It's a cold, sunny day on a mountainside in the Wasatch Range of Utah, Feb. 1, 2010. Spencer Fox is snowboarding on a "cat track," a furrow in the snow caused by a tracked vehicle. It's off the regular ski runs, but it's a gentle slope and not crowded. It's also not well groomed.
Spencer is 13 years old. He and his mother, Celia Brewer, are at the Brighton Resort for a mother-son getaway. He is doing a bit of hot-dogging; after all, he is an eighth-grader.
You have a hunch where this is going, but not where it will end up.
Suddenly, Spencer's snowboard hits a bump or a rock or a root or something and jolts to a stop. But he doesn't. He is catapulted forward and his head rams into a bank of hard-packed snow and ice. It might as well be steel.
"In an instant, I'm lying face-down in the snow," he says, reliving the experience for the thousandth time. "I open my eyes. I can't move anything. My whole body is like tingly. I hear my mom yelling, ‘Spencer, are you all right?' I'm just like, I can't move anything. I can't feel anything. I am definitely aware this is not good.
"At this point, I am still really in shock. It's probably like an hour before I get off the mountain."
Spencer's neck is broken at the C-4, C-5 vertebrae, about the level of the Adam's apple. He has become an instant quadriplegic.
His mother rushes to his side but has the awareness not to move him. A doctor skiing on the slope comes up and immediately recognizes the injury. The ski patrol is called, and it sleds Spencer down to a helicopter landing zone. He is then taken to a hospital in Salt Lake City.
Spencer is now 19 and can look back at lying there is the snow with the clarity of hindsight.
"I was in shock. My breathing was deteriorating. The injury knocked out the intercostal muscles in my chest. I couldn't hold my chest open to inhale, but I could still inhale through my belly (diaphragm)."
Were you wearing a helmet?
"I would be super dead if I weren't."
Did you start crying? You were only 13.
"Oh, God, no. At that point, I was still just trying to breathe, trying to survive. When you can't breathe, that's all you think about."
Did you fear you were going to die?
"That never even crossed my mind, to be honest, which is really weird because I came close to dying."
When he reached the hospital, he underwent surgery to remove the broken bones and stabilize the neck with a titanium brace covering the wound area.
A human being has no survival instinct as strong as the need to breathe. Spencer endured the insertion of a plastic intubation tube that did his breathing for him.
Another instinct we all share is not taking delight in having a tube rammed down our throat. It may allow us to live, but it would also have worked well as a medieval torture device, giving competition to the rack.
"Having that in there, I hated it, and I struggled against it all the time, as much as I could with my zero movement and my neck braced," Spencer says.
"They took it out for a while because they thought I could breathe on my own. Then my lung collapsed, and they put it back in. Having the tube out was worse than having it in, just trying to not suffocate.
"I hated that tube pretty thoroughly, more than I've ever hated anything. I elected to get a tracheotomy to breathe. Cut the hole in the neck, so I can at least talk to people."
Celia says the hospital staff responded immediately with intensive therapy, and that Spencer progressed in recovering some motor function during the next month.
Spencer says a doctor told him he was fortunate to have his accident where he did, because the snow and cold beneath his head acted somewhat like ice packs to reduce immediate swelling.
After four months of hospitalization and therapy in Salt Lake City and then San Diego, he was sent home to Cardiff to resume teenage life, or at least the parts of it still available to him.
Celia says Spencer has spent in excess of 2,000 hours in rehabilitation, leaving school right after classes to head for therapy while watching his friends and classmates head for fun things, which could be almost anything other than that grueling rehab.
The cost of Spencer's treatment went far beyond the pain of coaxing hurting muscles to do what they didn't want to do. The dollars never quit their vanishing act. Long after insurance said goodbye and closed the door behind it, the bills keep coming.
Celia says the treatment cost has exceeded $500,000, of which about 60 percent has been paid by fundraising efforts. Even so, it has taken home mortgages, borrowing against policies and depleting savings to meet the financial obligations for this single mother with two other children.
"It was humiliating to have to ask the public for help, but I had no choice. I'd do anything for my kid."
The endless hours she spent in the early years dressing him, feeding him, taking care of his almost infantile needs, those she could do for free, but not without an emotional cost.
As city attorney for Carlsbad, Celia is a well-paid professional and has a nice home, but the money strain has been severe. She plans to list her Cardiff house for sale.
She says the experience has made her mindful of how much greater is the burden of parents similarly challenged but who lack her education and resources.
I did not know what to expect when I rang Spencer's doorbell, and that was wise because I was taken aback, as they used to say.
Standing before me was the paraplegic college sophomore I had come to see. Did you catch that first word? Standing.
Spencer is a tall, good-looking kid with black-rimmed "serious" glasses that sit atop a friendly smile. When he turns to lead me into a room, he steps cautiously and slowly, as though listening to his legs telling him, "Don't get carried away with this."
If being on his feet is a miracle, it's a miracle caused by six years of hated "back-mending" therapy work.
Big factors in Spencer's almost-optimal recovery were the way he landed on that slope, the fact that he didn't try to get up and wasn't inexpertly moved, the medical care he received, including aggressive steroid treatment and ongoing therapy - and luck, a whole lot of it.
Celia says amazing advances in recovery from paralysis such as Spencer's are a credit to medical care and research, and a hope for others who suffer such accidents.
Most of Spencer's movement is in a wheelchair because he tires quickly, and walking on uneven surfaces or in a crowd might quickly put him on his back. However, he can drive his car with a few control modifications.
Some of his body and hand movements are slow and slightly jerky, like a balky YouTube video. His fingers will never key a piano. However, he has no problem with routinely going to the sink for a glass of water.
Spencer's manner and language ooze intelligence. He's a chemical engineering major, no less, at the University of Southern California. He could probably be called precocious lite, but only in a college sophomore way.
He also has a sardonic sense of humor, for which I confess a weakness. I like my humor drought-dry, almost astringent. Spencer's humor is largely aimed at himself and conveys a point.
In my opinion, insecure people brag about their strengths, while secure people poke fun at their weaknesses.
Returning to his chair with his glass, Spencer says, "What can I tell you? Should I just go for it?"
Go for it.
"OK, this is something I've been thinking about: The spinal-cord injury itself is pretty unremarkable for me in terms of my feelings and emotions over the past six years.
"It really doesn't change who I am, in my opinion. Oh, I mean, it sucks. It's awful. I wouldn't wish it on anyone, but at the same time, it's like it just happened. I'm a very pragmatic person. Yeah, all this rehab stinks, but in the future, I'm going to have a return on my investment. That's how I think about it. You've got to get that ROI."
Do you date?
What does that mean?
"It means I just strike out a lot."
But you give it a shot, huh?
You want to get married and have a family?
"Man, these are big questions for a 19-year-old." He smiles. He does that a lot. "I still try and keep away from thinking of myself as an adult - at least for now."
How do you feel about yourself?
"Well, I think I'm a very interesting combination of supremely confident in my abilities, and just horribly un-confident in my abilities. Any physical task, I'll try it. I expect failure plenty of the time, but I always try it, just in case."
Have you been to therapy, I mean psychological therapy?
"Oh, no. I've not."
Do you have to cope with depression?
"I think no more than the average person."
How about receiving pity?
"Oh, I mean, I've definitely gotten pity before, but it's mainly from people who have heard my story but don't know me. You know, ‘Aw, the poor kid.'
"There are people who need that pity and really just have a tough time without it, but I don't meet them often. The places where I meet other people in wheelchairs are like when I go to the football game or when I go surfing.
"Yeah, adaptive surfing. It's real fun."
Does your disability make you a better student? You're not out chasing girls.
"Am I not? I just said I didn't catch any, not that I never chased. I'm like a dog after cars."
I notice a brief tremor in his hand, and ask, "Is that a muscle reaction?"
He shrugs. "It's just something that happens."
How are you on small talk?
"I can do small talk when I need to. I'm definitely an introvert, but I can turn it on."
Give me a subject you'd just as soon not discuss.
"I've been making self-deprecating jokes about my dating woes, when really it's a tough thing for me. After the accident, I didn't make any new friends at all. I'm pretty ashamed of that. Thank God I had a really good group of friends that didn't leave me."
Celia tells of Spencer's frustration just to recapture the most trivial acts of independence and the labor that went into it. "I can't tell you what a celebration we had when he could tie his own shoes again.
"He just wouldn't quit."
To every human, paralysis, especially quadriplegia, is something to be feared as a voodoo believer might fear drums in the swamp, or as an earlier generation of children feared the iron lung. We imagine ourselves paralyzed - powerless, helpless and totally dependent - and say we'd rather be dead. And we might well mean it.
It wouldn't be just the inability to move and the maddening itchy nose we imagine that can't be scratched. But the solitude without privacy. People and events going on without us. In meaningful ways, we would cease to be us. Left behind.
Spencer Fox slogged through that valley of shadows with the mud of pain, fear and isolation sucking at his every step.
He began the ordeal a boy and emerged a man.
Fred Dickey's home page is freddickey.net
He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at [email protected]© Copyright 2016 The San Diego Union-Tribune. All rights reserved.