The last 3 months have been one of my my longest journeys so far. I have faced more personal hardships I have any other time of my life. Could it always be worse? Of course. And I will never lose faith that there is a way forward. But every way I have tried since early June had left me right back in the same place, sitting on a couch at home unable to do much of anything for the first time in 20+ years.
I went to Pakistan and despite having some of the most experienced guides in the country we did not reach any of our intended destinations due to logistical and permitting issues and all my other trip participants succumbed to health-related ailments at altitude before I was left alone with only the lead guides. I was feeling great but suddenly I woke up one day with the worst shoulder pain I've ever had in my left shoulder and later which 5 days later manifested itself into even more painful Costochondritis. I could barley even sit up without assistance at the worst. Due to all the logistical issues and concerns for my trekking partners as well, we had to call off the remainder of the trip and return to the states where I was diagnosed with shoulder impingement syndrome and torn rotator cuff.
After canceling one of my favorite Alaska trips over this injury also, I was finally feeling much improved, training, and ready to go back out there for an exploratory expedition in a different part of AK. Within 20 minutes of being helicoptered out to a ridiculously remote area for 10 days (at five-figure expense), I carelessly slipped on loose rock and suffered my worst injury in 25 years when I busted up my face, knees and shattered my OTHER shoulder socket via dislocation.
In horrible pain, I was helicoptered back to the ER hundreds of miles away where they eventually failed to reset it and had to put me under anesthesia just to relocate the shoulder.
After 2 days of feeling hurt but still able to hobble, I decided to go back out via Heli to rejoin my friends. To most people reading this I am sure that sounds pretty dangerous, and it was. Live and learn. Within 2 hours of returning to camp I suffered another partial dislocation of the shoulder while doing almost nothing at all and spent 36 hours in the worst pain I can ever remember as the broken bone fragments and bones rubbed together in the joint from any position.
When weather cooperated I was finally taken back out again to the ER where they recommended immediate surgery, saying the injury wouldn't heal properly otherwise.
Being a self-employed business owner in the United States, I get pretty much the worst health care in the entire developed world. Basically, I pay $558 a month for the privilege of waiting on hold for 2-3 hours any time I need to say anything to a nurse (forget doctors) and God forbid I need an actual physical appointment or something as complicated as a specialist. It could be months, and in addition, they told me they wouldn't even discuss my condition because I was out of my coverage area which, as much as I can tell is limited to a small percentage of medical offices in western Oregon and Washington. So FYI, anyone out there with a Kaiser HMO, don't even bother calling if you are injured away from home.
Being as though there was nothing more they could do for me in the ER, and I was in no condition to fly back, I spent nearly a week more on the phone with the local docs and insurance before they agreed to maybe cover part of it at the doctor's request because of the urgency, but the verdict is still out on that one. I may still be on the hook for the $70,000 in ER and surgical bills because I was traveling when this happened. Update to follow. And just if you were wondering what the fuck is going on here, as someone who is self-employed, I cannot get an insurance with the appropriate travel allowances. Global Rescue insurance covered the initial helicopter only. DONT EVER GET HURT OR SICK IN THIS COUNTRY IF YOU CAN AVOID IT! The leading cause of bankruptcy here? You guessed it: Medical debt. It doesn't get much worse that that.
Insurance aside, the fact that our system is broken beyond compare was the least of my problems as my shoulder had been dislocated partially for about 8 days at that point and all I could do is lay motionless in a recliner the entire time, ordering Doordash from Fairbanks. The pain was incredible, and the swelling required constant attention. I could not even get up to shower or take my own shirt off.
Finally, against all odds I was able to have the surgery performed in Fairbanks and afterwards they told me to not move the arm much for 4 weeks. They found severe ligament damage with more than a dozen bone chips and 3 major breaks. They had to perform reconstruction on the socket but were unable to remove all the fragments which had been moving around a lot. My wife came up to AK at this point to help me through things, thankfully.
Fast forward more than a month later of sitting on a couch at home watching the muscles fade, I had been feeling very slowly, a little better. Physical therapy was something I was making every effort to start, but they hadn't yet cleared me. At this point I needed to do some minor travel and very easy driving and flying tours of fall colors in Alaska again, and knew I could handle it. Wrong.
I got up to Anchorage and started driving and all was fine, many hours later I'm right in the center of the best fall color I have ever seen anywhere and all of a sudden, the shoulder starts getting more painful. Keep in mind, I am having to shoot ONE HANDED with a pro SLR here, one of the hardest things I have attempted. I don't know what it was that did it, but I guess one of the bone fragments spiked me right in the joint or nerve or something as it was moving around and here we are, 5 weeks after the initial injury and 2 days before I'm supposed to meet a small group that had already had to reschedule their Yukon trip with me, I am in as much pain as I was when I first choppered out with the dislocation! I had been so careful too! Never had I spent a longer period doing absolutely nothing, and it didn't help a bit.
Devastated and in agony the next morning, I called off the trip and the rest of my schedule for a month. Now I am sitting back in Oregon again after having to receive assistance just to get back through the airports I had casually strolled through 2 days earlier. No idea where it is going from here because you can't talk to doctors on weekends, but additional surgery is likely to be required to remove bone chips or perhaps even do more reconstruction. All I will be able to plan until at least 2022 is pretty easy trips and I may not be able to lift a camera properly until then either at this point.
This whole experience has been terrifying and yet almost comedic in its cruelty and timing, but that said, it could always be worse. At least it is me and not a beloved friend or family member. But it's definitely been a Murphy’s Law summer here, and I had to cancel my return trip to Pakistan that I had planned in the greatest of details for an entire group also!
Before this summer I had to cancel 2 trips out of more than 500 due to injury in my entire life guiding, nearly 25 years leading trips professionally. I have now had to cancel 7 trips in a row spanning 3 months, lost a third or more of my yearly income, have $70k in medical bills and have no assurances when I will be able to get back out. Hopefully soon. But man, when this happens to you all you can do is just put one foot I front of the other, grinding away. I spend my days looking at pictures, places, maps, talking with outfitters and other guides around the world. Just keeping the flame alive, hoping.
Dreaming about trips is always my way of coping with not being on one. In my entire life I have never felt burned out, never lost any passion for this art or travel and grown so fond of teaching that it has replaced even shooting as my main passion in life. To be able to experience what you love through other's eyes and to be able to see their amazement at the places we visit is what keeps me going. Every time it is like seeing the world anew for me. I realize now what an important role this has played in my life and how much I miss it. Patience is not my strongest attribute, so I am sure everything like this happens for a reason. But I digress. Thanks for reading, and I cannot wait to rejoin you all again someday with a little more luck and positive energy. Gotta keep on carrying on somehow.
I have 400lbs of outdoor equipment that is stuck up in Alaska at a storage unit for when I finally get better.