Denial is an essential part of life. We justify our denial with math. Statistics.
Statistically speaking, traveling by commercial airline is the safest form of transportation. Statistically speaking, you will not die of ebola. Statistically speaking, you will not become a casualty of war, or victim in a fatal car crash.
Unless you are. And then the statistical improbability becomes certainty.
Which is to say, everything is fine, until it's not.
They strapped me to the backboard. Put a thick collar around my neck. Loaded me onto the back of the truck because I objected to the helicopter.
"But it's two miles to the road," said Harry the fireman. "The jostling is really going to hurt. And if you have a spinal injury it could lead to complications."
"I don't have a spinal injury," I said, though how the hell did I know. I just knew I didn't want to pay $10,000 to have a helicopter take me to a hospital less than ten miles away. Statistically speaking, I would have to ride uphill for a mile to get to where they could land a helicopter. They thought the uphill ride was safe. I was only doubling my very small risk going downhill.
The firemen spoke to each other in medical jargon, but I got the jist. Because I told them I crashed my bike at a low speed, chances are the only damage I had was what they could see. But all they had to go on was that their quick exams hadn't shown anything bad, and they didn't seem to trust what I was saying.
The kicker was when they saw that the red stain on my headband was not blood, but rather, the logo of an Italian bicycle company. Then maybe I was telling the truth.
They loaded me onto the truck.
"Have you ever had morphine?" Harry said.
"No and I don't need any," I said, mostly because I was afraid it would make me nauseous and I was already feeling quite claustrophobic being restrained and tied onto the fire department backboard.
"Well, some people have a high pain threshold," Harry said.
"I don't," I said, thanking God I was not paralyzed. Thank you God, I was not killed. Thank you God for these broken bones. They hurt like hell but I am alive to feel it.
Thank you for this challenge. Thank you for this opportunity to be brave and to show my stuff. It is an opportunity I would have never chosen willingly.
There is now a titanium plate connecting my neck to my shoulder running across where my collar bone had been. That bone has been shattered by 100 kilograms of me hitting the ground from a height of about 6 feet at 10 miles per hour. I put myself on the bike as I have done for the past 30 years. I put myself on the hill as I have done nearly daily for the past 20 years. I was in a controlled descent. Somehow my front wheel got stuck.
One moment my eyes were drawing a line on the trail for me to follow. The next moment the ground was in my face. There was nothing in between.
I told Harry what happened. He asked several times, I suppose to ascertain if I had lost consciousness during my flight over the handlebars, or if I'd sustained any other head injury that was now causing symptoms.
Harry the fireman said, "Everything is always fine until it isn't."
This was a mountain bike accident that was no accident. I always knew I could do something awful to myself on a bike. All the pain was my fault. I liked the fact it was my doing and there was no one to blame but me.
One of my bike shoes disappeared into the woods. I've heard about people being blown out of their shoes. Now I am one.
I had road rash all down the left side of my body. The top layers of skin were abraded from my thigh, forearm, knee, and elbow.
And there was a bone pushing against the skin, nearly protruding from my shoulder, near my neck. The feeling was electric. Bright and sharp. Undeniable. Unignorable. I felt like I'd been hit in the shoulder with an axe. I had to walk about a quarter mile down an 18% grade with one shoe, no cell phone, blood oozing from gashes in my arm, side, and leg, and my shoulder screaming so loud I was sure it could be heard downtown. I only had to walk a quarter mile because a park ranger found me. Had she not been there, I would have had to go the entire two miles to my house on foot. It would have been a bold display of raw toughness.
Note to self and others: never put yourself into a situation where you need to display raw toughness to continue your existence.
Especially if there is no one around to admire you.
The ranger radioed the fire department.
"Are you having any trouble breathing?" Harry asked, which made me think that maybe I should be having trouble breathing.
"Nope." But I was getting lightheaded. I thought I might faint. I figured it was from the fear.
"Stay with me," Harry said.
"Oh, I'm right here," I said.
"What do you do for a living?" he asked.
I saw myself in my office at work, but couldn't remember what I did there.
"I'm an engineer."
"You bike a lot?"
"Every day I can. Hey can one of you guys call my wife? Let her know what happened?"
"We're not allowed to do that. You have to do it yourself from the hospital."
Wouldn't have mattered anyway. I couldn't remember my phone number.
You have to be deserving.
The message of Jesus Christ - no matter how much you hurt it can always get worse. Save the whining for your crucifixion.
The surgeon had inserted two yellow pipes. About two feet of each hung from my abdomen. One hung from a place where there was a natural opening, into which I had never inserted a thing in my life. It was now time for the glorious pain of a tube the thickness of a large pencil shoved up my dick. They'd attached a bag to the pipe to collect body fluids. The other had been put into a man-made hole from the outside of me to the inside, dug in with a scalpel or a cordless drill. That one I found more disturbing than the first. I didn't think humans were allowed to continue life while having things poked into them from the outside.
Moving around with these tubes in me would have been trivial had I not paused with each step to admire the pain they caused.
The pipes had been inserted due to a surgical complication that resulted in a condition for which I wound up in the hospital, two days after leaving the hospital from the installation of the titanium plate. Probably, I should sue someone for taking a routine orthopedic procedure and turning it into a life threatening situation. First, I want to be well. Second, I don't want revenge.
Third, I want to thank God. I want to thank my guardian angels. Officially.
Thank you for this pain. Thank you for this trial. For this sleepless time. For pain that reroutes every thought. For obliterating my immortal future and replacing it with mortality.
I spoke to a wise woman during my illness. She may have been an angel, except I have her phone number and remember dialing it. I told her I had seen it coming. I had a dream 20 years ago. In that dream I die in a mountain bike crash. That dream has been with me these 20 years. I may have even written about it before.
Before the ride, I put on the clothes I had seen myself wearing in my dream. I'd done this a bunch of times, tempting fate. Proving dreams are not reality.
"But you did die," said the wise woman. "Your life is entirely different now."
My left arm was alight with strong electric pain. Every time I tried to move it willfully I'd get pins and needles. First the sense of touch would disappear. Then I wouldn't be able to move it.
Then there was the other problem. My bladder had been allowed to nearly burst, and it was only a trip to the emergency room that had saved my life.
The treatment for that was simple. Pipes. Time. Only time would tell if I would heal.
For two days I lay on my wife's side of the bed (because her side was closer to the bathroom door). I stared at the ceiling. I watched the daytime shadows cross the room. I watched it get dark. I felt daytime warmth fade to the cool dark evening.
I thought about time. I thought about things I'd done just days before I may never do again.
After the first day I gave up crying. I started thanking God that I hadn't broken my neck and died. Or broken my neck and wound up in a wheel chair.
I made it to the sofa in the living room. I put on the TV. I watched "60 Minutes".
The whole show was about Iraq war veterans who had received medals.
One soldier was being asked about the situation that won him the medal of honor. He didn't want to talk about it, so the reporter tried to draw it out of him.
"Your squad was ambushed," said the reporter.
"Yes," said the soldier.
"And you were shot several times. Your right leg was nearly blown off. You eventually lost it."
"How did you manage to get your sergeant out of the line of fire?"
"And then you got him on your shoulders and somehow you managed to get him and yourself back to your Humvee with one leg nearly shot off and two bullets in your pelvis."
"The pain must have been amazing."
"I really wasn't thinking about it."
"Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?"
"Well, I wouldn't have got into an ambush."
"Anything you regret?"
"Yes. You know, when a soldier dies, everyone salutes him. When they got us to the field hospital, they put me on a stretcher and took me away from John. They started prepping me for surgery, putting in the IV, giving me shots, and then I saw everyone salute, and I knew John had died. And I tried to stand up and salute, too, and they held me down. Then they injected me with something and knocked me out. I never got to salute him."
I started crying. Maybe it was the drugs.
My wife was sitting next where I was laying. I felt like nothing. Insignificant. Forgettable. A single raindrop falling into the Grand Canyon.
"What's wrong? Hurt too much? Let me help get you back to bed."
"There's nothing wrong with me," I said.
"Lay still," she said, looking at the stream of diluted blood coming out of one of the tubes. "You need to rest."
But I hadn't earned the right to rest.
May 2012 is wiped out. I spent it going back and forth to the hospital. Endless doctor visits. Days and days of taking down numbers. Temperature. BP. Volumes and characteristics of contents voided through the pipes.
I see the medical world differently, now.
In one conversation with my urologist, I complained that everything we were doing was based on statistics and not any kind of deterministic fact about my condition.
"Well, nobody knows," he said.
I pointed to the ultrasound machine he'd just used to determine my guts were not healing to plan.
"In my world, I can make that machine work no matter what. You could set it on fire. I could fix it."
"But you'd have to replace a lot of parts," he said. "We can't do that with you."
"But you have to have a plan."
"We have a plan. It's going to take time. You have to trust that I've seen this before. Keep taking your biometrics. Write everything down."
"Does it always work?"
"I've never had a failure."
"Doc, you're saying it could fail."
"You want certainty. I can't give that to you. I can tell you, though, that I've never had a patient who didn't recover from this."
"So, you're saying the sample size is pretty big. You're saying it's a lot of patients."
"I know it's very hard when you're hurting. But somehow you have to find a way not to worry about this. It doesn't help."
"I make a living worrying," I said.
"We'll check progress next week. Meanwhile, keep taking measurements and e-mailing me the data."
I did. I don't know if the data I sent him did any good. Honestly, I couldn't see any trends in the numbers I took over those two weeks. I ran regressions on them. I charted them in Excel. It seemed like a scatter plot.
In fact, it was. Yet, he decided to move forward anyway.
I was angry he wouldn't take the pipes out on Friday before the long Memorial Day weekend. I figured he was being lazy, but in reality, he wanted 3 more days with them in. When he took the pipes out on Tuesday, I felt like the door to a cage had been opened.
For instance, I could walk without a bag attached to me. I could move without feeling my insides rubbing against latex balloons. I could sit on chairs without setting my lower abdomen on fire.
"The bleeding and clotting will stop," he said. I figured that meant, basically, now.
What he declined to tell me is that my bladder would fill with blood that would clot. What he didn't tell me is that I would be urinating Cabernet for the next week, and to boot, I would have to somehow rid my insides of what seemed like a pint of blood clots.
At one point, on a Friday evening, with my wife in LA visiting her grandmother and me supposedly well enough to be alone, I got into my car to drive myself to the hospital because, well, voiding a pint of blood clots is not what the urinary system was made to do. And so it didn't. And wasn't the fact that system had failed in the first place the whole reason for the river of pain that swamped out the pain in my neck and 11" cut in my shoulder over the plate they inserted?
And the fact I had chills and sweating that came from a fever, that probably came from an infection caused by the pipes. And wasn't it a fact that I couldn't actually drive because I have a manual shift car, and my left arm was not under my voluntary control? Every time I moved it a guy in a hockey mask came with a chainsaw and sliced off my arm at the shoulder. So I would have to call an ambulance anyway.
The concept lingered in my mind that I should just let it all play out. That if I was really at the end, then why keep fighting? I had died on that hillside, only my body was laboring under the misconception it could be saved.
I went back in the house and got onto the bed. I didn't bother turning on the lights. I ate two Vicodin, because I wanted to be senseless when I died. Then I took another one to be sure. Some time later I fell asleep.
When I woke I didn't remember things were going bad because it is also true in our world that everything is terrible, until it's not.
After the emergency was over the doc said he didn't tell me I might wind up back in the hospital with a bladder full of congealed blood because, well, chances are I wouldn't, and well, I would just worry about it and it wouldn't help.
I am wanting to talk to the angel again. I thought to call her but her phone number is actually a grocery list and some tesla coil equations. Maybe I dreamed the whole thing.
I mentioned the angel to my wife who said, "Yes, I remember your angel. You were very insistent about it. You said she told you that you were a very valuable person, that you were resilient, and you must repeat that to yourself over and over."
"I am resilient," I said. "I am resilient."
"And you're not going anywhere without me."
"I am resilient. I can take it. Bring it on. I'm not dead yet."
A few weeks ago they took an x-ray of my clavicle plate. My doc doesn't have a digital x-ray machine. He has one as big as a locomotive that uses film.
The technician took the picture, developed the film, then handed it to me and told me and the wife to walk down the hall and hand it to the surgeon who would be waiting for me.
On my way to the surgeon, of course, I held the film over my head and let the ceiling lights illuminate the image.
I saw my plate with 10 screws holding together the bits of my bone.
I saw what seemed like two razor sharp shards of bone just hanging around, not secured by screws or any other contrivance. It looked nasty to me, but I figured, hey, I'm no radiologist. I don't know what I'm looking at.
I held the film up for the wife to see. She agreed, it looked pretty scary, but she didn't know what it was.
The surgeon clipped the x-ray to a light box on the wall. He glanced at it, looked at me, and then said, "You're looking at this, aren't you?"
He pointed to the bone shards I had seen.
"Well, now that you mention it," I said.
He said, "I missed those. They're behind the bone I plated. I never saw them."
"Well, okay," I said, about as tentatively as one can say.
"You must never worry about those," he said, but I was already down the long path of worrying about them.
He said to my wife, "He must never worry about these, and neither should you. These will never cause problem at any point,"
Then he said, "I'll tell you why. Because in 8 more weeks they will not be bone fragments, but they will become lumps attached to the main bone. You will see the gaps filling in. We'll take the pictures and you'll see."
I said, "Ok," But I was already imagining nerve and blood vessel damage. I was already thinking it felt like someone had held a nail gun to my shoulder and pulled the trigger twice.
Pain works in layers. The brain acts as a filter, burying all the smaller pain under larger ones. As larger pains are removed, one by one, the smaller pains emerge.
For instance, when my bladder nearly burst, that pain completely made me forget I had had shoulder surgery only days before. When I had prostate surgery, that pain made me forget my bladder had nearly burst and there was an unhealed 11" gash in my shoulder.
Now enough of the pains have gone away to the point I can tell there's a plate in my neck.
The other insidious thing about pain is that the mind does a great job of burying it under dread and concern. When I was loaded with pain and pain killers, I was sure I would never again be whole. Now, nearly a month after consuming my last opiate, all catheters removed, and all the feeling and 90% of the mobility restored to my arm, I am certain I will recover. The certainty alone is speeding my recovery. And when, finally, the pain of having a plate in my neck subsides, I'll go back to feeling the misery of indigestion and athlete's foot.
There were some other side affects of my bike crash two months ago. One is that I must have busted my elbow, because now that I can feel my arm I realize when I rest my elbow on the table it feels like someone is trying to slice it off. Also, my right knee clicks and hurts like hell when I walk uphill. I probably tore the meniscus.
But frankly, I don't want to think about these things, nor do I feel like seeking medical advice at the moment. I think I'll let these ride for a year.
One thing my accident highlighted was that, in fact, I hadn't been seeing a doctor regularly. I had no GP/primary care physician. I've been mostly healthy my whole life, save for high BP & cholesterol, for which I drop into a cardiologists' office every now and then.
I finally picked a GP and saw him last week. Because the world works on luck and connection, we discovered through the patient/doctor interview that he was from New Jersey and graduated from the same place I did around the same time.
"We see a lot of this in the medical profession," he said. "Someone is mostly healthy. No problems. And then they get into an accident. Something happens. And one thing triggers another. It cascades like falling dominoes."
"What can you do about it?" I asked. "I mean, I exercise every day, nearly. I am not grossly overweight. I don't smoke. Don't drink much. Not sure what else I could be doing."
"There isn't much you can do," he said. "I've seen professional athletes go down the same path."
"Guess you have to have a positive outlook," I said.
Then, because he's from New Jersey and he knew I would understand what he meant, he said, "But something always gets you."
It's a fact of life.