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Searching for Rocks, Listening for Bells

The Moment: Scott Tinker presents the award in Denver to Susan Landon.
The Moment: Scott Tinker presents the award in Denver to Susan Landon.

People still talk about “the moment.”

It happened last year in Denver, right at the start of the AAPG annual meeting’s awards ceremony. Susan Landon, already an AAPG Honorary Member, past treasurer and much-honored and respected leader, was about to be feted again, for service to the House of Delegates.

Everyone knew that.

What everyone didn’t know was how Landon, who because of a near-fatal accident in 2005 must move hesitantly and cautiously, if at all, would be able to walk up stairs and cross the stage to receive her award.

What everyone also didn’t know was that a ramp was offered so she could avoid the few but steep steps.

Nor that when offered the ramp, she asked, “What is everyone else doing?”

When told others would be walking up and then back down the steps, she simply said, “Then that’s what I’m going to do, too.”

And that’s what she did. The ramp went unused. And the crowd, ready to cheer for her anyway, found themselves standing and cheering for a moment that was much more special.

One shining moment, indeed.

“I don’t think that it was as big a deal as it turned out to be,” she said, months after the ceremony; still she was unprepared for the reaction.

“I thought all the tears were gone, but I had a few more as I crossed the stage (with the help of her husband) to accept the award.”

Her award presentation was not supposed to be the highlight of the conference, but then Susan Landon was not supposed to be able to walk up to get it.

The trip to the podium took longer than she would have liked, each step feeling like the first – but that she was there at all, that she was taking them at all, was all that mattered.

After the Fall

Landon suffered a compounded traumatic brain injury while skiing in February 2005.

The details are grim, jarring and perhaps overwhelming – even in retrospect. It only took a moment for one chapter of her amazing life to end and another, perhaps even more amazing chapter, to begin.

So first, the facts.

She broke her right arm, hit her head, damaged the cerebral cortex; she lost consciousness, and had significant oxygen deprivation, a large hematoma that became infected from surgery and major abdominal surgery to relieve misdirected fluid injections.

Once medical personnel got her down the mountain – and they had to use an ambulance because the weather was too bad for a helicopter – she had already been without oxygen, had lost too much blood. A transfusion was administered, but paramedics missed the vein and seven pints of blood were inadvertently put into her stomach cavity.

There were incisions, infections, her abdomen had to be opened (with an 18-inch incision), her skull had to be opened up twice and a 3½-inch diameter of the skull was removed for six months, then replaced.

“People who ski can close their eyes and imagine my falling. I have fallen a lot – just ask those I have skied with,” she says now, smiling.

But this was no ordinary fall. Landon suffered TBI, or Traumatic Brain Injury.

“The accident was not a problem, because I don’t remember it,” she said.

But when she awoke from a coma, remarkably three months later, there were other problems.

“I knew some things were fuzzy, but I was amazed,” she recalls. “I began to recognize people but did not retain any memory of what had happened.”

It was then she realized there was, in her words, a story to be told – a story about waking up in a hospital room and feeling like you’ve lost, literally lost, months of your life.

Her ‘Guardian Angel’

But Landon doesn’t want to dwell on the pain of the past – because through the ordeal, a beautiful and unexpected truth emerged.

Her story proved not to be about tragedy and sorrow, but a story about friendship, patience and a profession she loves.

Susan Landon and Robbie Gries, studying the rocks in Montana – Susan’s first post-injury trip. Photo courtesy of Robbie Gries
Susan Landon and Robbie Gries, studying the rocks in Montana – Susan’s first post-injury trip. Photo courtesy of Robbie Gries

That story starts with her friend – her best friend – Robbie Gries, a past president of AAPG who was instrumental in Landon’s recovery.

“I don’t know,” Landon says, “what I would have done without her in this journey. Robbie was my guardian angel.”

After six months in hospitals and 16 months in rehabilitation facilities, Landon lived with Gries for 12 months while undergoing four-six hours of onsite therapy each day; Gries served as her nighttime caretaker.

Landon’s memory does not include any of the experiences of the first 12-16 months after the accident.

But the connection between the two longtime friends became something special.

In fact, Landon’s first trip after her accident was to an RMS-AAPG meeting in Billings, Mont. – two years after the accident – but one of her favorite outings was the one to Robbie’s nearby wedding, if only because Landon knew Gries’ fiancé was “the one.”

Gries says throughout the ordeal Susan never lost her temper and never lost her sense of humor, even through intense therapy and atrophying muscles.

So what kind of person comes through that? What kind of woman in that kind of pain with that kind of setback (and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of medical bills) can still coax her uncooperative body out of a chair in Denver and walk to a podium … and smile?

And do so without whining, depression or self-pity?

When you answer what, you then begin to understand how.

Gries says it’s simple – or maybe it’s not.

“Just a genuine love of life,” Gries said of her friend. “Susan is an observer of people and life – and even more so now.”

Landon has much time to think, but she has concluded, “I would have to say that the most important thing I have learned is to slow down,” which may have been a lesson forced on her, but one that she now embraces.

She still walks with a cane – her mind’s desire to do more is constantly challenged and balanced by physical realities – but she feels that she is getting her strength back.

“I am not really working yet, (but) I try to make it two or three times a week to the office,” she said.

She says she is starting on new projects – but starting them slowly. “I am not 100 percent,” she adds.

The Beat Goes On

And here’s the bottom line: Landon says her pleasures still derive from going to geology meetings and reminding herself of her love for the profession.

“Going to meetings is one step you can take to stay in touch with what has happened,” she said. “If you are lucky, you’ll pick up something. Perhaps you’ll find something to set off the bells.”

“She understands all the geology she hears and she recognizes most all of her old friends and acquaintances,” says Gries, “this gives her immense pleasure.”

Landon, who also is past president of the American Geological Institute, has begun traveling again with her husband, astronomer Dick Dietz (she once said the two had “heaven and earth covered”) and Gries says she can see her friend’s smile coming back.

Landon, who wrote in a letter to The Outcrop magazine that she wished to thank “everyone who thought about me,” says she knows part of her recovery has been the result of the well wishes of an industry and a profession she loves and occasionally prods.

She knows that it was the support and contributions of those friends – from not just the region or the country, but the world – that enabled her to have exceptional therapy and rehab facilities.

Those many gifts are now being paid forward; Landon isn’t ready to retire. Her core is strong and determined.

“We, as professionals, have done a good job of speaking and, more to the point, done a good job of getting off our butts to help the public understand” what we do, she said.

Her favorite quote about the industry is, “The best geologist is the one who looks at the most rocks.”

It’s good to know that she’s out there looking again, searching for the rocks, listening for the bells – even if she’s out there with that damn cane.

“I love geology, always have and always will,” she said. “I am just a little slower.”

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