Mike Fuselier: a major turning point
During a climbing trip to Turkey in the spring of 2015, Mike Fuselier fell more than 20 meters during an outing to the cliffs in Datça. Although every prognosis indicated what he would likely never be able to do again, almost one year and six months after the accident, Mike tells us his moving story and how he successfully turned this ordeal into a genuine life-changing experience. In the fall of 2016, Mike sent "Un Clin d'Oeil au Paradis" (Translation: A Glimpse of Heaven), a legendary 8c in Tournoux in the Southern French Alps, closing one chapter of his life to start another… and to continue blazing a new path on his own personal journey.
January 25 2017
Tell my story one more time? Why not? However, this time around I plan to tell it just a bit differently. This time, I would like to highlight certain anecdotes that I consider genuinely important. An experience that, I hope, will help and inspire others who have also suffered a bad accident and wonder how they will be able to "do" again. I am well aware of the fact that I was extremely lucky throughout this entire adventure, and that my post-accident situation has proven ideal. I know that I do not have all the answers, and would never presume to be able to write a guide on "How to come back from a serious accident." I know very well that there are much more complex cases and situations (healthcare coverage, country of origin, etc.). This amounts to no more than sharing my experience, and not the subject of an article in "Psychology Today." This is simply my point of view and how I plan to follow through. I would like to explain how this approach allowed me to see the silver lining, to squeeze the most out of this experience..
- "I'm good! I should have more than enough photos of the route." Hanging from my static rope, just beneath the anchors for "Fort Comme un Tuc" (Datça, Turkey), I put my camera away and prepared to descend. I then unhooked my tether, and as soon as I weighted my harness I felt myself freefalling into space. I instinctively grabbed the rope with my right hand, which did little to offset my near-fatal mistake. I was at the anchor when I started to fall, 25 meters off the deck on one of my favorite types of routes, one that overhangs 30 degrees past vertical; little stood in the way of me and the ground. Unobstructed, fell straight through the air.
"I thought to myself, 'So this is how it's all going to end.'"
Right there, at a cliff far from my loved ones, far from Anaïs. This was one of those truly unique moments in life where your brain thinks and calculates faster and more intensely than it would ever be able to do on purpose. With an overdose of adrenaline, you understand and analyze the situation with incredible clarity. You know that death is imminent, and yet refuse to succumb to the inevitable. So there I was in a freefall, from very high up since I was just below the anchor, and I knew that the bottom of the cliff was littered with boulders. The situation was almost comical: just a few minutes early, before ending up in such a precarious position, my friend Nicolas Nastorg had warned me. As he watched me clown and swing around just a few meters above the rocks he said, "Stop fooling around! Believe me, you don't want to end up in any of the hospitals around here…"
So as my fall continued, my hand squeezing the rope as tight as possible, I could see the inevitable finish that gravity had in store. However, while impossible to fight against Newton's well-known theory, I fought as hard as I could to land in the best possible position, trying to increase my chances of survival by turning the fall into a long jump instead of simply crashing into the ground.
"Everyone told me that I made like a cat."
In the air, I straightened my body into a balanced and tight position, preparing for impact like a canyoneer jumping into water, keeping my limbs as close to my sides as possible to avoid "getting hurt." These automatic reflexes combined with being in great shape probably saved my life. All of my muscles contracted at the same time. In such an incredible state of stress, my brain ordered every muscle fiber in my body to absorb the impact.
"Was it already a foregone conclusion?"
How many times had I driven right by this highway exit on my way to climbing in Spain? How many times had I told myself that I needed to return, to head back to that special place where I had spent my summers as a kid? I had not paid a visit for over 20 years and I have no idea why. This time, on my way home from the south of France, an impulse, or perhaps intuition, made me take the "Vias" exit. A town located just a few kilometers west of Cap d'Agde. In spite of a few wrong turns, I found the place that I was looking for. Euphoric and a bit nostalgic, I walked around, across, and through it, trying to organize my thoughts among the wave of memories that washed over me. I finally walked back to my truck, parked on the side of the road in the middle of a 90° turn. As I sat there deep in thought, staring at my old stomping grounds, I had failed to see the road sign right in front of me: a large blue circle with a white arrow indicating a mandatory left turn. How had I missed such a large sign just a few meters away? This symbol then merged with the backdrop of my childhood playground.
"It took me a few minutes
to understand the meaning of all this,
'Caution, major turning point ahead.'"
At the time I simply laughed at the absurdity of the message I had imagined. This message, absurd or not, had smacked me in the face one week before leaving for Turkey.
When I regained consciousness, Axel was leaning over me. He helped calm me down by placing his hand on my chest. It felt like I was dreaming and unable to wake myself up. "You fell a short ways," he said, "and it looks like you broke your feet, but don't worry! We called for an ambulance." I began to understand why I felt half asleep.
While I only remember portions of what happened next, I do know that the Turkish paramedics and doctors did not take very good care of me, and that I was repatriated to France roughly thirty hours after my accident, undergoing emergency surgery at the university hospital in Grenoble. Only when I was finally in the skilled hands of the repatriation doctors did I unclench my teeth and fists. I had fought with everything I had until they arrived. I was literally clueless regarding the details of my physical condition and no one else was capable of telling me. Moreover, the worry I saw on my friends' faces was enough to understand that I had to keep fighting. In the end, my injuries were pretty severe. In spite of the frontal sinus and orbital fractures, as well as major chest trauma, my feet bore the brunt of the fall.
- Comminuted fractures of the medial, intermediate, and lateral cuneiform bones as well as the cuboid bone.
- Fractures at the base of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th metatarsals.
- Displaced fracture at the body-head junction of the 2nd metatarsal.
- Separation of the 3rd metatarsal-interphalangeal joint.
- Anterior and posterior fractures of the talus (ankle) bone.
- Complex mixed comminuted fracture of the calcaneus.
- Multi-fragmented and displaced fracture at the base of the 1st metatarsal.
- Compound, multi-fragmented, and displaced fracture at the body of the 2nd metatarsal.
- Displaced fracture of the body of the 3rd metatarsal.
- Fractured body of the 4th metatarsal.
When I woke up in the intensive care unit, I experienced bizarre and disturbing flashbacks. Completely disoriented, one scene kept coming and going. The image stuck in my head was the superposition of the road sign with my childhood playground. However, at that particular moment in the ICU, completely doped up on painkillers, I accorded little importance to these flashbacks.
After a few days, I was transferred to the trauma department. My wife, my parents, my family, my in-laws, and my friends came to see me every day. Even though I did not quite understand it at the time, their presence and support became the foundation of my rehabilitation. I received amazing support to face this ordeal, and I always had someone by my side whenever I felt down.
The surgeon who operated on me and saved my feet, Doctor Dao-Léna, came to see me in my room to explain what she had done, the difficulties encountered, and how hard she toiled to avoid having to amputate a part of my right foot. Given the chaos of broken bones she had to repair, what she knew from past experience and existing outcomes data, the prognosis was not very encouraging. I would have difficulty walking, I would not be able to run again, and I would probably never be able to climb. All in all it was no big deal since I was alive and still had my two feet. I thought to myself that it was just a question of time before I would return to my old self at some point.
"It all starts here!"
As I began to understand the seriousness of my injuries and what this meant for the future, two clear choices seemed available to me. One, I could just give up and accept the situation as is. Or two, I could immediately put together a battle plan, knowing that I was in for a long period of recovery and rehabilitation.
"I made a personal bet and a promise to myself."
Aware of my overall physical condition, I analyzed the amount of work, time, and discipline required to honor my bet. Luckily, I had spent a considerable part of my life up until that point training hard to achieve my climbing and other sports-related goals.
Since there is no such thing as a free lunch, I knew what it would take to fulfill my promise. I found it reassuring that overcoming the biggest challenge of my life depended entirely on me. I also made a promise to my wife that I would be able to run again and that the accident would turn out to be a much more enriching rather than detrimental experience. There was no way to back out of such a promise. The fact that I was fighting to ensure a certain level of comfort and normality for our family was also a huge source of inspiration. I bet myself that I would once again climb 8a, clip the chains of an 8c as an encore, and then push beyond any self-imposed limits as the finale. Would it be possible for me to climb a grade 9 route? If I gave myself the means, then yes.
After three weeks in the trauma department, I moved to the Rocheplane rehabilitation center in Grenoble. This marked the beginning of the next step. I was lucky enough to have doctors and physical therapists who quickly understood the extent of my motivation. They helped me to channel and use my energy wisely. I spent 7 hours a day in physical therapy: treatments, muscle building, proprioception, stretching, electrical stimulation, and a whole host of other techniques to maximize progress. And I was making progress!
"Information that I was simply unwilling to accept."
Due to the condition of the skin on the back of my left foot, both feet could not be operated on at the same time. There was too high a risk of necrosis. We had to wait 45 days to operate and attempt to reshape my calcaneus bone correctly. Doctor Dao-Léna explained the operation in detail and reiterated what would be difficult and even impossible to do. However, in contrast to the first time, I not only heard what she was saying but I listened and began to truly understand everything she had explained. I was terrified; this new information crushed my spirit and caused me to reassess my entire plan and goals.
Three days post operation, I returned to the rehabilitation center. A few hours after settling in to my room, I started to experience stomach pain; minor discomfort at first, but nothing more. I continued to dwell on all those things I would no longer be able to do. I kept telling myself how fortunate I had been up until that point, but it was too hard to accept that everything was over. In fact, I simply refused to accept the forgone conclusion. My stomach pain increased, a psychosomatic reaction to the information that I was simply unwilling to acknowledge.
During the night, my physical state took a turn for the worse, and the on-call doctor came to examine me. When he placed his hand on my stomach, even the slight pressure proved excruciatingly painful and I pushed his hand away. His expression clearly indicated that something was not right. When he told the nurse to call an ambulance to drive me to the emergency room, I started to imagine the worst case scenario. I thought of all the patients at the rehabilitation center who suffered severe complications after contracting an infection. I thought that, having just undergone surgery on my foot, I now also had an infection. How ironic! After surviving a 20 meter fall, avoiding infection with open wounds in Turkey, a strain of staphylococcus was finally going to catch up with me here, in France! I was outraged, and started to surrender to my inevitable fate.
I received a CT scan, but had to wait longer than usual for the results since it was World Music Day, and all of the surgeons were busy. Worried about my condition, the wait was extremely difficult and stressful. Around 23:00, a surgeon finally came to see me. He explained that he was overloaded and would not be able to operate until the morning. Operate? Operate on what? It turned out to be a simple case of appendicitis.
I never really accepted everything Doctor Dao-Léna had explained to me, and this lack of acceptance manifested itself through my "2nd brain" or stomach. My appendicitis was probably the worst mental challenge I had to face, but also the best thing that could have happened to me. The moral of the story is that we are capable, even subconsciously, of generating a physical manifestation of mental angst. The good news: if I was capable of putting myself in this dilapidated state by sheer force of will alone, then I should also be able to use pure will to head in the other direction.
"If I condition myself to keep moving forward,
my body will positively respond to the idea."
Following this short mental episode, I settled back into my regularly scheduled program at the rehabilitation center. As I continued to make progress every day physically, I still had a slight mental block. I remained anxious about the future of my career. I knew there were a certain number of psychological barriers to overcome to clear my mind. While simply getting healthy was an honorable objective, I wanted to better see and understand the reason behind why I was fighting so hard. I needed to return to my roots, to physically set foot in the memorable places of my childhood, to stand in a spot with a smile from ear to year and think to myself, "How incredibly lucky I am to be here." I needed the opportunity to set foot in a place of my choosing to be able to come to grips with the fact that I needed to turn the page. Turning a page in one's life is much easier when the choice is deliberate. However, one must plan for, accept, and then follow through with this choice! I decided to visit my old elementary school to see what it had become. I have so many memories from my time there. In its current state of disrepair, the school had obviously closed its doors some time ago. I strolled through the old recess area and let the memories simply flow over me. I finally encountered a little 8-year-old boy named Michaël, who stared at me in disbelief. I smiled at him and started to tell him about the wonderful life he was going to lead, that he need not worry. He appeared both reassured and amazed. I then turned around to see a much older Michaël, one in his seventies who looked smilingly upon me. He revealed to me all of the wonderful things I would experience if I just turned the page.
For the moment, it appears that he told the truth. I am no longer afraid to move forward in my life's story, to write each page on my own, and to turn to the next one when ready. Of course, I have to carefully choose the ink with which I write each word. This special ink is made from a mix of my emotions, my desires, my determination, and of course the affection I both give and receive.
Albane, a friend who was there on the day of my accident, recovered the belt I was wearing when I fell. She took care to sew the torn part of the belt by hand. She brought it back to me three or four months after the accident, and had stitched a few words of encouragement:
"Make the best of your second life."
These few words are now engraved in my memory and I have done my best to make my second life as wonderful and genuine as possible. Other than the physical scars, this experience has allowed me to open my eyes to what is most important in life, to what is truly fundamental: love, joy, courage, perspective, authenticity, determination, compassion, optimism, sharing, and simplicity.
Equipped with these tools, I have put everything in place to achieve self-fulfillment and to follow through with the opportunities presented to me. I have adapted my training methods, and whenever these methods are not adaptable, it is I who adapts. I continue to be surprised by my ability to push beyond my limits. If able to visualize completing an objective, then I go for it, train hard, and give everything that I have. I always find friends willing to support, help, and provide encouragement.
Everyone has their own story to tell and to experience; the joy they put in is the joy they will receive. When I wrote this piece, I had just undergone surgery on my left foot for the fifth time. That's a lot, don't you think?
It was important to include so much detail in this story. I really hope that my experience can help, inspire, and offer hope to those recovering from an accident who are filled with doubt and scared of change.
"We have no idea what we are capable of doing
or of the strength that lies dormant within us
until we are truly put to the test."
Nothing is insurmountable if you are able to accept your current situation and use the right tools (or those given to you). In spite of the many surgeries to regain a minimum level of comfort and function, I know that I will always experience a certain amount of pain for the rest of my life. However, this pain is a reminder every morning how lucky I am to still be here to enjoy life to the fullest!
Even though the journey has been long, I have returned to climbing and all of my other favorie activities with my two gnarled feet. Post reconstruction, I have no idea of what my limits will be and would like to explore just how far I can go. I also know that I have already won the first part of my bet by taking a quick glimpse at heaven.
"Life is a gift, without them I may have been amputated or even died."
A wonderful group of individuals came together to provide me with incredible support, they offered me an amazing gift in such a simple and humble manner.
Without them, I never would have written these words, without them I would not be so optimistic about my future, without them I would have nothing.
While it is foolish to think that we are stronger than death, I have received support beyond the extraordinary to face life's challenges.
My dear friends, you acted with such courage and intelligence at the base of the cliff that day, and stood reassuringly by my side while I waited to be repatriated. Svana, Albane, Vincent, Nicolas, Olivier, and Axel, we shared this traumatic experience together.
Doctor Dao-Lena's fighting spirit and audacity are amazing. Séverine, you entered the game when I was losing 3-0, but succeeded in doing everything possible to ensure we won. THANK YOU!
Leaving the rehabilitation center from time to time, while still in a wheelchair, always provided a much needed breath of fresh air. I would have been less optimistic and willing to fight the good fight if my sister Karin and my brother Jonathan had not been there by my side. They drove me all over the Alps as soon as I murmured to them, "please help."
All of my friends jumped to action to take me outdoors, to provide support, to distract me, and to allow me to escape. There are so many of you and I am so very thankful. I would like to thank the Titoune family, Alban and Perrine, Guillaume and Perrine, Greg and Mag, Coco, and everyone else that I have not mentioned but who were always there.
Chirstophe (Doctor Rulh), the incredible consideration you have for your patients, your humanity, and your positive attitude helped me beyond belief during my stay at Rocheplane. Doctor Judet is a talented surgeon with hands of gold. In addition, he cares for his patients with such incredible humility. Thanks to him in part, I will be able to walk normally.
I have been able to make the most of this adventure thanks to those who provided me with perspective and relevant insight into everything that surrounds us. Thank you, Geneviève, for explaining the fundamentals to me.
Gilou, "thank you" fails to express my infinite gratitude and everything I owe you from this process of rebuilding myself. Your care, your explanations, your understanding, your open mind, your time, and your heart are things you offer without question every time I am in need.
Thank you Mom and Dad for your support and all that you have done for my well-being.
Even with such incredible momentum, I would never have made the first step or overcome even the simplest challenge, and would have probably tumbled into the abyss if Anaïs had not been in my life. This is true not only with regard to my accident and recovery, but for the much more difficult challenges she has faced. With unbelievable strength and courage, she was able to put her fear, pain, and doubts aside to focus all of here energy on my repatriation, and in managing my family and friends. She provided me with support, care, and unconditional love every single second. She spent sleepless nights in the hospital with me and made sure that I received the best possible care. She succeeded in reorganizing her schedule to drive me everywhere. She took care of all of the insurance paperwork. In spite of all that, she was still able to look at me with her big blue eyes and say, "everything is going to be just fine!" THANK YOU, my love, for being life's best gift ever.
I have not forgotten the support she received from her parents, bothers, and sister during this ordeal (Françoise, Pierre, Nathalie, and Cyril), as well as from her amazing friends.
Life offered me a second chance and with support from so many people I will give it my best.
Grenoble, France, January 11, 2017