It’s been four years now, almost to the day, since my bicycle accident, my broken bones, and my bleeding brain. The family has been making a big deal of it each year, remembering when we finally came home from the hospital and from therapy. I was working then, and my brain was sidling up to something closer to normal. When we celebrate, the girls play hooky from school, we have dinner and pass around gifts, mostly notes saying, “I love you.” It’s not every day that the reaper knocks on the front door, and you tell him to leave you alone.
It was May 17, 2018, and I was racing in the South Carolina Masters 10-Mile Time Trial on the next day. I love time trials. It’s you, and your bike, and your pain. That’s it. Some riders are more muscular, and some are leaner, but if you can take the pain of pushing harder than the other guy, there’s a good chance you’ll stand on the podium. My times were competitive, and I was confident that if I worked hard enough to puke at the finish line, I could go home proud, winner or not.
I came home from work to an empty house. There was a note from my wife that she took the girls to work and they would be home at 6:30. I looked at my watch. If I were on the bike by 5:30, I had an hour to stretch my legs and do an easy 25 miler. My plan was to ride and then sit for a nice dinner with the family before soaking in the tub. I would get an extra hour of sleep and stretch in the morning.
Unlike bike-friendly Washington, where I’m from, there is no side-of-the-road where I live in South Carolina. There is the road, a noisy, rough gravel, punished and tarred into a flat surface under 100-degree heat, with a white line painted on the furthest edge, then grass or a ditch. I assume I was doing twenty-five mph, threading the white line: a normal ride. I say ‘assume’ because my brain blanked out, and I have no memory of the accident. I’m told this is normal: when the body is injured–the doctor who admitted me to the hospital called me ‘a crumpled shell of a man’-the brain focuses on keeping the body alive and quits using energy to record silly things like what’s happening.
I was about four miles from home on an out-and-back ride, and, per the police report, a car came behind me at 60 mph, barely over the rural speed limit. The driver, a young man, said he turned to look in the back, sliding his hand over and under the seats, looking for a sandwich. When he looked up, I was in front of him, and he hit me on the left side, throwing me and my bike off the road into the grass. I landed a hundred feet out on my right shoulder and head. My bike bulldozed through fifty feet of weeds and collapsed into a mess of pulled spokes and broken framing. Welds snapped, and pieces I didn’t know could bend broke in half. Emergency personnel discovered me crumpled like an accordion, unconscious, with a bleeding brain.
My right collarbone broke and overlapped by three inches. The car crushed my left ankle, and my left leg, below the knee, broke in two places. I had a stress fracture in my lower back from hitting the ground. Six teeth shattered, their roots still stuck in my gums. My brain, hit hard on the right side, was bleeding on the left in my frontal and temporal lobes, where it smashed against the inside of my skull.
My wife was driving home from work with the girls, and wondered why I kept calling. Just minutes from home, she didn’t answer, thinking she would see me shortly. Pulling into our drive, one of my older daughters called.
“Mal,” she said, her voice a warble. “You need to get to the hospital. A car hit Dad on his bike, and they’re prepping him for surgery.” She couldn’t have known, but those calls from me were from emergency personnel going through my phone.
She spun the car around to zoom to the hospital, not knowing what she would find. On the way, she wondered, “What if he dies? What if he’s so bad we can’t bear it?” She turned around and dropped the girls off with a neighbor, not yet ready for that conversation.
On her way now, my manager from work called. He heard the news and said, “I’ll meet you at the hospital.” They arrived at the same time. I was in surgery, and no word was available about my condition. Even the hospital chaplain couldn’t get a word from the surgeon. I was too beat up to make any prediction. I wasn’t breathing on my own, and no one was saying if or when I would recover.
Finally, the surgeon came into the waiting area. He took my wife’s hands and looked at her, sober. “In 48 hours, we’ll know which way this goes.”
My wife, cute and tiny, is made of steel and wants the truth, no matter how painful.
“By which way this goes, what do you mean? That he lives or dies?”
“That’s about it,” he admitted.
That night, at home, when the girls were in bed, Mal had her moment. She broke down in the shower, washed in hot water and tears, then caught herself. “I can’t act like this,” she thought. “The girls need me. Dennis wants me to be strong for them. I have got to pull myself together.”
Out of the shower, she called each of the older kids to tell them what happened and how I was. In each case, they got the message, put the phone down, and got on a plane or in a car. Within a couple of days, each one was at our home. My wife’s brother and sister-in-law came out from Seattle, too. Family who showed up saw it as their job to keep the house running and allow my wife as much time with me as she could afford. I can’t say enough to express how blessed I feel about this.
I spent a month at our local hospital, on life support for two weeks. My quick recovery is wrought with mystery, but the first came when nurses walked into my room, and I was sitting up without tubes or life support. I woke up and pulled them all. I was in and out of consciousness for a month. Mal said that when I was awake, I was chatty and funny: my hyper self she called it. We would watch Braves baseball on TV, or she would read to me until I got tired and dozed off again for two or three days.
I have no memory of this. I didn’t know a soul except for Mal. If you’ve been in any situation like this, you know the ropes. Anytime someone visits, the nurses ask, “Dennis? Can you tell me who this is?” With anyone else, I stared like a doe confused by bright lights. But with Mal, I sat up, happy. “This is my lovely wife.” Maybe a gave a parade wave, too?
I have a faint memory of my brother-in-law visiting and us talking about mowing the lawn. Weird. I remember, too, my pastor visiting, and we talked about something and laughed that we would change each other’s minds. When I went back to church for the first time, I asked him if he remembered the conversation? He laughed, having no clue what I was talking about. I’ve learned-and am still learning-that memory and knowing are wispy things.
One night, a nurse took Mal aside. “Sweetie?” she said. “You need to get that man to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta. They’re the best at this kind of thing.”
And that’s what we did. Mal spent hours on the phone, and doctors sent reams of paperwork, and it was decided: I was going to Atlanta. I would be admitted to the hospital, and Mal and the girls would move into one of the on-site apartments. No one knew how long I would be there.
Weirdly, I woke up from my semi-comatose state while driving into the Shepherd driveway. I knew I was in an accident and knew I wasn’t at work, and the first question I had for Mal was why my parents hadn’t called? She knew what I forgot: Dad died thirteen years earlier, and my mom died the summer before.
I forgot we were married, too. A couple of days later, I ginned up the courage to ask her. She laughed. “Don’t you remember me in my wedding dress, pulling the church bell? You laughed and said you didn’t know if I was sounding an alarm or celebrating. All at once, in a breath, my memories of our wedding came back. It was like-it actually is like- fixing the first broken connection of a spider’s web. The wedding, our dance, our friends having dinner, and my dad’s pasty makeup: everything came back. This became a common pattern, and I waited for it like a drug. With a word, with one reminder, everything about what we were talking about would come back to me, like floodwaters spilling over a dam.
Therapists at Shepherd started calling me the Miracle Man, and I take no credit for it. Their first assessment of my condition was that I would probably walk in two or three years. I walked in a month and was running in six weeks. Well, I call it running, but it was more of an old man shuffle. I didn’t feel like a miracle man. I felt like a man in the hospital where injured people go to get well. I felt like a man working with skilled therapists and doctors who knew more than I did about recovery. I felt like a man whose family loved him no matter what the outcome.
When I talk about the experience and my recovery, I always make four points:
The first is from the girls wheeling me into the therapy room at Shepherd on my second or third day there. A patient–an older guy I became friends with–was strongly arguing with a therapist who asked him if he wanted to try standing.
“What’s wrong with you? I haven’t walked for months. Heck, I haven’t stood for a year!”
The therapist wore a thin smile, trying to keep the moment cheery.
“But you‘re doing so well,” she said. “I thought you might try?”
“I’m not doing well, and I don’t want to try it.”
I decided right there, watching this fight, that I would do anything a therapist asked of me and then do it five times again at night, in my room.
I knew, too, that I raced bicycles and was in excellent condition before my accident. That had to swing the pendulum in my favor.
Another thing that kept coming to me is more ethereal, more mysterious. It wasn’t anything I did and nothing I even understood, but something I realized later. It’s a mindset, an attitude. I wasn’t arrogant about it, and I never pounded my fist on the table declaring that I WILL DO THIS, but, and this is weird, it never occurred to me, never once, that I might not walk again. Or work. Or ride my bike. It’s a mystery, but I’m convinced that somehow this mindset that I’m here to get well and I will get well moved my body in a specific direction.
My wife and I share another opinion, too. When we talk about my recovery, she points her finger inches from my nose and says, “You listen to me, buddy. Don’t you ever forget that four states, probably thirteen churches, and maybe eight-hundred people prayed for you every day, around the clock.”
I don’t argue. My exit doctor at Shepherd-I can’t remember why, but we all called him the bone doctor-kept shaking his head when he went over my last test results with me before I left. He kept urging me that, when I get home, I have got to see the surgeons who worked on me. The way he talked, the way he shook his head, well, I was going and was taking my attorney with me.
Finally, he said, “Dennis? I’ve been doing this for thirty years, and I’ve seen nothing like it. Those people? The doctors and nurses who worked on you? Go see them.” He dropped his head and looked at me over the top of his glasses. “When I look at these results?” he said, “this isn’t medicine. This is magic. I don’t know what they did, but you should talk to them. Thank them. These people are magicians.”
What can anyone say except that I’m humbled and thankful, and it’s a little corny, but, full of love.
My anniversary is a celebration for my family, too. We all worked hard. The girls moved to Atlanta and met me every morning at the hospital for breakfast, and spent most days there, watching me limp through my therapies. I joke and tell my wife that I had a great time, mostly comatose, dopey, and happy. She got the short end of that stick, worrying every day that the next phone call would be the last one.
I had a night nurse I was a little afraid of. There was no nonsense with this woman, and I imagined she benched 400 pounds to let off steam. When she talked, I listened. On my last night there, she came into my room at ten to check my machines. Then she pirouetted and came close to me.
“Let me tell you something,” she said. That got my attention. “Those girls? The twins? I ain’t never seen better mannered kids than those two. Whatever you and your wife are doing, you keep it up.”
I nodded, a little scared.
“And your wife? I been here a long time and I’m telling you. I never seen love like that. That woman is made of steel, and she’ll go to war for you. If I ever hear of you giving her a hard time, you’re going to have to deal with me. You understand?” She didn’t smile like this was a joke between friends. Just eyes burning a hole in my soul.
“Yes ma’am,” I said, in my most contrite voice.
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