Skydiving and COVID-19

A few friends have pointed out to me the comment going around that stopping the shelter in place orders right now is a lot like saying, “Hey, this parachute worked so well to slow me down, let me cut it away at 2,000 feet.” And I think it’s a good analogy.

But I have a different lesson I pull from my skydiving experience when dealing with this whole COVID-19 issue.

When I started skydiving I was in my early 30s, single, with a good income, no real debts I’d leave behind, no kids, no pets, and no family members that needed me to care for them. In some respects my dying would’ve been more beneficial to my family than my living, at least monetarily.

So the risk of skydiving that I perceived at the time, which was that I would die, wasn’t a big risk to me. I figured it would go fast if it happened and then it would be over. And, sure, living longer would be nice, but if that’s how things were I wasn’t too worried about it.

But as I got more into the sport, I realized that the true risk of skydiving was not dying. It was being severely injured and requiring months of rehab and depending on others to take care of me during that time.

One of my AFF instructors had a bad opening on his parachute and it fractured his pelvis, tore his aorta, and punctured his bowel. He was in the hospital for weeks and in rehab for months. Another girl I knew got caught in the prop wash from a plane that was on the tarmac and broke her leg. There’s even a term in skydiving called “femuring” because it’s common enough to hear that someone broke a femur during a bad landing. That’s the hardest bone in the body and yet skydivers break it often enough that it’s a sports term.

That was when I really had to sit down and reconsider my risk assessment. Because it wasn’t about potentially dying. It was about potentially having long-term pain. Or potentially needing in-home care when I had no one to give that care during rehab.

When I did that I also realized that I was only as safe as the stupidest person in the plane. Or the stupidest person on the jump with me.

Only so much you can do to avoid a canopy collision. And if some idiot launches wrong out of the plane or with a loose handle that leads to an early deployment that takes out the tail of that plane you’re going down with them whether you did everything right or not.

That change in my risk assessment isn’t the full reason I quit jumping. But it definitely had an impact. I was okay with dying. I was not okay with being a living burden on my family. They didn’t deserve to pay for my risky choices.

Which brings me back around to how this ties into COVID-19.

There’s been a lot of focus on the fatality rate. And on who actually dies. In Colorado over 50% of the fatalities are people over 80 years old. The death rate in Colorado for someone in their 20s is about a quarter of one percent. Pretty negligible.

Which makes it tempting for someone in their 20s to say, “The fatality rate on this thing is so small why should I stop living my life over this?”

Now, I’m not going to rant again about how overwhelming the healthcare system impacts everyone not just those with COVID-19 and how helping to spread this illness can mean that someone with an appendicitis or a stroke or a bad accident could end up not getting life-saving care, but that’s something to consider as well.

What I want to focus on instead is what happens if you get COVID-19 and don’t actually die from it.

We don’t know enough right now to know the long-term impacts of this illness. But there are a few things about it that make me think about rheumatic fever, so I want to talk about that for a second.

I am by no means claiming that the two illnesses are related. But I’m familiar with rheumatic fever because both of my parents were impacted by it when they were children.

For my father it damaged his kidneys when he was probably five or six years old. That damage was severe enough that he ultimately lost his kidneys in his early 20s which meant dialysis or transplants to stay alive. That one illness–that did not kill him–is the reason he died at 45 instead of living a long, healthy life. It also impacted everything he did. Every moment of his life from that point forward was colored by his illness.

For my mother rheumatic fever caused heart damage which may have ultimately lead to her needing open heart surgery and a valve replacement in her early 50s.

It took over a decade from that illness for my father’s kidneys to fail. And many decades for my mom to need heart surgery. But the initial damage was done by the rheumatic fever.

So turning back to COVID-19. We do not yet know what the long-term impacts of this illness are, but they could potentially be very significant.

It is clear that this illness impacts the lungs. It is also clear that for some patients they don’t even know their lungs are being affected.

Do you want to struggle with breathing for the rest of your life every time your neighbors decide to use their fireplace? Or when your neighbor engages in probably illegal home repairs that kick dust or chemicals into the air?

That could maybe happen if you get COVID-19. (Maybe not, but we don’t know enough yet to rule it out.)

Also with COVID-19 there are a non-trivial number of patients whose kidneys are affected by the illness. I’ve read more than one report of seriously ill patients who had to be dialysed because of it. Again, maybe it’s temporary. Not every patient in a hospital setting who requires dialysis requires it for life.

But what if the illness causes lasting kidney damage? Patients who receive kidney transplants do not have a full life expectancy. You get more years than dialysis in general, but not a full life. And if that kidney damage is a long-term effect of this illness, there probably won’t be enough kidneys to go around for everyone to get a transplant, which means dialysis. My dad made it 20+ years on dialysis, but the average is closer to five years.

COVID-19 has also been shown to cause clots which if they don’t kill you can cause strokes, heart attacks, and loss of limbs. The long-term effects of having a stroke can be incredibly challenging. Or what about losing a limb due to a clot. Trust me, you don’t want to go through that.

There may also be a potential for liver damage.

Again, we don’t know exactly what we’re dealing with yet. And some of these other health implications may not become clear for years. We may only see that they were COVID-19 related when we look at the incidence of X in the population prior to COVID-19 versus after.

For all we know those “asymptomatic” patients people love to talk about could just be people with lung involvement who don’t notice the symptom. We may only know they were impacted when they go in for breathing issues a year or five or ten down the road.

So don’t be binary in how you think about this illness. It is not a choice between dying or being fine. For the younger members of the population the main outcome of this could actually be long-term health impacts to lungs, kidneys, liver, and heart.

If you won’t limit your activities because someone else might die, then limit them because you might be permanently impacted if you get this. My dad had a good life, but I’m pretty sure he would’ve rather had a life without kidney disease if he’d been given the choice.