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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2


The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living

by David Grider, Warren ’92


The summer of 2006: it had been 15 years since I’d last made the rounds at the UCSD Medical Center in Hillcrest. This time I was arriving as a guest.

Flat on my back, still shivering from shock, my hair wet and full of sand, I’d been pulled from the surf after a wave had pile-driven me into the ocean floor, leaving me instantly numb from the neck down and unable to swim. Stabilized by the lifeguards at Ocean Beach, the ambulance crew quickly delivered me to my old workplace.

And as I was wheeled deeper into the facility, the ceiling tiles rolling by above my immobilized head, my old habits came flooding back: some slob has been using warm white bulbs in the corridor light fixtures!

You see, my rounds were those of a part-time electrician’s assistant for UCSD’s Physical Plant Services. My specific duty, along with a handful of other students, was that of a relamper, tasked to roam the entire facility looking for burnt-out light bulbs and replacing them. For me, a Visual Arts major with an eye toward architecture, it was a fantastic gig.

Our rounds took us through a gamut of spaces, and our bosses, the Union electricians, provided plenty of guidance on what to do, what not to do, and how long to take to do those things we did.

And we were serious about warm white, cool white, and daylight lamps; each produced a subtle yet distinctly different color light that had a profound affect on the space—mixing them was sloppy and required a critical eye to avoid.

It was perfect training for a future architect.

Later, UCSD Employment Services guided me to another great job at the Hydraulics Laboratory at SIO, working as a “Hydro­slave” to make experimental apparatus and perform interesting maintenance around the Scripps campus. I often ended the day covered in rust from scraping tanks, weld-splatter from joining pipe, or epoxy paint from the refurbishment of a submersible, then would go for a swim—it was beautiful.

After completing my B.F.A. in 1992, I began graduate school at the new UCSD School of Architecture. Starting with great promise in the old U.S. Marine Corps. Quonset huts and created by some of the best architectural educators in the country, the entire program was cancelled after only nine months in the spring of 1993, a victim of the budget cuts of the early ’90s.

The small group of graduate students who’d embarked upon the venture, the only class of the only year of the school’s existence, dispersed to other places to continue our work, including UT Austin where I finished my Master of Architecture in 1996 and subsequently moved to New York to practice.

Which is how I, a person who’d grown up in San Diego, found myself an out-of-town visitor, on that fateful evening at OB. It was our last day of vacation, my pregnant wife and our three-year-old son on the beach, and there’s me, a body surfer turned piece of jetsam, trying to yell for help and keep from drowning at the same time.

After two months of recovery I was permitted to get on a plane and go back home to Brooklyn in late August. Numbness in my left hand and a thick scar on the back of my neck are the only physical reminders of the trauma; feelings of gratitude and terror strike me every time I hear about others permanently paralyzed while surfing.

Stephen Garfin, M.D., UCSD’s chair of Orthopedic Surgery, made many pictures of me. But my favorite was the grainy MRI he presented the day after the accident showing, in section, my C5 vertebrae sheared in half and my spinal cord being compressed by bone—he wasn’t even a VA major, but he truly is an artist.

David Grider, Warren ’92, is an architect in Brooklyn, New York, where he lives (and walks!) with his wife and two children.

UCSD’S LOST SCHOOL: In spring 1993, David Grider flame-cuts a trellis, designed and built by a studio from the UCSD School of Architecture, for a Tijuana school.


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