It’s been a long time since I’ve had my ass handed to me. Last month I got the comeuppance I’ve been due for quite some time, and it’s been incredibly humbling. I love to mountain bike, and in particular jump and hop said mountain bike around, between, and over obstacles both large and small. The feeling of flight and weightlessness is something I’ve chased since my skydiving days, and frankly, only get to experience when leaping a bike these days. Having been a rider for most of my life, this type of risk is really nothing new or unexpected for me. I’ve been doing it for so long I take my skills for granted, as the feeling of flight, speed and weightlessness are as close as I can come to feeling superhuman.
However, on October 12th of this year I took what was to be a simple, innocuous ride up and back on the coast- which ended in utter disaster. Approaching one of the many ravines I traverse on this trail, I really didn’t feel differently- no sense of foreboding, hesitation or even concern- I’d jumped off this particular ledge so many times that it’s almost become reflexive. A quick bunny hop off the top and I was floating over the edge, slowly rotating my center of gravity to match the angle of the transition 18′ below me. But as time compressed and weightlessness engulfed me, I knew in my gut something was wrong. The bottom of the hill had been churned up from the normal hard-pack and was instead loamy and soft. The angle I took over the edge had me going a few degrees left of my usual line, and despite a last-ditch effort to push my rear wheel out and down to adjust and shift landing weight off my front wheel, it still dug into the soft dirt and washed out just as I flipped my heels to pop the clips and get free of the bike, and everything went wrong. Horribly wrong.
One foot released but the other stuck in my clipless pedal, and although I tucked my head as I went over the bars – pulling the bike over with me – my attempt at a PLF roll resulted in me hitting the ground square on my left-side ribcage, and HARD. I ended up flat on my back, partially tangled in the bike, gasping for the air that was forced violently from my lungs on impact. After a few seconds, I got my wind back, slowly disentangled myself and walked off the hit, chuckling at my stupidity. And then I rode back up, went back over the drop – couldn’t let it beat me, after all – and slowly pedaled myself home, letting the wind blow the dirt and foxtails from my clothes and hair.
Although I was feeling sore as hell on my side, I really didn’t think it was much more than embarrassment and a few bruised ribs. An hour later I knew something was wrong as my midsection began throbbing in pain, and no matter what position I tried to lie in, everything just hurt. I made it downstairs to my phone on the kitchen table, called my wife – who was around the corner visiting a friend – and told her I needed a drive to the emergency room.
And then I don’t remember much.
I do recall flashes of the ride to the Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital ER, particularly the bursts of pain every time we hit a pothole or bump in the freeway. I remember scratching my name, address and disposition onto the clipboard and handing it to the ER reception nurse. And I remember sitting in the wheelchair while they checked my blood pressure and temperature, eyes widening to pie plates as I slowly started slipping under. From that point forward it’s more like still snapshots I can flip through in my mind, but no motion, sound or color. My wife crying. Being stuck in the CAT scan tube and the wash of the IV dye flooding over me like a hot bath. Being ran at full-tilt to what must have been a surgery room from there, with people’s faces frozen in yells and shouts around me. A surgeon leaning over me with his mouth open. At some point, I said the words ‘do whatever you have to’. Then everything went white and… comfortable. I just remember the overwhelming brightness, and somehow feeling calm for the first time in hours… and then feeling nothing at all.
I regained consciousness hours later in the SICU, hooked up to more machines than I’ve seen in a long time. The resident urologist leaned over and softly informed me that I’d ruptured my kidney, and lost a massive amount of blood inside my abdomen, and despite their success in stopping a level 3 renal failure by putting a coil in my artery and blocking off blood flow to the damaged area of my kidney I was still in a very critical situation. My wife was sitting nearby, red-eyed, flushed and stone-faced. When I asked how long it would be until I could go home, everyone gave uncomfortable looks to one another, and I was simply told that “it may be a while”. I think she started crying again, but I honestly don’t remember with any clarity.
Over the next few days of hourly blood samples, IV meals and oxygen feeds, my blood pressure and hemoglobin levels slowly returned to acceptable levels for my condition, and I was taken off the death watch. Two days after that I was allowed solid foods and real liquids again. Soon after that they moved me to the general ward and out of urgent care, and removed about half of my IVs and tubes. I got my first real shower and started feeling like I might be normal again.
And then the specialists descended. It would be months before I would feel normal again, they said. I had over 2 pints of blood still left in my abdomen, and when the slow drip of morphine was removed, I’d feel the intense pressure it was placing on all my internal organs. But most importantly, they said that I’d need to treat myself like a fragile china cup for months or risk re-rupturing the kidney, at which point the dice would be rolled again. My regular fevers meant I was going nowhere until my temperature stabilized, which took another 3 days of boredom, morphine, and oxycodone. After a few more days of focused meditation and thought, I was able to deep-breathe my vitals to a hesitantly stable state, and I was sent home with painkillers and a list of ‘conditions’ that felt like they were meant for a rest home resident. After a week I was able to limp myself back to work to interact with humans again, but with about a tenth of my normal energy and enthusiasm. I’d say I’m back to 70% now, at best.
So here we are.
This Sunday will be the 5-week anniversary of my accident, and I can’t say that I feel normal again, not by a long shot. My abdomen hurts constantly, and although I walk and talk like a normal human, every breath I take reminds me that I’m not quite whole, and never truly will be again. The specialists say it’ll be another two months at minimum before enough pressure has been relieved from my abdomen to actually work out and exercise again, but in the meantime I’ve gone from a healthy, strong 6’1″, 205 pound/18% BMI man to a 180 pound/12% BMI skeleton. People comment on how great I’m looking now but I know it’s all bullshit completely out of my control. I lose a pound a day as my metabolism works overtime to absorb the massive hematoma that surrounds my kidney, despite eating like a trucker on weed. And the progress is painfully slow.
They say that everyone reaches a rock bottom, a dark night of the soul, a place of deep reflection that turns their life around- and although I thought I’d reached that years ago, this ordeal has shown me that there’s always a deeper or higher level you can reach. And this has been about the deepest I ever care to go. Fortunately things are looking much brighter now, and I feel a slow improvement day-to-day, but I’ve still got a lot of soul-searching and healing left ahead of me, with a lot of decisions to make about my life in the same fell swoop. It’s time to let go of my risk-taking, adrenaline-addicted old self and look at my life with more care and longevity. I’ll miss those moments of weightlessness and feelings of immortality, but need to treat each day as if it’s my last, as I’ve now witnessed how easy it is to dance on that edge. And most importantly, I want more than anything else in my life to see my son grow old. To see the smile of my wife each morning as the sun hits our bedroom, and we stretch to greet a new day. All the simple things that it can be so easy to take for granted.
I’ve bounced off the bottom and am coming back up quickly, but it still moves me to tears to realize that I could let myself reach this point so easily, yet not recognize it for what it was. So here’s to living life right – or at least a little more respectfully. A lesson I’ll remember every time I look in the mirror, as long as I’m fortunate enough to keep drawing breath. One I’ll feel in my bones every time my son hugs me as if I was his superhero, and my wife looks at me with those beautiful eyes of love and affection. There’s just too much to live for to risk those gifts anymore.
We are not bulletproof, nor immortal, despite my best hopes and intentions.
Make each day count, and never take yourself for granted.
One thing’s for certain – I never will again.