Thursday, February 11, 2010

Kissing the Truck, Part Two


Fortitude and Triumph

Lukas May 2007 (one year after)

“I don’t remember kissing the truck,” Lukas said, “but people tell me I did. I remember I was a little afraid. The climbing was exhausting and I had a feeling I had bitten off more than I could chew. Maybe it was just a sensation of foreboding...”

When Lukas fell from the top of the mainmast on the Lady Washington, he hit the pin rail with his face and broke his cheekbone completely off below the eye. His brain hemorrhaged. His jaw split in five places, and eight of his vertebrae fractured. Seven broken ribs caused damage to his lungs and his left wrist fractured, resulting in nerve damage. His hands suffered burns, indicating he tried to save himself by grabbing onto the backstay during the fall. But his spinal cord was intact.

Surprisingly, that safety harness lanyard, although not saving him from the sixty-seven foot drop, may have still saved him from death by preventing his pelvis from hitting the deck. “I think it was very wise for JB to have ordered my lanyard cut, and to have me lowered to the deck because the movement of the ship caused my body to continue swinging, while it dangled in the air.” And JB made sure no one moved him once he was on deck.

Lukas is also grateful for the quick and heroic action of Nick, the sailor in the mast top, who tried to grab him. “I believe that he stopped me enough so that I survived. I think I owe my life to him.”

During the week following the accident, Lukas underwent surgery to repair his face and cheek, although he has no memory of it. He does remember someone asking, right away, for his emergency contact information and he recalls telling them there was a list in his wallet. They must have contacted his family, because his girlfriend arrived from Switzerland on the fourth day, so he was not completely alone in a foreign country, fighting to regain his life.

OHSU Hospital, Portland

His first real memories began about a week after the accident, when they released him from the intensive care unit into a regular hospital room. They wanted to get him up and moving, to aid in his recovery. With the same resolve it took to climb the mast, Lukas made his first wobbling walk, short at first. Each day, after every meal, he’d shuffle along the corridors, a little further each time, stretching his muscles, focused on recovery. As some feeling began to return to damaged nerves, the nerve-racking medical bureaucracy kicked into high gear. OHSU wanted confirmation the insurance would pay for “every little thing; contacting the US subsidiary of the insurance, who contacted the headquarters in France, who relayed the information to the Swiss insurer, who sent their answers back through the chain, all dealing with the nine hour time difference.”

The online model ship community heard of his accident and collected some money to help with his girlfriend’s expenses, which would not be covered by insurance.

He wanted to go home. His girl friend wanted him to go home. She began making phone calls and it took a great deal of planning, negotiating, coercing and perseverance to make it happen. No airline would allow him on board with brain and lung injuries. He and his girlfriend had to wait several days until he was off oxygen and underwent CAT scans, which determined he had no brain damage. An airline would agree to the transport and then cancel. This happened time and again. Another week went by while his girlfriend spent hours on the phone each day, only to have their hopes dashed with another cancel. Then she met with success, coordinating with insurance, airlines, ground transportation and medical personnel. Through her tireless efforts, two and a half weeks after the accident, he was airlifted on a Medicare plane from Portland to L.A. and then boarded a Swiss Airlines jet. A French physician waited to attend to all the medications during the flight and a gurney had been installed across eight seats in the back of the plane.

Swiss Airlines

In Switzerland, he remained in the hospital another two weeks until he could be transferred to a rehabilitation facility where he spent another seven weeks in physical and occupational therapy. He went back to work, at first for only ten percent of his day, but gradually increasing his time until he reached full time status one year after the accident. He continued physical therapy on an outpatient basis. Although his jaw healed, he currently wears braces because his teeth became misaligned.

Through the tedious recovery, Lukas has remained positive and stubbornly determined to overcome the difficulties. He has no intention of letting the fates have their way. He remains in charge of his destiny. Although there is still residual nerve damage, he has resumed his hobbies of scuba diving and parachuting.

“I guess I narrowly escaped complete paralysis,” he said. “I was lucky beyond imagination, with a whole bunch of guardian angels.”

Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain-Brian Baird

I would imagine the one hobby he would not want to resume would be sailing, but Lukas is not an ordinary man. The sea is in his blood. “If I believed in such things, I’d think I was a sailor in another life,” he said. He has the utmost respect for the Lady Washington and returned, with his girlfriend (now his wife), to crew for three weeks in the summer of 2008, going aloft once more, shaky at first, nervous, scared. He still loves sailing. He returned again at the end of 2008 for another three weeks, and hopes to come back again in 2010. For him returning to the Lady was important to his recovery. And sailing still remains vital to his happiness. “I didn’t want to be a ‘victim’, not for something as important to me as sailing,” he said. “I wanted to be a ‘survivor.’”

As I said in an earlier post, accidents happen in even the most efficient and careful businesses and organizations. But once the accident occurred, it was the calm, efficient, professional reaction of the captain and crew of the Lady Washington which was instrumental in getting Lukas the help he needed to affect an amazing and miraculous recovery. They did everything right. I have so much admiration and respect for them and their organization.

But it is the strong, fighting spirit of an incredible young man--the spirit of a sailor--who never gave up and never lost focus, and who still loves the Lady Washington, that I commend for being a hero. It is that man who has earned the right to wear the “Turk’s Head” bracelet.

Turk's Head Bracelet


  1. Awesome story. Really. Awesome. That's all.

  2. *Applause* for Lukas! What a fighter, and what resilience in the face of adversity. Delighted to hear of his recovery.

    *Applause* for you, Melanie, for your outstanding writing skills in telling this incredible recounted tale.

  3. Simon,
    Thanks. His story is incredible. In 1750, when the original Lady Washington was built, he would not have lived. Sometimes progress is good.

    I'm still clapping for Lukas. And thank you for your kind words about the writing.

    You could have painted the story in an afternoon, I'm sure. :)

  4. Excellent writing. Great story. Cheers to the life-saving actions of the crew. And best wishes to Lukas and his wife!

  5. Thanks Karen. His is an interesting story.

  6. It's astonishing that he survived with so much intact.

    Great story, well told.

  7. Phew. Poor guy. Poor woman! Incredible recovery. Thanks for writing it.

  8. Tony,
    It is a tribute to the Lady. She has such allure.

    Thanks for your comment. I think I should stick to fiction, though.

  9. EEkkk I was watching a train wreck and had to keep reading. Good writing horrible story! Poor guy!

  10. Jars of Giggles,
    Thanks for the comment. Yes, I guess it was a little like watching a train wreck. Thank goodness now one was killed.

  11. The definition of "hero" on any ship is, what other people call you after you've had the worst day of your life.

  12. Robert,

    LOL. Well said, sir, well said. Thank you.


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