As Hannibal Woodward sat in his Fruit Valley home, he watched the sky through a small window, waiting for planes to go by.
“All of my friends are out there, on the playground,” he said, pointing to the sky.
Light gray smoke curled around his face from the pipe in the crook of his mouth. The 44-year-old said the pipe, when placed just so, helps align his jaw that was smashed more than a year ago.
It was the first thing physicians fixed when Woodward entered a three-month-long hospital stay on June 27, 2012 — the day his plane went down in Vancouver’s Pearson Field. He carries a second-class airman medical certificate, which is required to fly commercial non-airline planes. He started flying in 1994. When it came time to buy a plane, he’d picked the Kitfox IV N645GR for its fuel efficiency, ability to do aerobatics and high safety rating. The plane, “Fruitloop,” was a fixed-wing single engine, two-seater plane that was built and deemed safe to fly in 1996.
The crash, that day, is a blur for Woodward and something he doesn’t like to talk about. The crash is still under investigation, and he said he has already spent a lot of time reliving the death of his passenger and friend, Gary Sparks. Woodward was pulled from the rubble of the red plane and rushed to PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center with a fractured jaw and a broken back, left tibia, right ankle and 16 ribs, as well as two punctured lungs, a bruised heart and severe blood clotting.
These days, he talks and moves with a newfound independence. He describes recently finishing his 13th major surgery, an eight-hour procedure, as a type of rebirth. Over the past year, he’s relearned how to talk, breathe and swallow.
“I don’t know if I should count my birthday anymore,” he said with a smile.
When he entered PeaceHealth, a tracheostomy (or trach) tube was inserted into a small hole in his neck and hooked up to a ventilator that breathed for him. Physicians sliced his abdominal wall straight up the middle and installed a wound V.A.C., a vacuum-assisted device under his skin to help accelerate healing. His belly was distended from fluids built up in his abdomen, making him appear pregnant. Every three days, he was wheeled down to the surgery room to change the vacuum bag containing his vital organs.
Woodward required round-the-clock care. Nurses performed hourly neurological exams because the second vertebrae in his skull was broken. He diligently followed their commands to squeeze his right hand, wiggle his toes and follow their fingers with his eyes. A wrong movement could have paralyzed him from the neck down.
Spending weeks on his back in the intensive care unit was isolating and confusing.
“I was trapped in my body. I couldn’t talk to anybody,” he said.
All he could see as he was brought in and out of a medically induced coma was the white ceiling above his head. His injuries prevented him from being raised up in his hospital bed.
As people moved about his room, talking to him as they worked on his body, he couldn’t see them and felt helpless. Sometimes he recognized a voice.
One day, by accident, a shiny mylar balloon floated above his head, allowing him to see his entire hospital room. He kept the dome-shaped balloon on the ceiling above his head, which served as a mirror and a way to see people who entered the room. The balloon was a catalyst for making his immobility more bearable.
The first person he remembers seeing was his wife, Angela. As he was brought out of the coma, he used sign language to communicate. His first words were “hot” and “ow.” He also wrote to her, working his way through stacks of paper. Without being able to sit up and see what he was doing, the scrawled script looked like a child’s, making the messages seem all the more desperate.
One sheet read “I want 2 live,” and on the other side, “is scary.”
With limited sensory input from the outside world, he felt trapped in his own body. The clock’s second hand, ticking away every moment spent staring at the ceiling, was painful to hear. To make the time pass by quicker, he went through flight calculations in his head and reviewed what he knew about biology and how it applied to his injuries.
He spent eight weeks at PeaceHealth, five of them in the intensive care unit and three on the orthopedic floor; 19 days at Vibra Speciality Hospital of Portland, a long-term acute care facility; and three weeks at ManorCare Health Services, a skilled nursing facility in Salmon Creek. He underwent 13 major surgeries and more body scans than he can count.
But he wasn’t content on allowing his fragile state to be debilitating or permanent. He said his determination rings true for people recovering from long-term injuries.
“The time is now to heal. You’re not going to do later, you have to do it now. You have to suck it up and do it now, because your body is going to settle in. You don’t want it to settle in a position you don’t like.”
Woodward was determined to get his body under control. He took up knot-tying to gain back dexterity. He studied food science and food additives to design a diet that fed his body the proper amount of nutrients.
When the surgeon who reconstructed Woodward’s knee thought he would get foot drop, he set his feet into a brace. The doctors weren’t sure if he would be able to use his feet again. Woodward used a resistance band to move his feet, mentally commanding them to move as he used it.
“It’s moving because I made it move,” he said. “What they say are going to be my limits and what I say are going to be my limits are two different things.”
Getting used to being numb over most of his body wasn’t easy. After he came home, he fell and got a bruise and placed a heating pad on the bruise. Later, his skin started to itch. He found he had second- and third-degree burns on his skin where the heating pad was. These days, he showers with cold water to be on the safe side.
When he wants to be affectionate with his wife, he wraps his right arm around her waist and touches her with the right side of his face where he still has full feeling.
In his garage, he’s set up an exercise area with a punching bag, some dumbbells and a stationary bike. For a while, he couldn’t use the bike because his stomach stuck out too far.
Though his healing process is far from over, Woodward has his sights set high. He wants to fly again.
For a long time, he shied away from aviation topics and didn’t look up at the sky. As his strength came back, so did his desire to rejoin the sky life — as he calls it — and complete 10,000 flight hours.
“I couldn’t live without flying,” he said.
Ever since he was a kid, he would find ways to gain altitude however he could. All he ever wanted to do, as far as he can remember, is get up and get higher.
“They can stitch things, they can repair things, but you have to make yourself better,” Woodward said. “They’re saying, ‘Oh, this is a worst case scenario.’ I’m not going to accept that. I am going to push it, and I’m going to work until I get what I want out of it. I will set the limit.”