This moving story of a mother’s journey beyond grief is offered to our readers with the kind permission of Angina Mae Hurt.*
Johnnie was a born daredevil. From the moment he could crawl it was a constant struggle to keep him from launching himself from the highest place he could find. If I left the room for a moment I would return to find him perched on the sofa, the bookcase, or the recliner, with a big grin on his face. I swore his first words would be, “Look, Mom!” But instead it was a perfectly eloquent statement of his life’s goal: “Wheee!!!”
His uncle took him water-skiing for the first time when he was eight years old. Johnnie was up on his first try. On his second try, of course, he had to try slalom, and though it took some practice, he soon mastered that, and anything else his uncle had to teach him. From then on, water-skiing was all Johnnie ever wanted to do. “Mom—it’s just like flying!”
Fast-forward 20 years and Johnnie is the darling of the world of professional stunt water-skiing performing flawlessly, always ending with that same “Look Mom!” smile he flashed when he was a baby.
When stunt skiers started to play with fire while skiing—throw a flaming spear at a target, or ski up a ramp lit with jets of flame on one side—he was the first to push it to the limit. But he always seemed to land on his feet. His friends called him “Lucky Johnnie.”
Johnnie decided that having the flaming jets on only one side was “cheating.” He insisted that his signature “corridor of flame” stunt should accurately reflect its title. He had his crew modify the ramp so that the flames burst menacingly from vertical jets on both sides. He called me the night before his first performance of the stunt. “Mom, I wish you could be there,” he said. “I’m going to fly straight past that fire and then do a 360 before I hit the water.”
It was to be his last performance. Tragically, one of the jet nozzles malfunctioned just minutes before the performance, and flammable liquid began trickling down the ramp. As Johnnie sped up the ramp straight through the corridor of flame, his ski slid across that trickle of fuel and then ignited as he twisted it through that last flaming jet to begin his 360.
The crew on the rescue boat fought valiantly to save my son…but he had hit the water at a terribly wrong angle while struggling to unfasten the flaming ski. His neck was broken, and the water he loved to fly across had done the rest.
Johnnie was everything to me, and I was devastated by this loss. Friends and family were some comfort, but though they never failed to say the right words, there was an undercurrent of criticism beneath their sympathy. In some way they felt he “got what he deserved, taking the risks he did.” As the years passed it became clear that no one else could truly understand the wound in my heart. Some even found my son’s “drowning by flaming water-ski” amusing. It became a kind of cruel joke to be laughed at in whispers and sidelong glances wherever I went.
One day while at the physician’s office where I worked as a receptionist, I began flipping idly through a book called ICD-10-CM. It contained a kind of catalogue of all the afflictions of man, including the myriad ways our frail bodies can be injured or destroyed. I was reading at random, the way we all do at times, and this entry practically jumped off the page:
V90.27XA Drowning and submersion due to falling or jumping from burning water-skis
Tears sprang to my eyes at the shock of recognition: That’s my son! Someone, somewhere, knew exactly what had happened to my son, and in their infinite wisdom had given a name to my suffering! In that instant, it was as if a salve had been applied directly to my heart. My Johnnie had a cause of death publicly recognized by the Centers for Disease Control. My soul could finally begin to heal.
After that fateful day, I decided to reach out to others who could benefit from the healing powers of ICD-10. I started an online support group called “The ICD-10 Freak Accident Club,” and we currently have 56 members from around the world who have lost loved ones in unusual accidents. Anyone who wishes to join can fill out a form describing the cause of their loved one’s death, and soon after the new member receives a personalized T-shirt containing the ICD-10 code, and a beautiful plaque with the code’s full description. By this act we give a name to the new member’s suffering, so the process of healing can begin.
Rhonda Butler is a Senior Clinical Research Analyst with 3M Health Information Systems.
*Note from the Author:
These tales were invented by yours truly. Everybody has to find ways of living with the ICD-10 delay, and this is a (slightly twisted) coping strategy of mine. I write one of these ditties, laugh, groan, roll my eyes, let out a big sigh, and then get back to work. Recommended by four out of five doctors!! (Okay, I made that up too.)