November 11, 2011
Nearly two months after local singer-songwriter Levi Strom released his sophomore album The Lone Wolf, the unthinkable happened: The benevolent, bushy-haired musician broke his neck while surfing in Big Sur. He provided the Weekly with an exclusive look into the accident, his recovery, the future and just how shitty the healthcare can be in this country:
Three weeks ago today I was having emergency spinal surgery after breaking my neck while surfing in Big Sur. Before that I had been on a short tour on the east coast playing music with my friend and fellow song writer Kath Bloom. The tour had invigorated me as a performer and challenged me as a singer to really bare my soul. I couldn't wait to get back to California and share what I had learned. I had some big shows coming up and wanted to give the local audiences a different side of Levi that perhaps they weren't too familiar with yet.
But first, I needed to surf.
My very first day back on the west coast meant me and my best friend and I, along with my girlfriend, went to Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur where I have lived for the past six years, to enjoy a beautiful fall day of surfing and sunbathing. I couldn't wait to get back in the water. In fact, my injury occurred not while surfing but from diving into the water at full speed, as if to say I've missed you baby, but now I'm back. I've done it a million times, a nice neat shallow dive into the ocean, I feel like a fish when I'm swimming, it is the most out of this world experience you can give your body on this earth. To defy gravity, to be fluid, to be without restraint. But on this day, the ever-changing ocean floor had developed some very extreme sand bars from the swells of the previous weeks.
I did not factor them into my thinking as I enthusiastically sprinted towards the water. I remembered countless days at the beach back to the very first as I ran towards the water. The feeling I felt when my head hit was one of confusion and sadness. As if you had returned home to a lover with a full heart only to have them violently slam the door in your face. At first I thought I had hit a rouge rock, that this was it, I'm going to be knocked unconscious and drown. I heard my neck break, CRACK, like a tree branch, I'm going to go numb, holy shit this is it I thought. But it wasn't and I was able to pick myself up out of the water and in a daze walk back over to where my girlfriend was reading a book. I laid down face down in the sand holding my neck, telling her that I think I had broke my neck and needed an ambulance. Instead, I walked off the beach holding my head as perfectly still as I could. She drove me to the urgent care office in Monterey before they closed and they refused to see me because I was about fifty bucks short of their upfront payment system.
Fearing the cost of an ER visit I went home and hoped that a few cold beers would set me right. By the next morning it was clear that something was wrong, really wrong and I needed emergency care. That morning, Sunday Oct. 16th my girlfriend drove me to CHOMP where X-rays revealed the extent of my injury. I had broken my cervical vertebrae number four in multiple places and was lucky to be alive and with full use of my body. They put me in a neck brace and sent me home. The next day I had an appointment with a spinal surgeon for follow up. My girlfriend and I drove from her home up Palo Colorado Cyn to Salinas for the appointment. I waited in line with an elderly woman who said she would without warning lose control of her legs and needed surgery if she was to have any hopes of ever walking again. Once my name was called I meet with the doc. who told me that in his opinion the break was not stable and that I never should have been released from the ER in the first place and that he also recommended surgery or else I could run the risk of life time chronic pain or worse that a fractured piece of my vertebrae could impact my spinal column and I would run the risk of the loss of mobility.
I called my mother for her advice. I didn't' want to go back to the ER and have surgery especially when the first ER doctor was telling me that I would be fine with a neck brace after 3-4 months and that surgery was unnecessary. I guess being an uninsured customer in the for profit health system means that for people like me they want them in and out. The ER cannot turn away patients but they don't' have to keep em for long. Luckily I had a surgeon who put my needs as a human and my best interest first and not just the bottom line. Don't even get me started on the health care system, but before I open my mouth too wide, I want to wait and see my ultimate verdict from CHOMPs sponsored care program which I signed up for while at the hospital. Best case scenario, Clint Eastwood is paying for my hospital bill, otherwise I might as well of gone for a dual PHD with the amount of medical bills I'll be stuck with. But don't get me wrong I'm grateful to say that I"m alive, able, and on my way to a full recovery. The zombie bone they grafted onto my cervical vertebrae #4 has taken root with my native bone and I'm expected to be out of my neck brace and good as new within a month.
The experience has been both like a dream and perhaps the realist thing I have ever experienced. Damage to the spinal cord at the c4 vertebrae level controls not only the functions of the but also the diaphragm. My singing voice, which to me is my soul. Singing for me is life, life it seems a song. My voice will now be resonating with a small titanium plate screwed into my spine, amplified, a few extra watts to get the message out.
I've heard of an ancient technique developed by Japanese gardeners in which they intentionally and carefully break the stem of the plant in particular areas so that it will grow back stronger and more capable of providing nutrients to the the rest of the body of the plant. Perhaps this great masterful gardener in the sky is bending, pruning and fine tuning me for some great meaningful task that lies ahead in my future, for the future of the entire planet.
But for now I'm going to finish off the last of my Vicodin and watch another episode of Louis C.K. ~Levi Strom, Palo Colorado Canyon