Life Lesson from a Bike Accident

photo of senior using a walker, presumable after a biking injury

By STEVE NELSON

(SENIOR WIRE) The unmistakable sound of helicopter blades chopping through the air aroused me. Disorientation made it impossible to imagine why either I or the helicopter were in this particular place.

I had a large gap in my memory between leaving my home on my mountain bike on July 24 and lying in a helicopter later that same day. Others have pieced the story together for me.

I had evidently crashed while riding the “jump” line at the local single track trails. I’ve ridden that trail and “hit” that jump more than 1,000 times. Apparently not so successfully this time.

I learned that another rider found me unconscious and unresponsive at the bottom of the jump. He had the good judgment not to touch me and to call 911. I was taken by the local fire department to a nearby parking lot where a helicopter from the area trauma unit picked me up.

I don’t report this accident to be sensational or to elicit sympathy. The facts are as follows: After my short helicopter ride, I arrived at the emergency room at the trauma center and learned from a MRI and CAT scan that I had broken my neck in three places, fractured my left hip, and broken three ribs.

Oddly, I had no pain and was fully alert and lucid, at least as lucid as I ever am. I was fortunate that a skilled neurosurgeon was on call and scheduled surgery within two hours.

He repaired my broken vertebrae with a combination of metal parts and newfangled disc material. I learned that I was lucky. Had the break been a mere inch further up my spine I probably would not have lived.

We all know, but seldom experience, the fact that life can change in the blink of an eye. Mine did. On a sunny afternoon I was transformed from a carelessly athletic 73 year old to a man who could barely move his fingers and toes.

Compared with many who suffer a spinal cord injury, my prognosis is quite good. After one month in rehab and two weeks at home, I’m on my feet with a walker and am gradually gaining some functional use of both arms. It is not possible or, frankly, important to know the full range of possibilities for my recovery. I’m alive—and thank my lucky stars every day.

I recall my surgeon telling me, while I was in the early stages of recovery from surgery, that I would recover well if not fully but that I would at some point be “depressed.” After this somewhat cumbersome introduction, I’ll get to the point.

I haven’t experienced even a flicker of depression. It may be my capacity for denial or my lifelong cheerful outlook kicking in to my benefit. But I think it’s more than that.

As I lay in bed during the first terrifying nights of recovery, unable to move my hands to even reach the call bell on my hospital bed, I didn’t feel sorry for myself, because, in part, I knew this was a temporary state. Instead I thought of Stephen Hawking who lived a life of powerful meaning in state far more limited.

I watched CNN nonstop to keep my mind occupied and witnessed the unspeakable suffering of coronavirus patients on ventilators with family members enduring the torture of knowing a loved one might slip away without a final embrace.

I began thinking of what I might have lost during that blink of an eye. I realized I’d never play the violin again. But rather than grieving, I reflected on the amazing experiences I’ve had in music. Most people eventually give up things they love. It just happened to me in an instant. Instead of mourning the probable loss of risky mountain bike rides, I reflected on all physical thrills I’ve had right up to age 73. Who deserves more than that?

Just yesterday I managed to walk three circles of the downstairs of our house holding onto a walker with my spindly arms, striding as awkwardly as a 10-month-old baby’s first steps. In its own way it was as satisfying as finishing the first 10K race I ran in 1978.

Most of all, I’ve learned that the loves I have in my life are not only undiminished, put more vivid and powerful from this perspective. My wife has been heroic, my children feel closer than ever before, and every moment with my grandchildren, even in their surgical masks, is magical.

I think about the selfless and remarkable people who cared for me with tenderness, love and abundant good humor during my five weeks in the hospital. This happens all around us every day, but we seldom see it.

During my time in rehab I began to feel a sense of community with the nursing staff, physicians, cleaning staff, and therapists on the unit. Although I never went to summer camp, when I was discharged it felt like I imagine children feel after leaving a summer camp that seemed so strange and fearsome at first and then became their home. (Not that I’m eager to go back!)

Perspective is everything. MSN