These were some of my random thoughts as I huffed up the final pull toward the summit of Marias Pass. I was en route on my bicycle from West Glacier, Montana., to East Glacier on what was supposed to be a mellow seven to ten day circumnavigation of the Glacier/Waterton National Park complex. I was a mere half hour from completing these decisions when I was thrust into a cave.
Total darkness … no sound … no brakes screeching … no thud of my body smashing the sedan’s windshield … no noise as I went rolling and tumbling across 35 feet of asphalt and gravel. When I awoke in a ditch, a Good Samaritan was applying spinal traction to my neck. The peripheral vision from my left eye saw the drip, drip, drip of blood oozing from my nose. My right eye was swollen shut.
“What happened?” I asked weakly.
“You got rear-ended by a car. Don’t move!” she answered. She then called out, “He’s coming around. I’ll need some help here.”
I estimated I had checked out of planet Earth for five to ten minutes. First responders in civilian clothes assisted me as they poked and plodded my body and took primary and secondary surveys of my injuries.
“Can you move your feet? Can you wiggle them? Squeeze my hands. Are you having trouble breathing?”
The questions came fast and furious: I passed the tests with flying colors. My spinal column was not severed. I was alert enough to pick up a distinct British accent from the crowd gathering above me. I got his attention.
“Was it you who hit me?”
“Yes. I was sightseeing and looking at the mountains and drifted into you.”
I might have said a few choice words to him, but I don’t recall. I don’t remember much, although I remember he never said he was sorry.
An ambulance from Browning arrived and I was placed on an unforgiving backboard and cervical collar. We raced back to the ER with the emergency lights on and sirens blaring. It was a bumpy, rough ride as we careened down the pass and through a construction zone. A paramedic attempted two sticks to get an IV into me and failed both times.
“Please don’t stick me again. I hurt enough already. They can do that in the ER under better conditions. I promise I won’t die before then.”
“OK. We can hold off on it.”
At the ER, a doctor made her orders known. “He’ll need a CAT-Scan of his head. Get a set of X-rays for his neck, chest and spine. Set him up with an IV ASAP. We’ll need to monitor his vital signs.”
The nurses and technicians efficiently carried out her orders. I was then in the hurry-up-and-wait mode of emergency medicine. A nursing student gently dabbed the grit, grime and dried blood from my many facial wounds and multiple areas of road rash. I even had road rash on the tops of my feet. Apparently, the force of the impact literally knocked me out of my shoes.
The compassionate ER doctor came to my side to survey the carnage to my face. She held my hand as she said, “Those lacerations and avulsions will need the care of a plastic surgeon. I can stitch them for you, but they can do a better job. Would you like me to arrange a helicopter transport to Kalispell Regional Medical Center? We can have a plastic surgeon waiting for you.”
“Please do. I am not a handsome man to begin with and I can use all the help I can get.” With that sad news, I knew my Hollywood contract as George Clooney’s double would surely be terminated. Shucks!
“We’ll arrange it. The CAT-Scan of your head and brain came out with negative findings. That is a good thing. We are waiting now for the radiologist to evaluate your neck, chest and spine X-rays.”
“Thanks for all the help. Can I get off of this backboard? It is really beginning to hurt me. I’m OK. I can move all of my parts.”
“Please wait a few minutes until we get the radiologist report. This is all precautionary.”
“OK. I’ll try.” The pressure point where my head contacted the backboard was starting to throb.
A few minutes later, (which seemed much longer) the nice ER doctor came back. Once again she held my hand.
“I have bad news. The radiologist found 11 fractures in your first 11 vertebrae. You have a broken sternum, too. There will be a neurosurgeon waiting for you in Kalispell, also.”
“What? How can that be? I can move all of my parts. Are you sure those were my X-rays?”
“Yes, those were your X-rays. You will get the best of care in Kalispell. I have a special place in my heart for bicycle riders. My son was killed by a driver 20 years ago when he was riding a bike. We will take care of you.”
No wonder she was holding my hand.
The helicopter flight crew came and checked me out. “We will hold off on the morphine drip until we get you to Kalispell. Jeff, we are going to give you a scenic ride over Glacier National Park. I am sorry to say you won’t get a chance to enjoy the views.”
With little fanfare, I was loaded and airborne. They had placed painkillers in my IV, so I became groggy, blurry and disconnected. I remember taking a peek at the snowcapped mountains below. Alas, I would not get to enjoy my $11,000 taxi ride to Kalispell. This was all business.
Upon arrival to my second ER of the day, a plastic surgeon went to work on my tenderized face.
“I will try to stitch you to minimize the scarring. However, there will be some scarring no matter what.” All in all, 20 stitches were applied to my eyebrows and right cheek. When she was done she asked. “Would you like to see my work in a mirror?”
“Sure!” I steadied myself for the view. OMG! I was staring at a mini-version of Frankenstein. My mug was enough to make a child cry. Dating would truly be more challenging in my future.
It was time to get past the cosmetics. A large neurosurgeon with sandy-colored hair and a stoic bedside manner approached me. “We won’t be operating on you. With all of your breaks, we would not even know where to begin. Your spinal column is intact and not being impinged upon. We will place you in ICU and monitor your X-rays. We will hope there are no radical changes or shifts in your column. Now it is time for you to go on a morphine drip."
“One question please. What is my long term prognosis?”
“We don’t know. We don’t see many patients like you.”
“Why is that?”
“Because they are usually dead.”
I whispered a lame, “Oh!”
The next few days on the morphine drip were a haze of dreaming and snippets of reality thrown in. Concerned friends and family members phoned me. I have no recollection of the conversations. I do recall the nursing staff getting me up and out of bed. I even walked up a flight of steps under their watchful eyes.
Best of all, my older brother Mike arrived from New York City to take care of his “baby” brother. I wept shamelessly as he entered the room. He went on to prove once again why he is the best brother in the world.
Four days after the impact, I was discharged from the hospital. My post-discharge orders were written out and terse. “Do Not Remove the Brace!” It looked like sponge baths and partial shampoos would be my method of hygiene for awhile. Gross.
Mike and I began a 1,000-mile journey south to my old hometown of Fort Collins, Colorado. He drove and I navigated. The plan was for me to get a second opinion from another neurosurgeon in the "Choice City." I also was offered a place to stay in order to convalesce in familiar surroundings.
I told Mike a few times: “I always wanted to take a road trip with you, but this is not what I had in mind.”
Eight days after the accident, Mike and I listened to neurosurgeon number two, a no-nonsense, no-sugar-coating doctor who calls it like he sees it. He does not believe in small-talk. I suppose after 35 years in the game, he has that right.
“Your vertebrae fractures are mild. You do have a definite broken sternum. I believe you will heal OK. We will take another set of X-rays in a few weeks to see if there are any changes. I doubt there will be. I’ll see you again in three weeks.”
In my former life, I worked for 28 years as a firefighter/EMT for the city of Fort Collins. In emergency services, the term “mechanism of injury” is bandied about to predict the outcome of an accident.
A small, 138-pound man being struck from behind by a sedan traveling at more than 50 mph is an obvious assault upon the body. Humans are not wired to survive such an ordeal. During my career, I went on calls for three similar bicycle accidents. For those unfortunate victims, there was no tomorrow. The one and only thing that separated me from them was my use of a bicycle helmet.
Now in Fort Collins, I meet former lovers, friends and acquaintances on the street. I smile grandly as I maneuver in to hug them. If the hug lingers long enough, I usually score a life affirming squeeze at the end. I make sure to pay back that squeeze in kind.
Second chances in life are precious. I do not wish to squander this one.
Yes, that personal calamity led to this. See Photo Two.
My advice to you; figure out what's important in your life. Try and follow those trails where the final destination is happiness. That's my IPA philosophy in simple terms.
Photo Three. Do you think I should replace Barley the Van with this?
Cheers! I'm back on the road in Barley the Van.
Bighorn Mountains here we come!
I'm beginning a two month roll around the West. This ought to be a good one.
Please look in to see America the Beautiful on this blog.