How Fitness Helped Erik Brinkman Survive a Four-Story Fall
It was 3 a.m. on February 11, 2019, the first day of Erik Brinkman’s honeymoon in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico.
His wife was sleeping soundly after a great day together when Brinkman went outside for a smoke.
A series of tropical storms had hit the Playa Del Carmen region in recent days, leaving the polished marble floors at the resort particularly slippery.
Suddenly, as Brinkman was walking along the uncovered balcony, he slipped and fell, tumbling over the low railing and falling four stories.
Alive but in shock, Brinkman let out a string of screams that woke his wife, Arianna Torabian, who soon found her half-conscious husband and his mangled body.
- “I was in shock, so I don’t really remember any of that. I remember slipping, and the next thing I remember is waking up in the hospital 20 hours later,” Brinkman said.
His chance of survival didn’t look good.
Brinkman’s injuries included two broken femurs fractured at their midpoints, a shattered pelvis, and four breaks in his sacroiliac joint. His left femoral head also busted off his hip joint, and he shattered both patellas, both feet and his left elbow. Finally, he had spinal damage, including fractures in his C2 and L5, as well as pulmonary embolisms — blood clots — in his lungs.
- “Doctors told my family I was probably going to die. With the level of my injuries, it was almost for sure I had destroyed some vital organs,” said Brinkman, whose parents, brother and sister flew to Mexico the moment they heard about the accident.
Though nobody witnessed the accident, Brinkman’s surgeons reverse engineered his fall and deduced that he must have essentially landed straight up and down in a deep squat and then tumbled to his left side upon impact, which is why the injuries on his left side were more severe than his right, he explained.
In the days that followed, doctors discovered, miraculously, that Brinkman had managed to avoid any serious organ damage, and might actually have a chance at a decent recovery.
They weren’t sure how this was even possible, considering the severity of his fall.
- “The head surgeon said there’s no way I should have survived,” Brinkman said.
Fitness Meant the Difference between Life and Death
The only reason he was able to survive the impact was due to how strong and fit his body had been, they said.
- “One hundred percent, I wouldn’t have survived if I wasn’t strong. At the time I could deadlift over 475 pounds,” said the six-foot-four Brinkman, who had been doing CrossFit at MadLab School of Fitness in Vancouver, British Columbia since 2010.
He added: “CrossFit saved my life.”
Though it looked as though Brinkman would survive, it was still unclear whether he’d be able to make a full recovery. And so began the long process of healing.
To start, even though Brinkman had medical insurance, his wife had to pay $10,000 USD up front, just for doctors to agree to stop the bleeding, and thousands of dollars more to have him stabilized.
Then, Brinkman went through a series of surgeries in Mexico, not to fix the fractures, but to hold his bones together so they’d stop ripping things inside of him, which had been making the internal bleeding worse.
Then another snag emerged: The hospital, and the entire southern region of Mexico, was out of Type O negative blood.
- “If I didn’t get blood I would die, so my wife and sister put up posts on Facebook and contacted everyone they knew and they couriered blood in,” Brinkman said.
They also went around the hospital and started asking for people with Brinkman’s blood type.
- “Some people came to the hospital and gave blood on the spot,” Brinkman said.
By the end of the week, Brinkman was stable enough, and had received enough blood — 9 pints — that he could fly the eight hours home, with a stop in El Paso, TX to refuel, in a small, bumpy plane to Canada.
Surgeries and the Road to Recovery
In the following days, Brinkman underwent nine surgeries, which left his body full of all kinds of hardware, including various wires, nails and screws, a plate on his pelvis and formal head, an eight-inch bolt at the base of his spine and two 18-inch rods inside his femurs.
He was in the hospital for six weeks.
A little over one year has passed since the accident, and to say Brinkman is doing well is an understatement.
He has exceeded all of his doctor’s expectations, he said.
He credits his coach Chris Saini at MadLab School of Fitness with playing an integral role, not just in his physical recovery, but also in his emotional recovery.
- “Outside of my immediate family, he’s one of my top three supporters. He was right from the start,” Brinkman said. “(Chris) came and visited me every week in the hospital and brought me food, and homemade bone broth to help mend my bones.”
He added: “My neighbor later told me that he met my CrossFit coach when I was in the hospital. He was like, ‘Yeah, your coach came by and shoveled your walkway a few times,” he said.
And, of course, the moment he could — in September 2019 — Brinkman returned to work with Saini at the gym.
The two have been working together since then to increase Brinkman’s strength and mobility. While he’s nowhere near where he used to be yet, he is back doing all kinds of upper body strength work, lower body mobility and strength work, including light squats and deadlifts, and some conditioning on the AirBike.
Brinkman’s Goal: To Make a 150% Recovery
Brinkman has stopped both drinking and smoking since the accident and has developed an appreciation for taking life a little bit more slowly.
- “Why I say 150 percent is because, though there might be some things that will always limit me physically, I have gained so much perspective, appreciation, gratitude through this experience that enhances other areas of my life that may not have been active. So the net benefit of all that is that I’ll be much better off,” he said.
- “My wife and I started spending more time on the islands (off the British Columbia coast) last summer. We bought a house and a boat and we will spend most weekends over there in the summer, and holidays, chopping wood, dropping crab traps and prawn traps. It has been transformative,” he said.
Despite the new perspective and gratitude he has, Brinkman admits, the last year hasn’t been without its incredibly difficult emotional challenges.
- “The biggest challenge is focusing on the now, and not getting overwhelmed with the future and the past,” he said. “And I have been challenged with my sense of identity being changed.”
He added: “It’s not just about getting the physical stuff back for me. It’s also about my emotional recovery. I had so much trauma in my body that a lot of emotions come up.”
Healing Body and Mind
He has relied on different kinds of therapy to help him with his emotional and psychological well-being.
One of the things his therapist recommended was for Brinkman and Torabian to return to the same resort in Playa Del Carmen.
- “We identified that that was important for helping me overcome and get closure and put a positive foot forward to close that chapter of my life by making peace with the resort and the country,” he said.
So they did. Exactly a year later, the couple returned to the same resort, just the two of them, leaving their 2-year-old daughter at home with family so they could spend their first few days alone together since she was born.
While in Mexico in February, Brinkman said this: “It has been amazing. So empowering to face the place.”
- “This time here allowed us to reconnect and work through the trauma. We have spoken at length about the event, which we haven’t been able to do up until this week,” he added.
With Mexico behind him, Brinkman is ready to get back to regular life, which means finishing his Master’s Degree in Business Administration, and, of course, heading back to the gym to train with Saini.
- “It gives me a sense of progress and clears my mind of all the noise,” he said of training with Saini.
- “And especially having (Saini as a coach), who has motivated me to…step it up and accept the setbacks without judgement. (He) has inspired me to face the changes in my body with positivity and embrace the new me as an opportunity to grow and learn about myself and the gift that is life,” he said.