5 years ago my life was forever changed. I came close to death. Thanks to my helmet and a higher power, I survived.
Pure, sweet, simple; life makes sense on a bike. My mind quiets. Wildly spinning thoughts slow and harmonize. The jarring rhythm of traffic, the sounds of life, car horns, alarms and cursing, and the hot exhaust of buses and trucks fade into the background with the rush of air as I pick up speed. Simplicity of movement, feet tracing one circle after another, is my meditation. If nothing is happening exactly as I want in my life, if I’m closer to forty than thirty, if I’m dreaming of a man I don’t know and a house, car and dog I don’t have, and a life that may never be; it all recedes, if only for an extended moment, when I mount a bike, buckle a helmet, and ride. Wars, natural disasters, diseases, people and relationships are complex. But on a bike, things are simple. Everything clicks, just like cleats into clipless pedals; the air, the freedom, the pure joy of motion. Runners’ high, bikers fly. No doubts. No questions. Harmony.
A warm, sunny Saturday morning around 9am, the entire day free to ride, one water bottle of water, one with lemon-lime Accelerade, ID, credit card, cell phone and 10 dollars. Tires aired. Gloves, Specialized shoes on, Giro helmet snug and buckled. I make the hairpin right turn off the GW bridge pathway into the Washington Heights neighborhood. Head and heart clearer and calmer as I re-enter the city. Having unexpectedly placed third in the Philly Women’s Triathlon the summer before, I am excited to test myself at the same race next weekend. A beautiful summer day, a good ride. I look forward a long, hot, soothing shower and a movie with my friend Michelle in the evening. All is well, until…I turn right off Fort Washington Avenue around Columbia University Medical Center to go home.
I did not know that I was going to be hit.
Through the one eye I can open I glimpse a police officer sitting next to me in the fluorescent haze of light. He’s holding my left hand through the cold silver bars of the hospital bed. My right eye won’t open. It’s swollen shut. Hands adjust plastic air tubes under my nose. A second police officer paces urgently behind his partner like he has somewhere to go. He holds a two-way radio, a clipboard and my cell phone. The officer seated next to me says, “It’s going to be okay.” And repeats, “It’s going to be okay. You’re going to be all right. Don’t worry.” Why is he saying that to me? My face feels wet. Was I crying? The officer behind him asks, “Do you know your name?” They seem far away; I see their mouths moving. There is a delay between them speaking and my hearing them. “Do you know where you are?” Silence. He speaks slowly, without emotion, just the facts.“You were riding a bike, Chris…you were hit…by a van. You are at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital in New York.” How does he know my name? Is this a joke? Am I dreaming? A little laugh of disbelief becomes a bubble of terror in my throat. My head aches as if my brain is swelling and pushing it’s way out of my too small skull and the right side of my face is numb like someone struck me across the face with a cement block and all I want to do is go back to sleep. The officers are staring at me, “Is there someone we can call?” I feel like there’s an extra-large sandbag weighing down on me, but in this seeming reality all that covers my body are a thin white sheet and blanket. My neck and spine feel stiff as if I’ve been lying on a cold board of ice. I’m petrified. If I reply, then this is real. Dry mouth, I swallow and attempt to part the left side of lips and speak, “My older brother. My brother. Lives in New York.” I give his name and pass out again.
I do not know how long I was unconscious. My mind was drifting in and out: every time I was aware that I was awake, there was a strong pull towards the peace and comfort of indefinite sleep. Sometimes I gave in and slept. A blank black hole of time in my life remains. I don’t know where I went. It’s difficult to accept things if you don’t remember experiencing them. I have no memory of what preceded my waking up in the hospital. No memory of being on my bike or on any particular road. I do not remember hearing, seeing, or feeling an impact. I would not have known I had been riding if they had not told me. I have no memory of being neck braced, back-boarded, or transported by ambulance. No memory of my cycling jersey and shorts being sliced off me in the emergency room, of the trauma exams and tests for internal injuries, of IVs, blood work, and doctors and nurses talking to me.
Every time I wake, my face is wet with tears. Cold, alone, and really confused; none of this makes sense. I can’t open my jaw enough to speak, only mumble. All I want to do is sleep and wake up to the life I was living before this. I’m terrified that I might not have the medical insurance to cover this. I’m aggravated that this happened, that I’m here, that I don’t know why I can’t remember anything and I hate that I’m alone and that there’s no one here to tell me what is going on and that I will be okay. They transferred me. A different small gray room, same hazy fluorescent light. I understand what it’s like to be born, to come out kicking and screaming, gasping for air, incomprehensible that anyone would disrupt a peaceful, protected, warm slumber. I come not from a warm womb, but from a silent darkness void of any memories or awareness of who I am. Just a mangled mind and body in an anonymous hospital room. The cops are gone. I lay motionless so the sheets won’t rub against the open abrasions or “road rash” that covers the entire side of my right knee and lower leg. Fluorescent lights. A curtain. White walls. White sheets. Beeping. Hospital workers in dark blue scrubs speed walk by. The woman next to me groaning. Fear, confusion, and loneliness overcome me and escape in an audible sob. A kind woman visiting her elderly mother in the bed to my right undoes my tight elastic ponytail for me. I guess I asked her. There aren’t doctors and nurses attending to me any more. I wonder why.
The CT scans and X-rays showed a grade III/IV concussion (a severe brain bruise with loss of consciousness and amnesia), two fractures of the maxilla bone, (the orbital bone surrounding the eye which at a follow-up doctor’s appointment was found to be displaced and later required a surgery through my eye to smooth down), bruising to the lower jaw, nerve damage, a contusion to my right knee, and road rash down my right leg. I wasn’t awake to experience the blows, but I would have to live with the repercussions consciously from then on. Police reported that at 3pm on Saturday, July 5th, at the intersection of 165th and Riverside Drive, a female driving a van made a left turn at the light, crossed the double yellow lines on 165th and entered the lane of opposing traffic, the lane where I was descending to turn left on Riverside Drive. I was 15 minutes from my apartment.
A few images and memories came back, but I’m uncertain if they were memories of that day or another because the ride was so familiar to me. I had been doing the ride at least 3 times a week for the past month because I loved it and I was preparing for the triathlon. I think I ate a banana chocolate chip muffin at my mid-ride stop at The Runcible Spoon bakery in Nyack, NY, 25 miles away. I had worked on July 4th, the day before, and I know I had been eager and excited for a long ride. A doctor who graduated from my high school a few years ahead of me happened to be a resident in the St. Luke’s emergency room and trauma unit and he had been the one to receive the call that a female cyclist had been hit. He called a week later to check on me and he told me that I had screamed every time they moved my leg. (Three weeks later an MRI revealed partial tears of the ACL, LCL, and a fracture in the lateral tibial plateau in my right knee. They had only x-rayed my leg in the St. Luke’s ER and had not seen these injuries.)
Coming close to death. The accident changed everything. Job gone. Self-confidence and sense of self diminished. Hope questioned. Emotional endurance tested. Dreams turned upside down. My face and leg will never be the same. The right side of my face is now and will always be uneven and higher than the left because the right orbital bone was fractured in two places and displaced. Never had knees problems before. Now, I have chronic pes tendonitis in my right knee which started to degenerate and develop arthritis after arthroscopic surgery to remove the plica, scar tissue, blood and debris from the fracture and to shave down the underside of my kneecap. Running, once a beloved sport, is now painful, difficult, and discouraged by my doctors. Hearing the siren of an ambulance still sends a shiver up my neck as my mind flies to the aftermath of my accident. My hand often unconsciously goes to cool the area under my eye as if it were still warm and tender with swelling. And I often find myself standing like a flamingo with all my weight on one leg or massaging the painful area of pes tendonitis under my knee when doing other things like standing or sitting, talking, working or reading.
Recently, riding on the shoulder of interstate highway 9W, the route toward Nyack and the same one I’d ridden the day of the accident, I counted eleven men and one woman riding without a helmet. Twelve people in two hours riding helmet-less next to a major highway. I can only ask, why? A helmet is to a cyclist what a PFD or Personal Floatation Device is to a white water rafter. Instead of unpredictable white water rapids and rocks, we have unpredictable people, uneven asphalt, poles, tree branches, other cyclists, tourists, car doors, mirrors, deer, dogs, children, frisbees, pedestrians, or anything that may unexpectedly fly at us and our head. Fingers, bones and toes we have many to bruise or break, but brains—we have one. A helmet is our personal brain saving device. There are no guarantees that either a PFD or helmet will save your life, but why not up your chances for survival and lessen your chance for serious injury?
Research shows that cigarette smoking is habit-forming and leads to nicotine addiction. Is helmet-free riding a habit-forming addiction? Other than the powerful pull of a physiological or psychological dependence, what other reason can explain not wearing a helmet? A desire for the cool breeze flowing through your hair? A hankering for the ladies and gents to see your entire attractive head? An expensive haircut? You like playing chicken with fast-moving vehicles while you have absolutely nothing to protect you if the car wins? If you can borrow or buy a bike, can you not borrow or buy a helmet? I am a single female, and when I see guys (and 90 percent of the time it is men) sans helmet, I am not drawn to the snazzy team cycling kit, svelte quads, ripped biceps, or loaded carbon fiber frame; I only see their helmet-free head and think, “What an idiot.” If you spend enough time on a bike, statistics are high that at some point you will go down. The best of the best fall. If you’re as elite a cyclist as a Grand Tour rider then you possess the most fluid and advanced bike handling skills in the world. The bike is an extension of your body, an extra limb that you manipulate (or use to navigate) with ease and precision, threading safely through buzzing rush hour traffic, bunny hopping curbs and potholes. Fantastic. Well done. Are you invincible? Can you, the super-duper bike handling cyclist, avoid a crash that you cannot see coming or even predict?
Many drivers should not be behind a wheel. Ever. Bad drivers—distracted, inconsiderate, unpredictable, multitasking, unskilled drivers – populate cities like New York where space is small and shared with people rushing to their next thing. Have you ever seen a conscientious cab driver who avoids using the bike lane to maneuver ahead of other traffic? Are the bike lanes in NYC solely reserved for cyclists?
Here is the truth: when we ride we take our lives into our own hands. We are at the mercy of the road and all the vehicles on it. If you think otherwise, you are guilty of dangerous and possibly life-threatening hubris, and your ignorance throws salt into all the wounds I bear from my brush with death. Five years, two surgeries, and endless physical therapy and doctors’ visits later, I would like to report that I am fully recovered; I am not. But, I manage. There are worse things in life that happen to people, much worse. I know that. Angels surrounded me that day. I was not lucky enough to get up, take pictures, acquire witness information, walk or ride away from the accident, but I am fortunate. I am grateful. I wore a helmet. I am alive.