One Leg, Full Life

[Craig is a Stride member, and this is his defining health story]

Going through the peaks and valleys of life is inevitable. But what happens when the valley is so deep you can’t see the bottom? What if you have little chance of clawing back to the peaks you once loved? For me the fall into that valley happened in July of 2002. What began as a perfectly normal day in the mountains turned into a survival tale of biblical proportions.

I’ve been a rock climber for most of my life, and in all that time my biggest injuries were some broken fingernails and tendonitis. But on that July day in 2002, a small miscommunication with my belayer caused me to be dropped 100 feet (the height of a 10-story office building) to the rocky canyon floor at Lumpy Ridge, Colorado.

I finished my route, weighted the rope, and leaned back… and that’s when I started to fall. My first thought was, "Wow he has a lot of slack in the system?!" But as I kept falling, I knew I was going a long way. The anchor just accelerated away from me. Even as I fell, I thought I might stop at any moment. Maybe he had fallen and was being dragged? Anything! But after about four seconds, I knew I was done for, and I got scared at what was coming next. I could make out the details – the greens, browns, and blacks of the rocks and trees I loved – now rushing towards me at over 52 MPH.

When I impacted, my feet took the brunt of the force, shattering and compound fracturing my feet and ankles. Bones tore my flesh like a wet paper towel, and the shock wave continued up my body, collapsing my spine and crushing L2. My ribs broke on my right side, spearing my lung and folding me into a curl, which broke my neck at C6. I severed the arteries in my right foot and ankle, wrecked my right shoulder and elbow, and finally came to rest… crumpled in the dirt under the rock I had strongly and confidently climbed moments before. My life and health had just changed forever.

I was helicoptered out after a five-hour evacuation, operated on, and placed in the ICU on a ventilator – to wait and see if I lived through the night. My wife, Cyndy, had to fill out the papers indicating resuscitation orders in the event I didn’t make it.

But I woke up – both feet in bandages and braces, my back in a full brace, neck in a cervical collar and more tubes and wires than I could count. I endured surgeries every other day to rebuild my broken feet. My back was fused at four levels with rods and screws, and my neck was fused at C5-6. My situation began to slowly settle in.

After two months I was sent home in a wheelchair to face the rest of my life and to figure out my new normal. It took me a year to rebuild my broken frame to a shadow of what it once was, but my right leg could never be taken out of its cast. Climbing, once my lifeline, was as far away as I could ever imagine… and I wasn’t sure I wanted it closer after being so badly broken by it.

The doctors told me my leg would always have to be in some form of cast, which meant that most outdoor activities were no longer something I could do. The accident was taking everything from me – it was controlling my life and my energy. I had to take back some control. I felt like if I could get my old life back in some form, my overall health would improve.

At 18 months post-accident, I entered the hospital again, this time to amputate my right leg below the knee. Amputation was a HUGE choice, one that I made after so much reflection on what I wanted my life to be. The amount of fear that I felt going into it – knowing I could never reverse it – was mind blowing. I kept reminding myself that this extreme action would result in getting back some of the quality of life I loved. No matter how wrong or weird it seemed, it was right, and I found a certain peace with that once I laid down on the operating table.

But when I woke up and saw myself for the first time, I thought I had made a huge mistake. It felt like I had just stepped so far backwards that I would never get my life back. But once my leg was amputated, I decided to focus on what was ahead for me, not what was behind. The fear of the unknown was far greater then the actual recovery process.

Three months after the surgery, with a new prosthetic leg, I tied into a rope again for the first time and took the first vertical steps towards getting my quality of life back. My wife, family and friends all rallied behind me to help, and I reentered the climbing world. Since then, I have been fortunate enough to set some Yosemite Speed Records as an adaptive climber, be a two time Paraclimbing National Champion, and finish on the podium twice in the World Championships.

It’s inevitable that we will all drop into the valleys of life at some point, and it’s a part of the journey I would never trade. Without experiencing the depths of the valleys, the heights of the peaks wouldn’t be nearly as sweet.

[Craig’s experience with health insurance and Stride]

Having a family and getting older push us all into a different headspace. We have to be adults and provide, but for an athlete like myself, that’s easier said than done. Shortly after the accident I went out on my own from the company I worked for, and I had to navigate the healthcare minefield on my own. At first it wasn’t bad, but then healthcare changed and it made getting coverage harder. I have to take medications to help regulate my body, but healthcare coverage costs just keep going up and the benefits seem to be going down.

As open enrollment came around this year I was really torn – my inner child wanted to scream “Leave me alone!” but as a dad and husband with a long list of chronic injuries, I couldn’t. That’s about the time I heard about Stride on the web. At the same time, I contacted two other broker companies to help me navigate through the maze, but Stride got back to me quickly and started the process for me, making it painless.

I didn’t have to hide being a climber (or my past medical history) when looking for healthcare. The steps were clearly laid out, and the plan Stride recommended for my family fit our budget and needs perfectly. I know going forward that Stride will help me with anything that arises in my healthcare needs with the same great customer care.

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