I rode my ol’ touring bike out to Ocean Beach and one of my favorite coffee shops yesterday. It was a totally unremarkable event except that it meant the world to me that I could ride a bike again. So, the headline, right up front: I’m happy, I’m healthy, and I’m almost fully back to normal life!
Three months ago on a routine fitness bike ride, something went wrong, and I crashed into a guardrail at about 35 mph wearing only a helmet and skin-tight cycling clothes. I hit my head just hard enough to erase all memory of the event and its immediate aftermath, but not hard enough to do any long-term damage. My throat was cut open just enough to earn me a life flight, but by millimeters, not deep enough to threaten my ability to breathe or to speak. With six fractured bones and three vertebrae among them, I didn’t “walk away” from this one, but next to what narrowly could have been, well, I must still be here for some reason.
Throughout the experience of recovery, my spirits were continually buoyed by overwhelming generosity from strangers and love from friends. I’ve never before so fully appreciated the healing force of community.
Recovery is a Journey
Recovery is a large set of small victories. The first of these for me, at the four-hour mark, was the return of my ability to make memories. I’ve since learned that I was conscious through possibly all of the timeline of the accident, but with my short-term memory temporarily knocked out, I must have “woken up in the hospital” dozens of times before the first time I remember waking up. I could sit up after one day, eat solid food after two days, and take a shower after four days. Once in the second week, I tried to reclaim some independence a bit too early, and I set myself back a whole day simply through whatever small movements that clipping my own fingernails translated up to a broken back and collar bone. It was a great day when I discovered how to work the button on a pair of pants, which is very much a two-handed activity, by putting the elbow of my immobilized arm against a wall so I could push against the wall instead of recruiting my injured shoulder or clavicle. Then suddenly I was no longer condemned to wear sweat pants. Progress seemed to pick up at three weeks when the arm sling became optional, and I celebrated ~5° increased range of motion every day over the weeks that followed. At the end of the fifth week, when I could reach my left hand as high as my neck, it meant I could finally change my own neck collar and put on my own shirt. Then my Mom, my wonderful caretaker, could go home.
When I woke up in the hospital and still before I knew what put me there, I made a conscious decision accept that my injuries would define my life for a while, and I committed to myself that I would do whatever was necessary to make that “while” as short as possible. I would do whatever it took to regain as much of my ability as I could. It meant I strictly followed the orders to lay flat and still on gurney for 30 hours until I was cleared to sit up. It meant I had to find a way through my powerful fear of needles. It meant I had to learn to accept help, which was tougher than I thought it would be.
I’m not the type to enjoy giving up control over any aspect of my life, but when something this big happens, control is obviously an illusion. Once in the early days after the accident, my mother asked me why I was so calm. Her tone said that she was searching for something deeper: signs that I wasn’t all there yet, or worse, that perhaps I wasn’t taking this seriously. I was calm because that was my job. The doctors and nurses knew far better than me. They were in control, and all I had to do was find my happy place and stay out of their way. Maybe that was a kind of strength I found in myself, or maybe it was the drugs. Either way, it’s good to remember what that state feels like, and I hope I’ll be able to re-find that peaceful state next time life events require it.
My recovery continues today. I’m in a transition phase now, busy climbing back into the complexities of work and the cycles of normal life even while I still mark time as pre- and post-accident. Physical therapy is wonderful. It’s amazing that I get to spend time with kind people whose passion it is to make my pain go away. There are times now that I catch myself with a frustrated thought about an ache or lingering limitation, and then I have to remember that I’m crazy lucky to be at this point so soon, or here at all, where I am starting to forget my identity as an injured person.
In all, I was off of work on medical leave for a day or two shy of six weeks. I might have gone back a little early, but it’s hard to draw that line, and at some point reintroducing normal routines helps pull you forward as much as you’re pushing yourself. While I was off, I was able to collect disability insurance from the state, and my employer Autodesk made up the balance of my salary. I learned later that since I had been back at Autodesk still less than a full year, neither of those benefits were required. It’s good to live in a system with an appropriate social safety net like that, and it’s good to be so lucky to have a generous employer. Thank you California, and thank you, Autodesk.
For most of the six weeks, it was quite painful to move. It was even painful to type, and because of it, I’m still woefully behind responding to all the beautiful messages sent my way, which is a great problem to have, really. At first, mostly reading and movies occupied my time. My Mom insisted we go through all of the Avengers movies, and we did, but at fully 18 available via Netflix or Amazon, it was a heavy diet of superhero action that all blends together. My friend Doug asked me what I was doing for my brain: “crosswords?” I thought that was a great idea, and pretty soon I was obsessed, and I completed over a hundred NY Times puzzles. It also required very little typing.
Crosswords became something of a morning ritual with my Mom. While we ate breakfast, we’d go through two or three of them together. There are all manner of things either she or I might say about the experience of spending a solid four weeks of quality time together in a small, San Francisco apartment after well over a decade since I moved out to go to college, but then I found this NY Times story about a mother who bonded with her adult son over crosswords while she nursed him back to health. Really, I couldn’t possibly describe the experience better myself. I think we both learned a lot about who we have each grown to be since the years before I was an adult myself. I’m thankful for that too.
Thank you to my friends who shared your experiences of injury and recovery.
I signed up for a new gym membership about a month before the accident, which came with an introductory session with a personal trainer. The first session is undoubtedly a standard procedure meant to make you buy more sessions, but I shocked the trainer with a non-standard answer to his question: “Do you have any injuries?” “No.” “Wait, none?” “No…?” It turns out nearly everyone has injuries, and for my first major injuries, days after that, I just happened to over-achieve.
Throughout my recovery, I was the beneficiary of a lot of other people’s experience having gone through similar trials. One friend who had had several recoveries in her life stressed patience and prioritizing physical therapy. Another friend shared that he woke up in an ambulance once after a bike crash; he had no memory, but the sole witness said something like “yeah,… it was his fault.” Several friends shared stories of their friends who were biking and simply missed a turn and ended up similar to or worse than I did. It helps tremendously to share these stories because at the end of the day, we’re all in this together.
Thank you to my friends for sending me cards, voice mails, emails, fruit baskets, food, who visited me, and who simply let me know you were thinking of me.
Any trauma, physical or emotional, can be a lonely journey. My recovery never was, and I count myself among the luckiest humans to have such deeply caring friends. I am still working through a pile of thank-you cards to write, which is really the happiest entry on any to-do list.
Thank you to my friends who rallied to “Rebike Colin.”
I wish I had better words to describe how it felt to open my computer one morning to find this. It’s at once a thousand warm hugs and also the most incredible validation of all I’ve chosen to do with my life that reaches far beyond any accident. It’s an honor I can’t imagine ever feeling worthy of. Forever forward, this is a reminder of the good people I have the privilege of working for all over the world. It’s amazing I get to play a part in trying to make the world a better place with people like you.
Thank you to my colleagues at work who made space for me to fully disengage from the daily stresses of work to let me focus my energies on healing.
Thank you to my care-takers: family, friends, nurses, doctors, paramedics, physical therapists, 911-callers, and food-preparers. I promise to always work to pay it forward.
So What the Hell Happened!?
I know you’ve been wondering too. I have no memories, and there are no known witnesses, but there are plenty of clues to how this happened, and I got to play detective. I was recording my ride on Strava, but I lost my phone and the ride data with it because no one pressed “Done” to upload the stats to the cloud. Circumstances, like which hospital I ended up in and the severity and locations of my injuries, suggested I crashed north of the Golden Gate on a downhill with a guard rail on the left, so probably Hawk Hill. Google confirmed that. Of course they know far more about me than I’d ever want, but I can’t argue that sometimes that’s useful. My Google location history had stored the fact that on May 15th, my phone left my house at 5:20 PM and traveled by bicycle, across the Golden Gate Bridge and up Conzelman Road past the Hawk hill overlook. My phone stopped moving at 6:19 PM on the left side of the road just past the second right turn, well short of the hairpin turn I had imagined felled me. The EMS report I requested through a medical records process says that I was found by someone, possibly plural someones, next to the guardrail five minutes later. The ambulance arrived ten minutes after that, EMS technicians were on site for five minutes, and I arrived at Marin General at precisely 7 PM.
It was unknown for a while whether another person were involved in my crash, and I admit I found comfort in the prospect of never knowing. If this were someone else’s doing, I didn’t want their name ricocheting around my head while I struggled through recovery, and if this were my fault, I didn’t want a new reason to feel humble. The crash location rules out that I was hit from behind because the road is too narrow for cars to travel much faster than 20 MPH and too steep for bikes to go much less than 30 MPH. My habit on that road was to wait at the top of the hill until any cars in front of me were out of sight so that I could [cough, cough] go really fast [cough]. The road is also too narrow for a bike and a car to pass one another, so it wasn’t a side-swipe. Other car interaction possibilities remain, but anything I can imagine seems contrived. Then the EMS report removed the last doubt that this wasn’t a solo misadventure.
Patient states he rides section all the time and usually does less than 20 mph.
You see, that’s a lie. I don’t remember any of this, and the report makes it clear that I was generally confused, but I answered correctly when the paramedics asked my name, the time of day, and where I was. You know what other sentiment must have survived the impact: guilt! Data from my previous Strava rides for that road at that point suggest 30-35 MPH was more typical, and I’m quite sure that after thousands of miles of tracking my statistics across the continent last year, I would have known that 20 MPH was ridiculous. It must have been like when an officer pulls you over for speeding and then asks you how fast you think you were going—no one would round up.
The answer to “how” comes from the road and the pattern of my injuries. The guard rail stopped me from going further down the 700-foot hill at a ~45° slope down to the ocean. The guard rail there is low to the ground, and I hit it on an angle across my chest, neck, and left shoulder, so I was off of my bike before the impact (else I would have been launched and landed far down the hill). My left shoulder was partially dislocated as if my arm were pulled down and backward, which is consistent with me flying over the handlebars faster than I had the chance to let go. That means the speed of the bike changed much faster than my speed did. Either I hit something, perhaps loose gravel disguised by the setting sun which would have appeared directly in my face as I made the turn, or I panicked and hit the brakes too hard while turning, which is the biggest of no-nos. The two biggest take-aways that I learned earlier this year in my motorcycle safety class (I got my motorcycle license on a whim, which just sounds harebrained now) that most solo motorcycle crashes are caused by either navigating a turn too widely or touching your brakes while turning, which triggers a quick chain reaction that causes instability. I was going somewhere around 35 MPH, which meant that engine or not, the same laws of physics applied to me as to motorcyclists.
I’ll never know which of the two scenarios caused the crash—hitting gravel or hitting the brakes—but it’s more useful for me to assume it was the one I can do something about. Here’s where I have to admit that I had two minor bike crashes earlier in the year, too, on my city commuter bike. In both cases, a driver was stopped at a light then a last-minute decision to cut right without checking to see if anyone was there first. In both cases, I reacted in time, but the brakes on the bike were too weak to come to a complete stop in time. I was never injured, but it should have been a wake-up call that that bike was dangerous, and I was probably learning dangerous habits from it, in particular that I had to squeeze hard to slow down. The new carbon frame bike I crashed on was probably far more responsive than anything I was used to. It means I have two bikes to fix or replace, and it means I have to take the time to re-train myself to be a safer rider. (No, it doesn’t mean I should stop biking, so stop it.)
As for the state of the bike, I’ll have to follow up in a post later on about what to do. It’s unclear still whether it’s fixable or whether it should be replaced; I’ve had conflicting advice from two bike shops. Either way it will take some coin, and the donations from those who wanted to Rebike Colin will certainly be used precisely for that. Thank you again, dearly. The sentiment is far more valuable than anything with a dollar sign.
I’ve been simply overwhelmed with love over the past few months. I’ve always known that the great love among friends is one of the most rewarding parts of the human experience, and this experience simply provides more proof. I’m also very conscious that in most parts of the world and for most people, this story might not have ended so well. I had insurance, I didn’t lose my job, I didn’t lose my home, I had family who could take care of me, I had excellent medical care, and I’m not left with an addiction to pain-killers. I can’t say I know what to do with all that awareness yet beyond how I already vote and try to interact with the world, but I’m trying to figure it out.
I’ve found a new acquaintance with my own mortality through this injury and recovery. A lot of what that means is so personal that I’m unlikely to find words for it, but I know I’m thankful for it. Being hurt definitely sucks, but recovery is also a valuable part of the human experience, and I’m privileged to know it, and to share it with others when they face it too. Thank you all.