The Caver

Barrett L. Dorko, P.T.

Floyd Collins' perfect willingness to dive into dark, wet, slender holes in the earth is not something to which we can all relate. But in 1925, the caves of central Kentucky provided a steady livelihood that the land's surface could only fitfully ensure, what with the uncertainty of the weather and market prices.

Floyd knew that the caves were a constant presence, and that if he discovered the right cavern, some of the tourist dollars streaming into nearby Mammoth cave would head his way. He knew as well that the narrow passageways leading to the larger spaces could be unstable. Often they would squeeze a caver until he found the courage and strength to continue or retreated in panic.

Some therapists are willing to see the kind of problems that others avoid whenever possible. Typically these are disorders of the neural tissue represented by names like reflex sympathetic dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, CVA, chronic spinal and radicular pain. What they have in common is a persistent alteration in nervous flow that is as unstable and unpredictable as the passageways Floyd would wriggle through each day, looking for open space, and his fortune.

One day while leaving a newly discovered cavern, Floyd lost his light, tried to kick himself forward and dislodged a boulder that trapped his left foot. Lying on his left arm, his right hand pinned to his side by an overhanging rock, Floyd knew he needed help and began to scream himself hoarse.

I view neural problems as unique in their ability to mislead us, to hide their true nature until we have invested time in ineffective care or no care at all. Nervous irritation shows up on the surface in a variety of ways, often distant from its origins. Searching through the system with reflex testing, EMGs, strength testing and palpation is notorious for the confusion of findings it might provide us. And we know that whatever we see and document might change without notice.

Hardly able to reach Floyd much less free him, the local cavers spent three days milling about, arguing about methods of rescue, unable to appoint a leader or organize crews. On the third day a reporter from The Louisville Courier-Journal named William "Skeets" Miller arrived at the mouth of Floyd's tomb, his nickname (after "mosquito") appropriate for his size. Although inexperienced, he possessed the courage it took (and the size necessary) to crawl in and kneel at Floyd's head. He fed him, dug about as he could and covered his cold body. Most of all he listened, took notes and emerged with reports from a man buried beyond hope, letting his thoughts flow freely, and displaying remarkable composure. Miller was Floyd's only therapist and was amply rewarded for this, but admitted he could not completely separate his admiration for Floyd from the objective journalistic task. The poet Donald Finkel wrote of this perfectly in the long and intricate "Going Under,"
		...I brought him a light so he
		   could see himself die
		   I warmed myself
		   at the furnace of his hunger
		   in the name of mercy and the fourth estate
		   I stuck my thumb in his agony
		   and pulled out a Pulitzer

Because of Miller's reporting, Floyd's dilemma became known to the entire country and for the next thirteen days the nation was obsessed with the mounting rescue effort and the smallest details of Floyd's life. It has been estimated that between ten and thirty thousand people made the trek to this rural location to view the mouth of the cave and, eventually, to look at each other looking.

I am of the opinion that many common problems of neural irritation will be resolved if the therapist and patient are willing to live for a time with the gentle searching and exposure of corrective movements and processes that manual care might provide. The nervous system being what it is, we have to often contend with slow progress, unexpected reactions or new reactions to the same technique. Unlike the steady and predictable reactions seen in muscle or connective tissue, the nerves are cranky, fluid, and have a way of exposing the weaknesses of therapist and patient alike.

Fearing a collapse in the narrow access to Floyd, Miller and the local men were pushed aside by the military and an engineer. They started digging a shaft adjacent to the cave, hoping to eventually tunnel laterally and find Floyd waiting. The original access was barred and beyond the fifth day Floyd was no longer fed, spoken to, or held.

A subsequent study of this rescue effort revealed that nothing sealed Floyd's fate as surely as the decision to dig the shaft. For days, teams of men labored some feet apart from Floyd, and, despite the slow progress, at least they were now doing something that they could see, and clearly measure. They knew it would grow with forceful effort. They couldn't talk to Floyd, but at least they didn't have to deal with the ambiguity or confusion of the tunnel.

In 1977 an actual exploration revealed another access to Floyd not seen by the first rescuers or Floyd himself. It would have provided him food, warmth and human contact. The caver who found it in 1977 didn't know it wasn't suppose to be there. And he found it in the shadows, in places unexplored because we don't know where they might lead, and we haven't the courage to be wrong.

Suggested Reading: Trapped! The Story of Floyd Collins by Murray and Bruckner (University Press of Kentucky 1979)