Downriver couple shares frightening fall, lessons learned

CDC: more than 1 in 4 older people suffer a fall each year

GROSSE ILE, Mich. – Bob and Sue Shafer of Grosse Ile were enjoying the last day of a wonderful trip to New Zealand and Australia when their fun came to a sudden, crashing halt on a Melbourne trolley car.

“It was a very full trolley car. It was standing room only,” said Sue Shafer.

The couple was separated in the crowd. At their stop, Sue got off first.

“I was keeping an eye out of the door over there, keeping an eye on Sue to figure out where she was going because I didn’t know where we were going,” said Bob Shafer. “I forgot that there was a step in the car. I stepped off into thin air and kind of went flying.”

Bob tried to alter his flight to avoid crashing into a seat occupied by another passenger.

“I have this image stuck in my head of me flying forward like Superman,” remembered Bob. “Then soon I was on the floor, kabam, with my knee making first impact, and I kind of slid along and fortunately didn’t knock anybody else over.”

“I did not see him fall,” said Sue. “I had taken one step off the car, and I heard a lot of commotion, and I turned around and looked and he was on the floor.”

“It was very confusing and in great pain and embarrassed and disoriented, and in a certain amount of shock,” said Bob.

Bob briefly lost consciousness.

“I was very worried,” said Sue. “He started responding to me a little while afterward, that made me feel better. He was talking, and he was making sense.”

“Well, that’s a first,” joked Bob.

Producer: What I learned about falls, why I’m changing one habit because of it

Bob spent the night in the hospital, then the couple scrambled to make their flight home. The airlines arranged for a wheelchair, but it was a long journey back to Michigan.

“We had a 13 hour flight, then we had a three hour flight, then we had a two hour flight,” said Sue.

Back home, the pain was intense, and Bob soon underwent surgery.

“Tendons were not as attached as they should have been,” said Bob. “So they had to pull those back together and reattach ‘em. So now it’s a matter of all that stuff has to heal back up. And then I have to learn how to how to use them again. So I’ll be in this brace for several weeks.”

Despite that, Bob considers himself lucky.

“After this happened, I got to thinking, ‘Gosh, I’ve known several people who had very serious falls, people who were about our age,’” said Bob. “A lady friend of ours fell down and broke her femur. An old college friend of mine fell down on his front steps, and he hit his head and unfortunately passed away not long after that.”

Anyone can suffer a fall, but they are especially common in older people. According to the CDC, more than one in four seniors experience a fall each year. The results can be devastating, even deadly.

Bob took to Facebook to share his story and the statistics he wanted everyone to know.

“Falls are the single biggest cause of injury and injury death to people over 65,” said Bob. “Thirty-six thousand people will die from falls this year. It costs millions and millions of dollars in the health care system. And most of it’s preventable.”

Bob is a pilot and self-proclaimed safety evangelist. He says his accident shows it only takes a momentary lapse to result in a fall.

“In my case, I lost situational awareness of what I was doing,” said Bob. “If you mess up, ‘fess up so that everybody can learn. So I messed up. I wasn’t paying attention. I fell down. I hurt myself. So what’s the lesson we can learn out of this? Well, pay attention. If there’s a handhold, use it. Be aware of the hazards of falls and try and address those hazards.”

Dangers of falling: Safety tips, resources for adults of all ages

Bob and Sue are in good health and frequent travelers. They admit falls were not even on their radar to worry about.

“A few days before I tripped and fell on the tram car, we had been out hiking in the Australian bush in the middle of nowhere,” said Bob. “Had I tripped and fallen or had a mishap out there, holy cow, it would have been much different. They’d have had to haul me out by helicopter.”

“We will still travel. We love to travel,” said Sue. “But I think before we do a major trip again, we’ll look at different types of travel insurance, medical insurance, what kind of coverage do we have should something drastic happen abroad? Thank goodness, thank goodness, he was able to get home under his own steam. But what if he couldn’t?”

They are also looking at their home in a new light, trying to eliminate any hidden fall hazards.

“Even in the home, there are lots of things we can do for fall prevention, but the single biggest thing is be aware that that’s a hazard and especially if you are an American of a certain age, know that the numbers are stacking up against you,” said Bob. “There’s our safety lesson for the day.”