would probably be able to lead a fairly normal life if he was successful.
The week before I went for surgery I began to pray that I would be OK or if something went haywire while I was under the knife that I would "have my ducks in order" spiritually and follow the light to heaven. I was feeling pretty good about the procedure until a couple of days before the operation. That's when the thought of paralysis from the neck down hit me.
Suddenly my prayers became infinitely more earnest. I got my financial matters in order for my family. I got scared.
However, very soon a peace came over me and I approached the operation with a calm that surprised me. In the pre-op room before I was to enter the operating room, the wallpaper was covered with nothing but big yellow ducks. In my sedated state I managed to laugh as I told the anesthesiologist about how I'd been feeling. He said the ducks were meant to cheer people up.
When I regained consciousness following the three-hour surgery I recognized my wife, her sister, and a nurse. I tried to clench my right hand and wiggle my toes.
"Thanks," was my first thought. "Thank you very much," I prayed. My recovery was swift and as complete as one can have if their spinal chord doesn't go through their back bone.
Many of you celebrated Thanksgiving last Thursday, but I started my holiday season Nov. 19.