If there's one danger persistently causing death and injury on schoolies, it's balconies. Every year the balconies of the Gold Coast feature in a range of headlines, in spite of mounting measures to prevent people from messing around on them.
Tragically, most young people who fall from a high-rise building don't live to tell the story. But we figured that hearing how intensely painful it is would be more persuasive than simply saying, "don't do it." So we reached out to a guy who's fallen three stories, landed on his head, and survived.
James* is an Australian Navy marine technician who fell off a Sydney balcony one night when he was 21. James wasn't on schoolies, but the essentials were the same: he was wasted, he underestimated the consequences, and he was horribly injured. Here's what he said.
VICE: Hi James, so this went down nearly five years ago. Can you take us through what happened?
James: So it was a Friday night towards the end of the year and I was out on the town with a friend. When I got back to my apartment, I realised I'd forgotten the keys but figured I could climb up three sets of balconies to get inside. I remember climbing up the first balcony, then the second, then pulling myself up on the third and holding on to the rail. But I was so drunk that I lost my grip.
Do you remember what went through your head when you slipped?
I will always remember the moment before the fall, when I was sort of holding on but slipping, so I decided to let go. It might sound crazy, but I was so drunk I thought if I fell, I'd be okay. In that moment there were no serious consequences.
I started to fall and my leg hit the second floor balcony, which sort of spun me over. Because of this, I was falling headfirst and landed on my head. My head practically folded up so that my legs came all the way around—I pretty much reverse scorpioned myself. My back curled up and compressed, crushing my vertebrae. Luckily, all the force didn't compress my skull, just my back. So in the end I only had a fractured skull, jaw, and hyperextended knee from hitting the second floor, and of course, a really broken back. I had crushed my T6 vertebrae.
Did you black out?
Yep, and the guy I was with started freaking out. I stood up, apparently—I don't remember this at all—and he thought I was fine, but told me to stay at his house where I slept on the couch. Because I was both concussed and drunk, I was vomiting nonstop all night.
I woke up the next morning and remember saying, "guys, I'm in excruciating, unbearable pain and I can't really move properly. I don't know what's wrong." But they all thought I was being a soft cock. One of them even suggested they should crack my back. I ended up going back to my apartment and I immediately passed out and slept until Monday.
You slept for two whole days?
Yeah, pretty much. The pain was so bad that I couldn't move from bed. Luckily, I didn't need to go the toilet or anything, but I also couldn't drink or eat. What actually woke me up on Monday was my alarm, letting me know I had work. I remember texting my friend and asking him to take me. He said yes and I was soon hopping into his car, but it's all a blur now. He told me he knew something was wrong because I kept moaning and groaning. As soon as I got to work, I went to go see the medics on board the ship but they told me I was fine.
Wait, they said you were fine? Did you tell them what happened?
Yeah they thought I was lying to get out of work. But in their defence, I didn't tell them I got drunk and fell off a balcony. If I'd told them that I would have been in severe trouble. I was also staying at a Navy complex at the time and didn't want to risk my place. Instead, I told them I'd just fallen down some stairs.
When did you realise how seriously you were injured?
Eventually, they told me to go to the on-base doctors. They looked into my ear, saw I had internal bleeding, and rushed me into intensive care. I was soon getting all these CAT and MRI scans, getting braces, the whole works. It went from 0 to 100 real quick. They essentially told me my back was broken and it made so much more sense, considering the pain I was in.
What was the recovery process?
I was in intensive care for about six days before being moved to a standard hospital room. I had to lie down on my back for practically everything—I couldn't stand up to go the toilet, I couldn't stand for the shower—I was literally on my back, even when eating food. It went on for roughly a month, where I had every kind of specialist looking at me. Because I was so young, fit, and healthy at the time with a positive attitude, my recovery was really quick. They initially wanted to operate, but I healed so quickly I didn't need it. This was good because if I'd had the operation, they said I'd have had ongoing health problems all my life.
What did you learn from all this?
I think it's stupid that this was all because of drinking. It was literally just a night out and a combination of pre-drinks at a friends', making the drinks too strong, and partying with the right people. It got too loose too quickly. Also I can't believe this actually happened. You always hear about people falling off balconies on the news, but then it happens to you. Don't think it won't happen to you.
*Name has been changed to keep James out of trouble with the Navy.
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