A nugget of Big Medicine every day. #86 First person – Bike crash
Writing in response to #84 Professional Indifference, my sister Susan said, “When I had that bike accident a couple of years ago, amidst the chaos and confusion one woman sat down next to me and calmly held my hand until the ambulance arrived. There was blood running down my face so I never saw her face, and I never got to thank her. But her calm steadying hand and voice was my island in the midst of all the chaos. Tell your friend she made a world of difference for that woman. I know.”
And then I remembered the excellent first-person essay she had written for Big Med. [October 26 2009, by Susan E. Newman]
Like many seasoned bike riders in Montreal, I had a certain arrogance about wearing a helmet. Yes, I would wear it when riding for a long distance, but secretly I thought my bike riding skills would preempt any serious collision. Having survived many a near miss with car doors springing open, and pedestrians leaping off curbs, I was sure that even if I were in an accident I would have the instincts and reflexes to emerge unscathed.
The Friday afternoon I got hit by a car I was returning from a four-hour bike ride, which was the only reason I was wearing my helmet. After hours of carefully navigating through the thick traffic and congested bike paths in the east end of our city, I was in the home stretch, only a couple of blocks from home. The area where I would not normally be wearing a helmet.
I was in that zone where, after riding for hours, your body and bike are like a seamless well-oiled machine. My mind was miles ahead already. As my legs and lungs pumped, in my head I was already picking up corn for dinner and walking the dog. Mentally I had already passed onto the next activity as I flew around the corner, just as the light turned green, at rush hour.
The car that hit me turned left onto the street just as I turned my right. We met in the middle. I never saw it. I was going top speed, when, out of the corner of my eye, I sensed rather than saw a blur of colour. Burgundy? A thought flashed through my head – almost too fast to register. Uh oh. Another thought – to my hands – apply brakes. Then, before my hand could act, the sound of a crash, miles in the distance. So far that it sounded like it was blocks away. As if I had already reached home, and, from my living room, was hearing the sickening metal crunch of a car making impact. The terrible noise of an accident, with the associated dread: I hope no one is hurt.
Then: nothing. I have no recollection of the accident itself. The car had over $2500 in damage. I think now, how could I have had that much impact with metal and not remember it? All I know is that one moment I was on my bike, going full speed, and the next thing I knew I was smashing back onto the ground, full force, onto the back of my head. This is bad, I thought.
Suddenly there was sky, blinding my eyes. Dimly, I sensed a flurry of activity around me. Cars, people, too much commotion. A voice, coming from the side. Frantic, panicked. The driver of the car. Pulling me, lifting me, dragging me the side of the road. Don’t move me, I thought, but I was too dazed to speak.
Then I was on the grass, next to a sidewalk, lying face down. A crowd had gathered around me. Excited voices shrilled all around me. Stay calm, I thought. Stay focused, I thought. Don’t lose consciousness. The light, and reality, was too glaring to observe, so I kept my eyes shut. I begged the crowd to call an ambulance. They all seemed far more panicked than I was. I was amazed at my own calmness, observed it patiently, detached. I asked someone to move my bicycle to the side of the road. A frenzy of disorganized voices buzzed around me.
A young man’s voice next to me suggested that he would try to move me. He explained that he was a lifeguard. What? He sounded like a panicked teenager. The sister of a paramedic, the one thing I knew for sure is that I had taken a bad hit, my head was hurting badly, and I couldn’t move my shoulder. Moving me anywhere would not be a good thing. I said, “Don’t move me” softly, and when the young man attempted to move me anyway, I said, loudly, “Fuck off”. His hands sprang back, and I felt contrite, but remained adamant about not being moved. I insisted that no one touch me until the paramedics arrive.
My head started to bleed. A lot. The panic in the crowd around me ratcheted up to fever pitch. Voices shouted shrilly, “Look at how much her head is bleeding!” I could feel hot blood running down my face, my arm, my chest, I could dimly sense the grass going dark with my blood below me. I observed it all calmly, from a great distance. One person, perhaps the young lifeguard, gasped in panic to another, “Is she still breathing?” The other responded, in equal panic, “I think she’s still alive…she’s still breathing, I think…!” I thought, angrily, I can hear all of you.
I thought, shut up. All of you, go away. Please, just go away. There was just one woman who remained calm, with a soft voice. She kept quietly repeating that an ambulance was on the way, and I was doing fine. I focused on her, listening to her voice, her gentle breathing. I reached out and held her hand. A complete stranger I couldn’t see, and yet, at that moment, her steadying grasp was hugely comforting.
I asked to borrow a cell phone. I was afraid I would lose consciousness, and my mind remained riveted on my dog that needed walking. The man who hit me handed me his cell phone. He was babbling, hysterical, grateful to do anything to assist. Dimly, I felt sorry for him. He seemed like a nice guy. He could have been me, my neighbour, anyone. He was just a normal guy in the wrong place, at the wrong time, heading home to his family on a normal Friday night. I kept telling him not to worry. Shit happens, I mumbled. He wasn’t terribly comforted, however, as blood poured from my head all over his cell phone.
My husband answered his cell, thank goodness. I told him I had been in a car accident with my bike, and that the dog needed walking. I told him I was waiting for an ambulance to come get me. I was so calm he asked me why I didn’t just come home. I told him I needed help. I was tired, I didn’t want to talk. I just said I thought it had been a bad accident, and I was bleeding alot. He said he’d come meet me, and he sent over our nephew to walk our dog. I felt relieved. I lay there, with my hand in a stranger’s hand, and waited for my husband, and the sound of the siren.
The ambulance arrived. The paramedic wanted to take my helmet off. I was afraid. There was so much blood, I was afraid my head had split open. Mostly, I was terrified of the crowd’s reaction. I kept asking the medic to tell the crowd to move away. They seemed reluctant. He asked them to leave once, nicely, and when they didn’t disperse, he said it again harshly, loudly. I heard their rumblings in the background. Disappointed, I thought. Show’s over.
Then silence. It was just the two paramedics and I. I felt better once the crowd was gone. I hated how their scared voices and frightening words kept trying to punch fatal holes in my calm. My husband arrived just as the crowd dispersed. I listened carefully to his voice as well. He was trying to remain calm and cheerful, but I could detect a note of shock and alarm in his voice, his pitch higher than normal. When your eyes are closed, it is amazing how important the sounds around you are. In a moment of crisis, it feels as if your very survival depends upon what you hear.
The medic gingerly removed my helmet, and the two paramedics carefully placed me in a neck brace, and onto a back board. My biggest fear was that I would be paralyzed. Strapped down, my hands were tingling badly. I was rolled into the back of the ambulance, and my husband got into the front. I could hear him speaking loudly, trying to remain cheery, a fear under his words. I was relieved he would be riding with me.
I kept asking the medic if I would be paralyzed. I started to tremble uncontrollably. The fear and shock were catching up to me. I was afraid I would be car sick, because I suffer from motion sickness. The medic told his partner, and they drove slowly and carefully, which was a relief to me. Becoming frantic at that point, I kept imploring the paramedic for his assurance that I would be all right. Finally, tiredly, he promised I would be all right, with an impatient chuckle. His words were comforting to me, and I calmed down a bit.
When we arrived at the hospital I thanked the medic who had rode with me. I couldn’t really see him, or anyone, with my head strapped into place. It was a strange, disorienting feeling. From the moment I was hit, I felt cut off from the rest of the world, floating, by myself. The paramedic, obviously at the end of his shift, said something a bit bitterly like I shouldn’t sound so surprised he had been helpful – paramedics did more than drink coffee, after all. I quickly told him my brother had been a paramedic for years. Instantly, his voice was apologetic, human, personal, and he hastily asked me who my brother was. But we had arrived at the hospital, and I was already being rushed down the halls on a stretcher, my eyes fixed on the white ceiling above, listening to the strangers on either side of me.
I was raced into the trauma room. Instantly, there was a pack of medical personnel around me. I thought, numbly, how different it was from waiting for hours in a hospital waiting room to be seen. Here there were doctors and nurses rapidly firing questions at me, over and over again. What was my name, how old was I, what year was it? They tried to take my top off, but my shoulder was in so much pain I begged them to cut it off, which they did.
They asked me if I could feel my hands and my feet. They were still tingling, which set me into a panic. I told a nurse how scared I was, and she gave me an Ativan, which I appreciated. They rolled me onto my side. The doctor told me a nurse was going to check my butt reflexes to test if I was paralyzed. Strangely, I wasn’t the least bit perturbed by the thought of this. All I wanted was to be told I would be all right. In moments of crisis, dignity and modesty are instantly rendered irrelevant.
My initial test passed successfully, I lay in my stretcher in a hallway and waited for an MRI and CT scan. The shock fading, and facilitated by the Ativan, I started thinking more rationally. I looked to see what time it was, and realized my gold watch was missing. I asked a nurse who passed in the hallway if she could see it anywhere. She discovered it in a little baggie, crumpled on the bottom shelf of my stretcher next to my cut-off clothing. Amazing, I thought, what would normally be perceived as precious was just another useless belonging that had gotten in the way of saving me.
I asked the nurse if she could send in my husband, and she kindly agreed. My husband was ushered into the hallway with me, and there we waited for both tests to be done. The CT scan was a little scary, as I am claustrophobic, but by that time I was used to closing my eyes. I just glued my eyes shut and waited, praying that they wouldn’t find anything.
I was one of the lucky ones. If I hadn’t worn a helmet, I wouldn’t have been. Hours later, when I caught my reflection in a mirror, I looked like an extra in a horror movie. My hair was matted with blood, and dried blood was all over my face, neck, chest, stomach and arms. Despite all the blood, I didn’t need stitches on my head, and it was determined that I had a Stage 3 separation of my shoulder. Outfitted with a sling, I was sent home.
My shoulder hurt badly at first, and six weeks later, it still aches. I also have a Frankenbump on my shoulder that will be there for life. I suffered from bad headaches and a very sore and scabby scalp for the first week, and room spins and vertigo for weeks after. But I lived, and I walked out of the hospital that night. My helmet – a good one, that I paid a fair amount for – had survived the accident bloody, but intact. I left it behind at the hospital anyway. When I am ready to go bike riding again, I will go out and buy another good solid helmet. It may be the most important investment I will ever make.
Sometimes I think about what would have happened if I hadn’t been wearing a helmet. It’s so scary, I try not to think about it too much. The paramedic said that my helmet surely saved me. He said that I had been going full speed when I had the accident, so I probably hit the pavement at over 30 miles an hour. He explained that the helmet absorbed most of the accident first, and then my brain second. If I hadn’t have been wearing it, however….
I shudder to think about it. I can’t help flash to the possibilities, however, when I see the teenage boy next door heading out on his bike – without a helmet. When I stop him, he says he’s only biking a few blocks away. I tell him that I had a major bike accident – just a few blocks away. I tell him my story. His face registers alarm, but he leaves, helmetless, anyway.
I watch him bike away, his confident pace clearly communicating how invincible he feels. I fear for him, and all the bikers who navigate our streets with their hair blowing in the wind, sure it could never happen to them. It can, and it may someday, I think, helplessly, as I watch them.
It’s so simple to put on a helmet, I think. It’s so easy to die without one.