Can a back injury kill you? Unfortunately, it can. Let me tell you a story about my dear friend Dan who died from a simple back injury on Feb. 10, 1996.
Dan and I first met working at McDonald’s when we were both teenagers. We later lived together, dated the same women, got in fist-fights over women, deer hunted, rode motorcycles, played pickup basketball at 3 a.m. on the UK blue courts, delivered pizzas, chucked boxes on the midnight shift at UPS, and caught shoplifters together at Gold Circle and McAlpin’s.
He came from a troubled family and grew up in a poor neighborhood in town, and I was lucky enough to grow up in your typical blue collar, middle class neighborhood on my father’s FAA air traffic controller’s salary. Our personalities, upbringing and values varied somewhat in those formative years, but we developed an unmatched friendship.
Dan was ambitious, a hard worker and had a knack for making everybody like him. Even though he was raised in difficult surroundings with incredible street smarts, he was a like a sponge, absorbing and learning business etiquette to help him succeed. He quickly worked his way up to manage the old Euclid Ave Domino’s Pizza campus location in the mid-’80s, which at the time was the busiest location in Lexington.
Like me, he worked two jobs to provide for his family, to allow his wife to stay home to raise his two boys. We would always follow each other around town working in different places of employment, as I stumbled through life trying to find a career. With his up-bringing, he later learned that he had an unusual skill for detecting and finding external and internal thieves, and had a promising career in the retail loss prevention profession. Dan was considering following my lead to go back to college after he had only completing two semesters at UK.
After finally earning my masters at Eastern Kentucky University in 1993 and preparing to move off to Dallas for my first big a job opportunity, he called seeking some advice about a major decision. He had sustained a minor back injury while working at UPS, and one doctor recommended conservative treatment that involved physical therapy while another doctor suggested immediate surgery.
Dan was was leaning toward the surgery, thinking it was the simple fix, but also because it would allow him to take several months off to spend much-deserved time with his boys, who he rarely saw while working 60 to 70 hours a week. As a friend, I advised against it, as I have never been one to rush off to surgery for anything. But he later opted for the surgery.
As the next three years progressed, he would later have to have another surgery … and then another. If I wanted to call to discuss UK sports after a game or schedule a return trip back home to go deer hunting with him, I would have to call around dinner time. If I waited until later in the evening, it was sometimes too difficult to sustain a conversation with him because he was heavily medicated from the opiate pain meds that he was being prescribed.
Then one cold morning in February 1996, excited to have just moved my family back to Lexington, Dan’s wife called me to inform me that she had just discovered his lifeless body lying on the floor that morning. It was later discovered that at the age of 31 he accidentally overdosed on the pain medication as he tried to drown the constant pain from that ill-fated decision he chose back in 1993.
So yes you can die from a simple back injury. Back injuries are one of the most severe and painful injuries one can sustain. Shortly after Dan’s passing I had the unfortunate experience of watching my father who had just recently sustained a back injury himself, crawl to the restroom on his hands and knees in tears for several days. As a professional safety consultant I now take back injury prevention very serious after witnessing and living through each of these situations.
With my eight-plus years of labor-intensive service with UPS, I too have had some minor back issues, but fortunately nothing too acute. I can still remember as a young man rolling my eyes and dismissing my supervisor’s suggested safety hints to lift with my legs and not my back.
As we age, many of us learn that back injuries are cumulative and don’t always occur after lifting something heavy. As I look back on my youth and ignorance, I am reminded of feeling invincible as I lifted 1,000 boxes per hour, some weighing up to 75 pounds, out at the Mercer Road UPS hub location.
After all, I was in great shape then and could bench press 250 pounds and could muscle anything up if you would just get the blank out of my way and let me do my job; in fact, though, all I was doing was injuring myself a little each time I failed to listen to such words of wisdom.
Today, knowing that most people who sit before me while I’m giving a proper safe lifting class usually don’t want to be there, I always lead with a simple question. Can you die from a simple back injury?
Usually, about 98 percent of them say no. I then proceed to tell them about Dan and how a simple back injury eventually took his life. By the time I finish the story, I usually have everybody’s attention.
This past summer I rode my motorcycle out to the cemetery in Versailles where Dan is buried to pay my respects. On my way I happened to stop off at the local Speedway gas station on Versailles Road to purchase two single beers for my visit. At the cemetery I opened them both, drinking from one and leaving the other for him as a reminder that his death did serve a purpose.
Being safety conscious and not wanting to end up in someone else’s life-lesson story, I didn’t finish the entire beer – in case you are wondering.
Be safe, my friends.
Keven Moore works in risk management services. He has a bachelor’s degree from University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both the Lexington and Northern Kentucky offices. Keven can be reached at email@example.com.