Cycling catastrophe: thinking the unthinkable, bearing the unbearable

by Raymond Parker on July 19, 2012

in Advocacy, Autobiography, Cycling, Health

Hieronymous Bosch General

Some of my friends have advised against publishing this article, concerned that it may discourage others from cycling. As you can see, I’m poor at following advice, even when it’s offered with the best intentions.

This is a story about the thing all cyclists dread: becoming one of the number struck down every year by speeding motor vehicles. Three-years-ago today, after more than 45-years of relatively incident-free cycling, I became one of those statistics.

I wrote the original draft of the following account just months after the incident, prefacing it with the confession that “I’m no Charles Bukowski or William S. Burroughs so, in my case, a mind addled by drugs is no literary incubator. I have also struggled with the fear that a website dedicated to the joys of bicycling is no place for such a shocking tale.”

I still agonize over that, yet feel compelled to share the story, now that legal considerations don’t stand in the way. Just as the original writing was, I hope this publishing will be cathartic.

The fact is, VeloWeb and its related projects have for the past three years been a refuge, not to mention bedrock for my sanity, in spite of the fact that there has been little I could report in relation to my own cycling exploits.

Though it is not written for shock value, the story contains some unsettling material. The following is a less visceral (expurgated, if you like) version of the original. In consideration of reader sensitivities, I have cut some of the more graphic details that were so fresh in my mind at first writing. And I will spare you the photos. Still, if you are upset by such subjects, you might want to skip to a happier tale.

 The longest ride of my life

On Sunday July 19, 2009, the day dawned clear. I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast. Normally, I’d plan a bicycle ride of perhaps 100-kilometres.

Instead, I chose to take care of some of those pesky responsibilities of the homeowner and opted for a 10 km dawdle to get some fresh air and check road repairs on part of a 600 km randonnée route, planned for the following weekend. I set out at 11:30am on my beautiful Bleriot. When I returned, I would set to work hacking back the forest threatening to engulf the house.

I felt good. I’d finally gotten over a stubborn virus. It was tempting to flee the city, but dutifully I turned back toward home. With a green light in my favour, I made a left hand turn through a T-intersection. I’d just completed the turn when … WHAM! A pickup truck plowed into me from behind. The driver had run the red light.

The first thing I heard after the initial impact was a “PSHHHT!” as the rear tire (a 42mm Grand Bois Hetre) exploded.

I remember thinking: Must. Stay. Up! Then, as in slow-motion, the rusty undercarriage of the truck passed over me and, in what could only be a moment later, the back right wheel hit me violently in my right hip.

During those moments, my brain (thankfully intact) had time to process such thoughts as I wondered if this might ever happen, and I guess this is it then, as well as launching adrenaline-fueled countermeasures to fend off the attack of the mechanical beast.

I’m facing the tire as it pushes me along the road, thinking: A. Keep your fucking foot on the brake! and B. Those are some seriously bald tires! I’m terrified the wheel will hop up and crush my hip or torso.

After being dragged for 10-metres, I’m sitting next to the truck. Some people run toward me. I can hear the young driver of the truck, behind me, repeating “Oh my god, Oh my god!”

Strangely calm, I sit up, only to see my right foot is barely attached, below a compound fracture. What I beheld (using my newfound medical vocabulary) was a highly-comminuted (shattered) pilon fracture of the distal tibia. The fibula was also snapped.

“You’re in deep trouble,” I said to myself.

A woman arrived on the scene. The young driver (21-years-old, with a “Novice” license) struggled unsuccessfully to control his shaking hands enough to dial 911 on his mobile phone.

“That was a fucking red light you ran!” I called out.

“Yes,” the woman said, “I was right behind him. He didn’t even slow.” She knelt behind to support me. Despite bystander appeals, I refused to lay down, holding my leg behind the knee so the end wouldn’t fold over on the asphalt.

A guy with ERT experience, who happened to be passing by, arrived with a first-aid kit, from which he produced a compression bandage to stabilize the foot.

Reaching down with my free hand, I discovered that my cell phone was still clipped to my shorts. I dialed home.

Twenty-odd years ago, my wife sustained a similar injury when she was mowed down in a crosswalk, also by a red light runner.

“You know how you told me what your leg looked like, after you got run over by the car?”

“What?”

“Well, that’s what my leg looks like.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’ve been hit by a pickup.”

A fire truck arrived, followed by police, the ambulance and paramedics. I was beginning to go into shock and couldn’t hold the phone. I passed it off to a bystander.

“Look at my beautiful bike!” I cried. The wreckage lay behind the truck; closer, the cycling shoe that had been torn from my foot.

Paramedics applied a neck brace, slid me onto a backboard and, after checking for signs of internal injuries, loaded me into the ambulance. The constant questioning—name, address, birth date, etc.—gave me something to focus on.

I thanked everyone repeatedly. Wayne, one of the paramedics, replied: “That’s OK, it’s what we do … even when we’re on strike,” referring to the labour dispute declared by the large ON STRIKE stickers emblazoned on the ambulance.

Wailing sirens, blinding pain, as the ambulance bounces over rough roads; hospital corridors and ceiling lights rushing by, razors shaving my chest (no need for legs!) oxygen masks, intravenous intrusions; the long, painful sessions of scans, X-rays, examinations, and waiting.

That evening, I underwent a 5-hour surgery, during which a stainless “locking plate,” stabilized with 8 screws, was used to piece the shattered tibia back together. The fibula was left to its own devices—a surprise I got viewing my first post-op X-ray.

The tibia had been sheared off just above the joint and the mortise was split into three main pieces with further splintered fractures to the fragments. Extensive removal of road debris and destroyed muscle tissue (debridement) preceded mechanical repairs. By some twist of fate, there was still muscle attachment and arteries had escaped the mayhem. The orthopedic surgeon admitted it was one of the worst of its kind he’d seen. In his words, I’d “left a lot of bone back on the road.”

A week later, I underwent a skin graft. My right thigh (above shorts line, please!) was the “donor site.” It took well, but the donor site turned out to be a painful wound that healed slowly and was raw weeks after the hole it patched had healed.

In addition to the severe injury to my leg, I also sustained a wrenched back, severely bruised hip (impacted by the truck wheel), rotator cuff damage to my shoulder, whiplash, sprained wrist and knee, extensive bruising, and road rash.

Medical staff reminded me it was a miracle I survived with relatively non-life threatening or paralyzing injuries, though I found it hard to embrace this perspective.

Over the first months, I endured suffering that eclipsed my two battles with cancer. I felt as if I was trapped in an Hieronymus Bosch painting, or the Spanish Inquisition. I wanted to confess and make it all stop.

After 3-weeks in hospital, I finally managed to muster enough of my usual orneriness to convince them to release me. Believe me, my living room never looked so good, even from the hospital bed that awaited.

There followed another two months of daily dressing-changes, attended by home care nurses. After several more weeks, the skin on the foot, having been stretched by severe edema, took on the appearance of parchment and burned continually. If the foot was kept down too long it turned a livid purple, due to impaired circulation.

Days passed in an agonizingly slow procession clouded by opiates, but my mobility improved—from the mercy of a trip to the bathroom via walker, to the freedom of the wheelchair, to the triumph of crutches. What I could not know at this point was how many more challenges lay ahead.

Going backwards

A long, painful road of rehab filled the first year, once I was ambulatory. Post-traumatic stress disorder, an affliction I once considered the excuse of malingerers, assailed me night and day. Six months after the incident, I was not convinced that things were going as well as some doctors assured. I demanded another opinion.

A scan revealed that one of the feared complications of such injuries had visited me: “non-union.” The tibia was not knitting together.

Friday, August 13, 2010, saw me back in surgery, for a bone graft. The surgeon drew a line over my iliac crest, from where the donor bone would be harvested.

I awoke to find that the site on my hip, that people had told me would be the more painful of the intrusions, was intact. Surgical examination of the ankle had revealed signs of osteomyelitis—bone infection.

I’ll barely mention the following six weeks spent with a pic (peripherally inserted central catheter) line pumping heavy-duty antibiotics into the entrance to my heart. I’d rather forget the ordeal.

A fancy tire iron?

On the mend, finally

Fourteen months later the orthopod was finally confident enough to remove the spoon-like “locking-plate” that had fixed the remains of my ankle in place.

This was, in one sense, a great relief. The object had sat just under the skin covering the talus, the knobby bone on the inside of the ankle, and was dangerously subject to knocks and pressure that threatened to peel back the epidermis, or kill it off.

On the other hand, the reduced stabilization introduced slightly more flexibility into the compromised joint … along with more pain. The good news is that I’m actually better on the bike than walking, especially on uneven ground. Oh well, there goes my climbing career!

I’m left with next-to-zero dorsiflexion (toward body) and no lateral flexibility in the ankle joint at all. As predicted, arthritis is rearing its head. Would that I could beat it senseless! I still suffer from general neuropathy—the nerve damage that, at first, felt like the skin had been scalded on top of the foot—as well as sharper pains with “over-use,” such as walking uphill.

In an upcoming post, I’ll discuss my present cycling abilities and plans, as well as lessons that might be drawn from my experience. In the meantime, I’d be interested to hear, via comments, how this admission affected you. Are you less likely to ride? I’m open to questions. My intention is certainly not to deter people from cycling. In spite of lingering anxiety, I got back on the bike for short rides 10 months after this disaster. I’m wired to ride.

 Acknowledgements

I owe a debt of gratitude, as well as my life, to the Ambulance Paramedics of BC, the Victoria Fire Department, officers of Victoria Police Department, those strangers who came to my aid, the nursing staff and doctors of both Victoria General and Royal Jubilee Hospitals’ orthopaedics wards, the home-care nurses and staff of WeCare, my psychologist, my lawyer, and last but not least, my wife, family, and loyal friends, without whom this long journey would have been unbearably lonely.

{ 36 comments… read them below or add your spin! }

Dane Terry July 19, 2012 at 1:19 am

Raymond, I enjoy your writing, and your obvious love of the bike. Thanks for your blog.
Oh, man – what an incredible, horrific, arduous ordeal! Glad you are surviving and improving, and most importantly riding.
For what it’s worth, it won’t keep me from riding, although I know I’ll cringe from time to time when a car comes too close. Living in San Diego, I sometimes get very creative – even going far ‘out of my way’ to avoid roads that feel too dangerous. But really, even those detours are all just part of cycling to my way of thinking.
As to the risks of cycling alongside 2-ton behemoths with profoundly incompetent pilots: I don’t know what else we can do frankly, besides advocate, educate, ride, live…
I really hope your recovery is complete, lasting and swift.

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Raymond Parker July 19, 2012 at 12:38 pm

Thank you. My blog endures because it gives me pleasure to encourage cycling, an enthusiasm that has done me far more good than harm.

It is also gratifying to have the kind of feedback that tells me I am not alone and that this project helps others.

It’s been many years since I visited San Diego. I’m guessing it is much busier today. Bet you still don’t need fenders though!

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Susanna Grimes July 19, 2012 at 8:21 am

I too have ridden for many years, every day, without incident, and I will continue to ride, even though I know that one day my number might come up. (What is the alternative, really?) But, from your story, we can all remember to be more careful (especially drivers).

Thanks for telling your story. I’m so glad you are still with us, Ray! 🙂

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Raymond Parker July 19, 2012 at 12:32 pm

Cheers! There is no alternative. Life goes on. For a cyclist, as long as one can turn the pedals, hope abides.

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Donna Lowe July 19, 2012 at 8:22 am

Ray,
With tears in my eyes, I read on when I really wanted to stop. I hope your recovery improves to the point when those pains subside and with it the memories of this horrible and prolonged event.
I really believe that the operation of a motor vehicle must be a privilege, and not a right. Far too many drivers do so with a sense of entitlement, with little respect given to others using the road.
Reading about your experience, as horrific as it’s been, reinforces my riding style to avoid busy roadways as much as possible. All those other things like riding safe, lit, aware still stand.
Like you, riding is a part of me, I can’t imagine not being able to do it. I’m so relieved you are back in the saddle. Stay safe, heal well, keep riding, Ray.

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Raymond Parker July 19, 2012 at 12:28 pm

Donna, thank you so much for your wonderful comment.

It amazes me that some people (perhaps bereft of a physical pursuit that gives as much as cycling does to us) can’t imagine how integral such a thing can be to one’s well-being.

Though I have taken part in what may appear to many as “risky” adventures, I am in fact an obsessively risk-averse person. Accordingly, I endeavour through practice and study to minimize objective and subjective danger as much as possible. The first can be reduced by assessing the environment; the latter by training the mind.

The rest is what we refer to as “fate.” I try to influence that so it’s interesting without being interesting. 🙂

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ofoab July 19, 2012 at 8:38 am

Scars from cars. There is fear but my greatest fear is not being able to ride! After decades of riding, the “Ride of Silence” is a constant wheel-sucker. Be careful out there! Great post, Ray P.S. Scars are like swastikas on your spitfire, Ace.

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Raymond Parker July 19, 2012 at 12:16 pm

Thanks muchly, Lee. Let me guess: Old Fart on a Bike?

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ofoab July 19, 2012 at 6:48 pm

Fellow, fool, fart, but do not call me late for dinner . Today in my travels 2 obviosly not cowboys and big fancy lights , those “randy’ boys are in town for one brevet, another day on a bike !

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Raymond Parker July 20, 2012 at 11:08 am

Rat-a-tat-tat!

Yup, the Rocky Mountain 1200 brevet sets off from your town in 2 days. Originally planned to be there and make a movie, but other obligations intervened. I hear there will be a party on the 26th.

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Ray Parker July 19, 2012 at 10:30 am

I’m proud to say you are my son.
Your tenacity and determination have enabled you to endure the terribly difficult past three years.
Perhaps you may not get to ride in the Paris-Brest-Paris again, although knowing you as well as I do and how important that was to you. I am sure if there is any possibility, you will.
Whatever cycling you do, it will bring joy to your heart, and contentment to your piece of mind.
Love you, Dad.

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Raymond Parker July 19, 2012 at 12:15 pm

That means a lot to me, Dad. Thanks for all your support.

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Lynn Hirshman July 19, 2012 at 11:12 am

When we finally re-established contact after you had begun to heal, you didn’t want to talk about this…I completely understand. But you survive, and keep on keeping on. Love you for that.

Now — I would like to give a copy of this article to every stupid cyclist who insists on riding on our dangerously narrow and curvy mountain roads.

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Raymond Parker July 19, 2012 at 12:11 pm

Lynn, I’m unutterably disappointed that you would exploit my post to deliver one of your anti-cyclist messages.

Like many other cyclists, I love riding on “narrow and curvy mountain roads” and have every right to do so. Does your use of the possessive “our” not extend to cyclists? If not, then your sense of entitlement is also disappointing. It is at odds with your declarations of liberty and fraternity.

Why not also pass my article to motorists who drive without due care and attention on tortuous mountain roads? After all, they could end up in the same situation as the self-admitted “inattentive” driver who knocked me down … or was it my fault, by riding on city streets, for ruining his day?

You forget that I am also a motorist (just bought a new car) but I only resent incompetent and aggressive road users. I am content to drive behind slower traffic, including bicycles, until it is safe to pass. I endeavour to drive or ride according to the demands of the weather and road conditions.

Furthermore, cycling assures that I’m a better driver, by being more attentive and healthy.

Last month, author Pamela Hutchins wrote a measured article that we all might heed, rather than continuing the war on the roads. There are too many casualties already.

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Conor Ahern July 20, 2012 at 8:25 am

I used to be a “stupid cyclist who insists on riding on our dangerously narrow and curvy mountain roads” of Lake County, Colorado and never had any trouble with vehicles.

I would prefer to be back riding a bike in Colorado again to riding my bike here on narrow Irish roads with speeding idiot drivers.

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Jono Moore July 19, 2012 at 1:07 pm

Ouch Ray that sounds rough.

I’ve been cycling for over 40 years now and never been in a serious incident with a vehicle (minor altercations here and there) but I have suffered a couple of self-induced injuries.

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Raymond Parker July 20, 2012 at 11:13 am

Ah, we like to call those “momentary lapses of judgement.” 🙂

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Tracey Eide July 19, 2012 at 1:42 pm

I am glad you survived this terrible accident. 🙂

I wanted to write and say that your story does not make me want to stop cycling. Cycling can be a lot of fun and being a little older after having a 20+ year break from riding a bike, I find living life has afforded me the brain I didn’t have when I was younger, 10 feet tall and bulletproof. I, like you, take precautions – this just reemphasizes those precautions, which, for me, makes cycling even more enjoyable and safe.

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Raymond Parker July 19, 2012 at 2:24 pm

Thanks for your comment Tracey, and for promoting the joys of “Grandma Cycling!” 🙂

Yup, oxygen to the brain — vastly underrated.

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FelixBC July 19, 2012 at 1:51 pm

Yes, OUR roads. Everyone’s. We all pay taxes: income, property, sales, gas taxes. Even if we rent and never drive a car, we’re paying our landlords tax and the parts of the cost of our food that pay for transporting that food.

Roads are for moving people and goods–not cars and trucks.

Ray, what happened to the driver of that car?

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Raymond Parker July 19, 2012 at 2:31 pm

There was no criminal intent, just a major fustercluck on his part. He admitted to police “I guess I wasn’t paying attention,” whatever that meant.

Therefore, he paid $800.00 in fines and, one presumes, his “full-privilege” licence was delayed somewhat. In addition, I’m guessing his insurance costs would jump substantially.

That’s about it.

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Gary Baker July 19, 2012 at 2:48 pm

Ray, thank you for putting all the chapters of this ordeal together as one coherent story. During the chats we have had over the past three years I was only able to visualize the horror of the accident and the struggles you have faced. During those chats we shared our stories ( I was hit in May 2006 and again in July 2007 suffering some very serious injuries). I think these chats were in some ways cathartic for both of us. During a time of your own recovery, thank you for listening to me. I look forward to following your blog and feasting on the wonderful photos you take. Take care!

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Raymond Parker July 20, 2012 at 10:44 am

Gary, I’m beginning to think we are grizzled old cycling soldiers, swapping war stories. Let’s hope for an armistice soon! 🙂

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Janis La Couvée July 19, 2012 at 5:08 pm

Ray, I met you in late 2009, early 2010 on Twitter and then finally in real life. I’d just gotten back on my bike after decades of not riding. ( For years in France, I commuted.)

As a sometimes cyclist and most often driver – I understand the (unfortunate) dangers of both.

Your accident will not deter me from cycling.

I’m thankful some of this ordeal is behind you, and that you are still able to cycle. I can only imagine in some small way the joy it gives you.

Although it’s a “cautionary” tale, it is also one of the incredible ability of humans to persevere through very difficult times.

We need to get together for beer and/or Scotch and chats – soon…..

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Raymond Parker July 19, 2012 at 5:29 pm

Janis: Thank you for reminding me what a life-saver social meda has been, especially Twitter. In fact, besides family and established cycling contacts, most of the new community, especially local, has come from Twitter.

During the period when I was bed-ridden, social media became almost as important as the people tending my physical wounds.

When, at last, I could get out on crutches to “tweet-ups” the new social contacts were truly uplifting. For that I should also acknowledge the healing-power of social media in my support and recovery!

Definitely, drinks are in order.

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Laurie July 19, 2012 at 6:19 pm

You must have breathed a great sigh of relief to have finally been able to put your story ‘out there’. Much has happened in three years and I’m glad to have been able to talk to you over a relaxed coffee and muffin as opposed to yakking over the wind noise on a Wednesday on some road on the peninsula. I really love your stories about climbing and such. I am driving again and getting ready to pull the bike off the trainer and go outside (yikes!). Shoulder isn’t perfect-never will be of course but pales in comparison. I will admit to a bit of hesitation but must get back in the saddle. Talk to you next week about a coffee date somewhere (and maybe a short ride too).

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Raymond Parker July 20, 2012 at 10:41 am

Laurie, your concern and company have been much appreciated. Let’s go for a short “coffee ride” soon.

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Conor Ahern July 20, 2012 at 8:32 am

That little ride I took around North America in 1994 was a walk in the park compared to what you’ve been through recently.

Maybe I should get back in training and we can do Paris- Brest-Paris sometime, or another quick trip down the Yellowhead Highway.

You, Sir, are indeed a “True” Cyclist, your leg was in bits and you were worried about your bike.

Keep up the good work.

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Raymond Parker July 20, 2012 at 10:40 am

Ha, ha! The bystanders thought I was crazy, but I’m just a bike nut.

Your proposal sounds interesting. Incidentally, I’m planning a trip back over that ’94 route … by car.

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Tom Clements July 25, 2012 at 11:36 am

Raymond
Reading your account brought to life some of my worst imaginings. Every time I get on my bike I am very aware of the possible catastrophes that might occur, some through my own momentary inattention, others due to road conditions, and of greatest concern, those resulting from careless, reckless, thoughtless, inattentive, and just plain bad/aggressive drivers out there. Others I ride with often find me excessively cautious. I assume EVERY car will do the unexpected. I never assume they will stop at red lights or stop signs, or give me the right of way if I’m in a traffic circle first. In spite of the fact that I’m always highly visible, I never assume that I’ll be seen.
I’m sure many cyclists ride as I do, and I’m not fooloish enough to believe that I can protect myself from all possible accidents with highly defensive riding style.
Your account has reaffirmed my belief that it’s dangerous out there and if anything, it will make me even more cautious, but I’ll keep on riding
Good luck with your continued recovery.
Tom Clements

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Raymond Parker July 26, 2012 at 1:40 pm

Thanks Tom. I agree that, short of hyper-vigilance, a PTSD symptom I suffered with for some time, alertness and a healthy degree of mistrust is a good survival tactic.

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Ryan August 8, 2012 at 10:00 am

I do hope you are much better now.

This is why I tend to be paranoid going through intersections — even though I have a green. I’m constantly looking around.

What truly pisses me off is when I read people moaning about cyclists going through red lights…This or much worse is the result of motorists going through reds.

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Raymond Parker August 9, 2012 at 11:20 am

Constantly looking around is a good thing. It informs the mind and saves lives. As I’ve mused in my latest post, we’re often in too much hurry to properly observe our surroundings.

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Pete August 9, 2012 at 4:37 am

I’ve just caught your update on CycleChat dude and i have to say this story is horrible, fascinating, scary and incredible all rolled into one.
i can’t imagine what you’ve been through but i’d like to thank you for sharing it.
You asked if this would put me off, honestly no it won’t even despite the knowledge that this could be me one day i’ll still cycle, perhaps though i’ll cycle with a bit more care then i have up to now. If i showed this to my wife she’d probably set my bike on fire so i could never ride it she’s a radiologist so see’s broken bones and injured cyclists regularly.
again thank you for sharing!
Pete

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Raymond Parker August 9, 2012 at 11:27 am

Cheers Pete. You’re welcome. If reading my story alerts just a little bit to the dangers awaiting on the road, then I have turned my ill fortune a little bit toward the good.

Personally, I am that little bit more cautious at intersections, the scene, a paramedic friend of mine once told me, of most collisions.

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Renée August 10, 2013 at 11:06 am

I’m at a loss for words—catastrophic, absolutely. It’s good that you wrote it because to keep it silent would somehow keep the experience in shadow.

The comments on this post are really interesting as well. The solidarity between cyclists is compelling and inspiring.

I’ve always wanted to cycle more, but I’ve never had a good bike. When I have cycled, though, I’ve loved it so much. It’s smoother than running, and being heavier, I find cycling easier on the joints. And I love the fluid motion, and the feeling of speed.

I admit I have been fearful of traffic as well. It’s part of what has held me back. Odd, since I was a bike courier in Toronto in the late eighties—and rode my bike to and from school in Montréal (terrible roads!) just a few years ago.

I’ve appreciated what you’ve said before about the meditative aspect of it, which is what had me connect to you here.

I’m going to subscribe to your blog in the hope that it makes cycling feel more attainable to me on a number of levels.

Thanks for sharing a difficult story with such eloquence and candour!

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