Elizabeth Orenstein is chatting animatedly in her first apartment, a quaint affair on Oxford Street, having only moved in last week.
She’s hustling about, making tea and talking about how she’s spent the past few days scrubbing down every surface of her new home with her mother and stepfather.
Ten days before today, she could barely stand and couldn’t sleep through the night. Less than a month before today, she was lying at the bottom of a ravine, unconscious, blood dripping from her ears and nose, with a friend screaming her name and hoping she wasn’t dead.
“He looks up and he says, ‘You be careful’ and I go, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ll be fine. You be careful too.’ And then a minute later, my foot slipped and my hand slipped and I somersaulted backwards for 15 feet and then was in freefall for 15 feet. I landed on my head, neck and shoulders with my body bent back over me.”
“He” is Adnaan Stumo, a friend from the second-year King’s student’s hometown of Great Barrington, MA. On Aug. 21, Orenstein and Stumo were at Sages Ravine in Connecticut on the most recent of many hikes together.
“We were hiking up a trail that apparently a lot of people fall off of,” says Orenstein. “I, as the idiot local, had no idea.”
The pair had climbed quite high when Stumo, noting the rock was slippery, suggested Orenstein climb back to the trail. It was a 50-foot, uphill trek. After 30 feet, Orenstein opted for a shortcut.
“I don’t even actually remember slipping,” she says. “He told me I slipped, and I can think through it, but I don’t think it’s a real memory. I think I was holding onto a sapling or something to steady myself. Then the moss slipped, or the leaves or something.”
“It must be a one or two-second memory of falling backwards. … I was like, ‘Huh. This is really bad. I’m either going to die or I’m not.’ I was very, sort of, relaxed about the whole thing. I thought I was moving really slowly and the colours were really bright. My adrenaline must’ve been crazy. And then I think I passed out.”
Orenstein thinks she survived because she passed out before landing at the bottom of the ravine.
“I was so limp when I hit that I just flopped.”
Orenstein told her mother, Sarah Bingham, who Stumo had just called, that she was fine and intended to hike back out.
Within an hour, Bingham learned emergency medical technicians (EMTs) were preparing her daughter to be airlifted to the emergency room. Bingham had gone to the police station just as a precaution.
“That was not a fun moment,” she says.
Bingham drove out and waited five hours for the approximately 15 EMTs to get Orenstein out of the ravine.
“You go into cope mode real quick. I lost it when I got to her when they were boarding her on the helicopter. … I was good until I saw her and then I lost it.”
Orenstein had sustained four skull fractures, bruising to the left side of her brain, blood in her sinuses and eardrums, a bruised rib and a few cuts and scrapes.
She spent two days in the hospital’s intensive care unit, during which time she had several X-rays but was ultimately told she needed bed rest to heal.
“They didn’t know what to do with me. … I came within a millimeter of breaking my neck,” Orenstein says.
The first two weeks of recovery were long. She couldn’t stand up straight because of muscle spasms during week one. Her eyes “felt like they were doing jumping jacks” when she looked up and she couldn’t read for more than a minute at a time.
Along with pain that woke her up in the night, Orenstein struggled with symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder.
“It was just thoughts that wouldn’t ever leave me alone. What if you get in a car accident? What if you fall off another mountain? Things that are menial thoughts when you’re fully functioning … were very much a truth and a reality and really scary.”
She found relief in tapping therapy, which Bingham describes as “acupuncture for the emotions.”
At the end of those two weeks, Orenstein regained the ability to walk normally and comfortably.
Nine days later, Orenstein feels “really good,” aside from a “constant low-grade headache” and a “tugging fatigue,” both of which will haunt her until her head injuries heal completely. She hopes they will clear up by the end of the semester.
She laments missing her first frosh week as a leader and finds it “really frustrating” that her injuries mean taking notes and multi-tasking don’t come as naturally anymore. She’s still smiling, though.
“I’m walking and talking and still remember who I am and remember who my friends are and that’s pretty incredible. I don’t over think things the way that I used to. It’s kind of like, ‘I fell off a mountain. That’s not really important.’ I’m alive. That’s good and that’s where I’m going from here.”
Adnaan Stumo’s journal entry: