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November 11, 2010

An Unwelcome Adventure

Filed under: Cycling,General — Steve Hamlin @ 4:54 pm

A pleasant late-summer afternoon bicycle ride takes an unexpected turn.

At the end of 2008, I set myself a goal of 3000 miles of cycling for the 2009 year. It was a modest goal compared to my racing days, when I rode more than double that in a year. But it had been a long time since I had accumulated that much mileage. I thought it was both a realistic and a worthy challenge.

By the time we returned from our summer trip, I had logged over 2000 miles. I was well into my mid-season stride and racking up mileage at an average rate of about 125 miles a week. I was closing on my target quickly and the question of whether I’d reach it was becoming one of when, and by how much, I’d surpass it.

All summer long, I had been riding to Westfield in the late afternoon to meet my good friend Carl and ride back to Huntington with him. Carl lives in Middlefield, a couple towns to the northwest of Huntington, and works in Westfield, two towns to the southeast of here. He commutes to work by bike, usually driving the roughly fifteen hilly miles to Huntington and riding the rest of the way.

Carl’s normal daily bike commute is about thirty miles. Depending on how well I timed my departure, I’d usually meet him somewhere on the outskirts of Westfield, making my ride total about twenty or twenty-five miles. As the year progressed, that distance wasn’t satisfying me, so I began leaving home earlier and taking a longer route to Westfield, usually taking in a good hill climb on the way.

Carl and I have a lot of common interests. We’re close to the same age (Carl is slightly older than me). Obviously, we share a love of cycling. We’ve both been riding most of our lives. We also play music together, gigging sporadically, playing folky acoustic music. Our musical tastes, instrumentation, and limited ambition for playing out mesh well.

On Tuesday, September 8, I left home at about 4:15 and headed to Westfield by way of Dickinson Hill in Russell – the next town to our southeast. Dickinson Hill is a particularly nasty climb in a region that’s known for fairly steep climbs.

The hilltowns of western Massachusetts are connected by roads that attack the hills directly. There are many roads in the region that include climbs of 12-15%. The climbs aren’t that long compared with other regions of the country, but what they lack in length, they make up for in steepness.

Dickinson Hill begins at the bottom with a sweeping S-turn that tops out at close to 18%, then climbs straight up the escarpment in a series of ramps separated by false-flat landings. Each of the ramps is between 12 and 15%, while the landings are about 5-8%. During my brief amateur racing career in the early to mid 1990′s, I raced the Westfield Classic three times. The Westfield Classic was a 100K race through these same hilltowns, punctuated with a number of hard climbs. Dickinson Hill was the last of the hard climbs and was the hardest of them all – known as “the wall” by the competing cyclists.

In recent years, I’ve periodically challenged myself with hard climbs, including Dickinson Hill. I do it to harden myself mentally as much as physically. In my home region, it’s hard to go anywhere without being faced with a hard climb or two. These climbs can become impediments, real or imagined, to the notion of riding to a particular destination.

I’ve made it a matter of personal pride to not be intimidated by any of the hills in my area, so I continue to challenge myself with the hardest of them.

Back to September 8th: I climbed Dickinson Hill, testing myself against the time it took me to climb it on previous occasions during the summer. I was feeling strong and my time was marginally better than it had been. I rode out to the end of the road and turned left on Rt. 23 to descend back to the valley.

Rt. 23 took me back to Rt. 20 – the direct route between Huntington and Westfield. I rode into Westfield, making it almost to the center of town before meeting Carl. Carl had his co-worker Brian with him. Brian had ridden with us once or twice earlier in the season.

Brian is younger than Carl and I by probably about ten years. He’s a strong cyclist and usually has Carl and me struggling to stay on his rear wheel. Despite his relative youth and strength, he lives with a medical condition that causes his heart rate to rise suddenly and apparently unpredictably. When that happens, he has to lay back until his heart rate drops back to a normal level. He’s had an episode each time we’ve ridden together.

On this occasion, we headed out of Westfield towards Huntington in a pace line with Brian in front, Carl in the middle and me bringing up the rear. After Brian had taken a fairly long pull on the front, I checked behind me to make sure the road was clear, and pulled around Brian and Carl to the front to take my turn in the wind.

I wasn’t in front very long when Carl came around me to take a pull, but Brian didn’t follow him. I looked back and saw that Brian had fallen back. Concerned, I called up to Carl asking if Brian was alright. Without waiting for a response, I looked back over my shoulder again to see if Brian was signaling us to wait or to go ahead without him.

About this time, our pleasant ride took a nasty turn. Apparently, when I called up to Carl, he slowed slightly so my front wheel came alongside his rear wheel. As I turned back towards the front, I must have swerved to the left. The sidewall of my front tire touched the sidewall of his rear and I found myself hitting the pavement hard and sliding across the travel lane of rush hour Rt. 20. I don’t know how I managed to hit a lull in the stream of fifty mph commuters.

As soon as I came to a stop, acting on pure adrenaline, I scrambled crab-like to the side of the road, pushing my bike across the pavement in front of me. By this time, Brian was back with us. He and Carl worried over me as I tried to stand.

I had a sinking feeling of déjà vu as my left hip refused to support my weight. Thinking I could use my bike as a rolling support, I leaned on it with the intention of hobbling towards a log on the side of the road that I could sit on. The sudden fire in my left shoulder let me know that my injuries weren’t just to my hip. My plan to lean on my bike wasn’t going to work.

Feeling utterly helpless, I accepted the assistance of Carl and Brian, limping between them for the painful twenty yards or so to the log. I lay down in the grass, propped against the log, coming to terms with the ramifications of my accident. I called Linda on my cell phone and told her I’d crashed, asking her to come pick me up.

Somewhere deep in the recesses of my mind, I knew I should go to the hospital, but the notion hadn’t fully formed. Speaking to Linda, I didn’t give her any details about the crash or my injuries – I was thinking only of getting myself off the side of the road and releasing Carl and Brian from their babysitting duties.

Linda made good time in arriving at the scene. She also had the good sense to realize that I must be seriously hurt to ask for her to pick me up, bringing my medical card with her. She surveyed the carnage and asked Carl and Brian to help me into the passenger seat of the van.

In the meantime, both an off-duty nurse and cop stopped to check on us. We assured them we’d be alright. The policeman was reluctant to leave us without calling an ambulance, but Linda insisted that, as long as she had help getting me in the van we’d be okay.

The hospital was only a couple of miles away. Linda drove right into the space reserved for ambulances, rushed in and argued with a couple of skeptical hospital staff members until they reluctantly came out and helped me out of the van and into a wheelchair. They were sure that if I didn’t come by ambulance, I should be able to manage on my own.

I was wheeled into the crowded ER to wait to be processed and attended to. I sat in my colorful cycling jersey and shorts, now scuffed and torn, in a wheelchair in the entryway of the waiting room. I struggled to get comfortable and Linda sat across the narrow hall from me looking worried.

I felt like a bit of a spectacle. I sensed skepticism from a number of my fellow unlucky visitors to the ER. After all, I wasn’t bloody. Nor was I moaning or crying out in pain. In fact, other than the damage to my clothing, I didn’t appear to have anything wrong with me.

After sitting for twenty minutes or so, I began to get chilled. I asked Linda to get a blanket I keep in the van. She did and I wrapped myself in it.

It was probably about an hour before we were finally taken into a small room for processing. The same woman who had been so reluctant to give Linda help getting me out of the van took my information and sent me back to the purgatory of the waiting room, still skeptical that I wasn’t just looking for attention, distracting the staff from people who really needed to be there.

The crash happened at about 5:30 and we arrived at the hospital at around 6:15. By about 9:00, I was wheeled into an exam room. A young doctor listened as I related the details of the crash. He poked and prodded a little, then left to make arrangements for X-rays.

After awhile, I was wheeled out of the ER and into an X-ray room. I was transferred to a cold metal exam table and told to move my leg into positions it didn’t want to be in and hold it there. The pain of trying to maintain the necessary positions nearly brought me to tears. Between the cold of the table, the chill from the shock I was probably suffering from, and the strain of trying to force my unwilling leg to maintain the positions demanded of it, I couldn’t prevent my leg from trembling badly.

Finally, back in the ER exam room, the doc said the X-rays confirmed that my hip was broken and that I had also broken my collarbone. There was nothing that could be done with the collarbone other than allow it time to heal. I had broken a nub off the shoulder end of the bone. It was painful, but not debilitating.

The doc wanted a CAT scan done to give him a better look at my hip.

I lay on the exam table trying unsuccessfully to find a comfortable position. Sometime after 10:00, I was wheeled through the hospital to the CAT scan facility. The technician had to try two or three times to get a useable scan, scratching her head over a mysterious zipper that kept interfering. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that she was seeing the zipper I had sewn into the blanket I was wrapped in.

I was wheeled back to the exam room to await the verdict from the ER doc, in light of the CAT scan. When he came back in, we spoke about my earlier surgery in 2006. Linda and I explained the complicated reasons I ended up having it done in Boston. We had gone there to avoid having the second opinion we were seeking from being tainted by the reputation of the doctor who had given us the first opinion on my surgical options.

Behind the scenes, the ER doc and the orthopedic surgeon, and ultimately Linda debated whether to send me back to Boston for this surgery. When Linda got her turn, she argued that our reasons for going to Boston last time didn’t apply to the present situation and that it would be better to have the surgery done locally.

At around midnight, the admitting nurse who had been so skeptical looked in on me on her way out. Her skepticism having been proven unfounded, she was almost apologetic in wishing me well.

Finally, at about 12:30 in the morning, after a final phone consultation with the orthopedic surgeon, I was told I was being admitted and that I’d have hip surgery in the morning. I was taken upstairs around 1:00. After being transferred to a bed and having my vital signs taken for about the tenth time that night, Linda and I finally said good night at about 2:00.

Linda left after what must have been an exhausting night, charged with the task of making arrangements with the insurance company first thing in the morning, so we wouldn’t get stuck with the bill for the surgery. I tried to make the best of the situation and get some rest. To this point, I don’t think I had been given anything for the pain.

After a very restless night, during which I was woken to take vital signs every hour, seemingly immediately after I had finally nodded off, I was awakened at about 6:00 by the orthopedic surgeon. We spoke briefly about the procedure and he asked if I was in any pain. I said I was, to which he expressed surprise. He asked if I had been given the meds he had prescribed. I replied that I hadn’t had anything for the pain. He immediately called the nurse and had some bliss-inducing narcotic injected into me.

As relief rolled over me like a wave, I told him I wanted to wait for the surgery, to be sure I wouldn’t wake up on the other side of the procedure irretrievably in debt. He shrugged his shoulders and replied that insurance wasn’t his concern. It was his job to make me well.

He left and I drifted into the first real rest I’d had since I’d arrived – at least until it was time for the nurse to take my vitals again.

I was scheduled for my surgery at about 10:30. Around 10:00, a nurse came in to prepare me to be taken to pre-op. I explained to her my concerns about insurance, as I had with the doctor. She was much more understanding and said we could wait until I felt comfortable with having the surgery.

About 10:15, apparently after a flurry of phone calls between Linda and the insurance company, and Linda and the nurses’ station, of which I was blissfully unaware, the nurse came back in and told me that everything was taken care of and I didn’t need to worry about a thing. The proper paperwork had been faxed to the nurses’ station and everything was in order. I telepathically congratulated Linda.

I was rolled out of the room, into an elevator, and on into pre-op. I vaguely remember the operating room and my surgeon in his mask, but after that the entire episode is blank.

I woke up back in my room feeling the residual pain of the surgery – the incision and the other various indignities that were visited on me in my stupor – but feeling that my hip joint was again acting as it should. The ball of my thigh bone was moving in unison with the rest of the thigh, rather than being dragged along behind it.

The accident happened on Tuesday and I had my surgery on Wednesday. I spent the next two nights in the hospital, doing physical therapy during the day and resting at night, all to prepare me for going home to the stairs and other challenges of our house.

Through the whole time, Linda was a rock. She dealt with the insurance company with authority, making arrangements to spare us from unnecessary expenses and to prepare for my return home. She visited with me in the hospital, staying beyond the normal visiting hours with the help of the excellent nursing staff, who also looked after me extremely well.

On Friday, I saw my surgeon and my physical therapist. My therapist needed to feel confident in my ability to negotiate the unavoidable stairs of our house before she would allow me to be released. I wanted desperately to go home and reclaim some sense of normalcy, so I was determined to do whatever it took to give her that confidence.

We walked – or rather, she walked and I was wheeled – to the physical therapy room. My therapist, Nancy, set me up with crutches and gave me a quick lesson in getting up and down the stairs with them, then turned me loose on the training stairs. I managed them with no trouble. Nancy was as pleased as a young mother watching her child take his first unsteady steps.

That morning I had been in my room when the lunch and dinner orders were taken for the first time since I had been admitted. I had the opportunity to order what I wanted instead of having to settle for whatever the default meal was.

After my physical therapy session, I was sure I’d be going home. I hadn’t been given the official word, but I expected it anytime. In the meantime, feeling confident with my success on the stairs and bored with staying in my room, I decided to give my crutches a test drive.

First, I visited the bathroom in my room. I hadn’t been able to get to it since I’d been admitted, using a plastic urinal bottle instead. Having tried out the facilities, I hobbled out to the nurses’ station. They weren’t as glad to see me as I’d hoped. They chided me as they ushered me back to my room.

Soon after, a man was rolled in to occupy the empty bed next to mine. The nurses pulled the curtain separating the beds as they got my new roomie situated. As they worked, I heard the now-familiar sound of the lunch cart roll up outside the door. Mine was the window bed, so I couldn’t see anyone entering the room and nobody could see me either.

I heard the nurses on the other side of the curtain exclaim to the man they were helping into bed that he had gotten there just in time for lunch. I waited for my lunch to be delivered from beyond the curtain, but heard the cart rolling away instead. I realized quickly that my lunch had been given to my room-mate.

Unhappy and hungry, I waited until the nurses finished and pushed the curtain back a little. I couldn’t see my room-mate, but I could tell he was an older man who was suffering from dementia. His wife seemed to have seized the opportunity to leave the responsibility of his care to the nursing staff.

Eventually, a nurse came in to check on me and I lamented my lost lunch. The nurse set to work getting me a replacement immediately. I turned on the TV while I was waiting. I had the volume on low, but within a few minutes, I heard from the other side of the curtain: “yak, yak, yak, yak, YAK, YAK, YAK, YAK, YAK, YAK, YAK, YAK.”

I turned the TV off.

I got the word that I was going home about the time my lunch came. I was very hungry and my lunch was even tastier knowing I was being released. Before long, the man in the bed next to me began to cry plaintively that he wanted to go in the living room. A nurse came in and explained to him that he was in the hospital and there was no living room to go to. He seemed to accept the news stoically.

My sister visited. She sat by my bedside and we talked quietly. Before long, we heard “yak, yak, yak, yak, YAK, YAK, YAK, YAK, YAK, YAK, YAK, YAK” from the other side of the curtain. My sister gave me a “what’s that all about?” look. I shrugged my shoulders. I was becoming more anxious to leave by the moment. My sister and I cut our visit short.

Not long after my sister left, my room-mate began to cry “Help me! Help me!” in a pitiful voice from the other side of the curtain. When nobody responded, I climbed laboriously out of bed, grabbed my crutches, and hobbled around the curtain to the foot of his bed. I asked if I could help. In a perfectly normal, sociable voice, the man replied, “No thank you. It’s very kind of you to offer”, as if he had completely forgotten his cries for help.

Meanwhile, Linda was shopping and making other preparations for my arrival back home in my newly incapacitated form. As a result, she was later than I would have liked, in coming to collect me. Dinner was brought around while I was waiting. I saw no reason to pass it up, so I had another meal.

Finally, Linda arrived. I don’t remember ever being so happy to see someone. I had gotten dressed hours earlier, once I knew I’d be leaving, so we gathered my few belongings onto my lap as I sat in the wheelchair for my ride to the van. We said our goodbyes, thanking the nurses for all their help.

Linda and a staff escort rolled me to the elevator, down to the ground floor, and out the front door to the waiting van. I was able to negotiate the shift from wheelchair to front seat with the support of my crutches. Linda drove us the short distance to Huntington, both of us feeling very happy.

My total mileage for the year was 2477 after my ill-fated ride of September 8 was added in. The recovery from my surgery forced me to stay off my bike until October 4 when I took my first easy spin on my trainer. I eased back into riding with the blessing of my doctor (and dire warnings about the consequences of crashing). By the end of the year, despite what I thought would be an abrupt end to my years riding, I managed to make my goal, finishing with 3036 miles after a 25-mile ride on December 27.

If this post and the last one about my 2005 accident have you thinking I crash a lot and wondering why I continue to ride, let me point out that I’ve ridden many years and many thousands of miles and, until these two crashes, I’d led a charmed life. The superstitious side of me would have me believe that it was turning fifty that jinxed me. Whatever the cause, I plan to ride as long as I’m able.

All text and images © Steve Hamlin
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