Accident Database

Report ID# 3582

  • Impact/Trauma
  • Spinal Injury
  • Other

Accident Description

 My name is Michael McCormick, and I am the kayaker who was injured on the Ocoee River on October 3. Please excuse the tardiness and quality of this post, since, for reasons that should become apparent, I am using a combination of rudimentary voice-recognition dictation software and cut and paste technique to put this together. I'd like to acknowledge the concerns and thoughts expressed in this thread about my incident earlier this month, but more importantly, publicly acknowledge the heroics of the paddlers who saved my life, and hopefully reach some of those participants whose names and contact information I have yet to obtain.  

I am a 54 -year-old emergency physician from the Chicago area who was indulging my late life endeavor in white water kayaking with a long weekend of paddling through the Southeast. I spent a day at the Whitewater Center in Charlotte, followed by a day of excellent guided instruction through the lower half of the Green Narrows (hiking in to bypass the big three which are clearly out of my wheelhouse).

I hoped to find some paddlers to join at the put-in for the Middle Ocoee for my final day of whitewater before heading back home, as I had a great time paddling the stretch last year and wanted to give it a shot in my new play boat. Typical of my experiences of meeting people on the river, I was introduced to a group of guys from Memphis and Chattanooga who were extremely gracious, allowing me to join them and helping me out with the lines. I had a rather inauspicious start, however, flipping almost immediately at Grumpy's, and a few times after that. I found the River much bonier and the water more squirrelly then I remembered, but my roll seemed to be working and I figured I'd develop a better rhythm as we proceeded.

As I approached Slice-and-dice, I flipped in the hole at the beginning. I believe that I was not injured and was tucked and getting ready to roll when suddenly, the kayak dropped. After hearing and feeling a crunch in my neck, I was unable to feel anything below my neck nor was I able to move my arms or my legs. Possibly I went over a ledge that I didn't realize was awaiting me after the hole? Given my medical background and previous history of cervical surgeries, I knew immediately that I was quadriplegic from a neck injury, upside down in rapidly flowing water, and that I was absolutely going to die this way. I had no hope of possibly surviving this, since I was certain that even if my newly acquired paddling companions had even appreciated that I was in trouble, they could not possibly get to me in time. I confronted the horror of what I had just done to my wife and children and everyone who cared about me with my head bouncing along rocks, wondering how long it would be before I passed out, which I eventually did.

The next thing I knew, I was looking up at a face through the surface of the water of someone who was struggling to flip me over. I was once again conscious, aware of my situation, bouncing along upside down underwater, but eventually cognizant of a flurry of activity of my rescuers finally able to flip me over, hold me in calmer water and stabilize my neck. At that time, I still believed that I was permanently quadriplegic, and that I ruined my own life and everyone who cared about me, and suggested they let me go down the river. I was awake and lucid enough to appreciate the extraordinary efforts my rescuers were undertaking to keep me above water, maintaining cervical immobilization, and orchestrate my evacuation across the river and into an ambulance.

My outlook improved considerably, however, when approximately 20 to 25 minutes into the ordeal, I appreciated that I was able to move my left foot, then my right foot, and eventually my left hand. I started to regain sensation in my lower extremities. My extraction from what was still a rather precarious spot on the river required that one of my rescuers bushwhack up the riverbank to flag down a commercial raft. After the guide emptied the raft of clients and positioned his vessel next to mine, I was lifted into the raft, still in my boat and lying along the back deck with one of my rescuers maintaining cervical immobilization. I was ferried across the river and over another set of rapids, where paramedics had a backboard waiting for me. After being transferred to the backboard with my head taped and unable to move, I was aware only of two rows of faces on either side as they lifted me, hand over hand up the riverbank and into an ambulance.

After a very short ride in the ambulance, I was transferred to a helicopter for the flight to Erlanger Medical Center in Chattanooga. My evaluation in the trauma center revealed that I hand no fractures in my neck and no bleeding in my head. The injury to my spinal cord was caused by a herniated disc between the third and fourth cervical vertebrae which pinched my cord as my neck was flexed and compressed from the impact underwater. My neurologic deficits worsened somewhat shortly after my arrival to the hospital, so I had a cervical discectomy and fusion of that third/fourth level two days after arrival. I was later transferred by ambulance to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, and I have had nearly daily improvement in my strength, coordination, and balance ever since.

I was discharged from the hospital on October 20, able to ambulate with a cane only. My upper extremities remain more affected than my lower extremities, my right side more than my left, and I have a persistent tingling and numbness in my hands and forearms. However, numerous physicians have advised me that my prognosis is excellent and that I should continue to appreciate return of function up to six months to a year from the incident.

But if not for the quick action and heroics of Kevin, Michael, Neil, and Bryant, I would have no prognosis is all. Kevin continued to go above and beyond by visiting me in the hospital, going back to shuttle my car from the take out to Chattanooga, and serving as an invaluable resource for my wife, son and brother when they came to town. I wont presume that they want their full names revealed in this forum, but I hope they feel free identifying themselves further and elaborate on the roles that they played in my rescue. I am still looking for the name and contact information of the OAR raft guide, and would be interested in hearing from anyone else who had a hand in my rescue. If any readers of this thread have any information that might assist me in my quest, please respond to this thread or email me at

Words are not sufficient to express mya gratitude for the actions undertaken and thoughts expressed by members of this community. I hope sharing my perspective and providing some follow up conveys at least a small portion of that appreciation. Regular readers of this forum may recall my story as the kayaker rendered transiently quadriplegic after flipping in the hole at the top of Slice and Dice on the Ocoee River, and subsequently rescued by the paddlers I met less than an hour earlier at the put in

( ). That occurred on 10/3/2010, and on the eve of first anniversary of the event I thought it appropriate to post an update for so many members of this community who expressed such kind thoughts and wishes for my recovery.

Since my last post (, I have made a fairly significant recovery. Some issues with balance, fine motor coordination, stamina and dexterity have prevented my return to work as an emergency physician, but I have had enough improvement to begin teaching in our institution's simulation center (an exciting and growing area of medical education) and seeing patients in a lower volume, lower acuity occupational health setting. I am otherwise active and independent in my activities of daily living and hope for continued improvement.

In June of this year, I had the honor of accepting a Higgins and Langley Award for Swiftwater Rescue from Jim Coffey ( ) on behalf of my rescuers who were unfortunately unable to attend the National Association for Search and Rescue Conference in Reno, NV. Kevin Sipe, Michael Howard, Neal Carmack and Bryant Haley received the Outstanding Achievement award. ( and )

This is the first time the award has gone to recreational paddlers as opposed to an organized rescue team. I will never be able to thank them enough for what they did to give me a second chance after what should have been a fatal injury. Finally, thank you to all the paddlers and rafters who wished me well and took the time to post their sentiments in this forum. I visit Boatertalk regularly, particularly on discouraging days, to remind myself how lucky I am to be alive. I wish everyone in this community safe adventures as they indulge their passion for whitewater recreation.

Sincerely, Michael J. McCormick, MD

The Higgins and Langley Memorial Awards honor outstanding achievements in the technical rescue discipline of swiftwater and flood rescue. These are not heroism awards, but rather recognize preparedness, teamwork, and a job well done, often under extreme conditions. The awards were established in 1993 by members of the Swiftwater Rescue Committee of the National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR) in honor of Earl Higgins, a writer and filmmaker who lost his life in 1980 while rescuing a child who was swept down the flood-swollen Los Angeles River, and Jeffrey Langley, a Los Angeles County Fire Department firefighter-paramedic, who lost his life in a helicopter incident in 1993. This is the first time these awards have been given to recreational whitewater paddlers.

On October 3, 2010 a kayaker seriously injured his cervical spine in a whitewater kayaking incident on the Ocoee River in Tennessee after flippingin a hole at the top of Slice and Dice rapid. Paralyzed and unable to move, he was rescued by four kayakers he had met only 45 minutes before—Michael Howard, Kevin Sipe, Neal Carmack, and Bryant Haley. All were graduates of the American Canoe Association's Swiftwater Rescue Training Program.Realizing their new companion was in trouble, the kayakers chased him down through two sets of Class II-III rapids and were able to catch and roll him upright just before entering a larger set of rapids.

At that point one of the rescuers, trained as a military medic, immobilized his neck while another paddled ahead to phone medical support. The rest got him into an eddy. With help from a passing raft company they evacuated him to the road side, where he was met by an ambulance and subsequently transported by helicopter. This award recognizes the skill, knowledge, and effectiveness of this group in performing this life-saving rescue.

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