Just off the top of my head, I can name five or six, possibly more, times I should have died. None of them really scared me. For the most part of my life, I’ve had the nonchalant attitude that what happens, happens. That changed when I was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. I wrote about it early on in this blog “I’m Scared”. That was the worst time of this whole ordeal.
Thinking about that, I remember the first time I should have died. December 11, 1985 is a day that I’ll never forget. My daughter was six weeks old and almost lost her Dad that day.
I was working late on the ship. We were doing a water to air interchange on the sonar dome in preparations for maintenance to be done the next day. The sonar dome is located at the forward part of the ship and actually juts below the keel. It had to be kept pressurized at all times and is usually full of water. The whole interchange takes about 4 hours to empty the water and fill it with pressurized air.
About half-way through, all hell broke loose. Alarms were going off, the high-pressure air was screaming making it hard to hear. Quickly I sprang into action with my helper. I directed him to isolate the dome while I quickly went through the trouble-shooting procedures. The most likely cause was a clog in the Low Pressure Air Tank. This tank was 6 feet in length and about 2 feet in diameter. In other words a big tank that was pressurized with approximately 150 psi. I say approximately because at the time there wasn’t a pressure gauge on the tank. The designers of the system hadn’t felt the need to put one on it.
I isolated the Air tank by closing off the intake and outtake valves. I then opened the drain valves which lead to a ball float valve and then across the space to just above a drain in the floor. Normal procedures to ensure the tank was empty was to listen for the air draining which I could not hear at the time because of the alarms going off. Also, to go across the room to feel that there was no more air coming from the drain. While it was supposedly draining, I reviewed the trouble-shooting procedures and then checked to see that there wasn’t any air flowing into the drain.
I’m standing bent over the top of the Air Tank loosening the bolts holding the cap that was on top. This would give me access to see if indeed the Air Tank had become clogged. I’ve almost got the bolts loosened when an sailor from the engineering rooms rushed in yelling that we were knocking off their air compressor. I stood up straight and slightly turned my head toward him.
BAM! Next thing I know, I’m lying on the ground with about 6 or 8 people crowded around me looking very concerned. The cap on the Air Tank had blown off and grazed me. It had broken my 3 right lower ribs, damaged my liver, caused my right lung to be punctured by a rib which then collapsed the lung. I had internal bleeding and it had nicked my chin cutting it wide open. That was what knocked me unconscious. After that, it had traveled upward and bent a steel I-Beam. If I hadn’t straightened up when I did, then it would have taken my head off and killed me instantly.
I didn’t find out until later, that the ball float drain for the Air Tank had malfunctioned and no air had drained. The ironic thing is that the Air Tank never did have a clog. Turned out that another ball float valve in the system had cracked in half and was lodged in the pipe. Multiple failures were the cause of this whole debacle.
After a harrowing ride in a Stokes Litter to get me topside and off the ship, I was taken by Ambulance to Tripler Army Hospital in Honolulu, Hawaii. I was confused and disoriented but not in a lot of pain. Mostly because I was severely shocked. Once at the Emergency Room, the pain hit and let me tell you, it was the most horrendous pain you can imagine. They couldn’t give me any painkillers because they wanted me to do an MRI to find out the extent of the damage to my body. Eventually I passed out due to the pain.
I was put in to ICU and remained there for three days. The doctors didn’t think I would make it due to the extensive trauma. They sewed up my chin and monitored me. At first, my lungs were okay, but the puncture which was a small had eventually caused my lung to collapse. Quite frankly, I don’t remember those three days as I was heavily sedated. Then the doctors decided to put a chest tube in my right side to suck out the fluids in my lung and hopefully inflate it. I remember that only because when they stuck the chest tube in, the sedation medicines decided to take an immediate holiday. I screamed in pain and then passed out. Or so I thought. My heart had stopped from the shock and they had to resituate me.
The chest tube worked and I stabilized over the next couple of days. Though I wasn’t out of the woods yet. The blow to my liver had bruised it and 50% of my liver wasn’t functioning. The liver is an amazing organ as it can suffer about 50% damage and repair itself. Any more than that and it dies and if you can’t get an immediate liver transplant, you die. The doctors didn’t think my liver would recover, but since I’m here telling you this, it obviously did.
After a week, I was discharged from the hospital and went on light duty for the next three months as my ribs healed. Eventually I was back to full strength.
When I was told how I almost died multiple times from this accident, I remember not taking it too seriously. To me, it was a bad time, but I got through it with flying colors. I shrugged off the notion that I had almost died. You would think that I would look at life differently, but for some reason I didn’t. I didn’t change my ways and I was never scared of dying.
Contrast all that had happened back then and the diagnosis of cancer. The cancer scared the crap out of me like nothing else has in my life. Considering how many times I should have died, it is amazing that it took cancer to finally wake me up to my own mortality.
I’ve been living this nightmare of cancer for the last nine months and I wouldn’t wish this on anybody. The silver lining is that it has helped me break out of my shell and open up by writing and letting everyone know what I’m going through, both good and bad.