CAPE VINCENT — Sheryl T. Corso was washing dishes in her cottage on the St. Lawrence River last June 26 when she heard a loud thud against the side of the building.
It wasn’t a fallen tree.
When Mrs. Corso rushed outside, she saw her neighbor, Edward L. St. George, lying against the wall of the cottage, unable to move. He broke his neck falling off the deck of his cottage, which stands on a rock cliff about 20 feet above the Corso residence.
“I couldn’t imagine what it was and thought maybe a tree had come down,” Mrs. Corso recalled. “But then a few seconds later, I heard someone calling for help.”
About a year later, Mr. St. George said he might not be moving today were it not for the skillful response by volunteers from the Cape Vincent Ambulance Squad and Thousand Islands Emergency Rescue Service who responded to his cottage at 34285 Route 12E. Responders arrived at the small neighborhood called the St. Lawrence Ledges about 10 minutes after the accident was reported. A half-hour later, Mr. St. George was airlifted from Cape Vincent by helicopter to Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, for emergency surgery.
Mr. St. George, a seasonal resident of Cape Vincent who lives in Rochester, said the fall occurred as he was completing work on a small addition to the cottage. He initially fell about nine feet onto the face of the rock cliff below the deck, landing on his upper back and neck; three vertebrae in his neck were fractured by the impact. His head didn’t strike the surface, fortunately, because it hung over the edge of the cliff. He then tumbled down the cliff — doing three barrel rolls — and slammed into the Corsos’ cottage.
Mr. St. George, who was taking measurements to install vinyl siding on the kitchen addition, was attempting to step off a narrow side of the cottage deck and onto an 8-foot ladder when he fell.
“I was trying to get my right foot on the ladder, but when I turned to do it I fell square backward,” he said. “If I would have hit my head on the cliff with the same force, I would have been knocked out.”
Though he was conscious after the fall, he couldn’t feel anything because of the injury to his cervical spinal cord. In addition to fracturing his neck, he injured his left shoulder and lightly fractured eight vertebrae in his upper back.
“When you fall and hit your neck very hard, your spinal cord is shocked,” he said. “It swells up and your body sends a lot of fluid around it. As a result, the commands of your body fall to sleep and can’t perform. My limbs woke up very slowly, starting with my toes and feet.”
The medical team at the Syracuse hospital told him he was lucky to be moving his limbs after the accident. Following the surgery, it took three weeks of intense physical therapy before he could walk with a cane.
“They told me that 90 percent of the people who suffer these injuries are either quadriplegic or dead,” Mr. St. George said. “And I owe just as much credit to the emergency responders as I do to the surgeon. The surgeon told me, ‘I’ve never seen a spinal cord bend as far as yours did without breaking.’”
Cape Vincent Fire Chief William E. Gould II, who drove an ambulance to the accident scene, said volunteers exercised precautions while hoisting Mr. St. George onto a backboard. He was lying in an awkward position between the cottage and the steep embankment. Volunteers lifted him up onto the board with his legs, while others stabilized his neck. He then was carried on the backboard by volunteers up a staircase on the steep riverside ledge.
“Any time you get a fall like that, you treat them the same because you don’t know the extent of injuries,” Mr. Gould said. “It was challenging to get him out, because you had to get him on the backboard from the area he was in and carry him up the stairs to the top.”
People often don’t realize how many skillful emergency volunteers work behind the scenes until an accident happens that affects them directly, Mr. Gould said. But he pointed out that volunteer fire departments, like Cape Vincent, rely on donations from the community to fund operations.
“When you’re a small community like we are, it encourages people involved in accidents to donate,” he said. “But until it happens to you, or someone close to you, you don’t think about it in the back of your mind.”
Mr. St. George, who said that he’s now “about 90 percent back to normal,” said he is grateful for volunteers who responded on the day of his tragic fall. Though he still has some minor numbness in his left arm, his energy level is back to normal. He is able to wax his motor oat, for example, and complete projects at his cottage.
“I figure that, a year later, I want to thank them,” he said Thursday. “When this kind of injury happens, there’s a terrific emergency rescue system here that is needed to respond.”
The process of recovering from the accident has broadened Mr. St. George’s perspective on life.
“The broader picture is that I have a deeper appreciation for a beautiful day like today, for how fortunate my life has been and how much my family loves me,” he said.