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Eric Phillips

Will & Surrender – Winter solstice of 2006 (December 21st), was to be the longest night of the year, and of my life…

It was a typical evening of drinks and debauchery at The Cambie in downtown Vancouver, and a special occasion for my good friend Kyle had just returned from an epic 6-month trip. After a few more rounds we journeyed to the bus stop on Robson Street, between Granville & Seymour, waiting for the night bus to take us home, around 2:30 a.m.

Now it was just Kyle and other good friend Max, and I and we discovered some scaffolding in the alley against a building being demolished. At three stories up I got the “bright” idea for us to traverse the wooden transformer platform that ran between where we were and the rooftop of the Commodore Ballroom. An important note is that I was wearing a Santa hat with a can dangling from the pompom.

“BVVVEAWWW!!!” There was a bright red flash and sparks, accompanied by the chilling noise of 12,000 volts going where it’s not designed to. Whether it arced into the can through the air, or actually made contact, it entered my head on the left side and exited out my left wrist, as I was on my hands and knees. No one saw what actually happened, only my smoking body being flung back onto the scaffolding and my breathing coming to a stop.

Kyle ran to call 911, and Max performed compressions on me until I coughed out a plume of smoke and started breathing. I was whimpering and breathing through clenched teeth that Max attempted to keep open with his fingers. Kyle had returned and took a turn getting his fingers chomped on, before using his metal bracelet to do the job.

Once the emergency crews arrived it took some time to arrange my transfer. Eventually the high-angle rescue team performed an initial assessment on the scaffolding before lowering me to the ground in a stretcher with ropes.

I was rushed to Vancouver General Hospital and spent about one week in the ICU with a tracheal tube down my throat. The swelling in my upper body was so severe my own mother had to read the bed number to know it was her son. A fasciotomy (cutting of the skin) was performed on the top of my hand and forearm, to relieve the pressure on my tissue and muscles from the swelling.

After a few days the swelling subsided enough to allow my eyes to open a bit. It was an excruciating time for my family and I as I tried to communicate with my right arm strapped down (so I wouldn’t grab my airway, etc.) holding a pencil and someone moving the page. Among all sorts of gibberish and frustrated demands for water, the first things I conveyed were a sense of apology for what I had done, and gratitude for my eyesight.

I believe my will made the decision to live, and to do so I had to surrender my body, completely trusting that I would be taken care of. In that moment there was no energy to be wasted on regret, sorrow, or anger, only healing through moving forward. These are truths that I can be reminded of at any point in my life.

With electrocutions, the exit wound is typically larger than the entrance wound, and I was no exception. There was an attempt to cover up my inner forearm with a skin graft from my thigh, but the majority of it wouldn’t take. I was to either have a free flap from my other thigh if the blood supply was good enough in my arm, or have my wrist sewn to my abdomen for 4 weeks to provide the blood supply. Going into surgery I didn’t know which situation I would awake to! Thankfully a free flap was possible. A small skin graft on the edge of my hand had to be re-attempted, as tissue had been removed from the area.

Meanwhile my head was slowly closed up with staples and heavy-duty stitches with clamps at either end that were tightened each morning. Because of the trauma to my head I developed iritis (an inflammation of the iris) in my left eye, and subsequently developed cataracts in first the left eye, and then the right eye, which have since been removed.

On Feb. 13th when the time came to leave the hospital I didn’t think I was ready. I had returned to a kind of childlike paradise of sponge baths and protein-rich milkshakes, which we all experienced as infants, but need to expand out of, as scary as it may be. It had been almost 8 weeks looking out my window and reflecting on what got me here and how much more I wanted to do! Some of those idealistic resolutions may have faded but some remain. This experience will always be a part of me and I’m eternally grateful for my friends’ bravery and quick response.

Since then I have had cable nerve grafts brought up from my calves into my forearm to gain some sensation in the fingers and palm, and tendon transfers from my index and pinky fingers to my thumb to gain back some function of my hand. Splints and pressure garments were essential. At first I believed that my hand could be “fixed”, but it’s taken years to realize that although it may not be what it used to, I’m lucky to have survived and to still have my arm at all, let alone the function I have gained!

Necessity is the mother of invention and I found a way to switch to being right-handed, starting with journaling and brushing my teeth in the hospital. Yoga and swimming have played a huge part in maintaining symmetry, although I still managed to develop an inguinal hernia (which has been taken care of) from lifting using only my right side while landscaping. I have since switched to bicycle couriering as a profession, and have a few 1st place race finishes under my belt.

After 5 ½ years of physiotherapy and many surgeries I moved from a victim to a survivor! Not just surviving but thriving! My supportive medical team, volunteers, family, friends, girlfriend, (myself!), and all the people in the world putting out prayers for those in need make up the web of interconnectedness that I viscerally experienced catching me during my first recollected moments in the hospital.

The BCPFF Burn Fund and “The Future Is Mine” program have provided me with ongoing invaluable support. I have had the privilege of becoming a SHARE representative for Vancouver, facilitating teleclasses meeting survivors from around the province, attending Burn Camp as a Junior Counselor, and sharing my story at peer support group sessions as well as participating in the many activities that are offered. In the future I hope to take part in electrical safety education, as electricity is an invisible force that surrounds us in our daily lives, and often doesn’t receive the respect it deserves.