‘The day I almost lost my husband and how his accident has changed our lives’

Edilia's husband fell from a ladder in the couple's backyard and seriously injured his neck. Source: Stock Photo / Getty Images

Having worked in air safety emergency management, my mantra is ‘no one carries a sign warning today’s the emergency’. My husband’s strained voice announced our emergency: “Help! I’ve hurt myself. Get an ambulance.”

“Where are you?” I shout.

“Under the jacaranda.”

A raised foot marks where my husband lies hidden in dense vegetation. He has fallen 2 metres off a ladder, striking his head on a tree root. He complains of numbness, difficulty breathing and chest pain. Sprawled in the undergrowth, covered in abrasions he resembles a broken marionette.

Mentally I run through the first aid checklist:

  • Is he breathing? Check.
  • Is he conscious? Check.
  • Keep the patient still. Check.

Recognising how serious the injury might be I know there are three possible outcomes: death, quadriplegia or lengthy impaired recovery.

Calling emergency I am flummoxed by the question, ‘Police, fire, ambulance?’

“What? Oh, ambulance. My husband’s fallen off a ladder. I think he’s broken his neck. He has difficulty breathing and chest pain.”

She takes my address we run through what I could do, which was scant, other than keeping him warm and observe closely for deterioration.

Shouting for help at the window I watch our son wave me away. He is wearing headphones and is on a conference call. I chock open our side gate and move the car out of the driveway to clear access for the ambulance. I knock on my son’s door only to be dismissed again with a wave of his hand, there will be no help from him.

Snatching a blanket I head to the patient, making sure he is warm whilst reassuring him the ambulance is coming. He complains of chest pain. I’m totally alone watching and praying the ambos arrive because cardiac arrest means CPR. In his circumstances, it may cause quadriplegia. Will I let him die or do I make him a quadriplegic with chest compressions? Enduring the longest 15 minutes of my life I contemplate this diabolical choice.

The ambos arrive and apply a neck brace for stability. They can’t move him and require additional equipment. A second ambulance arrives and four officers carry the patient across the backyard and thread him through our narrow side gate.

older people fall
Edilia’s husband had a fall from a ladder in the couple’s backyard. Source: Edilia Ford

Forty-five minutes after the accident, we take a slow gentle ride to the hospital. Being in their company I am relieved. I don’t cry or panic, I bite my lip and wait for whatever comes next. In the hospital, he is rushed away. Forty minutes pass and someone offers me tea, then finally I get to see him. Surrounded by a medical scrum, his clothes cut off, pain relief is pumped into a canula. The doctor asks him, “How are you?”

The prone patient hooked to machines replies, “Oh really good thanks. How are you?”

elderly and household falls
Edilia is by her husband’s side throughout the ordeal. Source: Getty Images

I am incredulous as they roll him onto another trolley taking him away for X-rays and ultrasounds.

Still alone eight hours after the accident, a nurse confirms the fractured neck. He will undergo surgery in the morning. Updating our daughter by text at 11:30pm, she responds: “Catch an Uber home. I’ll pay for it.”

Floored, my reply, “Your father might like to see your face.”

Eventually, she arrives with toiletries and, absurdly, shoes. In blissful denial, they discuss her dog and she drives me home dropping me at the driveway.

Surgery day and I engage a mate to babysit me. I can’t drive and am paralysed by fear awaiting news. After midday I call the hospital hourly. “No news, call back in an hour.”

At 8pm and with no news, my friend drops me exhausted at my empty house. Finally, at 8:40pm the post-op nurse calls. She says my husband has survived 10.5 hours of massive surgery. I cry, the nurse asks, “Do you have anyone with you?”

“No,” I shudder. I crawl into bed and cry myself to sleep.

I enter ICU. No one prepared me for what I see next. He is ashen with drainage bags and beeping machines surrounding his bed. He’s fed by a gastro nasal tube unable to swallow, his pain relief is self-administered, his voice a whisper. It is hideous. I am a helpless imposition.

Days pass in a blur, eventually, I meet the miracle-working spinal surgeon and ask, “Was my initial assessment of the possible outcomes correct: death, quadriplegia or this?”

“Yes,” he answers.

“I did the right thing?”

“Yes.”

“Thank you,” I whisper and sob quietly.

Discharged from hospital to a rehabilitation facility, my husband transitions to a day rehabilitation within six weeks. Now he has trouble sleeping, holding cutlery, fatigue, numbness and impaired sensation. Five months have passed and he faces ongoing surgery but he’s alive, talking and walking.

Our retirement plans are shattered, our medical expenses are significant. There will be no long dreamed of overseas travel. We hold unusable travel credits and were refused a compassionate refund by the travel company.

According to Brain Injury Australia, ‘Do It Yourself’ injuries are most frequent in men aged 65 to 74 and ladder-related falls are the most common cause of injury, accounting for more than one-third of injuries overall. Head and neck injuries accounted for almost one in every five hospitalised.

falls and the elderly
An X-ray of Edilia’s husband’s neck, clearly identifying where he injured himself in the fall. Source: Edilia Ford

I urge people to consider their safety around the home. My husband previously was a fit and capable tradie. He wishes he hadn’t climbed that ladder. My AgedCare provides subsidised trade services.

If you don’t know what to do in an emergency, I’d encourage you to learn. Consider emergency access to your home and most importantly stay off ladders.

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