Today – September 18 – is my good friend Ryan’s birthday. I have known and acknowledged this for 20 years now without a calendar reminder.
But as Ryan celebrated his 33rd birthday on September 18, 2007, his well-wishes from me were missing for the first time in 17 years. Sure, we’d had our ups-and-downs, as most long-term friendships do. But I never miss a birthday (or the chance to relish in the fact that Ryan is 2.5 months older than me). I got my birthday message out to him a couple of weeks late, along with an apology and explanation:
On the morning of September 18, Greg and I were set to leave Emerald Isle, NC where we had been visiting his family for a long weekend. I woke up early that morning to go on a quick bike ride before spending the rest of the day traveling cross-country back home.
We’d had a fair amount to drink the night before, so waking up at 6 AM was not an easy thing for a lot of reasons. However, we’d rented the bikes and I knew it would be a long day of sitting, so I went. Greg heard me rustling around but didn’t get up with me; I figured he’d rally and get a late start.
I went 16 miles out and turned around. I was so glad I’d made the decision to get up. It was a beautiful morning! On my return trip, I kept looking for Greg, assuming he was right on my heels. We’d gotten into an argument the night before, and I’d almost forgotten about being mad at him with all that fresh air coursing through me. I was really clipping along, racing myself for a negative split back to the hotel. As I got closer to where the resorts were, I moved off the road and onto the bike path that ran parallel.
I was a couple of blocks from the hotel. As I was getting ready to cross a road that led to the driveway into a small strip mall, I saw a white pickup – a Ford F-150 perhaps – pulling out of the driveway.
I knew he didn’t see me. He wouldn’t have pulled out if he had seen me. I looked down at my speedometer: 19 miles per hour.
I am bad with spatial awareness, so I’m going to guess that I had 50 yards to make a move at this point. I actually sped up, hoping against hope that he would be slowing to stop for the traffic light and I’d be able to get in front of him.
I was wrong.
I slammed squarely into the side of that white pickup. I really expected to find myself on the other side of it, having been launched over. Nope. I hit the truck and then hit the ground. I wasn’t knocked out, thank goodness!
I sat up as the driver, a young man, rushed over to me. I was able to sit up, but things didn’t feel great (not that I expected them to). I did a quick assessment of things and remember feeling grateful that I was able to do this. I wanted to untangle my legs from the bike so we could see what we needed to do in order to still make the flight home. This is literally the first thought going through my head: I’ve got to leave on an airplane in three hours.
As I lifted my left leg to move it over, my thigh and knee went one direction and my calf and foot went the other. My foot was not going the same direction as my calf. OH FUCK. Still, I’m thinking: Broken leg. People break their legs everyday. This should be pretty quick if we can just get to the emergency room.
So, I gingerly put my left hand on the outside of my left leg and my right hand on the inside of my left leg in an effort to “straighten” things out (and so that I wouldn’t create a compound fracture that I luckily did not have to begin with) and laid it on the ground. I pointed my finger at the driver and said, “Call 911. My leg is very broken. Do not let them touch my leg.”
Another car had come upon the scene now, two women. They asked what they could do. One got a blanket out to keep me warm. I asked if they could call Greg. Naturally, I had left the hotel without my phone, or ID, or room key, or water, or anything. THANK GOODNESS I was not unconscious. I would have arrived at the hospital as Jane Doe and caused even more undue worry for a lot of people. Greg arrived just after the ambulance did. I kept fussing with him about packing up all our stuff and the travel arrangements. “Make sure you get my bathing suit that’s hanging in the shower!” “Don’t forget to turn our bikes in to the rental shop!”
I kind of lost it from there, I think. Shock is good like that. I remember certain things and not a lot of others. I remember shivering in the ambulance, terrified of when it would start hurting. They couldn’t get an IV started because I was so dehydrated. Do you recall all that drinking we’d done the night before? Add on a 32-mile bike ride and my veins were collapsed. Not awesome.
I remember being grateful that I wasn’t dead. No matter how bad it hurt, I wasn’t dead.
They took me to the small hospital outside of town. Still no drugs. When Greg tells the story, he remembers standing outside the radiology department listening to my screams that sounded like a concentration camp victim. They had to move my leg around in a lot of positions to get the right pictures. I remember knowing this was excruciating, but I can’t recall the pain now. Next thing I know, they’re telling us that I have to go to the trauma center in Greenville, NC because my injuries are too extensive for them to treat: my tibia and fibula were in a zillion pieces, my left collarbone was broken, and my right wrist was severely fractured (but not broken clear through). I was fortunate to not have any back, neck, or head injuries.
We arrived in Greenville and all I remember is being told I’d be going into surgery immediately. By this time, I had drugs – a blissful morphine drip! – and was barely conscious. I woke up the next day and I hadn’t had surgery. The surgeon had a more pressing case come in (a broken pelvis is life-threatening, in case you didn’t know). They moved me upstairs to a room that afternoon. I was told for three days that I would be having surgery in the morning/in the evening/in the morning/in the evening. I had to have sponge baths every evening and every afternoon as pre-surgery procedure. This meant more jostling of my leg every time. And every time, no surgery. I was miserable.
Greg was there with me, as were his parents. They travel in an RV, so we were able to save on hotel and dining expenses that way. They would come to visit me everyday; Greg was the first to arrive every morning and the last to leave. The nurses allowed him to stay beyond visiting hours. I had my computer, so he was corresponding with my family, friends, and work about my condition. He would snuggle in bed with me and we’d watch a Netflix Play Instantly movie until I drifted back into my drug-induced sleep. The argument was long-forgotten by now!
Finally, I had surgery on the fourth day – Friday. I woke up with my leg in external fixation and my wrist in a cast. They gave me a brace for my collarbone. Just being put back together put a whole new shine on the world. The occupational therapist arrived and taught me how to use my brand new walker. My wonderful nurse Elizabeth washed my hair, and I shimmied into the one skirt I had brought along on this trip – the only thing that would go around the behemoth that was my leg.
The trip home was memorable. The ONE TIME I get to fly first class, and I can’t eat or drink anything because I can’t maneuver to go to the bathroom! Greg was a hero: carrying me aboard and off the planes, going into the family bathrooms with me to help me do my business, arranging with the porters for the wheelchairs. Pete met us at the airport with the wheelchair he had rented for me. My mother had arrived at SFO an hour before us and waited for our arrival. She had come to care for me for a week. Then Sarah came for a week. Then my sister for a week. Then my mom for a final week. We were spoiled.
A week later, I had a second surgery to put all the metal on the inside of my leg, where one plate and nine screws stayed for a year on my tibia and a second plate and seven screws will stay forever (hopefully) on my fibula.I went to a wonderful chiropractor that was able to reduce the distance in the break of my collarbone by about one-third before the callous started to form. My wrist healed within about four weeks. As soon as I was able to work with my upper body, I was back at Pilates. As soon as the cast came off my leg and I was in a boot (mid-November), I was in the therapy pool doing my own work. I was never prescribed physical therapy for any of my injuries. I was very motivated to heal quickly, and I did.
On January 18, my doctor told me I didn’t have to wear the boot anymore. I was healed enough to walk unassisted. I had gone from a wheelchair or walker to crutches to a boot to freedom in four months. That day, I rode my bike 15 miles on Canada Road. I was able to start running in May 2008, which was quite painful in the beginning. Now, running hurts less than it did before the accident.
I have overcome these physical hurdles, which were significant. But more than that, I was able to defeat the mental thieves who wanted to steal every positive moment with more pain or setbacks. There were a lot of scary things about the accident, the diagnosis – what if they tell me I’ll never walk again? – and the recovery. I had wonderful support from friends and family that helped tremendously, as well as my own special relationship with fear. That helped a lot, too. While I wouldn’t wish this kind of accident on anyone, I learned a lot about myself and other people in the process:
- Greg can and will take care of me, and I am capable of letting him. This revelation was huge for me. I believe wholeheartedly that we would not be married if this accident hadn’t happened to reveal this.
- When you’re hurt, the one person you want to comfort you is your mom. Don’t worry, she wants to be that person, too.
- Now when I’m on my bike, I assume cars do not see me. I take every precaution with the assumption that the driver does not see me.
- Never leave the house without identification. I purchased RoadIDs for me and Greg and we never run or ride without them!
- When I need help, I will ask for and accept others’ offers. I know it is as much a gift to them to give it as it is for me to receive it. I offer my own help willingly.
- If your walker doesn’t have the tennis balls on the legs, the stoppers get caught on the floor and it’s dangerous. Also, it’s hard for your dog to understand why his tennis balls are on the legs of your walker. It’s a cruel joke.
- Good friends will forgive you if you miss their birthdays, especially with an excuse as tight as this one. HAPPY BIRTHDAY, RYAN!
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