An Idle Tuesday

Last Tuesday I decided to go for a quick bike ride after work. It would be my last chance to ride my gorgeous new Cannondale high-mod carbon frame road bike before nearly two weeks of travel, and my legs were restless. It would also be my first solo ride with my dream bike, so I probably had something of a romantic notion to ride my favorite road in the Marin Headlands, about a 90-minute loop I’ve ridden maybe a hundred times. I remember leaving my apartment at about 5:30, riding north on Larkin St., and riding west through the Presidio along the shore. I also remember enjoying the relative lack of ambling tourists on the narrow approach to the Golden Gate Bridge. Then I woke up in the hospital.

Everything hurt and nothing in particular hurt. My head was immobilized with a collar. I wiggled my toes and fingers to make sure they were still there—they are. I asked someone standing over me what happened. “You were in a bike crash. Do you know your name?” I answered. “Your birthday?” “Do you know what day it is?” I got those right, after noting a wall clock that read 10:00, so it was likely in the evening of the same day. Then—I’m not joking—he asked me: “Who’s the President of the United States?” I answered: “I’ll tell you who I wish was the President of the United States.” He smiled, looked up, and yelled something like “okay, I think he’s with us.” Mercifully, I have a complete gap in my memory for 3 to 4 hours before this.

They told me what they knew. I had a fractured vertebra in my neck and two fractured vertebrae in my back. Fractured sternum. Broken rib above my aorta. Broken left collar bone. My throat was cut, and they were worried that I had punctured my trachea and damaged my vocal chords. My heart and and liver showed signs of injury. I had been found “on a guard rail,” by someone who called for an ambulance. I was responsive and repetitive in the ambulance, and I clearly had memory loss, which indicated a concussion.

The possible complications with damage to my aorta and trachea were the triggers to transfer me by helicopter to a Level 1 Trauma Center. This would have been in San Francisco except for a city ordinance forbidding medical flights (SF NIMBYism at its finest, no doubt). At about 11:30 PM, I was strapped to a board and flown to the next-closest trauma center at Stanford. I suppose I’m glad I remember what I hope remains the most expensive flight of my life.

Marin Headlands

The glorious downhill section of my favorite road, somewhere along which my accident occurred. (With one arm now in a sling, making this graphic was also a test of my one-handed Photoshop skills.)

In the wee hours of the morning in the Stanford E.R., doctors verified that the damage to my trachea did not include a puncture, which greatly simplified things thereafter. I don’t want to know more about why they were worried that my vocal chords were damaged, but I can assure you that I have no trouble yapping. They glued the hole in my neck shut along with a hole in my left foot. It would appear that I kicked the corner of an I-beam pretty hard, which left matching slits in my foot and my otherwise pristine bike shoes.

I called my parents in the morning. I have no defense for having waited so long; I should have called as soon as I was lucid. I remember thinking about the three-hour time difference and not wanting to wake them, which I suppose is classic focus at the wrong level of detail when you’re overwhelmed. When I reached them, they were literally on their way out the door to drive to a woodworking conference in Iowa. They dropped everything and got plane tickets, and after all manner of airline delays, they arrived at 2 AM local time the next morning.

A funny consequence of the accident is that my phone was lost, and with it, almost all my ability to contact the outside world. The phone was loose in the back pocket of my cycling jersey, and since it was absent among my recovered belongings, the likeliest explanation is that it continued over the cliff when I was stopped by the guard rail. The only phone number I know is my mother’s, and that’s only because it’s similar to mine. What’s more, I’m security-conscious, so I use a password manager for everything, where my phone is the second factor for all two-factor authentication. Without it, I don’t know any of my other passwords! I’ll get a new phone this week, and all will be right with my digital world, but I’ve taken the point that my digital life can be rendered just as tenuous as my physical life.

newBike.png

Me and my new bike, a week before the accident, at the top of Hawk Hill on my favorite road in the Marin Headlands.

Every day has brought noticeable improvement over the day before. Milestones so far: no existing or immediate risk of spinal cord damage, heart and liver enzyme levels returned to normal, discharged from the hospital, first shower, and yesterday was my first day without needing Oxycodone for pain. Mom offered to stay in San Francisco to take care of me for as long as I need her. I would be in a rehab facility otherwise. I must wear a neck collar for at least the next six weeks, and my left arm will be in a sling for all or most of that. I am crazy lucky that the fractured vertebrae in my back are just high enough that they’ll heal on their own as long as I don’t twist my back; were they much lower, I would be lying flat until July.

We’re still figuring everything out at the moment, and all I can say for sure that I know I’m one of the luckiest people in the world. Perhaps the craziest part is that after all of this, it’s a reasonable expectation that I will make a complete recovery, with normal function restored as early as 6 weeks from now.

A very large number of people are doing everything they can to make it easy for me to win. The doctors, nurses, pilots, drivers, custodians, therapists, and administrators at Marin General and Stanford Healthcare are top notch. I’m also keenly aware of the sacrifices my Mom and Kert are cheerfully making to help me heal. Thanks also to my colleagues at Autodesk as well for their kind words, flowers, and for taking on more in my temporary absence.

As for cycling, even now I can’t imagine that I would ever stop. Being on a bike is the happiest place I know, and it’s changed my life so strongly for the better. I have some investigation to do, though, and some healthy soul-searching to find a way to keep the risk lower in the future. Mom asked me in the hospital if I would ever have set out across the country last year if I knew then what I know now what those dangers truly mean. While working to reduce risk should always be a fundamental, personal disposition, I hope my answer is always yes. Everything worth doing carries risk, and fear should never be disabling.

One nurse I met at Stanford is a cyclist herself. Years ago, she was riding with a friend down the California coast on Highway 1 when her friend inexplicably missed a turn and crashed badly. Her friend was life flighted to a trauma center and eventually recovered. “They say all cyclists have either had a major accident or are about to,” she said. I’ve heard that before too. So my new goal is to remain a subject only of the past-tense clause!

Thank you for your thoughts!