Injury and Safety in Training - Lessons from
the Past Year
Guest Editorial by Greg Mele of the Chicago Swordplay Guild
I would like to thank all of you out there who have kept myself, and my family, in your prayers since my accident on Sept 17, 2000. The over 300 letters, emails, and cards, were not only touching, but truly humbling. And frankly, like most self-proclaimed swordsmen, I probably could stand to be a little more humble. ;-) I would also like to particularly thank Joerg Bellinghausen, David Cvet, Steve Hand, Steve Hick, Pete Kautz and Gus Trim, who knew precisely what was wrong with me, but held their tongues on the various fora so could explain it myself, in due course. They are true gentlemen and friends. Of course, Internet gossip being what it is, I have heard some pretty interesting takes on what happened. Well, let's get this over with, and set things straight.
We were working with some very basic grip and counter-grip drills that form the underlying mechanics in most medieval Kampfringen (grappling) techniques. These drills are all relatively safe and structured exercises, analogous to the kihon techniques one learns in classical Japanese martial arts, or modern, but traditionally structured arts, like Aikido.
In this case, we were discussing how one of the
grabs, although commonly shown in the German and Italian material, is
rather difficult to "stick," and if you miss it, your partner can
counter-grab you. One of our newer students asked what would happen
then, and I attempted to explain by demonstrating the options with
the person present who was closest to my size. We organically worked
through a few things, and got to a point where it was now primarily a
strength contest. The point made, I started to release my grip patted
my partner on the arm, and said "OK," meaning we were finished.
Either he did not hear, or was too focused on "winning," because he
immediately went for a cross-body hold, catching me off-guard, and
essentially hip tossing me in a sort of headlock. Via Aikido and
jujutsu, I've spent a fair amount of time falling, and I might have
escaped with some bruises and low-grade whiplash, accept my partner,
who had no real wrestling skill to speak of, lost his balance and
went down, too, leaving me nowhere to go. His weight and mine came down on my neck, and hyper-flexed my spine.
The end result was a spinal contusion at the seventh cervical vertebrae, which is where the nerves leading to the triceps and hands are located. I was left paralyzed from the nipples down, with no use of my right hand or triceps, and limited use of the left hand. My head was immobilized in a halo for four weeks (if you don't know what one of these things is, I'll leave you blissfully ignorant), to make sure my spine was stable, pumped full of steroids to reduce swelling of the spinal cord, and began rehabilitation. The prognosis was that I would likely walk again, within a year, and would get "some degree" of hand function back, although what extent would be unclear for the first year or so.
Well, now it is February. I am walking around with a cane outdoors, unassisted indoors, and can navigate stairs easily. My left arm and hand are nearly back to normal, although my grip strength is about half of what it was. Unfortunately, I am right-handed, and both my hand and arm on the right side are still well below normal function; but we are working on that.
Since coming home 30 November, I attend physical and occupational therapy (three times a week, for half a day, and spend the other two days in the pool and gym, trying to rebuild my endurance. It looks like this routine will continue through the winter and into spring. It is long, tedious, and tiring work, but I am months ahead of my projected recovery schedule. Personally, I believe that natural stubbornness, combined with everyone's positive energy, has gone a long way towards making this happen. So it now seems likely that I will make close to a full recovery. I say "close" because nerve tissue has very limited regenerative capability, so nearly all recovering quadriplegics (yes, that is the official diagnosis) end up with some sort a residual weirdness.
Now, you all know what happened. It may seem horrible, but remember, I'm lucky. My neurosurgeon and physiatrist (rehab doc), are both amazed that I did not break my neck, either paralyzing myself permanently, or dying outright. But my primary reason for writing all of this is not to share my tale of woe, but to point out that there could have easily been three funerals in the WMA community this year, and dumb luck, not proper training, is what prevented it. Further, negligence is what caused all three of these accidents to occur.
Chris Amberger addressed this on the HES Forum a couple of months ago with his "fence naked with sharps if you want, but be aware of the consequences to you and the community," and he caught a lot of flak for making his point at mine or Rob's expense, or for being "an armchair expert," or having an axe to grind with this or that person. All of which, even if perfectly accurate, doesn't make him any less correct.
Case #1, Greg gets thrown on his head, and tries to catch the
The only real way to describe this was stupid. That's as in S-T-U-P-I-D. Why? Several reasons:
1. Training is about learning, not winning.
This was a chronic problem with the other person involved in the accident. You would attempt to drill a technique, and if he was the person who "loses" in the drill, he would start to improvise a counter, mid-way through whatever you were doing. This is a common problem with some students, since it makes them feel like they're "winning" or can defeat the instructor. If you have a training partner like this, and you cannot easily correct the problem, don't train with them.
2. Know you're partner.
My fault, here. I knew this person had control problems, and an unrealistic view of their abilities, and I went ahead and worked with them.
3. Never let your guard down, until you know your partner knows
you're ready to stop.
I violated this one big-time, and it's a lesson you learn in boxing, martial arts, archery, or using a driving range in golf. Always assume the other person didn't hear, or isn't responding, until you know all is well.
4. Pay Attention!
My partner's failing here. He was too busy looking for the "win," that he didn't notice my verbal or physical cues to cease.
5. Know your limitations.
Everyone's a super-hero of martial mastery in their own mind. Get over it.
So, there's five, common sense issues, and not violating just one would have likely prevented the accident, or minimized it. Don't forget these rules! They will hopefully keep you out of a wheelchair or a coffin.
Case #2, Rob Lovett's perforated lung:
Rob has already detailed what happened, and explained that he and his partner were tired and unfocused. I think they are perfectly aware of what went wrong. But what we all need to keep in mind is that a perforated lung could easily have been a punctured lung, heart or aorta, all of which could be fatal or permanently debilitating. The problem is, being unfocused with a quarterstaff is no different than being unfocused with a steel blunt. This is not just a stick, it is a weapon - one generally considered superior to the sword in unarmoured and lightly armoured encounters. That's why 19th century
competitions in England used rattan and bamboo staves, in conjunction with heavy padding - broken bones were no longer acceptable as a common injury with an obsolete weapon.
Safe ways to realistically fence with the staff still need to be explored, but in the meanwhile, how could this . have been avoided? When tired, stop training. It's that simple.
Case #3: Jeff Basham's torn cheek from a waster.
On the surface, this doesn't seem too bad, just a few stitches. Unfortunately, a few inches lower would have been a strike to the larynx, which could have easily been crushed. Unless someone nearby knows how to do an emergency tracheotomy, that means you are going to die of suffocation. A few inches higher, would result in a waster through the eye, perhaps causing blindness and possibly brain damage or death. Think I'm over reacting? This precise event is recorded in the records of the London Masters of Defense, from the 1570s, in which a scholar received a waster thrust to the eye and was killed instantly.
How to have avoided this? Well, a fencing mask would have probably reduced this injury to a bad bruise or abrasion, and would have eliminated the possibility of the squashed eye. A proper helm and gorget would have eliminated the risk of injury almost entirely. Now, I'm sure that folks, maybe Jeff himself, will post here to say that it was a fluke, not too serious an injury, etc. I agree with all of that, and I'm not implying otherwise. But my injury and Rob's were both flukes as well, and yet, they happened. And thus it is just as much a fluke that since it did happen, we all turned out relatively okay.
Yet based on net discussions, there still seem to be a lot of people who don't get it. That's a real problem, here's why.
I have seen people boast on-line that the medieval grappling material is so natural that, "without any grappling or wrestling background, I have been able to easily learn, and the material." And some of these same folks now authoritatively claim to teach these techniques. Sure, but do they know how to apply joint locks with enough authority to instruct, without harming? Do they know how to fall, or how to teach people to fall? Maybe, maybe not. Do you want to trust your limbs, or life, to that?
At the recent WMA 2000, a combatant was allowed to fight in the armoured tournament with his visor up. Historical? You bet! It was also unnecessarily dangerous and irresponsible in our modern world. Fortunately, nothing bad ensued, and I'm told it's been agreed that this was something that won't happen again. But it should never have happened at all.
I've seen people on the Net get told that a Del Tin, an Arms and Armor or a CASI sword is a rebated weapon if it hasn't been sharpened, when they clearly are not. (Why do I say that? Take an unsharpened Del Tin to a raw ham or a side of beef, sometime, and see what happens.)
Likewise, when new people ask where they can go
to learn this, people often advise them to just get a blunt or
waster, a partner, and "go work it out." OK, right now WMA do have a
certain "homegrown" quality to them, but telling someone you don't
know to "just do it," is probably not what Nike had in mind.
Traveling to seminars or buying safety gear might be expensive, but
so are golf clubs, surf boards, racing cycles, and exercise gear.
There comes a point when you either
have to commit to the expense, or acknowledge that you will be limited in what sort of training you can do on your own, based on what sort of gear you own.
I realize this post may draw criticism from
others. That's fine. I have no intention to debate this, because
there is nothing to debate. In martial arts training, injuries and
accidents can, and do happen. With weapons, the degree of injury can
escalate rapidly. Nor can any amount of safety gear eliminate risk
entirely. We all acknowledge and accept that. But that does not
excuse irresponsibility or negligence. All three of these injuries
could have been easily avoided, and all three of the injured parties
helped do it to themselves (training without safety gear, training
while tired, etc.). And lurking in the shadows behind all of this are
variety of legal concerns just ready to surface in this world of
uninsured clubs, academies and guilds. If discussing these injuries,
and this message will make people stop and think, and tighten up
their safety standards before someone is
killed, than I will cheerfully take any and all criticism it draws.
Chicago Swordplay Guild