Broken Bones and Silver Linings

Famous last words:

“Okay, last run and then I’m off to get some dumplings and catch the bus.”

Snowboard jumps at Welli Hilli Park, Korea

The jump that got me

I was talking to my riding pal Lilly, we were stood at the top of the terrain park at Welli Hilli Park, and 3 kickers stood between me and a plate of food followed by a 2-hour bus ride (which I’d mostly spend asleep) back to Seoul.

Just 3 easy little kickers that I’d already hit a hundred times that season – a piece of cake compared to the superpipe I’d just spent 2 hours sessioning.

I said it was the last run of the day – but it proved to be the last run of the season; the second kicker got me. Little front side 180 off the first one, landing switch and going for a cab 3 off the second; a trick I’ve done a hundred times off a jump I’d done a hundred times, no sense of danger or fear going into it, but suddenly there I was up in the air and out of control, falling toward a nasty landing. I don’t remember exactly how I fell – whether I got the board down first before slamming, or whether I came straight down on my arm – but I clearly remember the matter-of-inescapable-fact crunch of my forearm compacting and my radius snapping. It didn’t really feel like a snap though, more of a grinding sensation somehow, but snap it most certainly did.

I’m not sure what I did wrong, either. I think maybe I was a bit off-balance after the first jump, and ended up leaning back and under-rotating as I popped off the second. Possibly also too much pop for the size of the jump. Not sure. But I do remember shouting “oh shit” as I jumped; it felt immediately wrong, and in my tired & hungry state I failed to get away with it (I do wonder if I might’ve managed to get away with it, or at least tumble safely, with a bit more energy in the bank but I was running on empty).

It didn’t hurt at first, but I knew from the wave of nausea that washed over me, and the way I got tunnel vision and felt faint, that it was a bone fracture.

It’s almost as though before the brain has even registered the pain, the body realises this is significant damage and responds accordingly with a flood of endorphines and adrenaline, masking the pain but putting you in an altered physical and mental state. Rather than feeling the pain of my fractured wrist, I just felt the fact of it; mentally I felt completely clear, but despite the amazing absence of physical pain I felt queasy and faint. I’ve broken a few bones (a couple of fingers at work & school, a few ribs snowboarding), and this was the same nauseous feeling but far more intense.

X-ray of my distal radius fracture

I was lying there on the landing of the jump in the line of fire, so I quickly picked myself up and edged over to the side before Lilly came over the jump behind me – I wasn’t sure if she’d seen me crash – and then had to promptly lie down again to focus on breathing.

Still no pain as such, but I was definitely mildly in shock. Lilly came over the jump and saw me lying there, came over to see if I was okay, and I told her my arm was broken; she was like ‘maybe it’s just dislocated or something’, and helped me wriggle my glove off. But one look at my deformed arm confirmed what I already knew – the hideous angle of my wrist & hand could mean nothing else. Lilly managed to hold her lunch down when she saw it, and the staff in the medical room seemed to be amazed I wasn’t screaming in agony; they applied a nice tight bandage and sling arrangement to keep it immobile until I could get to ER, and Lilly drove me down to hospital in the nearby city of Wonju.

It was in the car that the adrenaline wore off enough for the pain to kick in, and holy shit did it hurt. Certainly the greatest physical pain I’ve yet experienced (though actually not quite as bad as I’d have anticipated for a broken wrist). The hospital processed me nice & quickly in typical Korean fashion, and after taking x-rays the doctor came and confirmed I had a distal radius fracture (aka dinner fork fracture, due to the way the wrist is displaced looking like an overturned fork) and needed to get it surgically fixed without too much delay.

I could’ve had it done then & there that night, but it would’ve cost around 5,000 dollars – which I must say seems a pretty reasonable price for repairing a mangled limb! – but I knew I could get it done for free on the NHS back in England so would just need to pay for a flight home. The doctor said as long as I got it done within 5 or 6 days it’d be fine, though he cautioned that the flight wouldn’t be very nice (he was not wrong).

And so began an absolute mission – but one which surprisingly ended up next to the beach on Australia’s Gold Coast, rather than in wintry northern England.

And there was the silver lining – my broken forearm resulted in a month on the couch at my brother’s place in Oz, stoned on endone (a strong opioid painkiller) and sessioning Game Of Thrones.

First of all Lilly made sure I was good to get back to Seoul, dropping me at Wonju bus station; she’d actually covered me for the hospital visit & bag of painkillers as I hadn’t had enough cash on me (I paid it back into her account next day), and took my board back to her mom’s in Wonju for safekeeping (I eventually picked it up months later from her brother). The consultation, x-rays, splint, and painkillers only came to just over 100 dollars, which again seemed pretty reasonable, but I guess if I’d been riding alone that day (as I often do in Korea) I’d have just had to head home on the usual shuttle bus to Seoul without any painkillers and carrying my board, and then gone to hospital there. That would’ve really sucked! The bus ride was pretty uncomfortable as it was, but at least the pills helped a bit and made me nice & drowsy.

Then came a couple of exhausting days in Seoul getting ready to fly, packing all my shit, cleaning the apartment to move out, and dropping my big bag (with most of my stuff) off with friends, all with one functioning arm and in a not inconsiderable amount of pain. As luck had it I only had a week left on my entry stamp & my Airbnb anyway, which meant I didn’t really lose any money (other than the rent I’d already paid for those remaining few days I didn’t use), but also meant I had to clean the place properly & remove all my belongings with only one functioning arm. It was tough to sort out, but thanks to Lucas & Heejin taking most of my stuff I could fly with just a single carry-on bag.

When I broke my wrist on the Tuesday, I thought I’d be back in England by the weekend; but when I made my way to Incheon airport on Friday it was to board a flight to Brisbane, Australia. After getting back to my apartment on the Tuesday night I’d got in touch with my brother Joe, who in addition to being an all-round legend is extremely useful by way of being a doctor. I told him what I’d done and asked his advice on flying to England with a broken arm – to which he replied he advised flying to Australia instead!

I can’t believe I’d never known this before, but the UK and Australia have a reciprocal deal to provide free medical treatment on our respective NHS systems to each other’s citizens. If you’re a Brit or Aussie reading this who also didn’t know – now you do, so store that piece of information and it might just help you someday.

So I could fly to Oz, a slightly shorter flight but one with no resulting jetlag, and get fixed there instead – it was snowing in England that week, while my brother lives next to the beach in sunny Queensland with an ocean view. As much as I love my snow, when you’re nursing a broken arm there’s no doubt which of those two options is more appealing! And with my brother living Down Under and me in Asia I don’t usually get to spend much time with him, so it was to Australia that I booked a flight.

And that Wonju doctor was absolutely right – a 10-hour flight with a broken arm is not a lot of fun. The reduced pressure in the cabin increases the swelling, and when that’s happening within the confines of an immobilising splint it doesn’t feel great. But the plane wasn’t full and the ground staff sorted me a pair of seats to myself, and the cabin crew were super-helpful so it was better than it might have been.

My brother’s girlfriend Hannah picked me up at the train station and took me back to their place, and when she went to work I went in with her – she also works at the hospital, as a radiologist, and indeed it was she who took the x-rays. It was a good clean break with two pieces, nothing complex, but the level of displacement was fairly severe.

“Yeah, that’s pretty nasty Si,” was the professional opinion of someone who’s seen literally hundreds (thousands?) of them, “but we’ll sort you out.”

And so they did, though I had to wait until the following day for a surgery spot to open. They sent me away overnight with a packet of endone – very effective (and addictive) stuff – to hang out & watch TV with my bro.

Most of the staff in the emergency department were Joe’s co-workers (though he was working at another hospital at the time), and while I’m sure they’d give the same wonderful care regardless of who I was, being his brother prompted some welcome extra banter.

It’s a funny thing though, lying there on a trolley with a line in your arm, waiting to be wheeled through to theatre where you’ll be operated on under general anaesthetic. You know you’re in good hands, you know it’s a routine procedure and a short one, you know it’s going to be fine, and yet it’s there in the back of your mind, what if you don’t wake up? What if your procedure is that one in however many million that has serious complications and you just never wake up?

Well, there’d be no suffering at least – it’d be a relatively good way to go, as such things go. You’d never know.

And besides, I was being operated on by my brother’s colleagues, and when the surgeon introduced himself just before they put me under he pointed out the scar on his own wrist; he’d had the exact same wrist fracture (from a mountain biking fall in Whistler) and apparently prided himself on fixing them, and promised me a neater scar than his. His wasn’t too bad anyway, so that was all very reassuring; and just as they took me through my brother turned up, checking in on me en route home from his own shift. Again, all very reassuring.

Post-surgery x-ray of my distal radius fracture showing plate and screws

Post-surgery x-ray of my distal radius fracture showing plate and screws

And next thing you know, I was waking up 90 minutes later in the recovery room; no dreams, no dozing gradually off, no sense of the passage of time, no slowly coming back around. Just goodnight, then immediately boom, wide awake again.

I squinted at the clock.

“Is that am or pm?” I asked the recovery nurse at my bedside.

“Haha, no love you haven’t been out for 12 hours, it’s still Sunday! How’s your pain?”

Good question – the asking of which brought it to my attention, and the throbbing ache I’d got used to over the last 5 days had been replaced with a far worse feeling, something like a white hot crushing sensation throughout my lower forearm.

And no surprise, really, though it surprised me at the time – perhaps because I’d failed to appreciate quite what ‘screw a plate to your bone’ entailed. They’d cut my arm open, pulled the two ends of fractured bone back into the right position, and fixed them in place with a metal plate and six screws before sewing it all back up – the thing I hadn’t appreciated was how long those screws are. They go pretty much all the way through the bone, so no wonder it hurt so much.

Don’t remember my exact words to her, but they definitely weren’t suitable for work; probably not the worst she’s heard, but I apologised and confirmed that yes please I would very much like something for the pain. That got me a shot of morphine, mainlined into my arm via the line that was already in there, and they let me have another a while later. That stuff’s amazing – shut me right up.

It was 10pm by then so I had to stay in overnight, a bed ready & waiting on the ward. It was an uncomfortable and largely sleepless night, my arm up vertically in a so-called hangman sling, the pain gnawing in around the edges of the drugs that were blocking it, the nurse bringing me endone at the permitted intervals, and the groans of those suffering in the beds around me.

But I really couldn’t complain – come morning I saw who my neighbours were, chatted with them a bit, and I was in by far the best situation. A very elderly man recovering from a serious fall two weeks earlier, a middle-aged lady in for a hip replacement, and a late middle-aged bloke with a shattered leg; my broken wrist was far less for the body to deal with than their respective injuries, and of course mine was also entirely self-enflicted.

And I got to leave in the morning after a very decent hospital breakfast, while they would all be there for days. So I really had nothing to feel sorry for myself about and in fact left the hospital in good spirits, wishing them all a speedy recovery and thanking the nurses for their care before calling Joe for a ride back to his to settle in for a few weeks of rest and recuperation by the beach.

Me being me I failed to actually take any pictures of said beach, but here’s a few courtesy of my bro:

Tweed Heads Tweed Heads Tweed Heads Tweed Heads Tweed Heads

So yeah, not a bad place to be chilling and resting a broken limb! In fact I totally failed to take a single picture on this visit to Australia, we were going to take a selfie to send our grandad but forgot… so here’s a nice one of us with our sister (this was our spontaneous response to mum saying “look nice”):

Pulling faces for the camera with my brother & sister in Whistler

But anyway, I had my endone, I had access to Joe & Hannah’s well-stocked beer & wine stores, and I had work I could actually do entirely online and 1-handed. But Joe & Hannah were out at work a lot of the time, and I needed something to do for relaxation – I’d have loved to finally give surfing a crack, but that was out for this visit.

And so my bro suggested Game Of Thrones – I’d never watched it, but I was a massive Dungeons & Dragons geek as a teenager and I knew I’d love it… and he has them all on DVD along with a massive fuckoff plasma screen with surround sound on which to watch them… and I was stoned on opioids at the time… so it all came together kinda nicely.

Joe went to work one morning as I was getting stuck into episode 1, and he got home just in time to see Ned Stark get his head chopped off 8 episodes later… he went to hospital and fixed people all day, while I sat on my ass taking opioids and watching Game Of Thrones all day. Think he quite liked having an excuse to sit and mong out on the couch with me when he got back though!

I sessioned seasons 1 through 5 of Game of Thrones, we sipped beers at the surf club, and I got to hang out with my brother more than I had for many years, as well as finally meeting Hannah for the first time (not counting Skype chats). I was also able to catch up with old friends from my Kyoto days, my buddy Darin and his wife Nobu (plus their puppy Mulan) who live near Surfer’s Paradise; hadn’t seen them in 6 years so was great to hang out a couple of times. All in all, I ended up being pretty stoked for a man with a snapped wrist, and I learned a good lesson about listening to your body and knowing when to stop. Honestly, I wouldn’t go back and change it even if I could.

Shout-out at this point to all the wonderful staff at Tweed Heads Hospital, the ER doctors, the surgeon & team, and the wonderful nurses on the recovery ward looking after us all with grace and dignity.

So what lesson did I learn? For one, when your body’s telling you you’re tired & hungry, listen to it. Especially when doing a potentially dangerous activity – snowboarding’s pretty safe when you ride sensibly and to your level, but when you ride tired, hungry, or drunk, injuries are far more likely, obviously even more so if you’re hitting jumps. Yeah, the drunk thing – my coworker in Thredbo snapped his collarbone on his birthday after a few shots of birthday schnapps, and any ski patroller will tell you more injuries happen after lunchtime when people have had a cheeky drink to warm their cockles.

And I had plenty of time to mull over why I’d hurt myself. Riding while tired & hungry, for sure, but something more than that too – I was pushing myself too hard that season to get my freestyle working again back to the level I’d been at a few years earlier in Japan. I’d missed an entire season while making my first full-time digital nomad attempt in Thailand (setting up an ultimately unsuccessful online English teaching business with friends), then had a very short first Korea season with zero park days, so I hadn’t ridden much for 3 years with no freestyle at all in that time.

So I was really pushing myself to get back up to 540s that season, and was running out of time as I’d missed the first half of the season for various reasons and only ended up getting a half season pass. It was also a 2-hour bus ride each way to go riding, meaning 4 hours of travel to get 4 hours at the hill, so there was also the pressure to get max riding possible done in those 4 hours (there are resorts significantly closer to Seoul, see here, but they’re not very good and Welli Hilli Park is the closest with a halfpipe).

Furthermore, I’ve always felt my riding isn’t as good as it could & should have been, especially freestyle – I didn’t learn to ride until my early 20s, which limited how good I’d ever be able to get, and I pressure myself to try & make up for lost time.

So with all this, I was pushing myself too hard. Pushing yourself is a good thing of course, and necessary if you want to improve at something, but you have to pay attention to make sure you don’t overdo it.

Actions have consequences – you accept this when you go into the mountains, when you strap in to your board, when you stand at the top of a pipe or kicker line. You accept there’s an element of risk, and you test yourself against it. But there’s no point in increasing the risk through sloppy decision making, tiredness, or impatience, and suffering an injury you could easily have avoided.

Of course the easiest way to avoid snowboard injuries is not to snowboard, but an addict’s an addict! It’s certainly safer to learn a skill like a musical instrument – messing up that tricky left hand bass part in Beethoven’s Pathetique won’t break your wrist (if it does you’re playing like the devil himself…) and you can just try again. Messing up a cab 3 certainly can break your wrist, and I have the scar to prove it. But when I look at this scar, in addition to foolishness & obsession, I see commitment, dedication, and passion. Our brains are learning machines, and one thing I took away from my neuroscience degree was never stop learning, never stop adding to & improving at the list of things your brain knows how to do. Find what you love and take it as far as you can, even if that ‘only’ turns out to be a cab 5 – we can’t all be Shaun White.

…and maybe I should mention here that I twatted myself just a couple of days after watching the women’s halfpipe live at Phoenix Park (Chloe Kim killed it) and watching Shaun White’s insane gold medal run live on TV the following morning:

– so maybe I’d got a bit too pumped up watching those guys and got a bit carried away! How about that gold medal run though… imagine standing there at the top of that pipe, knowing it’s the last run of the day, knowing you have to absolutely nail it to take top spot from Hirano, knowing you totally smashed yourself (to the tune of 60-odd stitches) in the face a few months earlier practising one of these tricks, knowing gold here would be redemption following Sochi 4 years earlier and would be the defining moment of your career as a snowboarder, knowing it really is do or die, now or never, right here in this moment. As he stood at the top the pressure was insane, and he threw down that beast of a run. Surely the most nerve-racking moment of live sport I’ve ever watched that wasn’t an England penalty shootout…

Chloe Kim halfpipe run at Pyeongchang 2018

Not a great shot, but that’s Chloe Kim bossing the halfpipe

But as for me, maybe it is time for me to admit that 540s are as advanced a trick as I’ll ever learn. Do I have a 720 in me? Yeah, possibly – but I’d need to be riding every day, all season, injury free, practising and practising and practising to build up to it, and it just isn’t practical. No-one’s going to pay me to do that. And I know that if I fucked it up, the damage could well be worse than a broken wrist. So instead of trying to just jump bigger and with more rotations, I reckon from now I’ll be focusing more on improving smoothness & style, better grabs, better jibbing & buttering tricks. And of course halfpipe whenever available – I can happily just go round & round a pipe, and for whatever reason seem to take to it much more naturally than I do kickers. Or maybe I should go back to Japan and just ride powder every day…

But anyway, no regrets, and definitely a good lesson learned on not overdoing it. Plus the unexpected trip to Australia was a nice silver lining – gonna have to binge series 6 & 7 of GOT now before the finale starts!

A few other random thoughts:

People stepping up when your ass is kicked is just the most awesome thing. Joe & Hannah for taking me in & feeding me for a month, Lilly for helping on the day & her brother for looking after my board for 10 months, and Lucas & Heejin for taking my shit off me at short notice in Seoul while I was in Australia even though they were moving soon and it was a pain in the ass for them. And again, the empathy & professionalism of nurses & doctors – all of them around the world – is utterly humbling.

And finally, to all the diehard snow junkies out there cleaning body hairs out of hotel shower drains, sleeping on couches or crammed into staff dorms, working the bar late at night after riding all day, smashing yourselves off kickers trying to learn that new trick, doing whatever you’ve got to do to get your fix – I salute your commitment and dedication. Never stop riding!


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