Posted: Monday February 27, 2006 10:24AM; Updated: Tuesday February 28, 2006 12:42PM
A friendly instructor, with a dozen children in tow, came to my aid. Sit, sit, he insisted. I sat, then lay down, smiling at these beautiful Italian children, who in turn gazed upon this wheezing foreigner with curiosity and pity. I could not take a deep breath. Then came Paolo the ski patrol, who had little English but kind eyes. I gave him assurances -- as I would assure people a dozen times over the next several hours -- that I could feel and move my extremities. Paolo radioed for backup. I was put on a stretcher. My neck was splinted. Finally came the snowmobile that would take me down the mountain.
That's strange, I thought, when the snowmobile started moving. We seem to be going up hill. That's when I heard the chopper. Without even asking me, they were going to helicopter me to Turin. "Precauzione," Paolo kept saying.
Before they hoisted me onto the bird, I shouted to Paolo that my laptop was in a backpack in the little room where they sit behind a window and sell you your lift ticket. I need to get that backpack, I shouted to Paolo over the deafening sound of the rotors. He flashed that winning smile, shrugged, waved goodbye.
Three paramedics sat over me. The woman in the middle stuck an IV in my arm, put muffs over my ears and an oxygen mask over my face. I'd never been in a helicopter before. We were flying over some of the most ruggedly gorgeous terrain in the world, and I was on my back, looking at the sky.
At the Centro Traumatologico Ortopedica in Turin, the arrival of a chopper puts everyone on high alert. I sensed that I was a disappointment to the doctors and nurses. I was wheeled through a corridor, transferred to a table and stripped down to my Calvins. An English-speaking doctor asked me if I could feel my extremities. I wiggled them for him. Gasping in discomfort, I pointed to where I'd come into contact with the big metal pole. I sensed that I bored him. An orderly entered and spoke a stream of Italian at me. The doctor translated. "Your insurance card. Do you have an insurance card?"
It was in my wallet, in the pants they'd peeled off me.
Later, a different nurse came in with a question: Was my insurance direct or indirect? I didn't understand. Could he explain? Yes, he said. Do you pay the hospital, and your insurance reimburses you, or does your insurance pay directly?
I didn't have to know the answer to that question to know the answer to that question. "Oh, absolutely direct," I replied, directly. I don't know what chopper rides are going for these days, but I didn't have 5,000 euros in my wallet.
X-rays were negative, just as they would be negative for Lindsey Kildow, in the same trauma center, two days later. Ultrasound revealed that none of my organs were ruptured. After discussing these results with a very kind emergency room doctor in a semi-private room, I attempted to step off the gurney, to begin dressing myself. The pain put me on my knees. I would be unable to dress myself until I'd been injected with a painkiller. When the nurse came in and readied a syringe, I rolled my sleeve up. "No, no," she said, pointing at my backside. I half-mooned her, she hooked me up.
It took me a half hour to get dressed, 20 minutes of which was spent pulling my socks, then snowboard boots, on. Taking leave of my new friends, I walked into the night. I couldn't find a cab, couldn't breathe without pain, didn't have a phone or any idea which direction I was headed. Looking back on it, that was probably one of the lower moments of my adult life.
A man who noticed my helplessness -- and my credential -- offered a ride to the Main Press Center. First we waited for his wife, a custodian in the hospital. I sat in the backseat with his two daughters. The older one, who was nine, spoke more English than I did Italian. I extricated my wallet and showed her a picture of my nine-year-old son. They dropped me off at the Lingotto. If that family hadn't helped me out, I'd probably be sitting cross-legged at some Turin intersection, begging for coins and/or muscle relaxants.
Instead of showering me with the derision I had coming, my SI colleagues at the press center lavished food, drink, Advil and sympathy on me. Who knows what they said once I left. But while I was there, I felt taken care of. Word spread around the magazine that I'd taken a bad fall: I got concerned e-mails from editors back in New York, from whom I haven't heard in months. The next day, at the men's halfpipe, the managing editor called to ask me if I needed him to fill my prescriptions. These events made it difficult for me to maintain a cynical outlook.
The derision came from my siblings. "Once I was sure you were okay," e-mailed Matt Murphy, "I laughed until milk came out my nose.
"You know what really helps sore ribs?" he offered. "Old Grandad."
"Leave the pole-dancing to the women at Scores," advised Neil Torpey, the unofficial fifth Murphy brother. Not that either of us has ever been in that iniquitous establishment, throwing money at, and vying for the attention of, for instance, a siren who went by the name of Raven, and was putting herself through business school....
I was in my hotel by 11. By midnight, I realized there simply were no comfortable sleeping positions available to someone who'd recently traveled back-first at roughly 14 mph into a large metal object. This made it easier to rise early. Back at the ski hill, I was told that Paolo had taken my computer to the snowboarding venue. Shaun White won gold, Danny Kass, silver. Neither was happier than me when, during our drive back to Turin, Thomas Lovelock (assistant to SI photographer Bob Martin) found a farmacia open at 6:20 on a Sunday evening.
I wrote most of the night, caught a shuttle back to Bardonecchia in time for the women's halfpipe, then tore up much of the story I'd composed when HannahTeter and GretchenBleiler went one-two in the women's halfpipe. While a lot of the cool people I'd met during the week raged that night back in Turin -- Grandmaster Flash DJ'ed the Burton party at the Bud House -- I threw my own little bash in Room 206 at the Betulla Hotel, popping a Muscaril (muscle relaxant) and a Pantorc (pain killer), then taking a 20-minute shower, with the hot water trained just inside my right shoulder blade.
It took me 15 minutes to get out of bed the next morning, 12 the next, 10 the next. Now I'm home. My chiropractor is working on me. When I first went in, my right shoulder blade was sitting three inches lower than my left. She's got that nearly fixed. I can't run yet; hurts too much. But I did take the dog on a 3˝-mile hike today. In another week, if I may borrow from that other Austin (Danger is his middle name), I'll be sound as a pound, baby. And that's good, because I'm meeting Matt and Mark at Lake Tahoe in eight days. They're skiers, and they're under the impression I won't be able to keep up with them, which is laughable. Mogul fields, backcountry -- I'll go wherever they go. Except under the chair.