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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Baby Steps

Warning: if you read this blog for the lighthearted humorous stories of frivolous adventures on a bike, don't read any further. This is a different type of prose.   

The secret to happiness is low expectations.

For someone who just a few months ago, wouldn't have to think twice about doing a 200 mile bike ride with 20,000 feet of climbing and 70% dirt roads, it's been a real adjustment to find myself seriously challenged by a walk around the block. But this is my current reality. On September 8, I was out for a short bike ride, when I was hit from behind by a truck. The resulting spine fracture was stabilized with surgery. My latest x-rays now feature lots of rods, plates and screws in various parts of my body. I am quite thankful to the deputies and paramedics who were first on the scene, as well as the surgeon that I am still able to wiggle my toes and attempt that walk around the block. Every time my pain level spikes to 10, I do remind myself that I'm lucky that I can even feel the pain.

I don't know whether it's a result of massive data-mining of internet-fueled instant news and social media, or if we really are experiencing an epidemic of distracted, inattentive, careless, narcissistic driving; but my daily newsfeed (twitter, facebook and more traditional sources of news) has been filled with stories of way too many cyclists being run down and severely injured or killed in easily preventable circumstances - i.e. if folks would just drive as if it matters. If they would just realize that they are supposed to share the road with others, whether it is motor vehicles, pedestrians, cyclists, etc; if they would think about how lethal their 2 plus ton car can be in any collision; if they cared about their fellow human beings enough to slow down, pay attention and share the road; there might be fewer of these devastating stories.

I may not be physically paralyzed, but I am becoming so paralyzed by fear that I may not be able to get back on my bike when the physical impediments to do so are gone. As someone who defines herself as a cyclist first, this is beyond life-altering.

In the past few weeks, I have heard from too many friends, who have gone through a similar life-altering experience. Too many people have reached out to me both publicly and privately with tragically familiar tales. But I will lean on them for help to overcome my fear. I will look to them for advice on how to come back, while knowing so personally and intimately the risks and consequences.

Cycling has always been my outlet for stress, but it's not just an outlet. I define myself as cyclist first and foremost, and if I can't reclaim that state of being, this distracted driver who ran me down on September 8 will have robbed me of my identity. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

2013 has not been a good year

Fear Rothar often teases me about my totally irrational superstitions, most notably my rule that no one can discuss the weather during a bike ride, since merely by mentioning that things could get worse, things do get worse. 

I really am a logical scientific person, and I know that when a cycling companion says something foolhardy like, "At least it's not raining," that he or she doesn't really cause the heavens to open up on cue. But it's fun to have someone to blame when weather conditions get worse, right after said rule violation!

Now despite having this no-weather-talk-while-on-a-bike rule, I really don't subscribe to superstitions. I don't have lucky or unlucky socks. I don't have a lucky ritual to do before races. And I don't panic when I draw the number 13 as my race number.

But I've got to admit that 2013 is really shaping up to be my unlucky year, and while I'm not one to wish my life away, I will be happy when 2014 arrives. 

Just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean that no one is really following me.

Friends and regular blog readers know that in June, near the end of a long ride, I was hit by a cyclist who was riding on the wrong side of the road at the time, resulting in a broken collarbone for me. I had surgery to insert a stabilizing plate and 6 screws. While I was well below my usual level of fitness and endurance, I was able to get back on my bike just a few weeks after the surgery. Green Mountain Double Century, an event that had been a major goal for me this year, went on without me, just a few days after my surgery. But I refused to skip the other big events on my summer schedule, despite knowing I would be quite slow. The randonneur in me said not to worry about speed on the rides, but be persistent, step up to the enhanced challenge and don't quit.

And as anyone could have predicted, Newton's Revenge was a disaster from the performance point of view, but I did get myself all the way to the finish line. And this gave me the motivation I needed to get back to more normal riding, possibly even bordering on training!

In addition to the loss of fitness,  I now have nerves of jello. Everything, and I do mean everything, spooked me at first, especially blind corners, where I could no longer trust that I wouldn't encounter another out of control cyclist on the wrong side of the road. And because the doctor's orders were to do whatever I was comfortable with, just don't fall, I became overly cautious on dirt and descents. Given that, I was often the last one to finish many events, and I was rarely able to ride with others since they'd have to wait after I inched my way down a hill. At D2R2, my friend Susan showed incredible patience, waiting for me or riding slowly, so we could do the ride together. 

This is not to say that I was a jittery or unpredictable cyclist. I've always ridden in a careful and legal manner, stopping for red lights and stop signs, giving proper hand signals before making turns, and I continue to do this. But this summer, I've just been slower on descents, and using even more care when making blind turns, always on the lookout for the wrong-way cyclist.

Over the summer I had many discussions with people about how lucky I was. It could have been much worse. My desire to keep a positive outlook had overridden my superstition about speaking aloud what could be worse.

As the summer wore on, things were getting better, if not yet back to normal. I had another appointment with the surgeon to review x-rays on the Tuesday after Labor Day. The collarbone has mostly healed, but a small gap was still visible on the x-ray. It was exactly as he expected it to be. My activities had not affected the healing. Come back in three months.

The next day I flew down to NC to help my father move from a retirement community into assisted living. He's been having some issues recently that necessitated this move. I had a very busy few days, as I got him packed up and moved from one place to the other on Thursday. I then stayed overnight with him to help him settle in. Saturday afternoon, I slipped out for a very brief mind-clearing bike ride. Riding for me is absolutely therapeutic. It almost always takes the stress away. After almost a week off the bike, that very brief outing was mind-clearing and it was as if I hit the reset button on my fatigue. 

Sunday morning, I decided I would go for another quick mental-health spin before going over to spend the afternoon with my dad. I had downloaded a route that started very near my cousin's house where I stay when I am in NC. The route covered some roads I'd been on before and added some new ones. It was a figure 8, which meant I could just do the bottom half to keep the distance down.  The morning was delightful, and the roads were relatively quiet. I was enjoying the rhythm of riding my wee simple fixie in gently rolling terrain. 

And then I wasn't...

The next thing that I remember is being in the hospital as a spine surgeon explained to me that I had a burst fracture of the T11 vertebra along with lots of other fractures in the spine and ribs. He explained the surgery that he would perform to stabilize the area, and all the risks. I don't know whether I was still in shock, or the brain really works overtime to protect us from traumatic memories. For some reason I was holding my phone, so I snapped a selfie, which I posted to facebook, saying I was headed off to surgery!

I am pretty amazed that I was able to do that. Must have been some pretty good pain meds or something. 

The patrolman who was at the hospital told us that I had been hit from behind by a big pickup truck. He gave a form with the driver's insurance  to my cousin. I haven't been able to get the accident report yet, so I'm still unclear on many details. Apparently, it takes 10 days to produce. I am going to try to contact the Sheriff's office tomorrow to see if I can get any more info. 

To date, we have slowly pieced together enough info to determine that I was conscious and responsive for much of the time at the scene, but I have no memory of the time from when I was hit until just before I signed the surgical consent form.  I'm not sure who called 911, but apparently I was lucid enough to tell someone how to unlock my phone and find my cousin Tommy's phone number, my local emergency contact. We found the call to Tommy in my phone log!

The officer who called asked Tommy to come pick up my bike. He also told Tommy that I was being transported to Duke Hospital. 

Tommy was given an address about 7 miles into my route on a quiet rural road. After loading up my broken bike, Tommy then helped the driver change his flat tire, which he claimed had blown out before he lost control and hit me. 

In the meantime, Tommy's wife, Bennie, and daughter, Debbie, headed to the hospital to check on me. They were there when I was told my back was broken and they were taking me to surgery. This is where my memory begins. Debbie phoned Fear Rothar to break the news. A little while later, the surgeon phoned
Fear Rothar again to give him the surgical details. He used my phone for this, and then handed it back to me, which must be when I took the selfie and posted to FB.

I had to have been pretty well in shock and numb at that stage to have been able to post. I also had no idea how bad the situation was or could have been. The T11 vertebra had a burst rupture, which means parts of bone flew into the spinal canal, and I was pretty damn lucky not to be paralyzed

Bennie and Debbie waited until I got out of surgery. They were at the hospital for about 13 hours. My father and I are truly blessed to have Tommy, Bennie and Debbie in our lives. I simply can't express my gratitude enough for all they have done for us. 

The surgeon fused the broken vertebrae above and below and put in rods and screws to stabilize the back. I am still learning and struggling with how to get in and out of bed now. The pain is through the roof at times, mostly when I move or lie on my back. 

The doctors and nurses kept asking me, on a scale of 1 to 10, how bad is your pain. I never got the chance to fully explain that this pain scale was a whole new one for me. My worst pain in the past would merely rank as a one on this new scale!
 
I also have many fractured ribs and a very sore throat from being intubated. Despite falling on the left, I did no damage to my shoulder and collarbone, but I do have some nice technicolor bruises and road rash on my shoulder, arm, bottom and leg. My elbow is still quite sore, and I cannot roll over onto the left side at all.

I had some very low moments over the next few days. My father was having a really rough time adjusting to his new home (the reason for my trip) and I had a hard time getting his schedule and drugs properly set up. My memory was unreliable at times, so I could never remember who I'd talked to, but I did my best to manage his care from my hospital bed. I must say the folks at Duke Hospice have been a tremendous gift for me, as they have helped me navigate through the regulations at the new assisted living community. I had originally hesitated to let Daddy enroll in hospice because that step made real the end of life battle he was facing. But it seems the people who work for hospice are motivated to help both the patient and his family, and their compassion has really been the bright spot in my father's battle with cancer and dementia.


The days I spent in the hospital are a blur that moved along at a snail's pace. I don't know what happened when or who I told what, but I did learn an awful lot about the broken system there, that required me to tell everyone what hurts and to constantly ask for meds! Seriously I would tell the doctor something hurt. S/he would order a medication, with directions to take as needed. The meds would arrive, but the nurses wouldn't give them to me unless I specifically asked, since it was ordered as needed. But I didn't know what had been ordered, or that it was now available, so I didn't know to ask for it. This happened multiple times until I finally learned the system. I'm sure that everyone got tired of me telling them what hurt and asking them constantly what medication was newly available to help.

Randonneurring has trained me well for the endurance event I am now undertaking. Aim for a big end goal, but don't get overwhelmed by its size. Take baby steps. Break things down into smaller, achievable goals.  Patience and perseverance will get me to the end. And there will be suffering, so just toughen up - as they say. 

Despite the considerable pain; the emails, phone calls, in-person visits, flowers and gifts that I received were my highlights. I'm not the mushy or sentimental type and at first I asked Fear Rothar to take the flowers to the children's ward, but I quickly came to appreciate their healing powers. This is not an appeal to send me more flowers! I just wanted to say thank you to everyone for all the positive energy, emails, phone calls, visits, flowers and gifts, etc that continue to reach me. It means so much to me that I have such caring friends.


Saturday, 6 days after the crash, my cousin Rose came to the hospital to drive Fear Rothar and me to my temporary home in Durham. I'm still having a rough time, sleeping is very difficult, and the pain meds just don't seem to be strong enough. 

But I'm taking those baby steps. Fear Rothar removed the dressing on Sunday and I finally had a shower, exactly one week after the crash. That shower was spiritual. He then reapplied the dressing and gently applied antibiotic ointment to my road rash. As an independent person who doesn't like asking for help, it has been very challenging to let go and lean on others.

For any who have had surgery with anesthesia or taken lots of pain meds, you can relate to my other big milestone, for which I will spare my gentle readers the gory details. I have joked in the past about people who use social media to share every minute detail of their lives, including the achievement of that particular event. But wait, I did actually tweet about it, but I tried to be subtle. I said that my eyes had changed color from brown back to blue!  This daily goal is going to remain an ongoing challenge for as long as I'm on pain pills. But I'll spare my friends and readers the daily updates.

This post has taken several days to write - partly due to emotion, partly due to lack of ability to concentrate, and partly due to the extreme pain. 

Now that I'm out of the hospital, I'm hoping to get a lift over to visit my dad at his new place soon and then if I can tolerate it, fly back to Boston before the end of the week, where I can convalesce at home. 

I should have plenty of time in coming months to catch up on some reviews and equipment posts and such. So even though I won't be riding outside for a long time, I hope to post some interesting content on the blog. Despite posts on the blog coming in fits and starts for most of this summer, they really should be more regular in the coming months.   

So that's the all news from Lake Wobegon, which is the attitude I am trying to take - woes be gone.