Saturday, May 2, 2009

If You Loved Me You Would Where A Helmet

Pain in the Neck
Andy White - fyxomatosis

I can remember leaving the “pain room” after another training session on the rollers and my coach mentioning something about my front wheel being loose. If I had stopped and checked the bearings and quick release I could have avoided the life changing, close to death experience I was put through—but I didn’t and so here it is.

The details of the ride are boring. Glorious day, training ride before track racing that night and I was as fit as I had ever been. I’d done the whole climb faster than ever, in a really big gear. Within the last stretch of the climb after doing it all seated I rose out of the saddle to speed over the last pinch.

That “rise” was my fall. Between heartbeats I had landed on my head, shook my brain and was laying flat on my back. My heart was already racing from the physical effort, but now my mind raced, “I’ve broken my neck.” I knew that moving was a bad idea, but I was alone, on a country back road. Cars come every other hour. I had more chance of being rescued by a mob of kangaroos. I wiggled my toes. “Thank fuck!”’ They were working. It occurred to me I hadn’t broken my neck, but my assumption was VERY poor. I had broken my neck and was millimeters from impinging on my spinal cord. Still lying on the ground I reached into my jersey pocket, pulled out my phone and dialed. No reception.

I looked up at the bright blue sky and clouds floated on by. What to do? I knew moving was a bad idea, but I didn’t seem to have an alternative. I slowly picked myself up. I looked at my bike. The front wheel had come out. I put it back in and walked a mile to the main road where I gingerly sat down. The wind had picked up, the clouds covered the sky and the sweat had cooled on my back. I shivered by the side of the road trying to call home. In my time between calls I tried to move my neck. I can’t believe that I would do such a stupid act. My neck was so stiff that I couldn’t move it at all. Not up, not down and not side to side.

What seemed like an hour later, a pack of cyclists found me and asked if I needed help. I didn’t want the drama of an ambulance so I asked them to call my parents from the bottom of the mountain and collect me.

After an actual hour I saw the folks turn up and I got into the car. Between the bickering of what hospital they should take me to I said, “I’ll go home, have a bath and relax. I’m fine.”
Well, I had that bath, got changed and after calling my wife, went to the doctor, then the radiologist, then the emergency department of the hospital. I could remember the click of heels of my wife approaching but I couldn’t turn to see her. We saw the triage nurse and handed over my x-ray as I said, “They told me I should come here for observation.”

Some four hours after my accident now, the nurse pulled out the x-ray and turned to the doctor. Then she turned to me. “Don’t move.” I started to nod and she said, “Don’t even shake your head.” Seconds later I was strapped to a board and all I could hear was nurses conversing, “…the radiologist sent him here like that, he walked in. I can’t fucking believe it.”

I knew this was serious now.

It was a blurry night but I can vividly recall the surgeon hovering above me after having MRI and CAT scans performed. The surgeon started with the details. Fractured C1, the life and death bone, broken C5 and C6 spinus process. He added “I just got out of surgery and the guy before you is never going to walk again. Same accident. Never again. Looks like you will.” I had an eerie feeling creep over me, as if he was conveying, “Why should you be so lucky?” Why?

The next morning I woke up and my head was in a halo. A halo is a vice – 4 titanium bolts drilled into the first layer of bone, attached to a brace that covered my chest and back. My greatest piece of luck was that no surgery was required. When they said I’d have this for 3 months it felt like that would be an eternity, but I would have worn it for a year if that meant I could walk. Pain, though it existed, was feeble compared to the possible anguish of having my legs taken away. 

I don’t think I was as scared of not walking as I was of being a burden on my wife. I knew events like this change not only the person involved, but the family just as much and I don’t think I could have handled being the lead weight slowing her down.

The halo hurt, it was uncomfortable, it scared kids at the supermarket, I couldn’t drive or ride, I had to cut up clothes to fit over it, sleeping was a pain in the arse, but all that was fine. When I knocked one of the support rods on a door late at night and dislodged the bolts I cried. Like a little kid. I cried because I was scared for the first time. I’d come so close to death and had literally walked away fine and now by feeding the cat I had once again jeopardized my ability to walk. I spent another week in hospital having it refit. 

Time, as it does, flew by. Every two weeks I’d go back to hospital for a shower and a change of wool liner. Those showers were like bliss. For three months I had people, strangers or otherwise telling me how lucky I am. I was exposed and humbled to examples like Stephen Murray, a pro BMX rider who is now a quadriplegic, and their fight.

to resume a “normal” existence. I considered life without my first love and greatest passion. In many ways I see the experience as a gift, opening my eyes to life as it could and even should have been.

My wife says my face went purple, then red, green, then white when they took the halo off. I could feel the bolts unscrewing and knowing that my life support was being taken away made me a little uneasy. They said my neck would feel all floppy but I was surprised at how normal it felt almost immediately. My wife said, “I’m going to ask this, because I know this is what he is thinking. When can he ride again?” A week later I was back on the bike, 6 weeks later I rode 400kms in 2 days with friends who were riding from Sydney to Melbourne. I was healed.

I may be physically healed, but mentally I’m more cautious, even if only by my own standards, more emotional. I’m constantly challenged by the why. I see others in wheelchairs and cannot grasp not being able to use my legs. Why them? Why after all the insane splits I’ve performed on a bike at work or in races around the world, it was on a quiet country road at 27km that I nearly cripple myself. Why? I don’t have an answer, but I am eternally grateful. 

A good friend says there is nothing like a reformed smoker to preach a message. A mate of mine heard someone say “check your quick releases or you’ll do an Andy White”—but that is not my message. It is wear a helmet. I have no doubt that helmet saved my life and if not from spinal damage, from brain damage. That helmet was the best money I have ever spent.
…and check your quick releases.


P77 said...


Fink said...

Hmmm..I couldn't agree more!

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