Dear friends and family, I am writing from Memphis, Tennessee—a city I did not expect to end up visiting and certainly not under the circumstances that brought and have kept me here. In attempting to keep you from worrying too much, the main point is that I am doing well enough to be writing this update, but that being said, it’s an update about getting in a serious accident in Southeast Missouri. Read on for more details.
Last Friday, I took off from Cape Girardeau, MO, where I stayed with a woman who had biked across the country in 1976 as part of a national event known as the BikeCentennial. I continued south to a small town called New Madrid (pronounced MAD-rid, not MA-drid) which is named for the huge fault line that runs through the area. The only reason I had heard of the place is because of the Wilco (really, Uncle Tupelo) song that you can hear here: http://youtu.be/C5QCeSS03RE . l visited the earthquake museum and hung out with the owner/manager, Jeff, who is a really great guy. He wished me well on my travels, and sent me off with a couple of beers to enjoy when I stopped for the night. I could never have known what the next hours and then days would bring.
From New Madrid, I was trying to get to Hayti (pronounced hay-TIE) where I was going to splurge and spend the night in a motel, which promised a free hot breakfast in the morning and sweets and treats in the evening. The forecast called for rain through the night and into Saturday and I didn’t feel like having to deal with a wet tent the next morning. The sunset was really pretty and I took a picture every fifteen minutes, calling it the evolution of a Missourian sunset. I was feeling good and felt no signs of tiredness, so I turned on my flashing front and back lights and pressed on. I rode down a service road with low traffic that ran perfectly straight for miles and paralleled Interstate 55. Every couple of minutes, I would see my shadow grow from the lights of a car coming from one direction or the other. The car would pull into the other lane and pass me and my shadow would fade away until the next car came.
About five miles from Hayti, I spotted a billboard for the night’s goal: “Drury Inn and Suites – The Motel that thinks it’s a Bed and Breakfast.” I passed a house with a dog in the yard. A pair of headlights lit me up, but unlike the ones before, the lights kept getting brighter and brighter. A sinking feeling came over me as I realized the car wasn’t going to pull into the other lane. I never lost consciousness, but those moments in between riding and landing on the road went so fast I’m not sure exactly what happened. This is what I tell myself to make sense of the haziness and my various wounds: the car first struck my trailer (likely taking a good deal of the initial impact and one of the many lifesavers of the night), then I got thrown up on to the windshield, hitting the top of my head and cutting my forehead and nearly going through the whole thing before rolling up on to the roof, doing more damage and finally falling down onto the road and landing on my left shoulder. I wiggled my toes immediately, which according to my medical expertise meant I was going to be okay and then did all I could not to move. I waited for an ambulance, which finally came and got me off the ground and stabilized my head and neck. They told me I was in pretty serious condition and would have to go to Memphis. So, they drove me to a clearing a few miles down the road where I was transferred to a helicopter and started the forty minute flight to the Elvis Presley Trauma Center. I really love that it’s called that.
I got to Memphis jacked up on adrenaline and pain killers and was carrying on full conversations about my trip. My medical team that met me on the roof was incredible and stuck with me the next five hours. I was given test after test, x-rays, CAT scans and MRIs. In the meantime, a couple of suture experts cleaned up my road rash and gave me the few stitches I needed. More importantly, they kept me company and kept me calm. Things were looking pretty good on account of having strength and mobility in my legs and feet and being ‘all there’ mentally. In fact, they were talking about discharging me that night, which made me nervous because it was the middle of the night, I was high as a kite and all of my possessions were a hundred miles and two states away. So, it came as quite a sobering moment when, at 2 or 3 am, my primary doctor came to my bedside with a severe look on his face: “We just got your MRI results back and you’ve broken your neck in a couple of places. We’re going to be meeting to discuss what our next steps will be and whether we’ll need to operate.”
Nothing was for certain and I could tell that from the looks on the faces that surrounded me. A blanket of silence seemed to fall as the seriousness took hold and everyone wondered what would happen. More tests followed and they let me know that they were hoping to proceed without surgery and instead install a halo around my head to realign and brace my neck.
At the shift change at 7 am, I was transferred to the trauma intensive care unit. My friend, Chris Staudinger (who I was heading down to see in Mississippi and has gone above and beyond what I could ever expect from a friend over this past week), came to see me a few hours after getting there and has been back every day since. Shortly after he arrived, Chris had to step out as a team of orthopedic doctors and a halo expert gathered around and started the installation process. The halo is a horseshoe-shaped piece of carbon fiber, which fits around my head much like a crown, except that once it was in place, they screwed four eight pound screws a quarter inch into my skull. They numbed the area with a local anesthetic to do his, but the pressure of it was one of the most excruciatingly painful things I’ve ever felt. After it was in place, they rigged a cable from the top of the halo to a pulley at the head of the bed. From the pulley, they hung eighteen pounds of weight in order to stretch my neck and decompress the broken bones. You know the feeling of lying flat on the ground after bending over all day and then your back aches as it starts to relax and go back to its proper position? Well, it felt like that more or less, just a bit more intense. I was like that for about six hours. Then, they finished by attaching four bars around the halo and fixing them to the lamb’s wool-lined brace I am wearing around my chest. They say I’ll have to wear this for eight to twelve weeks, but as long as there are no complications, I’m expected to have a full recovery—complete with full mobility of my neck. So although it is heavy, awkward and anything but comfortable, it is far better than the possible risks and complications associated with having surgery to fuse and screw the bones back together.
About an hour after the halo team finished and helped to clean up their work, my mom arrived after a full day of air travel and worry. She’s been here ever since and, with Chris, has been helping me with everything from scratching the back of my head to picking up my bike and gear back in Missouri. So, if you think I need your good thoughts, hope, prayers and positive vibes, please be sure to send her at least twice the amount that you send me. It must be at least equally, if not twice as stressful, worrisome and terrifying to get a call that your son has broken his neck thousands of miles from home and then get here and not be able to have your questions answered clearly or quickly as it is for me to be going through all of this. At least I can wiggle my toes whenever I need some reassurance that I’m doing alright. She can’t.
It has been a long week of waitandsee. The days have seemed to go by fast, but with little excitement. I guess it makes sense. I’m still living one day at a time, but aside from that it is as close to a total 180 degree shift as it can be. No longer am I free to go wherever I want, stay where I want, break records of how many miles I can go in a day and watch the sun set every night. Instead, milestones have been getting to eat and drink, getting up and walking, going up a flight of stairs and going to the bathroom.
I’m going to be heading home soon. I’ll be able to watch my baby sister play a full season of basketball for the first time. I’ll have plenty of time to read and watch films and write. I suppose some artwork might come of this. I guess in the end, it’s just another change—a bit more unexpected than the others I’ve been through in the past six months, but a change nonetheless. I have to wear this halo until January or so. I’m still hoping to head to San Francisco when I’m healed, but who knows? Maybe I’ll go back to the farm or St. Louis or something else entirely. The journey in some respect continues. The next leg: Memphis-Moncton. Check my blog from time to time or drop me a line if you want to know what’s new.
Until then, take it easy, but take it.