Today is the second anniversary of my bicycle accident, my broken bones, and my bleeding brain. Last year, we made a big deal of it: we were home from the hospital and from therapy, I was working, and my brain was sidling up to normal. The girls played hooky and we had dinner and passed around gifts. It’s not every day that the reaper knocks on the front door and you ignore him. This year we’re doing the same under lockdown.
On May 17, 2018, I was scheduled to race my bicycle in the South Carolina Masters 10-Mile Time Trial. I love time trialing. It’s you and your bike and your pain. That’s it. At a certain level, most riders will be in about the same condition. Some are more muscular and some are leaner but if you can take the pain of pushing harder than the other guy, there’s a good chance you’ll stand on the podium. My times were competitive and I was confident that if I worked hard enough to puke at the finish line, I could go home proud, winner or not.
I came home from work on the day before the race to an empty house. I saw a note that Mal took the girls to work and they would be home at 6:30. If I were on the bike by 5:30, I thought, I had an hour to stretch my legs and do an easy 25 miler. My plan was to ride and then have a nice dinner with the family before soaking in the tub. I would get an extra hour of sleep and stretch in the morning.
Unlike bike-friendly Washington where I’m from, there is no side-of-the-road where I live in South Carolina. There is the road, made of noisy, rough gravel, punished and tarred into a flat surface under 100-degree heat, with a white line painted on the furthest edge, then grass or a ditch. I assume I was doing twenty-five mph, threading the white line. That was a normal ride. I say ‘assume’ because my brain blanked out and I have no memory of the accident. I’m told this is normal: when the body is injured – the doctor who admitted me called me ‘a crumpled shell of a man’ – the brain focuses on keeping the body alive and quits using energy to record what’s happening.
I was about four miles from home on an out-and-back ride, and, per the police report, a car came behind me at 60 mph, barley over the rural speed limit. The driver, a young man, said he turned to look in the back, sliding his hand over the seats, looking for a sandwich. When he looked up, I was in front of him. Instantaneously. He hit me on the left side, throwing me and my bike off the road into the grassy side. I landed a hundred feet out like a pike on my right shoulder and head. My bike collapsed into a mess of spokes and broken framing and bulldozed through fifty feet of weeds. The welds snapped and pieces I didn’t know could bend snapped in half. Emergency personnel discovered me crumpled like an accordion, unconscious with a bleeding brain.
My right collarbone snapped and overlapped by three inches. The impact of the car crushed my left ankle. X-rays showed that my left leg, below the knee, broke in two places, and I had a stress fracture in my lower back from impact with the ground. Six teeth shattered. My brain, hit hard on the right side, was bleeding on the left in my frontal and temporal lobes where it smashed hard against the inside of my skull.
At The Hospital
My wife, driving home from work with the girls, wondered why I kept calling, but it was emergency people, searching through my phone. She was minutes from home and didn’t answer, knowing she would see me shortly to take care of whatever I needed. She is input in the phone as Wife-Malinda for this exact reason, so she is easy to find. I never imagined anyone would search for her. She pulled into our driveway when one of my older daughters called.
“Mal,” she said, her voice a warble. “You need to get to the hospital. A car hit Dad on his bike, and they’re prepping him for surgery.”
She spun the car around and started for the hospital, blurred and worried and not knowing what she would find. On the way, she kept wondering. “What if he dies? What if he’s so bad we can’t bear it?” She turned around and dropped the girls off with a neighbor, not yet ready for that conversation.
On her way now, without the girls, my manager at work called. He had heard the news. “I’ll meet you at the hospital,” he said. When my wife arrived, I was in surgery, and no word was available about my condition. Finally, the hospital chaplain saw them, but still knew nothing and couldn’t get a word from the surgeon. I was too beat to make any prediction. I wasn’t breathing on my own, and no one was saying if or how I would recover.
Finally, the surgeon came into the waiting area. He took my wife’s hands and looked at her with a sober face. “In 48 hours, we’ll know which way this goes.”
My wife, cute and tiny, is made of steel and wants the truth.
“By which way this goes, what do you mean? That he lives or dies?”
“That’s about it.”
That night, at home, when the girls were in bed, Mal had her moment in the shower. She broke down, then caught herself. “I can’t act like this,” she thought, crying with hot water raining on her. “The girls need me. Dennis wants me to be strong for them. I have got to pull myself together.” I hope our twins grow up with the same character.
Out of the shower, she called each of the older kids to tell them what happened and how I was. In each case, they got the message, put down the phone, and got on a plane or in a car. Within a couple of days, each one was at our home. My wife’s brother and sister-in-law came out from Seattle, too. Family who showed up saw it as their job to keep the house running and allow my wife as much time with me as she could afford. I can’t say enough to express how blessed I feel about this.
I spent a month at our local hospital, on life support for two weeks. There are a lot of mysteries about my entire recovery, but one of the first came when nurses walked into my room and I was sitting up without life support. They guess I heard something of their plans and pulled my intubation tube to save them the trouble. I was in and out of consciousness for a month. Mal said that when I was awake, I was chatty and funny. We would watch the Braves or she would read to me until I got tired and went out again for two or three days.
Weirdly, I woke up in the parking lot of the Shepherd Brain and Spine Center in Atlanta. I knew about my accident but wondered why my parents hadn’t called. I asked Mal to be sure to call my mom and give her my room phone number. She agreed, knowing what I forgot: my Dad died thirteen years earlier, and my mom died a summer ago. I forgot that we were married, too. When I asked her, she laughed. “Don’t you remember me dressed in my wedding dress, pulling the church bell. Don’t you remember laughing about it, unsure if I were sounding an alarm or celebrating? All my memories of our wedding came back, like fixing the first connection of a spider’s nest. With her words, everything came back: the wedding, our dance, our friends having dinner, and my dad’s pasty makeup. This pattern became common and I would wait for it like a drug. With one word, one reminder, everything about what we were talking about would come back to me, like floodwaters spilled from a dam.
Therapists at Shepherd started calling me the Miracle Man and I take no credit for it. Their first assessment of my condition was that I would probably walk in two to three years. I walked in a month and was running the next month. Well, I call it running, but it was more of an old man fast shuffle.
Steps To Recovery
When I talk about the experience and my recovery, I always make four points:
The first is that I remember wheeling into the day room at Shepherd on my second or third day there. A patient – an older guy I became friends with – was arguing with a therapist who asked him if he wanted to try standing. “What’s wrong with you. I haven’t walked for months. Heck, I haven’t stood for a year!”
The therapist wore a thin smile, trying to keep the moment cheery.
“But you‘re doing so well,” she said, “I thought you might give it a try?”
“I’m not doing well, and I don’t want to give it a try.”
I decided right there, watching him, that I would do anything a therapist asked of me, and then do it five times again at night, in my room.
I knew too, that I raced bicycles and was in excellent condition when I was hit. That had to swing the pendulum in my favor.
Another thing that keeps coming back to me is more ethereal, more mysterious. It wasn’t anything I did, and nothing I even understood at the time, but it dawned on me, later. It’s a mindset, an attitude. I wasn’t arrogant about it and I never pounded my fist on the table declaring that I WILL DO THIS, but, and this is weird, but it never occurred to me, never once, that I might not walk again. Or work. Or ride my bike. It’s a mystery, but I’m convinced that somehow this mindset moved my body in a specific direction.
My wife has her opinion, too. When we talk about my recovery, she points her finger inches from my nose and says, “You listen to me, buddy. Don’t you ever forget that four states, probably thirteen churches, and maybe eight-hundred people prayed for you every day, around the clock.”
I don’t argue. My exit doctor at Shepherd, shaking his head going over my final test results, kept telling me that, when I get home, I have got to see the surgeons who worked on me. The way he talked, the way he shook his head, I was going and was taking my attorney with me.
Finally, he said, “Dennis? I’ve been doing this for thirty years and I’ve never seen anything like it. Those people? The doctors and nurses who worked on you? Go see them.” He dropped his head and looked at me over his glasses, serious like. “When I look at these results? This isn’t medicine. This is magic. I don’t know what they did, but you should talk to them. Thank them. These people are magicians.”
What can anyone say except that I’m humbled and thankful and, it’s a little corny, but, full of love.
My anniversary is a celebration of my family, too. We all worked hard. They moved to Atlanta and met me every morning at the hospital for breakfast, and spent most days there, walking through my therapies. I joke and tell my wife I had a great time in the hospital, mostly comatose and happy. She got the short end of that stick, worrying that the next phone call might be the one.
I had one night-nurse I was a little scared of. Kind of a no-nonsense woman, I imaged her benching 400 pounds to let off a little steam. When she talked, I listened. On the last night I was there, she came into my room about ten to check my machines. She did a pirouette and came close to me.
“Let me tell you something,” she said. “Those girls of yours? The twins? I ain’t never seen better mannered kids than those two. Whatever you and your wife are doing, you keep it up.”
I nodded, a little scared.
“And your wife? I been here a long time and I’m telling you. I never seen love like that. That woman is made of steel and she’ll go to war for you. If I ever hear of you giving her a hard time you’re going to have to deal with me. You understand?”
“Yes ma’am,” I said, in my most contrite voice.