21 October 2007

Wear Those Bike Helmets!

I commute on my bike, and do plenty of longer rides too. So it probably has 3,000 miles or better on it, and I ride all the time, four seasons -- streets, trails, gnarly mountain-bike singletrack strewn with roots and rocks. I'm no Olympian or trick-cyclist, but I am exceedingly comfortable on a bicycle; for example, when I come to a stop light, I habitually trackstand instead of putting a foot down.

So it's tempting to think It Won't Happen To Me.

Friday afternoon I was pedaling home from work. I was late -- I'd kept on programming and hadn't noticed the time, so I would have to hustle not to get yelled at by my kids. I swooped around the parked cars by the Limnology building to see another bicyclist right in front of me.

Little musical interlude here -- nothing whatsoever going on. La la la...dum da doo...

Hey, what's that metal thing I'm looking up at? A ceiling...of an ambulance? These are definitely EMTs. After decades on Ski Patrol, I know the litany so well I can practically recite it for them. I'm wearing a cervical collar. I'm being backboarded. Which is odd, because there's no reason for this to be going on. Is it even happening to me? Is this a dream? TV?

"This is great", I try to tell them, "we were practicing this just the other night. Did I mention that I'm a Ski Patroller?"

"Yes, you did", they chorus tiredly. Apparently I've told them already. Several times, from their tone. The experience does have the unreal, disconnected quality of a dream. And of course there's no reason for me to be lying in an ambulance. Yet there's far too much detail. Crap. Maybe I really am being backboarded. Am I paralyzed? Can I --

Thank God. Both my toes and my fingers obey my commands. Oddly enough, although I'm exceedingly glad to realize this, I am not afraid, or upset. Nor am I in any pain, really, although I can tell that this body -- cautiously, I stipulate that it's mine -- has taken a whomping. I keep pretty still, just in case. Don't want to be a bad patient. Someone asks the combination of my bike lock. I remember it, which surprises me. Like these events, the four numbers just swim in from nowhere, unconnected to anything else. The EMTs tell me their names -- obviously not for the first time, or the second, or the third, from their attitude. John and John. How hard could that be? I am determined to rehearse those names over and over and impress them with my mnemonic prowess. Sure enough, as we're driving somewhere they ask me what their names are. They seem quite pleased that I remember. Ha!

It really is quite dreamlike. Things just seem to happen, there is no sense of a sequence of events. But as my short-term memory yawns, stretches, scratches, and starts hunting up some coffee, it begins to feel more like a story and less like a series of tachistiscope flashes. I remember my wife's work number, but can't recall whether or not she's working this week. I remember telling the Finn to have a nice weekend, but not getting on the bike.

The doctors in the ER ask me questions, some of which I can answer. Out of nowhere comes an embarrassing recollection of someone just going splat onto pavement, really thumping it. Was that me? Today? That doesn't seem likely, the memory is unconnected to anything else. But it does have a certain explanatory power. Reluctantly I accept that it must be real. Because I am clearly me, this is really happening despite all evidence that it's some kind of dream, and the doctors are telling me that I'm probably suffering from a concussion. Aha! I've worked with those, and know how spooky and weird the patients are. Undoubtedly I've been quite loopy, given the sorts of kindergarten questions I'm getting, and am embarrassed. I resolve to do better, make their jobs easier.

My wife and kids arrive. True to form, Jenny takes one look at the mess and clings to her mother, as if to deny the reality of Dad lying there on the table, naked under the blankets except for a cervical collar, the right side of his lips the size of sausages and his hands bleeding. Equally true to type, my son greets me affectionately and with concern, confirms with the doctors that I'm in no danger, then starts analyzing all the cool stuff in the ER -- I mean, if Dad's going to be all right, there's no reason to waste an opportunity like this! And just to make it three for three, Janet is sweet, supportive, careful to stay out of the way, and manages the three simultaneous tasks of children, doctors, and a husband in La-La Land with apparent effortlessness and outward calm, thinking two or three steps ahead on each track. Not for the first time in my life, or the fiftieth, I wonder "How the heck does she do that?!"

About this time the narrative starts hooking up pretty much in the fashion I'm accustomed to. Things happen one after the other, often for reasons which are apparent, and there's no question now that they are indeed happening to me. They logroll me onto various surfaces (hey, I felt my thoracic spine move, buddy, you need to practice that one!). I get a CT scan. I pee into a bottle a couple of times. I get loaded onto a gurney, and am trundled up to a room on the trauma floor. I get pretty shocky and sick to my stomach; about that time Janet takes the kids out to get them dinner. The feeling passes. The CT scan comes back negative (yaay!) so they can pull the C collar (YAAAAY!) so I can shakily, with help, make it to the toilet (HALELLUJAH JUBILEE!).

My wife comes back sans kids (thanks, Wendy!) and we pass some time laughing so hard it makes my swollen lips hurt. I'm counting how many times I'm apologizing to her, and am up to six before she leaves for the night. I am floored by my good fortune. I am alive, I will apparently recover, and I have her. Talk about bagging life's Lotto Jackpot.

Later I find out my night nurse is Sandy, a good friend from Ski Patrol. We snork it up a bit too. I am in good hands here. She promises that she will reveal nothing, and I know I can trust her, though she could get SERIOUS mileage out of this in the patrol room.

The next morning Janet examines my bagged belongings. We reconstruct some of what happened from what's bloody and what's not. In the afternoon, when I'm released, we retrieve my bike. There's a nice puddle of dried blood on the pavement; I'd hoped looking at the scene would help me remember more, but nothing new comes. Just hurrying, other biker, pratfall -- then nothing until the ambulance. My bike's front wheel is bent like a Pringle's chip -- it must have locked up when I braked and swerved, and folded before I fell (a witness said I'd gone right over the handlebars). My helmet has a nice little crunched patch in the right frontal area. I put it on -- ow! Didn't even notice that contusion before, but there's a sore spot on my forehead that exactly matches it.

Had it not been for the helmet (a Bell Metro -- thanks, guys), that crunched spot would have undoubtedly been in my right frontal bone, instead of in my helmet. And instead of writing this, not 48 hours later, I'd either be dribbling my prunes with an IQ of 26, or comatose, or Janet would be making arrangements to have me cremated.

I've been wearing a helmet for 23 years, and never needed it once. Until Friday. For all the bother, sweat in my eyes, raccoons chewing on the pads in the garage at night, I am miles ahead. Miles. If you ride a bicycle and don't wear a helmet, or only wear it some of the time, please allow me to take you gently aside.

And Stooge-slap you.

You don't get to choose the time the pavement comes up to smack you, OK? You don't have time to get it off the handlebars, or even to clip the straps, or pull them tight. It doesn't necessarily happen on the rides you think are more challenging, or longer, or unfamiliar, or dangerous. It can happen anytime, with no warning whatsoever, whether you're a biker with two weeks' experience or Lance Armstrong.

Wear your helmet. Every last time, you hear me? Thanks.