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Bucket lists gone bad: When senior thrills become life threatening

Laverne Everett's skydiving partner holds onto her after she fell out of her harness.
Laverne Everett's skydiving partner holds onto her after she fell out of her harness.YouTube

An 80-year-old woman on a tandem skydive slipped from her instructor’s harness then held on for life while rocketing toward Earth. An Alabama man busted his ankles trying to ride a bull. A Missouri man smashed his body – and his new motorcycle – minutes after buying the bike.

All were attempting items on their “bucket lists,” those rare experiences that people – particularly Baby Boomers (folks 49 years old and up) – ache to taste before kicking the bucket. But as injuries and close calls from these sacred agendas mount, some emergency workers want the bucket-listers to tone down their chosen adventures – or at least better prepare for such feats.

“If you’re going to build a bucket list don’t fill it with 18 different versions of Russian Roulette,” said Dr. Ryan Stanton, an emergency physician in Lexington, Ky. He treated the 60-something man who recently wrecked his new motorcycle in the store’s parking lot, breaking several bones in the crash.

“Fill your bucket list with things that are actually safe and enjoyable – or at least prepare for them sufficiently if you’re going to enjoy them,” Stanton said. “You don’t want your bucket to be full of the first bucket of dirt for your grave.”

Baby boomers have become the bucket-list generation, aiming to complete and cross off dozens of adrenaline-drenched exploits before their bodies fade or their time ends, says an official at the American Association of Retired Persons.

“Boomers are really known for this phenomenon called ‘Boomeritis,’ which is: We are weekend warriors and we go out and try to squeeze all our activities into the weekend,” said Gabrielle Redford, editorial projects manager for AARP the Magazine. She believes so many 50-plusers have inked bucket lists because they came of age amid the aerobics and jogging crazes, and because they’re more active than their parents’ generation.

Typical bucket lists may include marathons, triathlons and, lately, Tough Mudders and Spartan Races – along with pursuits like ziplining, rock climbing and scuba diving.

“We set our sites on a race and just go all out to get in shape for that race. But then we go out too fast and too long and we end up with the plantar fasciitis and the Achilles (tendon) pull,” Redford said. “We just end up with all these wear and tear injuries we might not have had if we weren’t quite so ambitious.”

Some bucket lists can lead to close calls with the hereafter.

Laverne Everett
Laverne Everett, now 82, says despite her near-disastrous skydive, she's still seeking new adventures.TODAY

To celebrate her 80th birthday and notch her bucket list, Laverne Everett went tandem skydivingtwo years ago above Lodi, Calif. After she paused in fear while perched in the plane’s hatch, she went airborne but partially slipped out of her partner’s harness. A fellow jumper filmed the plunge and the video went viral.

“I had watched watched people jump, and it looked like such fun, just sailing in real smooth, you know? It didn’t work out that way,” Everett, 82, said in a phone interview Thursday. “[My partner] kept telling me: ‘Hold on! Hold on!’ That’s where my mind was, just holding on. He was just holding me. I was just barely holding on with my legs.

“I couldn’t see anything. My clothes were rolled up over my face. There was pinhole of light, that’s all I had. So I didn’t know what was what. I’m very thankful I didn’t know,” added Everett, who suffered some “doozy bruises” and a scraped knee when she landed otherwise intact after their chute opened.

Terry Hatfield's lifelong dream of riding a bull resulted in his breaking both ankles and an arm. In 2011, the 56-year-old Huntsville, Ala., man climbed on to a 1,000-pound animal that began bucking before they exited the starting pen, causing the injuries. Hatfield said later that moment had been “on my bucket list.”

Some emergency medical technicians believe a lot of bucket-listers could attack their ventures far more safely – though many EMTs are, similarly, adrenaline junkies and they grudgingly respect the daredevil efforts of the oldsters.

“We talk about it: They could stretch or hydrate or train properly – they could have done things to prevent blown-out knees and ripped hamstrings,” said Roy Poteete, vice president of the U.S. First Responders Association, and a retired firefighter and EMT who lives in Missouri.

But aren’t bungee jumping, parachuting and mountain scaling simply hobbies that exceed the technical knowhow and physical skills of some folks?

“You are correct, sir,” Poteete said.

In fact, there currently are no medical-practice guidelines as to which bucket-list items are considered safe or age appropriate, so advice often comes down to the intuition of individual physicians, said Carl Foster, director of the human performance laboratory at the University of Wisconsin, Lacrosse. He recently chaired an American College of Sports Medicine symposium of doctors discussing the perils of bucket lists.

“A lot of people identify with the concept of: Geez, I haven’t done this in my life and I’m willing to take the risk. That’s really the guts of this thing. If you look at the movie which the term came from, it gets at: I’m close enough to the end and I’m making the active choice,” Foster said.

“By the same token, the people who have to take care of them, who have to bail them out of bad situations, probably wish they prepared or had thought better of it.”

As for Everett, she’s still scratching lines off her bucket list. Last year, she rode shotgun in a NASCAR vehicle for several laps at a California racetrack.

“I figured we were doing 90 (mph), at least,” she said. “When we got out, I told the driver, I could have gone faster!’ ”