My Spill of a Lifetime
No matter how hard I try, the accident remains a blur. I can picture it in my minds eye, but I don’t really know if what I see is real, or only imagined.
I know for a fact that it was a great day for a mountain bike ride with three friends on a moderately difficult trail that I never rode before. Being a cautious downhiller, there were several sections where I walked the bike. On the last section, “The Spine”, I walked on more than a few occasions.
I’m positive I rode that last portion, which included the final descent before the end, because that’s where I fell.
I “remember” seeing a rocky, sandy patch as I was making the final drop, and I seem to remember thinking that I might not make it safely around or over this section. I seem to remember my front wheel turning in the sand and me lunging over the handlebars. That’s all I think I remember. What I know for sure is that I crashed on those rocks.
Only a few cloudy memories stay with me from that moment until sometime the next day. I also have some memories that were of hallucinogenic, out of body experiences.
Shortly after the accident, I clearly remember giving at least two people my wife’s cell phone number, which is kind of amazing considering that under normal circumstances I can barely recall it. I remember giving it to one of my cycling buddies, Brent, and also to one of the people in the helicopter as I was being moved into position for the ride. I also remember complaining, tongue-in cheek when the paramedics started cutting my clothes, “You’re cutting my shirt and pants! Do you know how hard it is finding a quality wool shirt in a small size!”
I also remember me repeatedly asking for my wife Alison, both on the helicopter and when being moved into the Trauma Center. I remember having this deep need to have her by my side, and I think I might have gone on about this for quite a while. Fortunately, she was there soon enough.
What I learned later was that I broke 7 ribs, suffered a “flail chest”, a punctured lung and spleen, fractured pelvis, a concussion, and that I hurt.
The first order of business when I reached the hospital was to get me into surgery to patch my punctured lung and spleen and to insert a drip tube for my lung. My recollection of this process, and I think even during the surgery, were hallucinations while under the drug Ketamine, which is really awful stuff. It’s under this drug that I felt an out of body experience, and was unable to grasp reality.
It was not until sometime the next day that I fully understood what had happened, and when I first became aware of my location. It was also when I realized just how much pain I was in. They gave me Dilaudid, which was almost as bad as Ketamine, so my hold on reality was still tenuous at best.
Thank goodness Alison was by my side from the moment she arrived at the UNM hospital. Sure, the Trauma Center may have saved my life, but there is no substitute for having a loved-one looking out for you when you’re in a hospital bed. She was levelheaded, present, and constantly engaged when a doctor or nurse came into the room. Which, of course, I was not.
Apparently the section of trail where I fell was not particularly difficult, and under other circumstances would be well within my capabilities. This accident was clearly not the result of me being foolish, or pushing myself too hard. It was just an accident; though, several unique circumstances may have contributed to the outcome.
First, I was on a new mountain bike, this being only my second time out. Not only was it new, but it was a “29-er” with hydraulic breaks and full suspension, features all new to me. I’ve been mountain biking for over 20 years, but never on a bike with this geometry or these mechanical components.
It was at the end of a pretty tough day, and I was tired and hungry. It’s unusual for me to forget food, but in this instance I had.
The trail was new to me, and while I’ve gone out separately with these other riders, this was the first time mountain biking with this particular group, not that this necessarily contributed to the accident. I like to think I “ride my own ride” no matter who I’m with, whether on the road or trail.
However, try as one might, a rider is always somewhat influenced by those in the group. I’ve always believed that it’s important to be aware of that influence, and only let it have a bearing on your riding to the extent you choose to let it. Mindlessly allowing yourself to be pushed by riders who are beyond your skill level is not only foolish and immature, but it can be dangerous.
Precisely why and how I fell will remain a mystery. Fortunately, my injuries should heal just fine with time. I was wearing a brand new helmet, which did not survive the fall. The bike however, remained in perfect condition!
According to the doctors, there are a few things for which I should be very grateful. First, the helmet saved my life. Yes, I had a concussion, and the impact cracked the helmet, but if I was not wearing it, which would be an insane thing to do on a mountain bike, I would be either be dead or would have suffered a very serious brain injury.
Secondly, I’m fortunate that I was physically fit, with strong lungs. Apparently, the mortality rate for a flail chest is disturbingly high, and given my remote location, it could have had a much more serious result.
And most importantly, I give my thanks, and actually my life, to my riding buddies who knew how to handle me after the fall, and who convinced the helicopter dispatcher to send a rescue team. The rescue dispatchers where not willing to send the helicopter because they said they needed an “official” authorization. Henry, a retired fire fighter, would not take that as an acceptable answer, and as he monitored my vital signs, ultimately convinced them if they didn’t come, I might not make it. It was the knowledge, common sense, and determination of my friends that really saved me. For that I will be forever grateful.
So, did I learn anything from this event? Yes, I leaned several things, and I also had some existing beliefs strongly reinforced.
First, I need to say that I get very cynical and weary of hearing people say, “that [fill in the blank] was a life changing experience”. Usually it’s for something trivial, such as a vacation to India or Nepal, or is part of a difficult physical challenge. Or, I’ve even heard it said about reading a book or listening to a lecture. Nonesense. If those are “life changing events” then your life isn’t very interesting.
Being told you are lucky to be alive, however, is different. So, what do I take away from this?
- I will always remember the importance of having a loved one in your life that you can support when they need it, and that you can rely on when it’s your turn. Pay it forward, as they say.
- My next reminder is seeing the value of being in the best physical condition possible. What happened to me could easily happen to anyone, even in, say, a car accident. People who let themselves get out of shape are not only lazy, but more importantly, they are selfish. If you don’t want to think of yourself, then consider your caregivers role after an accident.
- I will never ride on a dirt trail without a helmet and never on a new trail, or a remote trail, alone.
- When away from home, I will always bring a cell phone, and I will try to encourage others in my group to bring one as well.
- I will never leave home without an ID and an emergency contact name and phone number.
Time to get back on the bike!