Unplanned life: I really am lucky

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I think of that day often, whether I want to or not. It’s been ten years and it won’t let go. Worse, it will still be with me in another ten. I just hope it is a little less so.

The launching uncontrollably head first into an immoveable object followed by the twisting contortion of my body instantly turned into a rag doll cartwheeling out of control. The sudden impact of my upper back as it crashes to a halt from the pavement underneath it.

Motionless, I lay somewhere trying to collect my thoughts and regain my senses. I have crashed and I tell myself to remain calm. I close my eyes tight and open them hoping to clear them enough to see. After a few attempts, I realize I only have some foggy vision in my left eye. I tell myself to reach up to my right eye and check to make sure it is still there, thinking the impact I just experienced may have caused me to lose an eyeball. It’s still there.

I go through a checklist I learned in first aid. I move my arms and legs, rotate my hands and feet, and tell myself I am not paralyzed. Still, I can’t see well enough to know where it is I am lying, I just know it is in the road I was just a few minutes earlier riding down at close to 35 mph.

If I can just get up, I can be on my way. At least I fool myself into thinking that. Then a not so funny thing happened on the way to trying to sit upright. A level of pain overtook my body unlike anything I had ever experienced before. Suddenly, all those broken bones, torn muscles, and countless other injuries I had experienced from years of playing sports were nothing. I know instantly something is terribly wrong, but the old athlete in me insists on trying to get up and over come the pain and get back on my bike even though I have no idea where my bike is or what condition it is in.

After some failed attempts to sit up, I am aware I am going to need help, but from who? It’s just after sunrise on the first day of summer break. Who in their right mind is going to hear me? I try to find out and push out a plea, “Help.” Nothing happens. No one can hear me because I am unable to push out enough air to make anything louder than a whisper.

“Oh God, what is this pain I am feeling? Have I broken my back? Why is it increasing? Why do I feel like I am being crushed to death when nothing is on me? Why the hell can’t I see? This is serious. I think I am dying. No, I know I am dying if help does not arrive real fast. Try and stay calm.”

My mind is in overdrive trying to solve a problem I can’t solve. My life is no longer in my hands and I just have to accept it.

Hope arrives as I hear a car approach. Instinctively, I feel the ground around me and find a branch broken off as a result of my crash. I raise it and begin waiving it for the driver. I can hear the car get closer and slow down. I am going to be alright. I am over joyed with relief that is short lived as the car continues on its way.

“Did he see me? He had to? Why wouldn’t the driver stop? Now what?”

The pressure in my chest increases, the end result of internal bleeding causing my lungs to deflate. I do not know it yet, but one is empty and it is just a matter of minutes before the other is too.

I lie there, thinking of my family. I wonder how they will find out their dad has been killed in a bicycle accident. I worry about how it will impact their lives. I think of the times spent with them, the joy I have received, the love they have given me, and just how proud I am of them. I wonder who will walk my girls down the aisle on their wedding day. Who is going to finish teaching my son how to be a man. I wonder who my wife will grow old with now that I am not going to get to. I am only 48 and tomorrow is suppose to be Fathers Day. What a time to die.

I don’t worry about myself. I am actually at peace with me, but I am angry that it will be my loved ones left to deal with the fallout. They deserve better than this.

As long as I do not move, my pain is not that bad other than the difficulty it takes to draw in air. I know enough about the human body to know death will be peaceful if I remain still. I will pass out due to a lack of oxygen before quietly succumbing to whatever injuries I have. I tell myself I just want my final moments to be filled with thoughts of all the people and love I have been blessed with. For once, I no longer have time or energy for any anger.

Sometimes, we think we have come close to dying. Maybe it was a close call driving on the freeway or some activity we pushed a bit too far. However, most of us do not get the opportunity to think what they believe are going to be their final thoughts or to actually feel their body shutting down systematically, much like a computer being shut off at the end of the work day.

There is a clarity that comes with it, almost a sense of freeing. However, that freeing changes when you become one of the lucky ones, someone who really did escape death.

“You’re not supposed to be here.”

I hear the words being spoken to me, but I do not understand why they are being said or who is saying them. I am in a hospital bed and the man is a doctor who I do not know, but who goes on to tell me I should be downstairs in the morgue.

I remember the couple who found my body and I sure as hell remember the pain level I felt when EMT’s arrived and began working on me. I remember my wife standing over me as they applied oxygen and an IV. I can recall their conversation with the ER while I was being transported, asking for permission to give me something for my pain. I remember begging them to find a gun and shoot me because the level was beyond anyone’s imagination.

Eighteen hours in the ER were not that much better. Nothing was working to stop my pain and I was in and out of it while one test after another was done. With each movement of my body came a reminder in my upper back that something seemed horribly wrong. Finally, I am injected with a new narcotic, one I can to this day still feel the warm sensation traveling through my veins and engulfing me in total self-satisfying delirium. Life is now wonderful.

Upstairs, the doctor explains the nature of my injuries. The snapping and torque placed on my neck should have been enough to paralyze me if not kill me. Instead, it just caused the strap of my bike helmet to slit me from ear to ear along my throat line.

The impact to my head cause bleeding behind my eyes, which was what made it impossible for me to see. It would clear up. There were bruise marks on my head in the pattern of my helmet and my right arm was numb enough all the way down my hand for me and the doctors to not notice I had a broken finger.

The muscles along the back of my skull were torn as was my right rib cage from the sternum, which temporarily moved the location of my right nipple toward my armpit. Scar tissue would help the healing. The bleeding in my chest was stopped and my lung was slowly re-inflating. I would be sore, but I would survive.

That was ten years ago, the first five spent in physical therapy being poked, prodded, and manipulated in ways I never asked for. Much of that time I was now an angrier and more depressed person than ever. Why? I keep wondering maybe I am brain damaged. After all, if you saw how the inside of my helmet shell was split in half from the impact, you’d think the same thing.

I would not be easy to live with as each day presented itself with a mild level of early morning pain only to leave me wanting nothing to do with anyone by day’s end. I was bothered by sounds, light, and most of all the constant pain in my upper back and back of my head. Still, I am told too often how lucky I am because I am alive. If only they knew what luck felt like.

For me, I am reminded of a former student of mine who died about the same time I had my accident and wonder why him and not me. I learn of another person, a local teacher I never met, who died from his injuries the same weekend I had my accident. Every time our community suffered a tragic loss, I would read their stories and learn about the impact they had on others and keep asking myself, “Why them and not me?”

Eventually, I would seek the help of a psychologist and talk about this and other stuff. I could always rationalize how random life is, but there was still the guilt of surviving something I was told too many times I should not have survived. I could laugh at some of the involuntary ways my body worked now, be thankful for all I had in my life, but still, in the back of my mind I would wonder am I damaged in such a way I can not be fixed.

Today, I worry about my memory, my short-term memory especially. I have read about brain injuries, CTE, and can’t help but think is there another painful consequence in store for me and others as a result of being lucky enough to have survived something that should have killed me. Worse, will I become a burden to someone?

It took me seven years to see a pain specialist because of my fear of narcotics. Today, I do not live with nearly as much pain as I use to have, but the side effects of some medications brings drowsiness so now I need caffeine to get through my day. My mind often races between thoughts and I do not know if this is the result of my head injury or the fact I have since retired from teaching and have too much time on my hands. I have to tell myself I will never know the answers to these questions while I am alive, but I just cannot get it out of my head that perhaps while I am lucky enough to have survived a horrifying accident, I may also be haunted by the changes that come with it.

At the end of the day, I do a reality check along with a body check. My aches and pains, memory lapses, and guilt are soothed knowing I am blessed to have the life I have. There is much love in my life, I am in excellent physical health, I am about to begin work for the local recreation department, and I look forward to the road ahead far more frequently that the tattered remains of what is now behind me.

It is true, what does not kill you makes you stronger. It makes you wiser as well. I really am lucky to have survived, not because I could have died, but because I have a greater appreciation for not just the pain I have experienced, but the pain of loss and grief others live with because someone they knew and loved was not so lucky.

Photos by Tim Forkes
Top photo: the secluded trail at Rancho Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve