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I woke up to a message from my son Niko, on my cell phone that I didn’t like at all. “Hey Mom, bad news.  I broke the L1 vertebrae…I fell 30 feet climbing. I can move all my toes… hands… I’ll be okay, I think. They will tell me more soon.”

In the above picture, on a different day, you can see 2 people who are belaying the climbers. Niko was just about as high, or a bit higher than the climber in the black shirt. This is the indoor gym where Niko climbs regularly. (Note the floor mats.)

My son teaches school in France.  On Wednesdays, Niko teaches in the morning and  goes to the climbing gym as soon as class is over.  Niko has been climbing for almost 20 years and he is both careful and very proficient. On Wednesday around 1pm, he had a lead climbing accident. He was climbing a difficult route, when near the top, stopped to work out a section.  He let go of the wall, thinking that the belayer had him. The belayer wasn’t prepared and the rope slid through his hands…   The belayer is the climbing partner who holds onto the other end of the rope that is also attached to the climber’s harness. When done correctly, if the person climbing starts to fall, the belayer will catch the climber and he won’t get hurt.  Accidents like this one are rare, but they do happen. The floor eventually stopped the fall! 

In the above picture, on a different day, Niko was using an automatic belaying system.

Landing on the floor mats helped cushion his fall, but from that height it wasn’t enough.  In a matter of seconds, his feet struck the mat, then his butt, and finally he rolled to his back.  He described the pain as immediate and incredibly intense and persistant.  The staff and other climbers immediately ran to his side.

The fire department arrived in a matter of minutes and he was taken to the Marseille Nord Hospital’s Emergency wing. Niko was still wearing his climbing harness when he arrived at the hospital.  The doctors wanted to cut it off, but he pleaded that they save it, and surprisingly, they did.  His pants didn’t fare as well, but when they started to take the scissors to his shirt, he asked them to hold off and save that too.  I asked about the value of the harness and shirt.  “Mom,” he responded, “the harness was almost new and the shirt was new!” I asked if it was expensive. “No, my friends at the bike shop gave it to me for free.”

Niko in the emergency room after confirmation of the break and pain meds.

The emergency room personnel scanned his back and discovered that he had fractured his L1 Lombard vertebrae. The ER doctor decided that he would need an operation to stabilize the break.  During the rest of the afternoon Niko and Robin were in touch with a friend who is one of the best neurosurgeons in France.  After looking at the scans, their friend suggested that they do a procedure called a kyphoplasty.   In a kyphoplasty, the doctor injects bone cement into the fractured part of the bone.  This solidifies and stabilizes the bone to prevent any nerve damage. Somehow, this was his only injury! No other broken bones, muscle or ligament issues. No head trauma.

On Thursday, the physical therapist got him up and walking.  On Friday, they rescanned his back and decided that he could go home. He is not off the hook. Recovery will take 6-8 weeks, a lot of rest and some physical therapy. We are so very thankful that he survived the 30-foot fall with rather minor injuries, considering the seriousness of the accident.

One a Niko’s good friends, Nick Brustin, sent him a message that I will paraphrase; Yikes!! I know exactly how you feel, just the other day I broke a fingernail!