Like many Californians, Gail Earl and her family enjoy vacations on the Colorado River. One trip in particular had a lasting impact on everyone. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns.
By Gail Earl
It was August of 1989. We were on vacation at the river and each of us expected another glorious day of hot sun, boating, skiing, and swimming with the kids There was my husband, myself, our two children and also my sister Jan and her son.
We had played on the river for several days and that morning decided to take the boat out on the lake instead. The lake is more calm, with no current like the river. We thought the lake would offer the kids a better area to ski. I have always loved the lake for its many coves between the rocks and its many places to explore.
After packing up our usual supplies and sun block, we were off. Once on the lake we just knew that this adventure would be one filled with experiences we would always remember.
We skied and swam and had a carefree morning on the water. We followed an inlet through shear rock on both sides and eventually came to a secluded little cove. It felt like a hidden treasure deep in the rock, and we couldn’t wait to explore it.
We unpacked our coolers and had a picnic lunch in this totally quiet cavern. After a while the kids were anxious to swim. My son is, and always has been, very athletic. He dove off as many rocks and ledges as he could find. I, on the other hand, don’t jump off anything. I just don’t feel the need. I’m always the one at the bottom or off to the side with the camera.
My son Tony and my sister Jan climbed to the top of a cliff and decided they were going to jump off. My son had done this many times, but I was quite shocked that Jan wanted to do it. I decided that I would position myself in the water next to the boat and take a picture of them coming down.
Tony went first, with a beautiful athletic jump, and then there was a splash. He came up smiling and couldn’t wait to get out and do it again.
Jan moved to the edge of the cliff, looked over the approximately 65 feet down to the water. She knew that if she stood there too long, she’d talk herself out of it. She took a deep breath and jumped.
She hit the water with an incredible thud and landed more on her back than on her feet. It took a long time before she surfaced. She said that she knew the minute she hit the water that she had broken her back.
She relates that moment in time as a feeling as if she were being born, or perhaps being what death might feel like. She says she felt as though it was all in slow motion. She was in no panic, could see the air bubbles around her, and felt that she was just slowly floating to the surface. When she broke the surface it took her a few moments to understand that she was not dreaming and that she was not dead.
At that time no one carried cell phones. We were very aware of the trouble we were in. Jan worked for a world-famous group of orthopedic surgeons in Century City. She had seen many broken backs during her career and just knew that now she had one herself.
Our immediate concern was getting her out of the water and on to the boat without causing any more permanent damage to her. In what seemed like forever, we managed to get her into the boat on her hands and knees, and gingerly drove the boat back to the launch.
We got her loaded into our van and rushed her to the hospital. She kept her back stable by staying on her hands and knees. When I think now of the damage we could have done to her my heart breaks and it scares me to death.
The hospital immediately took her in and confirmed that indeed she had a broken back. They didn’t have the equipment to analyze the severity of her break. They stabilized her and after one night in the hospital in Bullhead City, she was put in an ambulance and made the six-hour ride back to Los Angeles on a morphine drip.
There in Century City they determined that she had a compression fracture very similar to the kind that air force pilots get when they eject from their plane and hit the canopy on the way out. She had surgery and steel rods placed down the center of her spine. She was hospitalized for one month and fitted with a body brace, looking very much like a turtle on its back, unable to move.
Now let me tell you what a life-altering experience this was. Jan was a single parent of a nine-year-old. She was the sole support for her child and responsible for all of their financial obligations. She had a house with stairs and a cat in Torrance, with a job in downtown LA. We decided that she and her son would come and live with us and I would take care of them.
I got her son enrolled in school by my house. Each morning after I dropped my kids off to their schools and Jeff dropped off at his, I hurried back home to try and get Jan cleaned up and bed-bathed, changed, and back into her body brace before it was time for me to pick up the kids.
It was quite a busy routine that we developed. We got very creative and just did what we had to each day. It was all very hard on Jan because she’s always been very independent, and now she was completely and totally dependent on me. I think emotionally that was harder than the physical difficulties.
Jan stayed with me for several months until she was able to go back to her own home and life.
To this day I can’t believe how very lucky we were. She came so close to being paralyzed. My sister and I have always been extremely close. I really don’t think there are any proper words to explain how much I love her. This time together was difficult for everyone in the family. The days and nights were hectic but always filled with love.
Jan and I are still best buddies and we thank God every day for that gift. We learned many valuable lessons on the river trip in 1989. I pray that we never forget them!