About Me

undergrad RN
I'm a twenty-something Canadian student. After stumbling through a few years of college, I finally managed to get into the nursing school of my dreams, where I hope to graduate in 2012 with a nursing baccalaureate degree. I want to offer an honest look into how a modern nurse is educated, both good and bad. Eventually I hope to compare my education to my day-to-day career and see how it holds up. Whatever happens, it should be somewhat entertaining. Find me on allnurses.com!
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Monday, August 24, 2009

Simultaneously, the 5 worst and best seconds of my life.


On Saturday, I jumped out of a perfectly good plane.



It was my friend Trish's 21st birthday, crazy girl that she is, she invited a bunch of us from Pharm out to her birthday activity of choice - skydiving!

Unfortunately everyone from Pharm pussied out except for me and her. A few of her other friends came along though so there were 6 of us in total.

I'm going to share this story because I want to remember it in beautiful detail.

The day dawned clear and cool. The sun was shining when I woke up to my alarm at 0645. I packed my sweater and some snacks, and jumped in my car to go pick up Trish and everyone on the north side of the city for 0715. We then drove out on the highway for about 30 minutes, tired and nervous and a little uncomfortable.

We found the place okay. As we pulled in and stepped out of the car, it felt like we were entering a trailer park! RVs were all over the place. It all came flooding back to me.

A little backstory - I grew up at a drop zone much like this one. My dad spent the better part of my childhood being REALLY INTO skydiving. He logged thousands of jumps and my family was out at the DZ during the summer pretty much every weekend. I know what skydivers are like and I'm familiar with DZ's in general. I learned how to use a keg at a boogie when I was 8 years old and my daddy thought I'd be good at pouring beer, haha :) I had planned on skydiving just like him one day, but he actually had a couple of really bad crashes where he had some serious trauma to his spine and legs. That was over 10 years ago and he will have a limp and mild mobility issues for the rest of his life. So my plan to jump at 16 was derailed.

So, when Trish asked if I'd be interested, I jumped at the chance (nyuk!).

The classroom seated about 20 and there were posters on all the walls of good and bad things that you might see while falling. Parachutes not opening, twisted lines, reserve parachute deployment. Diagrams of equipment and things to do and not do. A LOT of information.

Now I was a little nervous that I wouldn't be able to remember anything. I can learn pretty much anything given time, and I'm good at memorizing random factoids, but psychomotor skills are definitely my weakest link. I can tell you WHERE the cutaway and reserve handles are, and I can (with time) tell you what situations they need to be pulled at, but the actual motions of looking down, locating each handle, and punching them out in the proper sequence is more of a challenge for me. That was concerning because there is no redo option on that - it's life or death!

It really didn't help much when they were handing out the waivers. Double-sided legal paper FILLED with "I acknowledge that skydiving is inherently risky" and "I hereby promise to not sue the jump school if I am terribly maimed or dead even if it is due to their gross negligence". Putting pen to paper and signing that was... well, I wasn't exactly smiling at that particular moment.

Jodie was our instructor and I really liked her. She was witty and personable, and very empowering: "Yes, you CAN save your own life!"

We watched some retro cassette videos on the gearing up process and how the jump was expected to go, and Jodie talked about the importance of maintaining a good arch. We then went outside and practiced our arches about a million times, shouting our post-plane-exit mantra:
Arch thousand!

Two thousand!

Three thousand!

Four Thousand!

Five Thousand!

Check canopy!

This particular mantra was to help us keep a sense of time lapse and give the parachute time to open before we started panicking. The parachute should be fully open and deflated by 6 seconds, so at the end when we said "check canopy", we were looking up at the parachute and preparing to resort to emergency alternatives if necessary.

The questions we asked ourselves, shouting out loud:

Is it RECTANGULAR?? (Denoting a properly deployed parachute - no tangled
lines)
Is it INFLATED??
(Are at least 7 of the 9 cells performing, or am I
still dropping like a rock?)
Is it CONTROLLABLE?
(Can I steer this puppy away from a tree or
worse?)

We were wearing some Wal-Mart Greeter-esque vests with a mock-up of the cutaway and reserve handles so that we knew where to grab in an emergency. Jodie emphasized the importance of LOOKING at the handles first instead of groping wildly, telling us of a previous student who, upon seeing his rectangular parachute emerge round in a mass of tangled lines, promptly grabbed and ripped off his red radio instead of the red cutaway handle. (He lived, but still!)
LOOK! (Make sure that red thing you're tearing off isn't your
radio!)
LOCATE! (Grab ahold of each of the handles)
PUNCH RIGHT!
(Forcefully drive your fist through the red cutaway handle, freeing you from a
malfunctioning canopy)
PUNCH LEFT! (Forcefully deploying your reserve)


We practiced our arches, our counting, our emergency procedures, and our plan for two hours. I tell you, my back was sore and my throat was hoarse, but I would have spent all the time they wanted me to doing those very steps over and over again! Not a place to cut corners!

We also spent some time in a hilariously inadequate mock-up of a plane. It was basically a box frame made out of 2x4's, elevated off the ground, with a wheel stuck off the side and a pretend wing strut. We each practiced twice getting out of the "plane" and climbing out to the end of the strut where we would let go and plummet to earth. One thing entirely to do that with no relative wind. Quite another in reality :)


After lunch we had a written T/F exam (presumably to be legal evidence that we had at least absorbed the information, even if we entirely failed to put thought into action) and then we hurried up to wait for the actual jump.

Happily, the day was beautifully sunny and warm for one of the few times this summer. There wasn't a cloud in the sky and the weather couldn't have been more fantastic. Trish and I and her other friends hung out sunbathing, pretending we weren't really going through with this and we weren't really nervous and this wasn't really the last time one of us might have a fully functioning central nervous system. We admired the skydiving crowd, especially the several tanned, ripped, and devastatingly sexy men walking around shirtless (!) doing skydiver things like packing parachutes.

Jodie came up to me.

"UgRN, I'm going to need you to to go up in the first load. You're friends with Trish, right? You don't mind?"

Perfect.

I was scheduled to go up with a bunch of strangers in the sixth load, well into the afternoon. This sped up my schedule by a solid 2 hours. And I'd get to jump with the birthday girl!


Suddenly, I heard my name called out on the intercom. E.N. Jump School, Load One, roll call - please meet at manifest to get your equipment.


Heart? Meet throat.


Trish and I walked up to manifest sporting ear to ear grins and excessive diaphoresis.


Our Jump Master, Rob, helped us get kitted out in some (very) snazzy jumpsuits. Mine was an eclectic mix of neon colors and I looked like I had beat up a 1992 Alpine ski bunny and stolen her outfit. Yeah, SunIce!


Another guy got my pack ready and strapped it on. Surprisingly heavy! It was probably at least 30 lbs. Although that hardly matters when you're falling, it makes quite a difference when you're trying to get to the plane.


While I was waiting to get an appropriately sized helmet - one that wouldn't squish my brains out, preferably - I happened to notice a lady who looked very familiar. She was engaged in hearty conversation with another lady so I waited patiently for a few minutes trying to decide if my mind was playing tricks on me. Finally I tapped her on the arm.


"'Scuse me, but you do by any chance know [father of UgRN]?"


She looked at me funny and then erupted into a full scale motherly hug. OMIGOD the last time I saw you, you were this tall and collecting bugs that you kept in jars and this was over at that old drop zone that closed down and-- hey, where IS your dad, anyway?


Sadly, my dad was out on a cross continent Harley trip and couldn't be there to witness my first jump. I told him later that I ran into some of his old buds though and that was pretty cool, actually. I was inordinately pleased that SOMEONE from those old days would be there to witness me follow in my daddy's laughably risk-taking and poor-role-model-y footprints.


For the record, I love my dad and I think he is the best person ever.


So I get my helmet finally and meet up with Trish and Rob the Jump Master. There are two other people jumping with us as well - a friend of Trish's and some old guy who was winning major Awesome Points just for being old and being gutsy.


They loaded the plane from lightest to heaviest, so Old Awesome Guy would jump first and I would jump last. (Yay for being the lightest! ...I guess).


I clambered in behind the pilot and knelt on the padded floor. Rob gave me a comical look and said, in all seriousness, um, it's Transportation Canada regulations that everyone in a plane wear a seatbelt at all times while ascending... so we'll need you to put that seatbelt across your knees.


Safety first, people, safety first.


We were all loaded into the plane and then the pilot fired it up. God, it was soooo loud in there, I couldn't hear a thing. The plane hauled ass down the dirt runway and then lifted up into the sky. I saw the ground drop away from me and with a violent lurch It Hit Me.


At some point, that door is going to open... and then I'm going to jump out of it. At 3500 feet in the sky.


I couldn't see myself but I can imagine how I looked - I could feel the blood draining out of my face and I probably had the most grim expression that I have ever wore in my lifetime. That little voice started.


If you've been following my blog for a long time, you may remember that I have issues surrendering control to other people. I just genuinely don't trust people to do right by me a lot of the time. This was, like, the ultimate in surrendering control. Rob the JM was going to tell me when to jump out of the plane and I was going to trust him that it was the right time. I was going to trust that whoever packed my parachute did it properly and that I wasn't going to plummet to my death. I had to trust that my radio was going to work and that the guy helping me land was going to remind me what to do. I had to trust all of these things, and trust that God wasn't going to call me home today because I sure as hell wasn't ready yet.


The fear was at its worst when my sense of height was screaming YOU ARE SO HIGH ABOVE THE GROUND THAT YOU MIGHT AS WELL JUST DIE NOW, WHAT THE F*** ARE YOU THINKING IN GETTING OUT OF THIS PLANE?


I had talked to my dad just before the jump and I asked him what he thought about my fear of heights, and how that was going to gimp me in trying to accomplish this. My dad reassured me that once you were high enough, the crippling fear would be replaced with a sense of wonder. Your brain wouldn't look at the ground and think OMG SO HIGH UP past a certain point. That was certainly true for me - at 2000 feet I stopped looking at the ground thinking "holy shit, ground" and started thinking "cool, carpet tiles!".


Then the door opened. 3500 feet. Wind rushed into the cabin and anything I heard the JM shouting was completely lost.


Old Awesome Guy knelt knee to knee with the JM and then, just like we practiced, stepped onto the wheel, grabbed ahold of the wing strut, climbed out, and dropped away.


I mean dropped. Like a freaking 250 lb sack of potatoes.


Trish's friend - same thing. Knee to knee with the JM, stepped out, grabbed onto the wing strut with her feet flying out behind her, and dropped away.


Time for Trish. She took a while getting out the door, which I attributed to nerves (I was definitely there with her!). She did her thing, and then dropped away.


I eagerly peered out the window and saw 2 progressively tiny colorful canopies below. Wait, only 2? Where's Old Awesome Guy?? I shouted at the JM, who replied he's on the ground already!


Then it was my turn.


I shuffled forward, knee to knee with Rob and did my best to look brave. The wind was rushing in through the open door which was only inches from my leg. Every ounce of me was screaming WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING, GET BACK IN THE PLANE!!


Rob leaned toward me and shouted with a grin, "Are ya ready to skydive?"


I have never been more terrified, and specifically because of that, I knew I simply had to do it.

I gritted my teeth and tried to exit the plane like I was taught. I grabbed the door frame and stuck my foot out into the wind.

Oh my God, the wind.

Picture roaring down the highway in a minivan, opening the sliding door, and trying to climb onto a platform with no guide ropes and only your own power to make sure it happens.

I literally shoved my foot into the windstream onto the tire of the plane. I punched my right hand into the wind to grab ahold of the wing strut. It was hard and made worse by the complete and utter shutdown of my self-preservation response. I mean, how hard are you going to try to kill yourself? The whole thing was so counter-intuitive that I couldn't do it. The wind was fierce, my hands were ice cold, my stomach had a death grip on my throat, and I. Pussied. Out.

I retreated back into the cabin, momentarily defeated but even more determined to do it.

Rob smiled at me. We're just going to take it around again, and then you can give it another shot.

A few minutes passed and he gave me the nod.

I grit my teeth and summoned every ounce of courage I had. I flexed every muscle. I tried to feel as strong as I know I can be.

I shoved my foot out the door.
I punched my hand out onto the wing strut.
I forced myself to leave the plane.

In the grip of consuming terror, I let my feet fly out behind me - no going back now.

GO!!

I released my grip on the plane and proceeded to freak the hell out. I fell in 5 seconds that were, simultaneously, the best and worst 5 seconds of my life. I plummeted to earth and in total panic started screaming ARCH THOUSAND, TWO THOUSAND, THREE THOUSAND, FOUR THOUSAND...

And in a moment of complete beauty and the most profound sense of relief I may ever experience, my bright yellow canopy unfurled above me. Rectangular, inflated, and, yes, controllable.

My radio crackled to life.

Hello, Jumper 4, please proceed with your flight check and enjoy the ride.

I laughed, I cried, I couldn't believe how beautiful it was - the sun glinted off of the lakes and I could damn well see everything. The world was green and fresh and full of life. The fall was gentle and incredible. The view was unimaginable.

Jumper 4, please make a 180 degree turn to your right - no, your other right - that's it, all the way around.

The soothing voice of the landing controller guided me through steering my canopy across the target area to the turning point, and back around to the target.

Work with me here, Jumper 4 - make that thing turn!

I yanked on the right toggle and the chute handled beautifully.

All of a sudden I noticed that the ground was rushing up at me and I was like, oh, shit! I flared the chute, pulling hard on both toggles to slow me down. I was going a trifle fast and tried to run out the landing, but I fell and slid on my butt across the field. It was a very pleasant slide and I was experiencing so many incredible emotions that I probably wouldn't have noticed any pain even if there was some.

I collapsed back on my open chute and laughed the most uninhibited, joyful laugh that I've had in years. A photographer out on the landing area captured it for me, for which I am eternally grateful.

I called my dad: Hey, I guess I'm a skydiver now.


----------------


There's my story. Would I do it again? Absolutely. Would I recommend the experience? If you're like me and have an insane need to conquer your fears and test the extremes of your capabilities... absolutely.

4 comments:

Drofen said...

What a great story!!

Lou said...

That was beautifully described UgRN! You ALMOST make me want to sign up for a dive...almost :)

12 weeks at a time said...

Wow, what a fantastic story! I was nervous for you the whole time! Thanks for sharing.

elle said...

Gosh, reading that took me back to the scariest day of my life. You really captured the emotions well. My experience was very similar to yours up to the point when I was finished with my counting & got to CHECK CANOPY & nothing was right. The chute was all tangled & the toggles were a good foot away from my reach (so I wasn't able to correct it). I had to do the whole punch right/punch left in real time & that second free fall, so close to the ground, were the scariest moments I've ever been through. I lived to tell the tale, but I am living with chronic pain from the many compression fractures my spine endured.

I'm glad your jump ended sucessfully! I SO wish mine had been, I was even trying to convince my friend that we go back & jump again that evening as I laid strapped to the hospital bed hopped up on pain meds. Obviously, that wasn't a possibility.

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