Venturing out in the Dallas area’s greenbelt helped Amy Martin recover from her spinal injury. Pictured is the Cottonwood Trail at the Lake Lewisville Environmental Learning Area. (2018 File Photo/Staff)
Beating the odds with Mother Nature
After an injury with a 2% survival rate, Dallas’ trails helped me heal

A brilliant spring day starts with a guided tour of flowering dogwoods at Dogwood Canyon Audubon Center. Even in the dim, overcast light, the white bracts of the blossoms pop. Lightning cracks, the sky pours rain, and our hiking group slides back down the path.

After the rain passes, I jump in my Subaru Outback for an afternoon tour of Ellis County bluebonnets. Exiting onto an interstate ramp, I realize it’s the wrong one and flinch. The slight tug on the steering wheel sends me spinning on slick pavement.

Slam! The car peels back the guardrail, stopping the vehicle with one back wheel suspended over the edge. The impact bashes my head into the side window, and it gyrates like a bobble doll. Excruciating pain sears down my spine and blots my consciousness.

X-rays reveal the verdict: My second vertebra is in pieces. Only 2% who incur this injury survive intact. Half die right away; the rest incur paralysis. Its appellation: hangman’s fracture. I am a walking act of grace.

A brilliant Baylor surgeon offers a solution. Sandwich the remains of my C2 between the first and third vertebrae, and bolt them together. Take a hefty sliver of my pelvis and bone graft them all into a permanent chunk.

For months, I lean back in a recliner, my head swaddled in a neck brace, and look through my living room windows into a heavily forested backyard. Maybe jungle is a better word. Spring’s flowers fade into summer’s dense green. I begin to walk again.

The C2 vertebra is sleek with flared edges and gaps for the spinal cord to continue into your brain. The exquisite pivot of the C1 atlas vertebra upon the C2 axis vertebra enables looking back over your shoulder.

The atlas-axis vertebrae serve as a gyroscope, constantly adjusting to maintain equilibrium. From that pivot arises 20% to 30% of our balance. But after fusion, I have a fixed-forward perspective. I can’t turn my head up, down or to the side.

The inner ear’s vestibular system must take up the balance slack. That requires training, patiently challenging it with movement. First, laps inside the house with a walker, then shuffling up and down the driveway, all while in terror of falling.

Friends and neighbors carry me forward, giving my caretaker husband Scooter a break. Michael walks our dog, Sally. After I graduate to a cane, others help me stroll around the block. They kick stones and sticks away so I don’t stumble and keep me walking in a straight line, more or less.

We achieve another block and another until reaching my neighborhood park — a half-mile! I sit panting on a bench with my walk partner. Giant pecans envelop us in shade. The creek is a tantalizing, but rough, 30 yards away. Walking back home makes it a mile.

My friend Mark guides me to the next level of nature healing. We cautiously leave behind sidewalks for the greenbelt’s smooth, narrow path, with him leading an excited Sally on leash. Hearing me shuffle, he cautions, “Pick up your feet,” helping me trust losing contact with the ground. My legs, weak from months of inactivity, grow strong.

As we continue up the greenbelt, paths dissipate, and we walk on mowed grass, ensuring I lift my feet. One mile, two, then three and four along the creek I love. More birds, more mammals, even a reptile or two. It feeds me deeply, infuses me with energy, immerses me in life.I am fully connected to the earth again.

My surgeon is shocked at how fast the bones are healing in a woman in her mid-60s with osteoporosis. The reason, I’m sure, is quick access to nature and the challenge of walking off pavement. I relearn how to drive, navigational aids and cameras making up for my limited vision, and I return to work.

Six months after the neck wreck, I stop by Clear Creek Natural Heritage Area after a talk in Denton about my book on poison ivy, Itchy Business. Spontaneously, I take off down the main trail. About 15 yards in, I realize I left my neck brace and cane behind, but I continue.

The spinning starts. The ground is uneven, slanted, a bit slick. I’m unable to look down and see my feet. I stumble, stagger and fall forward onto my hands and knees. The inner ear can’t react quickly enough. But the C1-2 gyroscope would’ve.

I pound the earth, wailing: “You can’t take this from me, God!” I’m grateful to be alive but need the closeness to nature that hiking provides. I struggle to my feet and plow down the trails, footprints in the mud behind me like a dancing drunk.

Over the next hour, free of the neck brace, I become aware of how as I walk my entire neck moves side to side like a hypnotized cobra. My lower cervical vertebra ease into the gyroscope role, doing some of what C 1-2 could no longer do. Walking dirt paths liberates my neck. I put away the cane and brace.

Emboldened, I strike further afield — literally. I score a book contract from Timber Press to write Wild Dallas-Fort Worth about North Texas nature. My naturalist pal Scott and I embark on explorations along East Dallas’ Piedmont Ridge, in Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area, and through the Great Trinity Forest.

Birdsong dances in our ears: the slow trill of a northern cardinal, the lilting melody of a painted bunting, the piercing call of a pileated woodpecker. Dragonflies score mosquitoes at a slough where raccoons ferret out crawfish. A white-tailed deer peers from tall grass. Every sense, every cell, in my body feels alive.

We wander overgrown bottomlands in search of a trail we never find. Scramble along a sloped bank to get that perfect river view. Hop from one stone to another to cross a narrow creek. Our wild hikes on challenging terrain restore my full balance and build me back stronger than before. The freedom is like flying.

Sometimes gratitude is a number, the number two in my case. On this Thanksgiving weekend, let me muse about the miracles and mercies that gained me a spot among the surviving 2%. I’ll kneel on the ground in gratitude to the nature of Dallas that healed me, humbled and grateful beyond what the heart can bear.

Amy Martin is a writer in Dallas. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.