I wasn’t always as conservative and risk averse as I am now. I blame my work. Anyone who can see the carnage caused by stupidity and risky behavior that I deal with on any trauma shift and still engage in high risk activities is either stupid or isn’t paying attention. But really, the process started before I became a trauma surgeon.
As a young man, I did a lot of risky things, beyond the usual drinking and driving and tempting fate that all 18 year olds do. I took canoes and kayaks down rapids that gave experts pause. I did free climbing in the Red River Gorge of Kentucky and in the Canadian Rockies. I engaged in the illegal sport of building climbing while an undergrad at the University of Illinois. Champagne-Urbana is a pretty flat place and climbing walls were a rarity. Our climbing wall was the bell tower of Altgeld Hall. Had we been caught, we’d have been arrested and likely expelled, but we weren’t.
By the time I started medical School, my risky behavior tapered off. I was too busy with studies and clinicals to do much. As a resident, sailing had become my favored passion and I spent my free time at the helm of a sailboat whenever I could.
So I wasn’t concerned when, as a new surgeon, I was assigned to a Marine Corps Surgical team. Part of our training was in rappelling. How they thought a bunch of surgeons and corpsmen needed that skill is beyond me, but I didn’t question it at the time. This was old hat to me.
We started on the 30-foot rappelling tower. I had done this so often, I could rig my harness in my sleep. I helped several other guys rig up and we followed the instructor’s lead and rappelled to the ground. I did it on a single jump, braking to a stop a few feet above the ground and stepping down as if stepping out of my car. Showing off, I know, but it felt good to be climbing again.
After the tower, they took us to Mangilao Cliff, a shear 150-foot basalt outcropping on the main Naval base on Guam. There was a road to the top, and one at the base, so it was perfect for training. I rigged up and confidently stepped off. After my second drop, I realized I was hyperventilating and my heart was racing. Halfway down, I was panting and my palms were sweaty. I was afraid. This had never happened to me on a rope before. I made it to the bottom and got control of myself. I felt weak and worthless, but hid it from the other team members, some of whom got stuck or wouldn’t even make the first drop.
I went home at the end of the day and told Michele of my fear and my feeling of weakness.
“Of course you were afraid, you idiot,” she said. “Unlike before, now you have something to live for.”
I realized she was right. My oldest son had been born just three months before. He would need me unlike anyone else ever had before.
Years later, as an assistant scoutmaster, I was able to teach my son and the boys in our troop some of my paddling and climbing skills. I still got a shiver of fear as I watched my 13-year-old firstborn make his first rappelling descent of Coon Bluff on the lower Salt River. His grin of accomplishment as he touched the ground was worth it.