WILLIAMSBURG — As Josh Tutwiler plummeted through the fall Missouri air, the sheer rock face racing past and the ledge from which he fell rapidly receding, he felt his conscious mind split in two.
On one side, memories and experiences zipped past at warp speed: family, friends, baseball games, his girlfriend still atop the ridge, his boyhood friend who fell to his death just 22 months earlier.
The other side produced a series of questions that came slowly and deliberately, that seemed to defy gravity: What's it like to die? Do you go straight to heaven? Do you lay there a while? What does it feel like?
Tutwiler doesn't know the answers to those questions, as best he can surmise, because he's not supposed to know them — not yet, anyway.
What he knows, what he learned in the hours and days after that fall last September, is that he survived injuries that would have killed most and paralyzed the rest.
"I'm blessed beyond belief," he said.
Tutwiler, quite literally, broke his neck in a 40-foot fall. Bruised and bloodied, unaware of the extent of his injuries, he somehow climbed back up the cliffside in an effort to save himself. He then hiked a mile-and-a-half to a parking lot where he met emergency medical workers and firefighters who had convened for a rescue mission.
At any point during the ordeal, loose bone fragments might have severed an artery or sliced his spinal cord. He might have bled out or lost the use of his limbs. Had that occurred on the cliffside, he certainly would have died.
Tutwiler underwent two lengthy operations within a 30-hour period to repair broken and shattered vertebrae. Both surgeries were painstaking, fraught with risk and offered no guarantees.
He came through both procedures wonderfully. Eight months later, he sat in a classroom at
Tutwiler, 24, is a volunteer assistant coach with the Tribe after graduating from Old Dominion University last spring. He is slowly regaining strength and mobility, courtesy of two or three sessions of
He is grateful for every ache and every inconvenience. He is grateful for any audience willing to listen.
"I definitely think there's something bigger going on than a random guy falling off a random cliff," Tutwiler said. "I'm a firm believer that nothing happens by accident. I think there's a grand scheme that we all play a part in, and I'm part of that grand scheme."
What part might he play?
"That's a little bit above my pay grade," he joked.
Tutwiler's is a story that's better heard than read. It contains elements of myth and legend and faith and
It's a story best absorbed with pace and timbre and inflection, with pauses that allow details to sink in, with amusing observations — and yes, there can be humor in life-threatening injuries — that lighten a tale so weighty and intense that at times is almost unbearable.
It's a story that makes medical professionals, men and women whose lives are devoted to science and precision and probability, use the "M" word. Nothing in their study or training or experience explains what they see in front of them.
Tutwiler is the perfect narrator, and not just because he's the subject and his story is practiced through hundreds of tellings. He is naturally engaging, with an open and inviting face. Though he possesses the stocky build of a college catcher, which he was, he isn't the least bit imposing. He has close-cropped hair and soft brown eyes that almost pinch closed when he smiles, which he does often.
Tutwiler's parents describe their son as rarely at a loss for words. Girlfriend Laura Crittendon, who was with him on the ridge that day, joked that in their lengthy phone conversations, sometimes her roommates think she's on "hold" because she'll go minutes without uttering a word.
"A wonderful, wonderful person, a great teammate," said ODU baseball coach Chris Finwood, who coached him as a senior in 2012. "He was that guy that made it fun to come to the ballpark every day. Big smile, great attitude. He was kind of a ray of sunlight in a very difficult season."
Tutwiler was in Columbia, Mo., early last September to visit Crittendon, a final break before starting his coaching job at William and Mary. She was pursuing a doctorate in physical therapy at the
They attended Mizzou's first
Tutwiler decided to step out onto the ledge because it afforded a better view. When he stepped down, however, the ledge shifted, causing him to lose his balance. As he pitched forward, he reached back and tried to grab rocks behind him. He held on for a second, maybe two, but couldn't hang on and disappeared over the edge.
He was conscious for the entire fall, he said, and felt his brain split — rapid-fire memories on one side, slow-motion questions on the other.
One memory was of his boyhood friend growing up in Bridgewater, Eli Lehman. Both were among Turner Ashby High's bright and accomplished students. Lehman was a soccer player, Tutwiler a National Honor Society member and catcher who helped his team win back-to-back state championships in 2006 and '07.
Lehman died in November 2010 after he slipped and plunged off a cliff at Crabtree Falls in Nelson County outside Charlottesville, on a hike with a group of friends. Tutwiler was supposed to be there that day, but had baseball obligations at ODU.
"I remember thinking: How is it that we're supposed to be bright and athletic and coordinated and we both die falling off a mountain?" Tutwiler said.
As Tutwiler fell, he suddenly hit the upper branches of a tall tree growing below. He flinched and closed his eyes as he caromed off of branches and landed flat on his back on a small precipice.
Back atop the ridge, Crittendon had watched in horror as he disappeared over the ledge.
"I thought he was dead," she said and admitted that she freaked out for several seconds before her schooling and physical therapy training began to kick in. She got down on her stomach and crawled to peer over the ledge.
She saw Tutwiler laying on a rock and called out his name. He responded immediately. Though he was cut and scraped and bruised and bleeding, he said only that his index finger hurt badly and his right hand had several puncture wounds. He noticed that his left shoe was missing.
"That seems so trivial," he said, "but it was what I focused on at the moment. That was the only thing I thought was really wrong. I didn't think I'd broken my neck."
Crittendon asked if he could get up. He tried, but didn't have the strength. "It was like doing that last bench press or push-up," he said. "I just couldn't."
Tutwiler was carrying both of their
Crittendon asked if he wanted her to stay or go get help. They were about a mile-and-a-half from the parking lot where they had left her car. Tutwiler told her to go for help, that he thought he'd be OK.
A former college basketball player who now runs half-marathons, Crittendon sprinted away.
Shortly after she took off, however, Tutwiler felt himself sliding again. He didn't know how long he could hold on, or how long he'd have to hold on before help arrived. He estimated that it was another 70 feet to the ground below.
"I said to myself, you either get up or you're going to die for real this time," he said.
Tutwiler got to his feet and surveyed the rocky face above him. The face of the cliff over which he'd fallen was vertical. To the left, where he had bounced onto the small ledge, was steep, but sloped.
Unable to get off his back or clench his right hand minutes earlier, he somehow slowly worked his way up the rocks. He found footholds and solid rock to grab, and he made it back to the top of the ridge.
"Most people who are in shape could probably do it," he said. "If you've broken your neck in five places, you probably shouldn't have done that."
Tutwiler decided not to wait for help to arrive.
"I thought I'd expedite the process," he said. "I was in a lot of general pain, but it was like a home plate collision. My body hurt, but you just kind of shake it off and keep going."
A couple in their 60s hiking behind him caught up to him. Seeing the blood and cuts and bruises, they suggested he stop and they sit with him. He declined the offer, saying that he was well enough to get to the parking lot where help awaited. He pushed on.
Tutwiler had traveled about halfway back to the parking lot, when he said, "I started to realize I was in a little worse shape than I thought I was. ... I thought, 'You need to stop and pray about this. You're hurt more seriously than you think. This isn't a quick, treat-and-release deal.'"
Tutwiler then heard a response: "We've got your back. You take care of the physical part."
The voice was so clear and distinct, it felt as though someone was alongside.
"The voice was like a friend was talking to me," he said, "but completely 100 percent authoritative."
He walked a little farther. Again, he thought it might be best to stop and pray and wait for help. Again, the voice responded, "We've got your back, keep going."
A little farther, same exchange.
Tutwiler's explanation: he was visited by the Divine. "It kept saying, 'we.' I don't know if it was the Trinity or angels with me or what. It wasn't a thunderous voice from the mountaintop or anything like that. It was friendly, but forceful."
In the meantime, Crittendon reached her car and sped down the road. She stopped at the first house, where the residents let her borrow a cell phone. She called 911, then called a friend who was supposed to meet them after their hike.
She couldn't remember Tutwiler's cell phone number and asked her friend to call him. She drove back to the parking lot and then took off down the trail back toward where she had left Tutwiler.
Except Crittendon wound up on the wrong trail. The park's trails are a series of intersecting loops that allow shorter and longer hikes. She realized that she was on the wrong trail, turned around and doubled back to the parking lot.
She got back just in time to see Tutwiler being loaded into an ambulance for a trip to the University of Missouri hospital.
Tutwiler had emerged from the forest minutes earlier to find a platoon of EMTs, firefighters and rescue workers, along with multiple ambulances and fire trucks.
"I guess they thought it was going to be a search-and-rescue because they mobilized everybody," he said. "I thought: This is kind of overkill."
On the ride to the University of Missouri hospital complex, he heard the same voice that had comforted and encouraged him on the hike back to the parking lot.
"It's OK," he recalled the voice saying, "it's their turn to take care of you."
Doctors and technicians put Tutwiler through a battery of tests Sunday night and into the early hours of Monday morning: x-rays, CAT scan, MRI, full-body diagnostics. He was told that he had cuts and bruises over 80 percent of his body.
Tutwiler had cracked the C1 vertebra, also known as the "Atlas" vertebra, because it rests at the base of the skull and helps hold up the head. It's called a Jefferson fracture, for the doctor who first studied such breaks early in the 20th century. Tutwiler said it was described to him as "snapping a Lifesaver in two."
Tutwiler also cracked the C3 and C4 vertebrae and, in one doctor's words, "obliterated" the C6 vertebra. He chipped and flaked off bone fragments from all of his remaining vertebrae, as well.
"I think the real miracle is that he survived the fall," said Dr. Ronald Schubert, the Tutwilers' family physician. "The fact that he was able to get up and make it back up the side of the cliff and walk to get help is unbelievable.
"I wouldn't have expected him to be where he was. When you break the C1 vertebra, the injury is so traumatic that most people don't survive. The force that causes that kind of break often results in death."
Crittendon called Tutwiler's parents, Don and Vickie, shortly after he was admitted to the hospital to tell them he'd been injured in a fall. She told them he had climbed back up the side of the cliff himself, was alert and was being tested.
Tutwiler was able to talk to his folks later Sunday evening. He said that doctors thought he had cracked a vertebra, but downplayed the severity of his injuries because he wasn't yet aware of them. Monday morning, after tests were complete, Crittendon called the Tutwilers again and told Vickie that Josh had indeed cracked multiple vertebrae and that surgery was scheduled for Tuesday.
Unable to secure a quick or cheap flight, the Tutwilers hopped in the car at 5 p.m. Monday and drove from Bridgewater to Columbia, arriving at the hospital at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday. They saw Josh bruised and bandaged and braced, and learned the seriousness of his condition.
"It was probably good that we didn't know more than we did at the time, or the trip to Missouri would have been a lot longer, with our fretting over the gravity of the situation," Vickie Tutwiler said.
"As we talked to more and more doctors and started checking information on his injuries," Don Tutwiler said, "we started to realize, he really shouldn't be here right now."
The medical team, headed by respected neurosurgeon Thor Norregaard, decided to postpone the surgery a day. Doctors told the Tutwilers that they wanted a fresh and alert surgical team, not a group that had been on its feet all day and thinking about going home.
The Tutwilers said that doctors were blunt in discussing the potential risks and effects of the operation. Though Josh had full feeling in his digits and limbs, they said that because of the extent of the damage and the volume of bone fragments around arteries and the spinal cord, that he might lose the use of any or all of his limbs. They said he might experience tingling in any or all of his limbs for the rest of his life. They said that the last time he got up to walk around the hospital might be the last time he walked.
"I thought, that's super-encouraging. Thanks, guys," Tutwiler joked.
Don remembered looking over at Josh lying on the hospital bed as doctors explained the risks. He said he saw a tear roll out of one eye and then a tear roll out of the other eye. He said that Josh raised his hand to interrupt.
"I want to tell you people something," Don recalled Josh saying. "I know someone who can raise people from the dead. I really don't think he's going to have any trouble fixing some
In a six-hour operation on Wednesday, doctors successfully pulled the C1 vertebra together and fused it to the C2 with screws and a small plate. In a five-plus-hour operation Thursday, they performed what's called a C6 partial corphectomy.
Doctors removed the bone fragments from the area around the "obliterated" C6 vertebra. They inserted a small metal "cage" and attached it with screws to the C5 and C7 vertebrae, to stabilize that area of his spine.
Most people have seven vertebrae. After Tutwiler's surgeries, he essentially has four.
Thought Tutwiler graduated ODU with a degree in political science and a minor in religious studies, he is remarkably fluent and comfortable with medical terms and procedures.
"I've gotten a crash course in physiology and anatomy, pun not so much intended," he said.
Before the second operation Thursday, the anesthesiologist came to the room to tell the Tutwilers that he was going to tweak the concoction that he would give Josh. The anesthetic from the first operation made him a little nauseous.
Don Tutwiler followed the anesthesiologist out of the room to ask a question. The man told him how fortunate Josh was. He said that in his experience, the best doctors could do for most patients with his injuries was to patch them up, fit them for a wheelchair and send them to therapy to learn to live as a quadriplegic.
"The anesthesiologist said, 'Let me ask you a question,'" Don Tutwiler said. "How long was it between the time he fell and when the EMTs rescued him? I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'How long between the time he fell and they got him off the mountain?' I said, 'You don't know the story, do you?'"
After Don told the anesthesiologist how Josh had climbed back up the cliffside after the fall and hiked to the parking lot, the man said, "I've got a word for that. It's a word that not many people like to use in a hospital. But that's a miracle. There's no denying that."
Tutwiler learned just how much a marvel his case was in his five days at the hospital. He got used to doctors checking on him, trailed by groups of med students. But he said that various people would stop by or stick their heads in the door and ask how he was doing.
"I'd say, fine, or as well as could be expected," he said. "They'd give me a thumbs-up and say, you're doing great, and I'd be like, 'OK, thanks, medical person I don't know.' At first, I thought they were the most thorough medical staff of all time — which they were. But I realized later that people all over the hospital heard about my injuries and what happened. It was like they didn't believe I really existed and wanted to see for themselves."
Both surgeries were a success, and doctors said he was stable and well enough to check out Friday or Saturday. With a Missouri home football game on Saturday, and the stadium within
They drove to St. Louis that first night, then spent the next two days traveling back to Bridgewater. They stopped frequently, sometimes driving no more than a half-hour before Josh asked to stop, in order to stretch or get comfortable, or simply lay still in the car.
Doctors prescribed only mild painkillers on the trip home. If something serious were to happen, they wanted Tutwiler alert enough to feel it, so that they could get to a nearby hospital for help as quickly as possible.
"You have no idea how bumpy the roads are until you're in a situation where you feel every one of them," Tutwiler said. "Especially West Virginia. Those people need to do something with their interstates."
He rested and recovered when he got home. His physical activity was limited to walking, and he wore a neck brace 24/7 for the first six weeks. He gradually shed the brace for longer stretches as he regained strength and movement in his neck.
When Schubert examined him, he asked about the ordeal. Tutwiler described breaking his C1 vertebra. Schubert responded, when you think you broke your C1 vertebra. Tutwiler said, when I broke my C1 vertebra. Schubert again said, when you think you broke your C1 vertebra.
"It was like an Abbott and Costello routine," Tutwiler said. "I finally said, why do you keep saying, when I think I broke my C1 vertebra? He said, because if you broke your C1 vertebra, you're probably going to die."
Don Tutwiler, present for the exam, recalled that the color drained out of Josh's face. He said that he was a little dizzy and needed to sit down.
"Josh had plenty of people tell him how serious his injuries were," Don said, "but I think hearing our family doctor say it, somebody he knew, I think that really hit home for him."
Schubert offered two explanations for Tutwiler's survival: "From a purely physical standpoint, the fact that he's an athlete and has such strength in his neck allowed him to sustain the injuries he did and still be mobile. The other answer is God's providence and his protection."
Tutwiler had a parade of visitors in the ensuing days and weeks. Family, friends, former teammates and classmates. Everybody wanted to hear the story, most of all his parents.
"We were like kids on Christmas morning," Don Tutwiler said. "We wanted to hear the story every time he told it. It was like hearing something that wasn't real."
"That it turned out so well is so encouraging," Vickie said. "That's why we like hearing it. We know how it ends, but each time it builds up momentum to a happy ending."
At first, the Tutwilers listened for details that maybe their son omitted from previous tellings. Then, they began watching the expressions of others, especially those hearing the tale for the first time.
"People will sit there with their mouths open," Don said. "Sometimes women will start crying. It's just an unbelievable story."
Josh said that friends ask: Can I tell your story? "I say, sure, go ahead," he said. "I feel like I'd be remiss if I don't tell it."
He knows how he feels about what he went through and why he remains among the living. He wouldn't presume to tell others. Whether people view his story as an example of God's work, of personal triumph and motivation, or simply a wild tale of a lucky young man who beat the odds matters not to him.
"Whatever people want to take from it is fine," he said. "It's something where I'm not trying to beat you over the head with a Bible. Obviously, I feel pretty strongly about how it played out and what's at work, but I don't want to try to convince other people of something I believe. It's something I want to share with people and let them decide."
Tutwiler was home recovering for four months before he was able to assume his duties at William and Mary. Tribe coach Jamie Pinzino told him in the hospital to focus on getting better and that the job would be there when he was able, for which Tutwiler is eternally grateful.
When Tutwiler arrived in January, the team and staff had been together the entire fall.
"He's done a great job in a tough situation," Pinzino said. "There was some concern because we'd been together for four or five months and he was a new guy coming in. But he's an easy guy to be around. He's been able to mesh with the program. The players all seem to like him, and he does whatever he's asked."
Pinzino's other concern was what Tutwiler would be able to do, physically. He was limited at first, but has improved greatly in the past couple of months. He can pitch some batting practice and hit fungoes. He hauls equipment and lends a hand moving tarps.
When Tutwiler began physical therapy, his ability to move his head side-to-side and back-and-forth was in the 10-20 percent range. It's now in the 70-80 percent range.
"The fact that he's coaching baseball is remarkable," Schubert said. "People who sustain the injuries he did, if they live, often have chronic pain and chronic
Crittendon didn't see Tutwiler for six months after the accident, as she finished schooling at Missouri. She arranged to have a final training rotation in Virginia Beach, where she's been the past couple of months.
"I didn't know what to expect," she said. "If he could move, how well he could move. I got to see him and I was amazed."
She's attended a few Tribe baseball games this spring.
"To see him running around with the players and watching him hit, that was pretty cool," she said.
Tutwiler doesn't begin to know what lies ahead. He feels himself getting better and stronger, if not as quickly as he would like. He had a goal to play baseball professionally, which he hasn't yet abandoned. He is grateful for each day and is assured, more than ever, that something will present itself.