Category Archives: Reality TV Stories

Heli crash: trying to understand

There has been a lot of talk about safety in reality television lately, for the saddest of reasons: five people have died within the past two weeks while filming Discovery Channel projects.  Yesterday the NTSB released its preliminary findings regarding the fatal helicopter crash on February 10, 2013 which killed the pilot, camera operator and talent.

The report is eye-opening but still leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

It sounds like there were efforts made to minimize the risk of an exceptionally dangerous shoot.  The pilot scouted the area and conferred with the director prior to filming, which is good.  He held a safety briefing.  Also good.

But two big pieces of information jumped out at me:

1) The pilot requested lights put in at the landing zone.  He was aware that he would be flying into a pitch-black area and would have no sense of where the ground is.  He also knew that there was a dangerous plateau that he would have to navigate.

2) There was an LED panel light mounted on the windshield behind a GoPro camera.

As anyone who has ever driven at night on a dark country road can attest, the minute a light is turned on inside the car your night vision disappears.  A panel light would have thrown light in all directions in the cockpit and would have diminished what little ability he had to see the ground.

Somebody made a very bad decision, but who?

Ultimately, it is up to the pilot to let the director know that it is not safe to fly under those circumstances.  And it’s certainly up to the pilot to refuse to fly with a light in his face.  But we should also be asking whose decision it was to set up this ridiculous shot in the first place.  Why would such chances have been taken for a scene which would have essentially amounted to 15 seconds of mediocre footage for a cable television program?  And I would love to know how long that pilot had been on the controls by the time the final scene was to be filmed.

The pilot picked up the aircraft at 4:45pm, which means he would have been on site about 4pm to hold the briefing and prepare to fly.  The crash occurred at 3:30am — almost 12 hours in to his shift and very close to the end of his duty day.  Sketchy, but still legal within FAA standards.  He got a catnap in and so hopefully he was rested.

My conclusion, based on my own experience and from discussing the circumstances with PCA (as a helicopter pilot who has been asked in the past to participate in dangerous filming) is that the pilot crashed shortly after ascent because he was not able to gauge where the ground was.  He was navigating a dark area between two lit sources and lost perspective.  Whether the light panel played a part in the crash is yet to be determined.

The NTSB has retained the video equipment and so there is the sickening possibility that the GoPro was rolling when the accident happened.  I never want to see that footage.  But, like so many other crew members, I want to understand how this happened so that I can make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Just two weeks after the helicopter crash, another director / camera operator and his pilot were killed while filming a Discovery Channel Canada project.  The circumstances surrounding the crash are still vague, but one thing is certain.  It’s time to start holding networks and production companies accountable to overall safety and standards practices.

We — those who are on the front lines climbing into helicopters, boats, cars to get the footage — need to know that we are being considered and protected on these shoots.

Shoulder surgery – 6 weeks later

They say 45 days is the magic number.  I have laid here like a Christmas ham for the past six weeks yet there has been a frenzy of activity going on in my shoulder.  It’s amazing that whatever the surgery — back, leg, arm, shoulder, brain — it’s always six weeks until you really turn the corner on your recovery.  The human body is so predictable and efficient in this way.  If it can make a whole new liver every six weeks, and an entirely new stomach lining every five days, then it can certainly make some real progress on a centralized trauma wound when all systems are focused on healing.  Cells spewing out chemicals to get everything going, other cells replicating themselves to replace the damaged ones, the immune system ramping up to squash infection, tiny little fibers sprouting up to reattach the torn ligaments to the bone, collagen collecting near the wound to build up the scar tissue — a surgery marshals all the body’s resources in order to heal itself.  When I think of how much is going on at my surgery site it’s really not surprising that I still have to take breaks when I walk up a flight of stairs.  

It was really tough to go from being so physically active to this slug-like existence, but I have found that reading and learning about how it all works has been comforting during the more frustrating times.  Apparently there is 100% turnover of the atoms that make up your body every five years.  That means that you are literally not the same person you were just a few years ago.  And we have 60,000 thoughts a day, yet 90% of them are the same thoughts we had yesterday.  So even as our body gets constant upgrades, our thoughts tend to go around and around like a hamster wheel.  I know mine do.  ”What would we look like without noses?” pops up pretty frequently.

I also think it’s crazy that we are all made up of 65% water.  Which means that when PCA says “I love you,” what he really loves most about me is water.  And babies are 80% water!  So weird. 

Okay, enough about our bodies and ourselves.

Last night we hosted our Christmas party and it was wonderful!  We hadn’t planned on doing it, with PCA out of town and me being of feeble body and spirit, but we rallied and it turned out to be one of those magical evenings where everything goes smoothly and you laugh all night and reminisce all the next day.  I love our friends because they don’t care that I’m rocking a fetid sling and bad hair (still can’t reach my arm up to style it) or that we served ham, biscuits from a can and Peeps.  PCA made chocolate peppermint martinis, my sister brought homemade marshmallows for the hot chocolate bar, my adorable nephews showed up in Christmas sweaters and flashing Rudolph noses, and although we had every intention of stopping early we ended up going until 1:30am!  I LOVE when parties have a good ebb and flow and last night was one of those.  PCA has to go back to work for a 20-day stint out of town the day after Christmas, and so we both felt very lucky to have the time to catch up with old friends, new friends, neighbors and family.

PCA is working so hard these days to pick up the slack.  The surgeon has said it will be about a year until I can go back to work.  Which I am reeling from.  Speaking of thoughts going round and round, what does this mean?  What will I do?  I always had this vision in my mind of a time when I would happily say goodbye to my career with no regrets in order to try something new.  I find myself wondering if that time has come, and whether I could ever make my peace with having that decision made for my by someone else’s actions and negligence.

I started physical therapy and have had two sessions so far.  PT has been great for understanding why it could be upwards of a year out of work.  The therapist told me that I had enough work done in my shoulder for 5 people, because all of the tears were so serious.  I can’t lift my arm more than a millimeter at a time and all the exercises we do are passive range of motion — meaning the therapist flings my arm around and yells at me to relax while he does it and I grit my teeth and concentrate on not screaming.  He asked me to make a muscle with my bicep and I couldn’t!  Where did it go in such a short time?  I love physical therapy though.  It’s the good hurt.  It is forward progress and it feels like someone is in it with me for the long haul.  It’s hard for me not to push it and my therapist keeps telling me to slow down.  He’ll say “do five reps” of one baby exercise or another, and when his back is turned I quickly do 10 or 15 reps.  I can’t help it.  I just want to get better quickly.  It’s very hard to not feel in competition with the person I used to be before the accident.

Most days now I don’t think about the long term and I try to focus on the small successes. I can mostly dress myself now, and tie my own shoes.  I can drive short distances if it’s a route I know and I can avoid the freeways.  I can almost sleep through the night.  I can cook, as long as I have a sous chef there to help me lift a pot off the stove or chop an onion.  All of these seem like small miracles and I’m so grateful for them.

One last anecdote.  About 20 years ago there was an experiment conducted on mice at the National Institute of Health.  A scientist, the Head of Molecular Biology, injected the mice with a chemical that stimulated and enhanced their immune systems.  He had them smell camphor at the same time.  After a while, just the smell of the camphor would stimulate their immune systems without the use of the chemical.  Then he took some other mice and he injected a different chemical that destroyed their immune systems, and he had those mice also smell camphor at the same time.  And so he ended up with two groups of mice: one group that could smell camphor and stimulate the immune system, and one that could smell the same camphor and destroy the immune system.  Which is so crazy, because it means that it is the brain that is deciding whether to heal or destroy itself based upon external and arbitrary factors.  It says so much about the mind-body connection when it comes to getting better.

Four weeks tomorrow

One month down…eleven to go!  These past four weeks have been an eternity and I’m glad to be crossing this milestone.  I wish I could say it’s been easy so far but it has not.  I have had pain like I’ve never experienced and moments of complete despair.  There were days where I literally sat motionless for 23.5 out of 24 hours and other days that just passed in a haze of pain medication and Netflix.  Those were the dark days.

Now, at four weeks, I am still so far away from recovery, but things are getting better every day.  There are some scary developments, like being completely unable to move my arm out in front of me — not because it hurts too much, but because it is not responding to what my brain tells it to do.  It just hangs there.  I can move it in other directions and so I know that it is not a case of the muscle atrophying.  It just feels like whatever muscle was needed to lift it slightly is now gone.  In order to type, I have to pick up my arm and rest my hands on the keyboard.  Once I do that, I can type (with my arm pressed in to my side).  I have no idea if this is normal but I’ll be asking my surgeon when I see him on Wednesday.  Until then, my orders from PCA are to stay positive and not freak out.

I had wanted to write more frequently so that I could keep track of my little victories.  I would love to say that life got in the way, but I don’t have much of one.  I’ll try to make the best of it now.

I made a lot of progress between weeks two and three.  We went to Vegas for Thanksgiving, and PCA hooked up the ice machine in the car so that I could ice the whole way there.  Then we spent most of the time relaxing in the hotel room.  Occasionally I would put on the sling and stroll around the casino, but it sometimes got stressful because there are so many people who don’t look where they are going and I was constantly bobbing and weaving trying to avoid a collision.

We had big plans of going out to dinner and a show — PCA had planned the whole thing, including a Pretty Woman-esque day of shopping for something to wear since I only brought elastic-waist sweatpants and slip on shoes.  Unfortunately, after a few hours of shopping, my shoulder was throbbing and it soon became clear that we had been overdoing it.  I think that was the night that I took a few Percocet and watched a intensely detailed documentary on PBS about David Geffen instead.  

I have no regrets.  It was wonderful to be with my family, and also to be out and about socializing.  We even found a craps machine I could play since I couldn’t throw dice at the table.  It was the first time I had slept in a bed since the surgery.  We got 6 pillows and made me a sort of inverted V shape and I slept on my back propped up with my arm resting on a pillow.  My other triumphs were: taking a shower on my own for the first time (still washing my hair one-handed though) AND I managed to tear the TP off the roll myself.  All in all, I’m so glad I went.  

Today, at four weeks, I feel like I’m slowly getting better.  It is so clear when I overdo it, and I pay the price for days.  I tried to go for a long walk over the weekend, and ended up doing 3.5 miles, including some small hills.  It took me an hour and a half to walk, including two breaks.  I ended up having to sit on a wall outside someone’s home because I thought I was going to get sick.  Once I got home I laid down and could not get warm for hours afterwards.  That night we went to the tree-lighting on Main St and out for a drink, with a plan to walk to a neighbor’s party.  But the walk was too much and we ended up having to turn around just half a block from their house.  I went home and went straight to bed.

As I’m sitting here now, my shoulder is hurting.  I still do my routine of icing and passive exercises and Tylenol.  I stopped taking the pain meds about a week ago and stopped taking Ambien two nights ago.  The nights are still very difficult as I am still sleeping in my sling and lying on my back.  I’ve had terrible nightmares and insomnia.  The pattern seems to be one very bad night followed by a good one, over and over.

What else to report?  The days are longer now since I don’t get as many visitors and I can’t sit in the chair for one minute longer than I need to.  I feel like I can’t watch any more TV and I’ve never been much of a movie person.  I do lots of crossword puzzles and am reading a book about every three days (“The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet” was unbelievable.  David Mitchell is a virtuoso).  PCA has been working a lot and that’s a good thing.  We were together every minute for three weeks (except for breaks when my sisters or mom came to take care of me) and he has been there pre-tearing TP, fastening my bra, getting me dressed, putting my hair up (still a source of frustration), tying my shoes, filling my ice machine, washing my hair, making tea, hosing me down in the shower, cleaning the whole house, cooking to order, running errands, grocery shopping, doing laundry AND working.  But more than anything, he has been my cheerleader.  He has patiently listened to me through the worst of my fears, anger, doubt and sadness.  He forced me to follow the doctor’s orders exactly, and forbid me to overdo it.  And through it all he stayed positive and always brought me back from the “dark place” to one of hope and excitement for the future.  Had I any doubts about marrying him — which I never did — they would certainly have been squashed by now.  He is the most wonderful person on the face of the planet and he’s my rock.

Right now he is dozing in my reclining chair.  I so wish I could wrap (both of my) arms around him.

Anyway, the past few days have seen huge milestones.

  • We had people over for brunch on Sunday and I felt great the whole time.  That night we went to the movies and although I was uncomfortable sometimes, I found that shifting my arm around seemed to help.  P.S. “Lincoln” was incredible.
  • I drove for the first time — to the gym 1 mile away.  I don’t think I’ll be driving any farther for a while, as it’s still one-handed and it’s hard to do any type of twisting to look behind me which makes parking a small challenge BUT it’s so great not to feel trapped
  • I went to the gym and rode the recumbent bike for 20 minutes, then walked to the library a few blocks away to get a few new books.  A guy in the gym told me I was hardcore.  So true.
  • And…I finally managed to reach my hair with both hands!  By crouching over and tilting my head down to my right hand, and keeping my arm firmly pressed against my side, I could almost sort of put it up.  It’s a weird-looking retro side bun but it is huge progress!

Tonight we are heading to the Promenade to get a little Christmas spirit.  I’m about to make coffee with cinnamon whipped cream and can’t wait!

Here’s a pic of my messy side bun:

Shoulder surgery — day 10

Finally pulled the bandages off my shoulder and got a look at the mess.  I have huge bruises on my shoulder, scabs from 15 different puncture wounds, swelling and four tiny cuts that have healed over pretty well.

The surgeon did exactly what he planned on doing, which as far as I know is the following:                             

  • (Right) shoulder arthroscopy
  • Subacromial decompression
  • Rotator cuff repair
  • Superior labrum anterior posterior repair
  • Distal clavicle resection
  • Biceps tenodesis
I believe it’s the biceps repair that is causing most of the pain at this point.  It turned out to have been almost torn in half.  The labrum was also torn in half and had completely separated from the bone.  It makes sense that the pain is still so bad sometimes that I can’t stand up when you think about the amount of work that he did in there.

Still, looking back, I’m glad that I did the surgery.  I’m hoping for a full recovery and it is certain that I would have had a lot of long-term problems if I hadn’t gotten things repaired.

Shoulder Surgery – one week later

Well, I made it to the one week mark and I get to celebrate by taking time out of my sling during the day!  Unfortunately, I’m still not allowed to do anything useful with that injured arm, and so it just hangs there like a sausage link while I struggle to do everything with my left hand.  Baby steps.  

When I was preparing for surgery, I scoured the internet for information on what the recovery was going to be like.  Even with all the research, I was pretty unprepared for the tougher aspects — the ones that I dreaded beforehand are as bad as expected.  I feel like I did everything possible to prepare for them, but it has still been more draining than I anticipated and in some cases preparation just doesn’t help all that much.  I hope that by writing it all down I’ll be able to see how far I’ve come in the ensuing weeks and months.

I hate not working.  My job is very physical and spending 22+ hours a day in an orthopedic chair is its own particular kind of hell.  

Here I am on a past job…just lounging on the Ross Ice Shelf while my sexy helicopter pilot fiance approaches for a landing:

image

Also working:

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Here’s me now:

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I have a barf bag on my head (I was on a LOT of meds).  Sitting here like a milk-fed veal, with nothing to do but wait, I find myself reviewing the events leading up the boat accidents again and again.  It seems inevitable now that something bad was destined to happen on our shoot, given the circumstances and the willful negligence of the people in charge of the logistics of the production.  There are so many stories about production companies cutting corners on safety in order to pocket those line items.  The glut of reality shows means networks push for more and more danger in their series and it means incompetent production companies line up to make the shows, thinking that because they have a concept (usually involving a bunch of tough guys doing dangerous jobs), they can be the next Thom Beers.*  I can’t believe how close I came to dying because of someone else’s stupidity.  It makes me very, very angry and determined to right some of the wrongs in our industry.

I have learned a valuable lesson from my injuries.  I will never again work for a production company that does not have experience with dangerous, overseas productions.  Nor will I ever work on a show where the star of the show is given total logistical and financial control over the production.  When I see promos for “Bamazon,” I want to kick in my TV.  It seems incomprehensible that I will still be sitting here recovering while the series airs in early December.  By the time it runs, I will only be at the halfway mark, with another eight weeks to go before I can think about resuming my normal life or getting back out in the field.  That’s a long time to sit here thinking.

I am tethered to an ice machine, which circulates freezing water around the surgery site.  I have to ice my shoulder for 15 minutes every 15 minutes.  This means that my life revolves around the “off” times, when I can unplug from the machine, hit the button on the reclining chair to elevate me to my feet, and struggle out of the chair to the kitchen, bathroom or front porch.  Unfortunately, the ice machine connector requires one to push a button and pull the plug at the same time, which can’t be managed with one hand, and so I have to call PCA on walkie to unplug me.  He carries his walkie everywhere, and even brought it to the supermarket during one of his rare forays away from my side.  Soon enough, my 15 minutes of break time are up, and it’s time to repeat the process.  PCA plugs me in, I slowly lower the orthopedic chair, take a pain pill and resume my life as a slug.  

Things I can’t do one-handed: open bottles of medication, tie my shoes, put up my hair, put on socks, turn the pages of a book, carry a laundry basket, crack an egg, zip up a sweatshirt, pull on skinny jeans.

I wonder whether my recovery is typical.  It’s incredibly painful.  Far more so than I ever expected, and much, much worse than either my back surgery or my knee surgery.  My surgeon says that he expected it to be tougher for me because I am “emotionally invested” in my shoulder and he’s right.  I blame someone else for my injuries and for the pain.  I have a lot of flashbacks about the boat accidents.  It makes it hard to move on.  I have yet to sleep through the night, or for more than two hours at a time, and the lack of sleep is messing with my ability to stay positive.  I dread going to sleep sitting up, and no matter how many pills I take I’m unable to get the pain lower than a 4 or 5 at night.  I can make it through most of the day without the pills but the nights are miserable.  

Yesterday we went to the library for my first field trip out of the house since the surgery.  It was so refreshing to be in Santa Monica among the living, although it was hard not to yell mean things at the happy, two-armed people strolling in the sunshine, swinging their shopping bags, doing pushups down by the beach, or walking arm in arm, blissfully unaware of my mono-limb jealousy.  I felt like a troll who had emerged from under a bridge with my greasy hair in a side ponytail, giant sling, smeared lipgloss (impossibly to put on left-handed) and my ugly sweatpants.  Still, it was a successful mission.

I’m looking forward to the week ahead.  One down, eleven to go.

* My boss on “Deadliest Catch,” and the creator of “Ice Road Truckers,” “Bering Sea Gold,” “Ax Men,” etc etc.

Surgery Survival Kit — Day 5

Spending 24 hours a day in a chair is soooooo boring.  Here are a few survival tools, assembled within easy reach:

1. Water

2. Gingerbread tea

3. Metamucil (blech)

4. Fresh mint (for nausea)

5. Oxycodone, Ambien, Advil, Vitamins

6. Red rose from the garden from PCA

7. Walkie for summoning PCA

8. Vanilla caramel candle

9. Book

10. iPad

11. Lip balm

12. Ice machine (out of sight)

13. Apple TV with Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Downton Abbey, and Arrested Development queued up.

14. Notebook for recording misery

Day Five feels kind of like Day Four although about a million times better because I finally got to take a shower (with PCA’s help).  it took so long that we actually ran out of hot water, but it was wonderful!  now my sister is here, making mini pizzas and keeping me company.  PCA just made a fire.  Between the two of them they take care of me and change my ice every 15 minutes.  i’m so lucky to not be in this alone.

bathroom explosion:

I’m getting more used to the sling, and its getting a little easier to take care of day to day hygiene (although i would never leave the house in my current outfit).

heres a pic of the ice machine, my current best friend.  GAME READY!

Shoulder surgery – day 4

First day of passive exercises and i cant believe how much it hurt.  thought i was going to be sick from the pain.  still recovering from less than two minutes of exercise.  i cant believe how tough this recovery is.  the exercise consists of hanging your arm down and then slowly swinging it in a circle without using any muscles.  chris had to hold me up because i amost passed out.  the pain literally made me sick.  good Lord.  its going to be a loooong recovery.  its amazing how different i feel from just five days ago — the day before the surgery.  i felt so great back then; i feel so awful now.  i cant wait to start feeling better, even just a little bit better.

still taking 2 oxy every 4 hours, 3 advil every 8 hours, ice every 15 minutes.  my day is spent watching the clock and waiting.  this aint living.

Post shoulder surgery — day 3

Day three. (dictated via Dragon, so excuse the weird punctuation and lack of caps). lots of pain in the morning but I finally slept well. I woke up to the sound of rain. it was wonderful. sleeping is hard as I have to sit upright the whole night in the recliner chair and I tend to want to roll from side to side trying to get comfortable.  it’s like sleeping in an airplane. right now my shoulder hurts a lot. the pain is deep inside and it’s a throbbing ache that even the Percocet doesn’t seem to change too much. every once in a while i get waves of feeling really good and I want to go out to breakfast or go for a walk or go see a movie but within five minutes of standing up I just want to sit back down again. I’m so tired.

today Chris made me a smoothie and a cup of tea and he just headed out to bay cities (the deli that heals all wounds) to pick up some mac n cheese and a Godmother. the ice machine is a lifesaver — it circulates cold air all around my shoulder and I run it on for 15 minutes and off for 15 minutes all day long and it’s fantastic. Im attached to it with a long cord and i feel like a cyborg on a charging station. going to the bathroom is a process. Chris has to disconnect me from the ice machine, I have to take off blankets, pull all the pillows away that are wedged in around me, and then slowly elevate the chair so that my feet are underneath me and then he helps me stand up. Once im in the bathroom its mostly okay but he had to pre-tear off pieces of toilet paper because I can’t twist my body and tearing it off the roll is a two-handed job.

every day is a new experience and filled with things I have to learn to do all over again, whether it’s putting in my contacts, putting on my socks or even just getting a pair of sweats out of the drawer. it’s very tiring but I am so lucky to have Chris here to help me, and one surprise has been that I’m able to use the fingers in my right hand from time to time to hold a piece of paper or brace something when I try to twist the top off or even just take the lid off of Chapstick.

I’ve been learning what works the best. definitely wear comfortable clothes that you can pull on and off with one hand. I borrowed a bunch of pull-up stretchy top sundresses from my sister and those been a lifesaver I wear those with no bra over a pair of elastic waist sweatpants. I have a stretchy headband that I can put on one handed to keep my hair out of my face. We got a reclining chair which and I’m in that thing 24 hours a day. we also lined up a lot of movies and TV shows to watch but I don’t have a lot of patience for them yet. I’m glad the air date for Bamazon got pushed or I would have probably pulled my anchors out throwing something at the screen. It had been set to air on the date of my surgery but I don’t think I could’ve taken that irony. I have all my medication set up and Chris keeps track of what I need to take. I have a bundle of fresh mint I inhale when I get nauseous: I drink a lot of water and I’m trying to eat as many vegetables (along with mac n cheese, of course) as I can and I’m taking my vitamins.

Someone just delivered flowers but I couldn’t get up to get the door!!!!! I’m dying to see them!!!!! Hurry home, Chris!!!!!!!!

Surgery Day 2 ~ first post op appointment

my first thought this morning: I am SO glad it’s over.  Then: pain meds please.

it was a long and restless night and i didnt get much sleep.  i simply cant sleep sitting up. i kept wanting to roll onto my side and then half-waking up to realize that i also wanted to throw up.  my meds are on the most annoying schedule possible — every 3, 4, 6 and 8 hours.  the “mint corsage” that PCA made has been really great at staving off nausea.  every time i feel sick i take a bundle of fresh mint out of its Snapware container and inhale until it goes away.  we even brought it with us to the doctors office.

the meds seem to have kicked in now.  i take one Oxy every 4 hours and 3 Tylenols 3x/day.

during one of my Feelgood Happy Funland stages i managed to change out of stanky sweatpants into more formal “going to town!” sweatpants.  and PCA helped me wiggle in to a stretchy tube top sundress (which i wore over the sweats).  that felt a lot better as the strap from the sling velcro is super scratchy.  oh and we also discovered an EKG pad still stuck to my stomach.  what a day of discoveries!

heres my goin-out outfit. note the messy ponytail from PCA.

the nurse removed my bandages…

ACCCCCKKKK its just as gross as i imagined!!  there are four holes, from where he did five different repairs.  turns out my biceps was also torn, longitudinally.  and we counted 15 different punctures from the anesthesia guy (too tired to look up how to spell anesthesiologist, who, by the way, also administered anesthesia to President Reagan. Fun fact from my surgeon).  Dr Knapp said when they were doing the bicep repair that it was clearly a high impact injury, shoulder meeting immoveable object.  could have been tree OR rock!  so many boat accidents, so many choices!

Strapless wedding dress, here i come.

here i am with new bandages.

so…plan from here is rest and heal.  i have to wear the sling for four weeks then i go back in to see Dr Knapp.

now im back home in my chair with my giant ice pack on.  finally got some food — crackers, a little bit of peanut butter, and some steamed squash.  i am so grateful for the windows of feeling good and i feel so much better than i did yesterday.

Shoulder surgery – day 1

I can’t believe how much it hurts. As someone with a freakishly high pain tolerance, I’m actually very surprised — it hurts a lot more than my back surgery did a few years ago and as far as I can tell the Percocet aren’t doing much. I got out of surgery at 4pm, after going in around 2pm to the OR. We are finally home. It was only a 4 mile drive from the hospital to home but we hit tons of Election Day traffic at 5pm.

Speaking of Election Day, I did manage to get out and vote before heading to the hospital! I wore my sticker proudly in pre-op…

…and then also on my sling.

I have been really nauseous since I woke up in the recovery room. Had one bite of toast but almost threw it up. PCA made me some mint tea and I’m drinking it now, hoping to settle my stomach so I can take my next dose of pain meds. The pain feels deep in my shoulder, like someone has been taking a jackhammer to my bones. It’s steady and distractingly intense. Deep breaths don’t help. Why are deep breaths always the answer? PCA looked up post- surgery nausea and most suggested five minutes of deep controlled breathing. I find myself clenching my hand and hunching my shoulder up to try and ward off the pain.

The surgeon told PCA that my injuries were clearly from blunt force trauma caused by high impact. In fact, he said my injuries almost exactly matched those of one of the Tennessee Titans whom he operated on last week. He also found a tear in my biceps and repaired that too. That’s about all I can manage for now. I’m icing 15 on and 15 off for the next forever. The recliner is a Godsend!

**** 9pm now. I hope im not in an Oxy haze hallucinating Obama’s re-election!!!! I must be dehydrated. Haven’t had any water since 945pm last night — almost 24 hours ago now. PCA just brought a handful of crushed mint from the garden. Inhaling that seems to help too. My hair is driving me crazy. I can’t put it up in a ponytail and PCA couldn’t manage it either! It’s like his man hands just don’t work that way. I have a million little tendrils hanging down, sticking to my sweaty face. Something tells me this will be the first in a long line of challenges in the getting-me-dressed department.

Ah, so it wasn’t a hallucination!

Guyana Day 12

It’s raining again.  

Filming in jungle conditions means a constant battle to keep equipment dry.  The worst problem by far for cameras is humidity, as moisture gets trapped behind the lens and fogs it up.  We had a plan.  We would build wooden boxes and rig up a light bulb in each box.  The bulb would emit just enough heat to dry out the parts and prevent moisture from forming.  Each one of the $35,000 cameras would have its own little box to rest and recuperate in every night, and would emerge the following morning dry, functioning, and ready to make reality television magic.

Making the boxes proved an epic endeavor.  There are no hardware stores in the interior and plywood is worth almost as much as the cameras.  Wood is plentiful — just cut down the nearest tree — but when you are trying to make a dry box building it out of sodden wood is far from ideal.  However, our choices were scarce and trees were not.  The Amerindians headed out into the forest to cut us some boards.  It is an amazing process.  The tree is cut down by chainsaw and a guy makes the first cut longways.  Another guy takes a board with a few nails in it spaced a certain distance apart and he drags it along the fresh side, scoring it the whole way down to mark the lines to cut on.  Then the chainsaw maestro freehand cuts the planks along the lines, and you end up with boards that would rival any you’d find at Ace Hardware.  They have the process down to a science and it goes from tree to 1×12 boards in about 3 minutes.

And so we finished our boxes, sewed up some cheesecloth bags filled with rice to also help absorb moisture, and brought them into the mess hall where we’ve been staging our gear every night.  The camera tech has the toughest job on this production.  He has to be up before the camera guys every morning, and then he’s handed their muddy, dirty, wet, malfunctioning cameras every night and expected to make them whole again.  In between, he races around the jungle with a 40lb backpack filled with batteries, tapes, tools, gaffer tape and Gatorade.

The attrition rate on this show has been worse than any cold weather project I’ve done, with the exception of Deadliest Catch when we lost ALL of our cameras during the Opilio crab season one year.  Luckily, we didn’t lose the final camera until the very last week of filming.  Here in Guyana, after less than two weeks, we have one 800 down, two EX-3s, and 2 5D’s.  Flights in and out of Eteringbang have stopped indefinitely because of the rain and we have no hope for a resupply any time soon.

And so it was with dismay that I heard a frantic voice on the walkie this morning yelling, “We need to get those boxes out of the building right now!!!!”  I walked into the tech room and there they were.  Millions and millions of leaf cutter ants, all working together to dismantle and carry out every single grain of rice from the bags.  The line of ants stretched 50 yards from the camera box into the jungle, each one carrying a single grain of rice as a guard ant moved up and down the line patrolling and keeping the peace.  They must have thought they hit the lottery.

Guyana Filming, Day 9

It’s a sunny day and the camp is abuzz with possibility.  Laundry is baking in the sun.  It’s never quite clean but at least when it’s dry you can shake the dirt out.  The roads are drying up and the ATV’s zip in and out to the mining camp.  The river is retreating and no longer threatens to flood the camp.  And the chicken that’s tied by one leg to the anaconda cage is squawking up a storm.

Although the Super Bowl is the day after tomorrow, the majority of bets in camp are being placed on the outcome of the real battle: Snake vs. Chicken.  Sides have been chosen and the over/under is set.  Tomorrow at high noon is the real Rumble in the Jungle.  The snake seems to be where the smart money is.  Although he’s just a tween, he’s easily 10 feet long.  The chicken is smaller than average.  But the snake is stressed from being poked, prodded and generally harassed by the locals here.  He used to live in a bag on our porch, until he managed to escape.  He was caught again and put in a laundry basket with a board on top.  Finally, someone made a cage for him.  And although temporary bloodlust has set in, most of the film crew would like to set him free.  After the chicken meets his fate, a jailbreak has been planned.  In the middle of the night the snake will be quietly released into the river behind camp.  Perhaps the evil monkey will be “encouraged” to travel with him.  

The jungle is starting to take its toll.  About 10 people in camp have contracted some sort of parasite.  I got mine out of the way on the first day and it was not pleasant.  Most of the cast are sick now.  One poor guy got stung by a swarm of bees and as he was trying to get away from them he cut his arm on the spikes of the “Bastard Tree.”  The Bastard Tree must be the world’s most diabolical tree.  Its trunk is covered in needle-like spires ready to spear you should you happen to brush by it or, even worse, grab it to stop yourself from falling in the slick mud.  You are guaranteed a world of pain and an infection to boot.

The middle of the jungle is filled with trails that never see the light of day because of the thick canopy overhead.  These trails are slick with mud that can reach your knees.  Every step is treacherous and it’s a constant battle not to fall on your butt or leave a boot behind in the mud.  When the natural reaction is to reach out and grab what you can so you don’t fall, it’s impossible to retrain yourself to keep your arms at your sides.  The bastard tree exploits your knee-jerk reactions.

So, it was kind of a rough day for everyone except for the evil pet monkey, who I caught eating a marshmallow.

The Town Drunk

On Friday the 27th we made a company move from Georgetown to the interior of Guyana.  Our destination was a makeshift camp at the foot of Mt. Arau, which is as far west as one can go without ending up in Venezuela. It would take a full day of travel, starting with a flight in to Eteringbang “Airport.” Of course there’s no airport to speak of.  The pilot travels with enough fuel for a round trip and must assess whether it’s safe to land in the field below.  If it’s rained at all, he’ll turn around and try again the next day.  I couldn’t decide whether it was reassuring or terrifying that our pilot spent most of the 90 minute flight sipping coffee and reading the newspaper he had open on his lap.  Did that mean he had so much experience that he didn’t even really need to be looking out the window?  That since there was no visibility in the thick rain clouds that there was no point in looking anyway?  Or was he simply resigned to having lived a full and happy life up that point and was turning his fate over to a higher power?  These are the things one contemplates while lurching through the clouds in a tiny twin-engine over one of the most remote places on the planet.

We broke through the clouds and the rainforest was revealed below.  I wish I could think of a better description, but all that came to mind was that it looked like broccoli as far as the eye can see.  Our little blue plane shuddered and dropped and groaned and the runway came into view.  It was just a dirt strip that seemed like it needed about another 50 yards of dirt or we’d run straight into the trees.  The wheels lowered, we rocketed in, and the landing was smoother than any you’d get on your average Southwest Air flight.  We glided right to the edge of the field and stopped.

It’s always weird to emerge from a hissing, clicking, steaming machine into absolute silence, but it’s even stranger when the plane leaves and you are left standing there with your bags and the birds and insects all start up their racket again.  That’s the moment you know you are very far from home.  We dragged our bags to a tiny building on the edge of the meadow.  The Eteringbang Police Station is a rickety old structure with a volleyball net out front, hammocks strung up from the rafters, and bullet holes along its wooden slats.  There is a story of a shootout that happened almost 20 years ago, stemming back to the arrest of a drug lord who was involved in smuggling, and one of the policemen (lounging in the hammock) has scars from being shot 10 times.  But we spent a peaceful day reading the local papers and moving our 40 cases of gear back and forth out of the rain, under the canopy, out of the canopy, down to the boat, out of that wrong boat, into another boat, back to the bank, out of the mud, etc.  On one of these trips, the cameraman walked past a small cross — just two sticks tied together with string.  A grave in the woods next to the airport.  I asked our guide who it was.  ”Oh that was the town drunk,” Timothy said.  ”He died a few months ago when he fell in the river and drowned.”

After we staged the gear in its final resting place, we took a fast boat down the Cuyuni River to the real “town.”  Eteringbang is a row of two-story shanty houses clinging to a muddy cliff.  There’s a dirt path that runs along the river’s edge and the locals walk from house to house, or to the one store that is near the boat landing.  I got to take a closeup look at the homemade barge that would carry the excavator up river in just a few days’ time.  The metal was searing hot and was so thin it buckled under my feet.  The seams looked like they were welded by a drunken monkey.  Was it really going to carry a 20-ton excavator 150 miles against the current?  It didn’t even have its own engine or steering capability.

We took a break for lunch, walking past the internet cafe which doubled as a brothel, or the brothel that doubled as an internet cafe, depending on how you look at things.  Our entire crew piled into the only restaurant and sat down to a huge Brazilian meal of chicken, rice, coleslaw, beans, spaghetti (?) and mango juice.  Of course we would draw a crowd anywhere, as rarely would one see a huge group of tough guys all wearing khaki zip-off pants like they’re in a gang, but in Eteringbang we were the talk of the town.  It wasn’t long before a guy wandered up, barefoot and wearing a filthy striped shirt.  He started yelling something unintelligible at the restaurant.  No-one seemed to notice or care.  It went on for a while. Him yelling, us eating, restaurant staff ignoring him.  Finally, I asked what he was yelling about.  ”Oh, that’s Jack.  He’s the town drunk.  He’s just doing his job.”  Jack took over after the other town drunk drowned.  His job was to drink vodka and Gatorade and yell.  All day and all night.  Everyone just tolerated him and so we did too.  

We said goodbye to half of our crew who would remain with the barge until it picked up the excavator.  The rest of us piled into the boats that would take us further into the interior to camp, where we would make our home for the next six weeks.  Jack leaned over a railing to yell some obscenities at us.  ”Bye, Jack,” I yelled, “see you in six weeks!”

Guyana, Day 5

Today was interviews with the Alabama cast.  The rain started exactly as we finalized the shot that we wanted.  And then it didn’t stop.  So we went ahead and did them in the rain.  I sat in a folding chair in the middle of a field as it slowly became a swamp.  The chair legs started sinking, so we crumpled up two plastic water bottles and used them as ballast for the back legs.  I interviewed the guys for three hours and the rain never let up for one minute.  It ran in sheets down my face, arms, the back of the chair.  All my notes disintegrated and melted into the landscape.  It was like having a warm bucket of water being thrown at you every five minutes.  I loved it.