i recently had an experience that left me numb for about a week. i only lacked physical feeling for a couple of hours; and actually, i was in so much pain the next day that i didn't get out of bed for over 24 hours. however, the mental and emotional numbness decided to stick around until i revisited what happened seven days later, at which point it all seemed to flood over me.
"i just wanted to call you and let you know I'm in the hospital, but i'm okay," i stated in the most monotone, eerily calm voice.
needless to say, my lack of expression didn't offer any comfort to those on the receiving end of these phone calls (i.e. branno and my parents).
in addition to trying to alleviate some of the panic that was likely sweeping over my loved ones, i think i just wanted to counterbalance the trauma and full spectrum of emotions i had just run through in only a couple hours.
backtrack to earlier that afternoon, and one of my best friends keegan, who was visiting from portland, and i were back at the cabin, loading up the car with river rafts and getting ready to float and adventure north for the day.
we pulled onto the road past the piper creek sign after dropping his car at our end point: the bridge on fatty creek road, about a ten minute drive up the highway.
laughing (which we're usually doing 99% of the time we're together) and unloading our rafts on the side of the dirt road, we paused and soaked up the sun for a couple more minutes before getting into the 50 degree river water.
i glanced at the running water which was moving swiftly by us, and i had a brief moment where i questioned if it looked fast. i also recalled just a few days prior, having run into a friend's parents who told us about a great local swimming hole in a creek just down my road. we met up with them there, with dylan and a couple six packs in tow, and trudged across the rocky creek bottom and rushing water. dylan's "take one" was unsuccessful- with each laborious paddle forward, she seemed to float two feet back- so her uncle kiki went back and carried her safely to our sandy shore.
had we not had that experience, i may not have chosen to wear my converse sneakers with my bikini to float, and i may have even (regrettably) decided to bring dylan along for the adventure, as i rarely leave her behind.
(side note: the way that scenario plays out in my head is one of the most morbid and heart breaking "what if"s from that day.)
after those fleeting thoughts left my mind, we were down the hill and placing our river run 1 floats into the water. other than the initial shock of the cold that was enough to make my hair stand on end, our adventure was off to a great start. the weather was perfect, the scenery was breathtaking, and we had it all to ourselves.
at first i had worried that the end would be there too soon- we seemed to be bobbing along swiftly. only every now and then did we spot an impending patch of white water or a nub of a log sticking out from the banks, which threw us into a hasty paddle to the left or right.
once we started to realize that the trip was in fact longer than we were expecting, i'm not sure if we became relieved or anxious. probably about half way down river, there was a fork and a downed tree that was luckily over shallow water right against a grassy bank. keegan successfully navigated around it, while i yelled "keegaaaan!" and braced for impact, putting my feet out to catch the log. luckily, the way the water was moving allowed this to be one of the calmer spots, and i was able to pull myself (and my raft) up onto the log and i hopped on shore to meet keegan.
we decided to bypass some other jams by walking down a ways on foot. while walking through the tall grass, branches, and inlets of water, keegan spotted the most picturesque shed antler that was more than half the size of his body (he's 6'4).
it was beautiful. and heavy. and sharp.
i imagined how easily it could go right through one of us. and of course i didn't want to leave without finding the other, as my mind was already toiling with different art project ideas. this fruitless search kept us out of the water for about 30 minutes and allowed us to warm back up before continuing on down river.
keegan held on to his prize that he hoped to add to his new beaver stick collection, and we took off again.
we passed some of the most beautiful cabins i've seen in town, albeit most looked pretty desolate, and i had wished i had some water-protected camera with me. after another short period of closing our eyes to the sun and taking it all in, we happened upon another small island where we decided to pull off and warm up a bit.
at this point, we were both over it. we were cold, we were tired of paddling around obstacles, and we just wanted to be at the end. we reluctantly got back on our floats, as this was our only choice - the water was too deep and too fast to try to get across to the land. around each upcoming corner, we prayed we'd see our bridge, our destination. and yet, with each corner, we were brought new obstacles.
when we went around what would be our last corner, we didn't quite spot the bridge until we were in a position where we couldn't get to it. for hours.
a good distance ahead of us, there was downed tree that took up most of the width of the river with only a small pocket open to the left. of course, the two of us were floating along holding hands more towards the right edge, so we started hurriedly paddling to the left, but quickly realized we weren't getting around this tree.
given my last run-in up the river, i naively thought i would just stop myself with my feet again. keegan and i continued to hold hands as we both squealed, completely unaware of what was about to happen.
i think my feet hit the log...
i fail to comprehend how fast it even happened. and part of me wishes it were somehow caught on tape...a small part of me.
one second i was with keegan, and the next i couldn't breathe, everything went black, and the only thing i could hear was the sound of water rushing into me and around me. i couldn't tell if i was moving backwards or in circles or not at all. my arms and legs flailed, but there was nothing to grab on to and it only disoriented me more. i was powerless.
as my chest tightened with my last few sips of air, that unacknowledged belief of "those things only happen to other people" came to stare me in the face and, without words, declare, "wrong."
in those few seconds that stretched like minutes, i unwillingly accepted that this could be it.
and on my last pinch of breath with the crushing feeling in my chest, i surfaced.
i was behind the first log, but the water kept moving, coming at me from all directions.
i screamed for keegan.
and he yelled back.
he and our floats were caught on the tree.
in the blur of those moments, as i was gasping for air, i somehow got my legs wrapped around another log that was about six inches under the water, right in the middle of two different hydraulic systems.
i was seated on the log, my thigh and calf muscles pinned down by the water, and my hands each grasping two pointy limb snags that stuck out beneath me. my abdomen was partially covered by the glacial river and pushed with every bit of resistance i had to keep me upright.
i tried to calm my mind as i fought to stay still and keegan pulled himself up into the branches of the fallen tree and began to carefully make his way down the mossy trunk before he could hop onto the bank.
he was able to carry his float with him and immediately attempted to throw it to me. or maybe he tried that while he was still on the tree. i'm not sure, but all i know is it floated right past me.
his brain seemed to be wracking itself trying to figure out how to get himself to me, get me off the log, get my float to me...anything.
in those same moments i made the decision that i was going to survive.
i was going to be okay. i was going to make it out. i had a few hours of fighting in me, and somehow i would get out safely.
behind me, the white water continued to tumble around, and although the depth had been about four and a half feet for much of our float, where i sat now was in a good eight to ten.
we could see the bridge and keegans car. we had been so close..
right before the bridge, tucked in the woods was a cabin. like the others we had passed, it looked dark and lifeless, but as he was still franticly trying to look around for things to throw to me, ways to get me out, i yelled for keegan to run to the house and get help.
i could see something switch in his face. his mind stopped racing and he just got into action and started running. in his sandals. in the thick brush and branch mess that trailed all the way to the house.
while he was gone and i sat there alone on the cold, wet tree, random surges of water keeping me alert and fighting, i just started to repeat that i would be okay. over and over and over again.
i pictured branno and dylan in my mind. i had to get home to them. i pictured my family. mason and av growing up. i wasn't done doing life with them and loving them through it all.
it took keegan a while to get to the house and back. i turned my head a couple times and saw him in the front yard at one point, looking in windows; it didn't seem promising. a good thirty minutes had passed from the moment we both hit to the moment he got back to me.
he was distraught. no one was home. he banged and banged on the door, but nothing..
that was the first blow to my confidence.
keegan was crying and confessing he didn't know what to do, as he was still trying to find ways to get closer to me and reach out with a branch. when he jumped down towards another fallen tree, he somehow gashed his neck. i started to panic at the thought of him getting injured or finding himself stuck as i was, so i shouted for him to stop.
"KEEGAN, go get help. i don't want to die today," i almost pleaded.
he nodded, turned around, and started back towards the bridge where his car and cell phone were located. we were in a spot that didn't get any service, but i think we were both hoping a 911 call would still go through.
(i think it's important to note, too, that condon, where i live, is pretty remote. we have a post office, a fire station, a library and a bar...and that's pretty much it. the nearest hospital is over an hour and a half away. so, i could imagine keegan feeling extra helpless in the situation, not knowing where to turn or what to do.)
this time, he was gone for a long time. afraid to move and lose my balance, i felt glued to the log. and although my sneakers probably helped a little bit, my feet were starting to go numb.
my composure began to falter, and i started sobbing...and then hyperventilating. the "what if this is the end?" thoughts started to creep back into my mind. all i wanted was to be in my bed, warm and safe with dylan and branno, and keegan too.
in order to keep my mind from wandering and because i didn't know what else i could possibly do, i began shouting the our father louder than i ever have before (and it's been years since i've even recited it). each time i said it, i got a little louder, a little more frantic, and forgot a line somewhere along the way, so i'd cap it with an "amen" and move on to the next round. (i attempted the hail mary, too, but it turns out i only remember up to a couple words past the first line of that one.) i must have shouted that prayer fifty times or more.
it helped pass the time, because the next thing i knew, as i looked up in the middle of my new dialogue that consisted mostly of the word "fuck," a young man was emerging from the woods. then another. and another.
keegan wasn't back in sight, but scott had just got here from the forest service station down the road, along with the other two guys whose names i couldn't make out over the rushing of the water. (i later learned that keegan ran out to highway 83 where he paced and waved frantically, waiting for any passer by who might be speeding by and spot him. luckily, an older gentleman stopped after what felt like forever and after another failed attempt to call 911 due to lack of service, he offered to drive keegan to the forest service station which was much closer than search and rescue.)
scott began talking with me, asking me my name and letting me know that more help was on the way, and that these guys were bringing the equipment to save me. when i had asked him how long it would be before they got here, as i was starting to lose my mental and physical strength at this point, he shared that he wasn't sure but it should be about ten to fifteen minutes.
ten to fifteen minutes.
i could do that.
keegan soon reappeared down river with one of the forest service guys, who i would later learn was named shannon, a key player in keeping me calm during one of the toughest stretches of time. i couldn't hear much of what the guys were saying but it did seem as if scott was using his radio but would then shake his head after in communicating with the other guys.
scott, shannon and the third man were assessing the situation and let me know that they were going to throw out a rope and for me to try and catch it.
each time i lifted my hand up from the hold i had on the log, i gave up a bit of the power i had and handed it over to the current.
the rope just barreled past me a couple times until the guys decided to tie a pretty big stick to the end of it and toss it out again. i don't remember how many tries it took, but i eventually caught it with my left hand and held on tight last the continued to pull it down river. i tried and tried to lift it up out of the water, but both my arm and the rope didn't seem to move.
i remember one of the guys asking if i were a good swimmer.
"not right now!" i yelled back, wondering how he could ask me that after i had been sitting in 50 degree water for almost two hours. but he didn't know that. and again, his positivity and communication kept me present, and i am forever thankful for that.
a few more times i had asked scott how long before the search and rescue team would arrive, and a few times he told me about ten minutes. even though i was getting frustrated and discouraged, i was glad i kept getting these mentally manageable increments instead of the actual and full amount of time it took, which was over 45 minutes (which i later found out had to do with some unfortunate communication issues).
as the forest service guys were keeping me calm and focused on them (rather than my now-chattering teeth), a small village of people started to appear out of the woods.
where there had been four people standing along the riverside, there were now about 20.
some men began stepping into full-body yellow suits and others began taking ropes out.
i sat anxiously awaiting direction or signs of a plan in action.
still hanging on to the stick and rope that had been thrown out to me, shannon tried to direct my attention back to him and away from the tons of movement going on around him.
"lift the stick, andrea!" he shouted.
i attempted to rip it out of the water with every bit of strength i had left.
i couldn't raise it above my head, but i was able to get it about half way.
"to me!" he commanded, mimicking with his outstretched arm.
"to you!" he said as he pulled his arm back in.
he was trying to keep me (and my blood) moving in case i did end up going down river and needed to use my arms to try to make it to the side. i could feel the frustration and anger building inside, mostly because i could barely lift this fucking stick due to the water current tirelessly yanking the rope down.
on the sidelines i could see one guy taking calculated steps out towards my stranded raft on the first log and another yellow-clad man securing a rope around him and heading towards the water.
he had to be a search and rescue guy, i thought. he was going to save me.
just as soon as that thought crossed my mind, he hopped into the water, and i watched as he immediately submerged and was dragged down river.
the tears started to well up in my eyes and my breath began to shorten and shallow. a few more notches down the confidence scale.
ropes were making their way over to the first fallen tree and others were thrown out to me but caught on my log, two men in a small yellow boat were suddenly coming around the log jam to my right...
the next thing i heard was from the man on the log i had gone under earlier. he was grabbing my float and letting me know he was coming for me, and for me to grab on to him. i shook my head that i understood and prayed to god that this was it. he was going to get me out of there.
i anxiously watched as the water swiftly took him towards me. i reached my arm out, and then...
surging movement all around my body.
we must have collided, and i was now somehow turned around under water, the current rushing over my head like a hand pushing me down.
i grasped frantically for the log and stretched my neck and nose up as fast as i could while trying to rip my body up and out of the water.
instead of being out of the situation, i was now neck-deep and full-body pinned against the log.
between sips of air the water would intermittently rush over my face, pushing my hair into my eyes and filling my nose. i pulled my right leg up as far as i could on the log to help me from being sucked under it. my bathing suit top had caught on a snag and was no longer covering me, but further impaired my movement. my bottoms were being pulled down by the current, and my left shoe had shot off down stream. one of the ropes that had been thrown out to me was now wrapped around my lower half and caught somewhere on the log.
i couldn't see. i couldn't breathe.
if there were a moment where i was most likely to not make it (other than when i first went under), this would be it. this was one of the most pivotal points for me.
i started screaming for help followed by crying out that i couldn't breathe. my mental strength had almost left me. if my rescuers can't even save me, i thought, this must be it.
the series of events that followed this moment are still somewhat of a blur.
the two men in the yellow boat that had appeared and disappeared earlier were now coming towards me from up river again, but this time from the side of the crowd.
i had a red rope tied around one of my arms three times, a rope that someone had thrown out to me, and i watched as the boat got closer, one of the men reached out, and in another blink of an eye, as i was being pulled into the raft, the other end and guy sitting in it both flopped into the water, immediately followed by myself and my other savior.
thank god for that rope.
thank god for a lot of things that day, but thank god for that rope.
in the barely-coherent fog i was in, i felt myself being pulled in by multiple hands and passed up onto the riverbank. i felt the weight of my body collapse underneath me, but then gently and swiftly found myself on my back in a giant traffic-cone orange sleeping bag (more like human-sized pizza delivery bag). so many faces and hands moved around me, stripping what little wet remains i had left on my body and replacing them with blankets and heating packs under my arms and between my legs.
if anyone was talking to me at that time, i didn't recall. rod, one of my boat rescuers, later told me he was squeezing my toes, asking me if i could feel it...i couldn't.
as they wrapped me up like a human burrito, the only thing that came from the crowd and made it through to my brain was, "okay, the quickest way to get you to the ambulance is for us to get back in the boat and go down a little ways..."
"NO," i yelled, dismissing that idea as soon as it left his mouth.
so, a couple of men gathered on each side of me and lifted me off the ground, following their bushwhacking leader through the woods and eventually up to the highway, where they loaded me into the ambulance.
i had hypothermia (to no one's surprise), and they began flushing warm fluids into my system along while they also hooked me up to humidified oxygen. we had an hour ride to the hospital, which was fine by me; i was just happy to be alive.
once i started to feel the life floating back into my body, i felt disconsertingly unemotional, which i learned is pretty normal after something so traumatic. i think my mind just immediately blocked it out- just wanted to get back to life as it was before. and it stayed this way for my conversations with my family and close friends and for the fire chief's visit to our home to return my one shoe that made it out with me (which i will now keep as a reminder...of a lot of things).
it stayed like that until the "review of action" meeting branno and i were invited to by allen, the condon fire chief. here, the condon fire department, the forest service and the swan valley search and rescue came together to go over what had happened before and during my incident, as this was the first time they had all worked together in that way.
the meeting made some things clearer for me (like causing me to realize i was in the water for about three hours instead of the two hours i previously believed to be accurate). it also opened my eyes to the bits of chaos that happened on their end- the half hour and 45 minute lag time with dispatch, the confusion about which county i was in and therefore who was responsible...
there were so many things that could have gone terribly and terminally wrong, such as some of the rope situations. and although it's hard to keep my mind from running through all those scenarios (scenarios that make me even more grateful but also place me in utter disbelief as to how i'm here right now), i try to remind myself again and again to focus on all the miracles that happened that day, all the things that went so incredibly right.
i don't think it was any coincidence that branno happened to have an anxiety attack around 5 p.m. while shopping in home depot with his father and brother all the way in california. i also don't think it was coincidence that my sister texted me out of the blue at 5:40 p.m. with a simple "are you alive?" when we hadn't been mid-conversation nor had it been long since we last talked. i think i'm damn lucky to have people who care for me so deeply that they're that in tune with me and what's going on in my life.
i can never thank keegan and those men and women enough. ever. their combined efforts, prayers and positive thoughts are why i'm here- that and some grace of god and some amount of strength i didn't believe to exist in me (but will never question again). nor will i ever look at myself as the quitter i once believed i was...for many many years.
at my last leadership meeting before leaving lululemon and san diego to come on this wild montana adventure, one of my colleagues shared one of the things she admired most about me:
"you aren't afraid to swim upstream," she said.
although i don't think she meant it literally, i don't think i took it to heart then either (as i usually had a hard time accepting the compliments sent my way). i didn't see myself the way she and others saw me. but man, i sure do now.
so, i hope that you surround yourself with people and things worth fighting for, and that you listen to what they have to say about you, and i mean really listen. take it to heart. because it's probably wayyy more true than you could ever realize on your own.