Monday, May 3, 2010

Not the Same

I wrote this as a bicycle column but realized quickly it was neither a cycling nor motorcycling piece particularly. I lightly rewrote it and contributed it to both the Bicycle Paper and CityBike, and to Motorcycle Sport and Leisure in the UK. Because it is not a motorcycle piece, my MCSL editor hesitated a bit before running it. I haven't seen any reader responses yet, but I'm hoping for supportive ones.

This piece is about my accident in '08 and the changes it wrought in my emotional life since then.

Not the Same

As you may recall, I fell off my bicycle in August of '08, landed on a big trail-side rock, broke a femur and hurt a couple of fingers. I'm doing well, thank you: My thigh-bone has healed around a titanium rod and the two fingers allow most of their natural motion. The two knuckles remain enlarged and my left thigh is still visibly smaller than my right, but I walk without limping and hardly notice a loss of strength or fatigue resistance. I'm fine.

I say I'm fine but I'm changed from before I crashed. I have more fear. If you catch me in most situations and ask me if I'm afraid, I'll say no, or hell no. But I am more frequently afraid, more easily startled. I didn't realize it right away or even after a few months, but I sense it now. I expected to heal as thoroughly emotionally as I did physically, to be the guy I was before, but I'm not.

Just after my hospital stay, I remember riding in a car and reaching for the grab handles for security - on a one-way street at 35mph. When Tamar pushed me to a nearby coffee shop in my wheelchair, I was afraid the chair would turn over - or get away from her and roll in front of a moving car. The first few times I walked with crutches, especially downhill, I was afraid of falling forward, re-hurting my healing leg.

I thought: You just got hurt. No wonder you're afraid.

I am not haunted by the memory of pain from the crash or the recovery. I'll occasionally relive the moment when my bike's front wheel hit the deep patch of sand. The sand must have caught the wheel and flopped it to one side, sending me in a millisecond off the trail and onto large, decorative rocks, since removed. One of the rocks did my femur. I don't wince when I get that flashback but it's not comfortable, as you can imagine.

I do remember being helpless in the hospital and for a couple of weeks when I got home. Tamar had to help me over the side of the tub so I could shower - sitting safely on a plastic stool. I had to keep a jug by the bed because I couldn't get to the bathroom by myself at night. I wore shorts and my largest pair of clogs for weeks because my leg and foot were swollen ugly.

I remember being shocked by the amount of money it all cost: The ambulance, the surgery, the bed in the hospital, the meds, the physical and occupational therapy afterward, the frequent outpatient visits with my surgeon. But I got help from Medicare with the bills and help from the hospital. I paid my part of it within a year - not easily...but I did it.

When friends would visit, we'd talk about getting hurt. I was surprised how many of them had never been in an ambulance, never broken a bone, never spent a night in a hospital. I'd been hurt. I'd ridden in emergency vehicles and spent time in hospital beds.

I'd broken collarbones, falling off of bicycles and motorcycles, and fingers, falling wrong on my hand as a kid. I'd hit my head in a mountain bike crash and damaged a nerve that aimed one of my eyes. Lived with double vision for a few months. I suffered a spontaneous detached retina that had to be repaired surgically. Doctor's orders kept me from riding anything for six weeks while it healed.

But I got over each of those injuries. As soon as I could see correctly or took the sling or cast off, I was fine. Climbed right back on the bronco.

Maybe because of the severity of this injury, breaking the biggest bone in my body, or maybe because of the length of the hospital stay and the expense.... Or maybe because I'm older this time, I think I'm recovered...but now and then I act in ways I wouldn't have before the crash.

I'm uncomfortable walking on icy sidewalks or snow-covered trails. I like secure footing. When my foot slips, it isn't fun; it's a close call.

Even though I fell because of sand on a bike path, sand in the shadow of an overpass, even though no other vehicles were involved, I'm nervous now around automobiles. If someone across a narrow street remote-locks a car and the horn beeps, I flinch.

Even when I have the right of way I resist walking past stopped cars - in a crosswalk maybe. I wait and let them go. I don't like walking through parking lots behind nosed-in parked cars. I imagine their drivers backing out of spaces without looking behind them. When I walk on an urban sidewalk and cars come out of alleys or driveways, their sudden presence startles me. I want to hide behind a tree.

I'm far more cautious than I was, maybe so cautious as to be called paranoid. I'm especially afraid to fall and break a hip - surely a life-changing injury for an older guy. Maybe I think that I've been hurt and recovered enough so that I've used up eight lives.

I can't tell if I'm writing this for some sort of therapy - or if I'm reaching out to men and women like myself who've been hurt and are themselves experiencing lingering fear. Lingering fear isn't something we talk about, those of us who venture out on tippy vehicles. Maybe it's not a problem for most of us. Maybe it's just me.

If it isn't just me, if you got hurt or badly scared and you notice you're easily spooked, write me care of the editor. Or if you got hurt or scared and passed through a time of skittishness but you're done with it now, write and tell me how it went.

I'm functioning, no question, but I'm not quite the same guy I was. Especially if you got scared but got over it, please write me a reassuring note. Thanks for listening.


Jim Thurber said...

I've been seriously injured twice in motorcycle accidents. In the first case a car ran a red light and shattered my right pelvis, in the hospital for a month, recovery took nearly a year and I've got a shrunken right calf (a torn tibia sheath was the cause). I've also got several pounds of steel in my pelvis (love airports!) but otherwise, I'm OK.

In the second accident I was (probably) struck by a deer while riding along Skyline Drive above Woodside, CA. Knocked unconscious, convulsions and a stopped heart . . . I awoke several days later in the hospital. Both wrists broken, busted ribs (don't laugh, it hurts!) and a major convulsion with bleeding on the brain. Recovery was strange (the head injury was really weird) and took about three months.

I worry about riding a motorcycle but it's an "anticipation" fear. Once I start riding, all is well.

But I watch, ever so closely, at intersections AND while riding in wooded areas. Those pesky deer . . . they can spoil your whole day.

Anonymous said...

I have to think it's the "getting older" part of the equation. Your realization that the time to heal is longer and that the back of the your mind won't allow you to forget. I broke a leg when I was 25. I forgot about that real soon. I've had my share of bike accidents that put me in hospital. But my latest conversation with the fine folks in the health care industry have made me pause. I don't move the same anymore. My legs betray me when I walk. I got rear ended skiing two years ago. Torn Right ACL and ripped right hamstring. And the arthritis. Things did not heal right. But. I can still ride the bike. I will not be racing anymore. No sense in taking out anyone else.

I was riding behind a twenty something racer recently. He was taking it cautious down Pinehurst. So cautious that his team mate was ribbing him," Have you fallen recently?" He had and that's just the way it is.

B. Wally

As long as we can still turn the peddles, eh?

Khal said...

To some degree I think, as does B. Wally, that its our age group. Mortality is more than an abstraction. When I went over the hood of a VW at the age of 25 while biking to work and spent the better part of a year recovering from a severe concussion, it was a struggle but really did not frighten me. I too had the eye tracking damage and its improved over the years but I have permanent but thankfully mild double vision.

But two years ago, a good friend from work hit a deer while descending from the mountains on his motorcycle. A bicyclist who was slowly climbing that mountain saw motorcycle parts near the edge of the road. The bicyclist luckily happened to be an EMT found my work buddy bleeding out in the trees, put in an improvised shunt to clear his lungs, and got him an ambulance; he saved my friend's life. Weeks of intensive care later he was released and two years later, is still limited in his range of motion.

Last summer a fellow cyclist in town was rear ended by an inattentive driver. He too spent weeks in an ICU. I was at the scene of that crash during the investigation. Seeing that much blood on the road is tough to describe.

I feel so much more vulnerable now than I used to especially after those two friend's crashes, which for the grace of God could have been me as I ride regularly on both those roads and frankly, I don't descend like Il Falco any more--too many deer around. Maybe its the increased awareness because I do so much advocacy, or maybe its because I too have spent two of those trips to the hospital in the meat wagon. It does change us.

But no one gets out of this world alive, Maynard. We gotta go on.

philcycles said...

It's not age. I was hit on my motorcycle when I was 26 years ago when I was 43 and then hit again on my bicycle 6 months later on the first day I could ride after 2 leg operations. My lower left leg was shattered in the first one.
Riding didn't and doesn't bother me but parking lots did-and still do-scare the bejeezes out of me. Likewise cars that don't quite stop at the crosswalk. I am fully aware of the vast difference in kinetic energy between me and the car and what happens during its transfer.
We are big strong guys-sorry, lades, this is for the men-and fear isn't something we talk about but it's real and present and I admire Maynard for writing this.
Phil Brown

Anonymous said...

No one gets out of this world alive, indeed. What's always helped me is getting back on the horse immediately; my wife would say too soon. Doing somethng physical, whether it be cycling, lifting weights, whatever, re-defines your physical outlook and gives you a bit of youth back, not to mention confidence.