In the Blink of an Eye
Sometimes I have nightmares. They aren’t often the truly scary type like some I remember from childhood, but rather a more mature adult version. Most frequently they entail some form of losing control: falling, not having any brakes, driving off the edge of a cliff.
But when I’m in the midst of one of these electrochemically simulated scenarios and that critical point comes, the one where death or severe bodily harm is imminent if the situation isn’t immediately averted, I always seem to know that it’s not real. The part of the brain enduring the fabricated scenario is able to determine that no, this couldn’t possibly be happening, and says to the part of the brain generating the experience: STOP, this isn’t reality, we’re waking up now.
This phenomenon occurs with such consistency that it almost feels like maybe those were things that actually started to happen before I decided they weren’t ok. Like we have some ability to control our reality, and if something truly unacceptable or unbearable starts to happen, we can simply say STOP. Just hit the pause button on life like it’s a video game, and simply restart the level. Wake up and try again.
We all know, of course, that this isn’t how life works. The senseless tragedies that occur every day are evidence enough of that. Friday night I personally confirmed that there is no redo option in life, just in case there were any doubt.
We were wrapping up what had been a great night. I’d met my friend Will and a few others in Oakland, where we participated in the local Bike Party – a grassroots gathering of probably a thousand bike enthusiasts from all walks of life making our way through the city streets in a long parade of illuminated bikes, costumes, music, and sporadic cheers of BIKE PARTAAY! The ride finished at a city park, whereupon bikes were piled against every vertical object, beers were opened, and dance parties ensued. We enjoyed the scene from atop the playground’s incarnation of a pirate ship, then decided it was time to call it a night.
The mood was light with everyone in high spirits as we climbed and jumped our way through the structure back toward our bikes. We came across what I believe is referred to as a playground zipline; a long track with a handle suspended on rollers that one can use to traverse the ground beneath. I grabbed ahold to take my turn, suddenly hit with the urge to hang upside down and do a backflip off it. The kind of thing I do sometimes when inspiration strikes.
Now I’ve done a few backflips in my day, and am no stranger to putting my body into somewhat questionable situations. But I always think about it first. Make sure whatever I’m about to do is within the bounds of my skill level. An undertaking where the balance between my abilities and the consequences tips firmly in my favor.
This particular occasion was different though. Why I didn’t take a few seconds to look at what I was about to do, evaluate the risk, and decide whether it was really worth it is something I’ll be asking myself for a long time. I grabbed the handle, simultaneously swung myself down the track and my legs over my head, and released to allow myself to complete the rotation and drop to the ground.
There is a split second I can recall where I knew I wasn’t going to be fully rotated when I landed, and simultaneously realized that this was actually a very, very short track, and where I was about to land (or impact, rather) was headfirst into a metal platform at the other end.
I remember the impact, but I can’t remember specifically what it felt like. A flash flood of sensations that the body doesn’t really know how to process. Mostly I think of the few seconds immediately following. The instinctive reaction to get back on my feet. The quick realization that I should not, in fact, stand up, and that something was very wrong. My brain recovering from the jarring impact and starting to process the overload of information the body was presenting. Head, neck, arm. These are the critical parts you need to worry about.
I felt a burst of memories and feelings that can only be dissected and placed on the appropriate shelves of the memory bank in later retrospection. The shockingly hard, take your breath away, take your cognition away impact from three years ago when I fell off a rail snowboarding and broke my collar bone. The image of my friend Karl’s head smashing into the concrete as he failed to stick the landing after launching over a skateboarding ramp we’d built as kids. The memory of getting cold clocked one late night in Madison when a group I was in got into a scuffle.
My brain struggles to comprehend what happened, whether it actually happened. No, stop, this isn’t right. This isn’t how it’s supposed to go. Wake up. But I know that there is no waking up. This is different from dream-land where a simple command from the brain can erase events. All the regret, all the denial, all the wishing in the world won’t change the fact that this is happening. The pain, the shocked friends and bystanders, the mystery of what I’ve actually done to my body and what this means; it is all very real.
At this point, I am pretty sure my right arm is broken at a minimum. The pain shoots down to my fingers and into my back when I move it. I’ve just thrown away Ironman, I immediately think. But I don’t care. I try to bargain with whatever forces may be. The arm isn’t a big deal, just please let my brain and spinal cord be ok. Now I am not a religious person, but it’s amazing how instinctive it is to want there to be some higher power in control. Some being with which you can reason.
A few seconds have passed and I have accepted that this is very, very bad. Thoughts of the people I know or have heard about that have been paralyzed from similar incidents flood my mind. Just not that. Please, not that.
I can move though. And enough seconds have passed and thoughts have gone through my mind that I let myself believe maybe it’s not that bad. It hurts though, a lot. I grab my head and the blood streaming down my hand leaves no doubt that I need to get to a hospital, fast. Call someone, get help, do something, I plead to my friends who are gathered around, still partly in shock and largely unsure what to do.
Soon a couple with a rudimentary knowledge of triage and first aid arrives. They ask some questions and look at my visible injuries. I am not sure about my arm anymore. I seem to be able to move it around without real issue, but there is still shooting pain at points. Maybe it’s not actually broken. Their quick assessment matches what is becoming clear to me as the minutes drag on, the adrenaline slowly wears off, and my head starts to clear. I am basically ok. I can move, talk coherently, and the bleeding from my head is under control. I need to get to a hospital, but we probably don’t need an ambulance.
By this time two friends are on the phone with 911 and we’re trying to confirm I can do without an ambulance. The hospital is apparently close. No, let’s not waste a few thousand dollars when we could take an Uber for $20. But there is quick consensus that I cannot get into an Uber in my current bloodied state. Luckily a friend locates a rideshare car close by that she can check out within a few minutes. They figure out the logistics: who is going, how we are getting there, what is happening with the bikes, how they’re getting home. I am forever grateful to these people, most of whom I had only met a couple hours prior.
The hospital makes fairly quick work of getting me into a room, although I can’t help but be frustrated with all the questions. Name and info, medical history, insurance. Yes, I’m aware these are all important, but all I can think is I just smashed my head and can barely think, I’m bleeding all over, and I’m in significant pain, please stop asking these difficult questions and help me!
I quickly realize and very much appreciate, however, that I am not their top priority. It doesn’t seem they’re extremely busy, but there are at least a few cases I overhear that make me glad to be in the position I’m in, and more than happy to let the doctor attend to whatever is needed before seeing me.
At one point, as he’s stitching up the 7cm gash across the top of my head: “So there’s currently a needle sticking out of your head, but stay still and hold tight, I have to go take this call.” No problem doc, whatever you need to do.
Eventually after X-rays and two trips to the CT scanner they produce the following diagnosis: Arm is fine. Brain is fine. Stable fracture in the C7 neck vertebrae (which was also likely causing the shooting pains and numbness in my arm). I need to wear a neck brace for at least 6 weeks, do nothing that puts me at risk for a fall, and see a specialist for follow-up. Most likely no surgery necessary. That’s about as good a diagnosis as I could have hoped for.
The whole process takes a long time. Will is with me, which I very much appreciate. Although he makes sure I don’t forget what a huge idiot I am. Don’t worry Will, I’m fully aware. We catch an Uber back to his place around 4AM, where he graciously gives me his bed and helps with anything I need before we both crash from an exhausting night.
It’s been a few days now and I’m still processing the event and its repercussions. First and foremost, I am relieved it wasn’t worse. It definitely could have been. Second, I am disappointed with myself. Why would I do such a stupid thing? What was I possibly thinking? Third, I am depressed. That I likely won’t be able to do Ironman, that Mike will have to do it with me cheering from the sidelines, that I basically can’t exercise for 6 weeks, that I am letting people down and giving cause for worry.
One of the worst parts is that I’ve been making a conscious effort to be more careful as Ironman approaches. I stopped mountain biking, because that shit can be dangerous and there’s plenty of time for it later. And just a day before this happened I saw a hiker lose control while glissading down a snow covered slope and crash into some rocks. It looked bad, like call in the SAR team bad. Luckily he ended up somehow only hurting his pride. It made an impact on me though, and I still have trouble believing that a mere 36 hours later I made one of the dumbest decisions of my life.
For me this is a stark reminder to not take life for granted. One of the main reasons for my current lifestyle is, after all, to get out and enjoy the world now while I can. Because you never know what’s going to happen.
Yes, I appreciate the irony that if I were sitting behind a desk this probably wouldn’t have happened (or if I had exercised just the slightest amount of caution, for that matter), but I don’t view that as a valid argument. Car accidents, sports injuries, freak falls, strokes, cancer, sudden heart failure – these things can and do happen without warning. I’ve always tried to appreciate that, and live life in a way that reflects its fragile nature, but this injury has made that so much more tangible.
Because even though we all know bad things can happen, it’s easy to think well they’re probably not going to happen to me. But trust me, they definitely can. So as I sit here trying not to move my body in ways that cause excessive pain, looking basically straight ahead at all times, and replaying recent events over and over in my head, let me serve as a reminder to enjoy life while you can and not take your health for granted. But also, to exercise a prudent amount of caution. And maybe next time you’re thinking about backflipping off some playground equipment, take a second to scope it out first and make sure it’s something you really want to do.