Why I Am Afraid of Heights (And You Should Be Also)

As I have aged, my fear of heights has intensified. I now have an almost paranoiac fear of driving over mountains or high bridges. When I was younger, the act of driving over the Ravenal Bridge in Charleston, South Carolina would cause me some concern. The bridge is three miles long and 550 feet high. Today, driving across that bridge would give me a full blown panic attack.


In spite of the inconveniences associated with a fear of heights, I believe the fear is quite healthy.


Sierra in a playful mood six months after breaking her leg

This brings us to a discussion about Sierra. This 20 something woman is hooked on a sport called bouldering. Bouldering is a form of rock climbing focused on small rock formations. Boulder climbers do not use any form of safety equipment such as ropes and harnesses. They use climbing shoes and chalk on their hands only. Doesn't sound like a great idea to me!


In February of 2017, Sierra and some friends went bouldering in the Buttermilk boulders near Bishop, California. Bishop is in the middle of nowhere - 3 hours from San Francisco, 5 hours from LA, and just north of Death Valley.


Sierra beginning her fall off the the Buttermilk boulder. Learning to fall safely is as important to the sport of bouldering as the techniques of climbing


Bouldering is a team sport. The climber is, of course, the prime player. However, bouldering requires 'spotters' whose job it is to catch the climber should they fall. Pads are also placed under the climbing boulder to ensure a soft landing should spotters fail to do their job.


Sierra seconds before breaking her leg. Note the spotter grabbing her right leg only.

Unfortunately, Sierra's 25 foot fall resulted in multiple fractures to her lower leg. One of the spotters made the mistake of grabbing her right leg as she approached the ground - causing her left leg to be driven into the landing mats.


According to Sierra, “I looked down and saw what would be my shin zigzagging its way down to a deformed ankle. My foot was connected to my leg like something out of ‘The Exorcist.’”


Sierra's X-rays at the ER. The poor woman would spend a month at the small hospital in Bishop, California.

"As I fell, my right leg got caught up on my spotters arm as my left leg drove straight down into the pads. I heard a loud crack and instantly knew it was broken. It was freaking BROKEN. 😳 Luckily, the group of climbers who were sadly being deafened by my blood curdling screams jumped into action. Some searched for something to splint my leg with while others put together my transport to the hospital. Shoutout to whoever the 5 people were who carried me down the hill on a crash pad and into the bed of a truck. A big thanks to the girl who graciously drove me the 3 bumpy off-roading miles down buttermilk road to the hospital."




Things moved slowly for Sierra at the hospital. Sierra's leg was splinted in the ER and she was admitted to the hospital until an orthopedic surgeon from San Francisco could provide advice on the case. The San Francisco based surgeon was recommended by Sierra's San Diego based family. The female surgeon - who Sierra immediately called a 'space cadet' -arrived three days later. Her recommendation - try to reduce the fracture without surgery, cast the leg, and wait a week to see if the bones stay in place before attempting the seven hour drive back to Sierra's home in San Diego.



Sierra in recovery after a seven hour reduction session

The reduction process turned out to be a disaster. Sierra was initially given an oral sedative to help manage the pain while her leg was being set. After a 10 minute pull and twist session during which Sierra screamed constantly, the orthopedic surgeon determined that her muscles would be more relaxed with a stronger analgesic. A Demerol IV drip was installed and Sierra was subjected to an even more painful pull and twist session. Once again, the poor woman screamed non-stop and the session was terminated prematurely.


Sierra's full leg cast two days after application

Plan C involved the use of anesthesia. Seven hours after the reduction process started, Sierra was put to sleep using gas. The leg was set and Sierra was place in a full leg cast.


Unfortunately for Sierra, the bones did not stay in place. Twelve days after her leg was set by the space cadet doctor from San Francisco, a local orthopedic specialist was engaged to insert a intramedullary rod in Sierra's tibia. The procedure should have been done the day the poor woman broke the leg.



Sierra the day after surgery to insert a rod in her tibia.

Things got better after surgery. Twenty six days after breaking her leg, Sierra was released from the hospital. A really good athlete, Sierra began physical therapy two weeks later.


Sierra at a physical therapy session two weeks after surgery

Sierra's surgeon told her bouldering was out of the question for one year after the accident. Six months later, she was climbing Buttermilk again.


POSTSCRIPT


Three years after the accident, Sierra had another fall - this one in Colorado. No broke bones this time but she began to experience constant pain in her leg. The intramedullary rod in her leg had bent slightly and one of the screws had displaced. Sierra endured a second surgery to have her hardware removed. Today she is pain free and still bouldering.



Sierra's hardware after removal earlier this year

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