Man came 'within a hair's breadth of dying'

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Blaine Wright uses his computer while resting in his bed at his home in Whitefish Tuesday afternoon. Wright is still recovering from his Oct. 29 skydiving crash at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.

The nights are long for Blaine Wright.

Pain keeps him awake, shifting back and forth to find a moment's comfort. Nineteen broken bones and a sizable amount of nerve damage will do that to a person.

Yet even in the depths of his sleepless nights, with no end yet in sight for surges of searing pain, Wright is grateful to be alive.

"I have to focus on how lucky I am," he said. "I came within a hair's breadth of dying. I could have had a head injury or been paralyzed."

Wright, 53, a rocket engineer and renowned skydiver, is recuperating at home in Whitefish from injuries he sustained Oct. 29 when a wind gust blew the veteran jumper off course during the Silvertip Skydivers' popular pregame jump into Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula.

He crashed into a retaining wall outside the stadium, then fell close to 40 feet.

Friends who have studied the videotape of the jump tell him he appeared to have a small spot picked out to land as the bucking headwind whipped him around. Wright was trying desperately to avoid crashing into the crowd.

He doesn't remember the accident, except for one small detail.

"I have a flash of memory when the side of my canopy hit a tree and swung me out and forward," he recalled. "It was just by the smallest margin I caught that tree.

"That was terrifying. It was a very public way to hurt myself and I hate that so many had to witness it," Wright said, adding that in hindsight, "we shouldn't have jumped that day."

Wright is no novice to the sport of skydiving. He first jumped for Silvertip in 1974 when he was just 15. He since has helped set seven world records, including the World Team's 400-skydiver formation in Thailand in 2006.

The only other thing he remembers from those first few days is the suffocating feeling of not being able to breathe. He begged for air during the Life Flight trip from Missoula's St. Patrick Hospital to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

A collapsed lung was the least of the emergency crew's worries at that point, though. He lost eight units of blood the first day from internal bleeding in his pelvis, which caused his blood pressure to plummet to near-fatal levels.

Wright's sister, Beth Cole, was told her brother may not make it, so she went with him during the emergency flight.

Wright's stepbrother told him two weeks after the accident "what had gone down."

"I had no idea," Wright said.

Five teams of skilled physicians tended to Wright's needs as he spent a week in intensive care and endured three surgeries on some of his broken bones. He's thankful his sister was there.

"She had to process all of it. She was amazing," he said.

Wright sustained two skull fractures, one around the eye socket and the other at the base of his skull. He finally got out of his neck brace last week.

And in addition to a broken pelvis, he broke his arm, the top of his tibia on one leg, hip socket, four ribs and seven pieces in a row along the edge of his vertebrae.

Another blessing during those days in the hospital was the mountain of mail he received from hundreds of Griz fans and well-wishers he didn't even know.

"The outpouring was very humbling. I couldn't appreciate it more," he said. "It honestly made a difference."

After 19 days at Harborview, Wright was ready to be moved to a rehabilitation center, but found out that his high-deductible catastrophic health-care insurance policy - which is paying for the lion's share of his medical bills - wouldn't cover the rehab stay.

"I'm bedridden, a single guy who lives alone and they said they wouldn't pay for rehab," Wright said, still frustrated over the insurance company's decision. "There are so many small business owners who have this coverage. They need to know this."

The insurance company also wouldn't pay for the bed-to-bed transfer he needed to get home to Whitefish.

"I bought my own life flight home for $6,000," he said, adding that once he was home and on outpatient care, his insurance coverage kicked in again. "I was lucky enough to have friends and family to provide 24-hour care to allow me to go home after leaving Harborview."

Wright has a team of local physicians who are now monitoring his progress - an orthopedic surgeon, neurosurgeon, urologist, pain management specialist and his family doctor. He hopes to slowly get back on his feet this week.

"It's tough being bedridden," he said.

When doctors told him early on that he was probably already dependent on pain-killing narcotics, Wright weaned himself from nine pain pills a day to just one.

"I'm pretty good at taking pain," he said, detailing previous skydiving and sporting injuries. "I'm now extremely aware of my pelvis, though. I go through pain cycles. The one last Friday night lasted 10 hours. During the daytime it's much easier to manage the pain."

It's not so much the healing bones that ache, but rather the damage to both sensory and motor nerves.

"Nerve damage takes a lot longer to heal," he said. "It can be a couple of years."

Wright figures his left buttocks bore the brunt of the crash, and that caused all sorts of nerve damage that makes pain show up in the oddest places, like his uninjured left foot.

"I've learned how to deal with this, but it's the phantom pain that gets me, the burning, pins-and-needles pain, pain that feels like electric shocks," he said. "Other people have it way worse than me. It helped me to be in relatively good shape" before the accident.

He's found some relief in the therapy pool at The Wave fitness center, but knows if he exercises his legs too much it sets off the nerve pain.

The 6-foot, 4-inch athlete figures he's lost about 20 pounds from his normal 200-pound frame.

"I'm watching muscle tone disappear," he said.

Friends and family have been by his bedside most days since the accident.

Two of his best skydiving buddies traveled to Whitefish to stay with him for two weeks apiece. An aide from Comfort Keepers helps with his home care, and the Drive4U Taxi Service, which can accommodate wheelchair passengers, has been a godsend.

It wasn't only Wright's skydiving and skiing that have been sidelined by his injuries. His work on rocket engines also has taken a back seat to his recovery.

Wright has worked on various rocket-engine and missile interceptor projects through the years and does contract work for private aerospace manufacturers and defense technology companies, as well as the Missile Defense Agency, a section of the U.S. Department of Defense.

He was just getting ready to do the second round of testing a Mars Ascent Vehicle thruster.

The technical nature of his work was a key reason why Wright wanted to free himself from painkillers, so he could be "of sound mind" to work.

"I don't want any fogginess," he said.

For now, however, nearly all of Wright's energy and focus is going into his recovery. He's been told he can expect a full recovery, but he'll have to learn to walk again.

It's too early to tell if he'll be able to skydive again.

"I probably will jump again, but I won't make that decision until I'm healed," he said. "Time will tell."

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by e-mail at lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

 

Blaine Wright displays an X-Ray of his pelvis.

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