I woke up sometime the day after the “big race”. I was doing Ironman Wisconsin which consisted of a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike and a 26.2 mile run. I remembered the swim and the start of the bike but couldn’t remember any of the rest. I thought our triathlon group had celebrated when everyone had finished and I thought I drank too much because I felt like I had a terrible hangover. Those thoughts sound like it was a while before I understood I had been in a bike accident but what seemed like a long time was about three seconds. I don’t remember who was there but it didn’t take me long to realize that I had been hurt and was in a hospital.
The first people I remember were my wife, Jean, and Roch Frey, the Ironman bike race director. I don’t remember what we said to each other but I’m told we discussed the benefits of morphine. Jean had been pulled out of the race, a race she would have won in her age group to qualify for the world championships in Hawaii, by Roch when she was half-way through the bike portion because I was in the hospital and “wasn’t good”. He had brought her to the hospital and had gone back to our hotel room to pick up a change of clothes since she was wearing her bike riding outfit.
At first I didn’t know how severe the injuries were. Jean, the doctors and the nurses told me things but I would forget quickly and it was much later before the words stuck with me. I had suffered a fractured skull, fractured scapula (we didn’t find that out until much later in Grand Rapids), left eye contusions with the eye swollen shut, road rash on both elbows, both knees and my right ankle, and three brain hematomas-one epidural and two subdural (my right ankle took five weeks to heal which was the least of my worries). When I was taking my first shower I noticed a huge bruise that went from my butt cheek to the joint on the back of my leg. I was extremely dizzy and lost most of the hearing in my right ear. That was because I had bled both inside and outside the ear and the dried blood had caked on the eardrum. My hearing came back eventually.
Bleeding inside and outside my eardrum frightened me. I knew that when people bled like that there was likely to be brain injuries and I didn’t know where that would lead me. I knew who I was and who everyone else was too so I knew I wouldn’t be a vegetable but would I ever be normal? And what would normal be anyway? Would I ever be able to ride a bike again? How about run or even walk?
I only remember small pieces of my stay in the hospital at Madison but it seems like I had tests all the time. Jean told me that I wanted to leave the hospital and was happy when I was discharged. She was not. She had been in telephone contact with our family doctor and he said it sounded like I shouldn’t be discharged but the doctors in Madison did it anyway. He told Jean to keep an eye on me and, if anything serious happened, pull into the first hospital she could find. Jean flew Sara, my daughter, over to Madison to help her get me home since she couldn’t drive and watch over me at the same time.
I don’t remember the night I was discharged from Meriter Hospital in Madison. Jean said we went to a Perkins restaurant to eat dinner and all she could get me to eat was a chocolate milk shake. I vaguely remember getting in the car the next morning and, when we pulled out of the parking lot, telling Jean we were going the wrong way. I don’t know how I knew that since I had never been to that motel and had no idea what part of town it was in. I would guess that somewhere in my memory I had seen signs from the day before when we came from the hospital.
I remember very little of the trip home and I’m told I slept sitting up off and on most of the way. I remember we stopped at a McDonalds for lunch in Michigan City, Indiana and, when I got out of the car, I felt terrible. I remember walking around in circles in the parking lot. When Jean got the food I’m told I went inside and ate some of it. I don’t remember much of the rest of the trip home and little about going into the house. I vaguely remember Pat Loftus, a good friend of mine, being in my bedroom telling me I had to go to the emergency room at the hospital so I did.
When we got to the hospital I remember they got me a wheelchair and it seems like I went into an examining room right away. The rest of the examination was a blur and I only remember Doug Smendik, a doctor but not an ER doctor nor my regular doctor, telling me I was sick and had to go to Grand Rapids to another hospital. I remember they put me in an ambulance, strapped me to a narrow gurney, and away we went. I don’t remember much of the trip and don’t remember arriving at Spectrum Hospital (I still call it Butterworth).
I remembered more of the stay at Spectrum than in Madison but I still would forget many things. I’m told I would receive telephone calls, talk at some length, and then forget the call soon after I hung up. I’m told I was flirtatious with the nurses which is not at all like me. I do remember trying to give one of the nurses a $10 tip because she was doing such a good job and telling Jean she was really nice but quite homely after she left the room. I’m told I had one day that I swore constantly. I don’t remember much of that although I do remember swearing some when I got in the shower for the first time. It seemed like every spot on my body hurt and, when the water hit me, hurt even worse. At the same time I was hooked up to an IV and a bunch of wires and was a little irritated that I couldn’t unhook them all and shower like I used to. Jean tells me I was a little snippy with her when she tried to help me into the bathroom.
I’m told that there were times when I would quit breathing and my heart rate would go down to around 20. The nurses didn’t know what to do so they would send me down to intensive care where I would get straightened out and get sent back to the floor. Jean says eventually they told her to rub my feet when I wouldn’t breathe and that would stimulate me to start again. I do remember some of the tests and the nurses or aides getting me up to walk around the hallways.
One of the procedures I remember was when they sent me to be tested for seizures. It seemed to me I was in the basement in a small room. I remember the start of the test but don’t remember anything they did. I may have fallen asleep or they may have “put me out” but I do know that when I awoke I felt my face and it seemed like it was covered with spider webs. I felt like I was in the basement of a haunted castle in some mid-fifties horror movie.
At another time they sent me down to have a “Cat Scan”. Again I felt like I was in a basement but the room seemed brighter and I was in a conversation with the tech administering the test. She told me that the results would be read by a radiologist named Scott Lancaster, a doctor who had practiced at Pennock Hospital where I was a member of the board of trustees. I don’t know whether I told her or someone later but I remember saying “Oh yeah. He’s the radiologist that’s suing us”. Again that’s not like me because I spent thirty years in Public Accounting where confidentiality was a way of life.
I went home after the fifth day and thought I felt fine. When I got home there were a couple of friends from our triathlon group and we visited about things I don’t remember. My mother and my two other children had flown in from Florida and California and I remember them being there the next day. I know they were concerned and I told them I felt fine but they knew differently. I couldn’t sleep in a bed because it hurt to lay my head down on a pillow so I slept in a Laz-e-Boy chair for six weeks.
I was unable to drive a car and was allowed to walk by myself for a half hour at a time. I would walk to the bank, walk to the post office and would walk through the downtown area. I saw many people I knew and would talk about my recovery from the accident. As time went on I walked farther each day but still was not allowed to exercise much. Jean tells me I was an SOB for the first couple of days and she “couldn’t do anything right”. I don’t remember any of that and, apparently, it didn’t last long.
About six weeks after the accident my mother and Jean drove me down to Florida where I would spend time recuperating. The nice weather made it easier to walk outdoors and I was able to walk farther and at a faster pace than my walks in Michigan. I began driving at around eight weeks and started lifting weights and swimming around that same period of time. I noticed improvements each week up to around three months. I felt entirely recovered but that wasn’t really the case. After that the changes came about more slowly and still continue today, but I consider myself cured.
All through the recovery period I would have memory difficulties and would be unable to think of certain words. I would often have trouble coming up with someone’s name. It was often a friend or someone I had known for several years. I would remember where they lived, where they worked, their wife’s name, but theirs wouldn’t come. I would usually remember it later. Sometimes it took two minutes, sometimes two hours and sometimes two days but I always would get it eventually.
Sometimes the words I couldn’t get are everyday words I have known all my life. I remember telling my son a story about my first visit to New York City. I was staying at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, and I described the train ride into the city in vivid detail. It was a long story and ended with the sentence “Then the other drunks helped him to his feet and took him back to sit on the …….”. I couldn’t get that last word but I knew what it was. I described it to him as a thing that comes up out of the ground that flattens out with two “ears” and has water in it. He asked “Do you mean fire hydrant?” and I said “Yes”. I went home and told my wife the strangest thing had just happened and described the story to her in a short version. I said “When I got to the end I couldn’t remember the words ……”. They wouldn’t come again.
Those episodes continue today nearly six months from the accident except that when I finally get the word I usually don’t forget it. The words have been common like resume and shoulder and convoy among many others. Most of my friends and family know that missing words may happen and they are very understanding. Jean and I have an agreement that she won’t help me with missed words or forgotten names. We both feel that forcing me to work on remembering may help in the recovery process. If not at least it’s a fun little game. Often minutes and sometimes hours later I’ll walk by her and say nothing but the missed word. Sometimes it takes her a minute to figure out what I’m talking about but she always remembers the situation and says “Yes, that’s it”.
There are many stories about what I did during the hospital stays. Some I remember and some I have learned second hand. During recovery I would e-mail my friends and family with my recovery progress. Looking back at those e-mails I can see many changes. The early ones were brief and told limited information about my progress. As time went on they became lengthier. Sometimes they were serious and talked about the accident and other times they contained stories in my strange sense of humor. Whether for the humor or the information on the healing process many friends and family told me how much they enjoyed the e-mails and I should “keep them coming”.
I have been very open with my progress and have noticed some changes in my personality. Before the accident I was quiet and soft spoken. Since the accident I notice I talk much more than I did before and usually say exactly what I think. I don’t think I say things that are offensive to people and I don’t walk up to women on the street and say “My, what a nice set of jugs you have”. I find myself at meetings talking more than I should and have attempted to tone it down a little. I still say things I think need to be heard but I try not to go overboard to the point of boring everyone.
Without going into detail about the countless adventures during my recovery this would be the end. But there are many parts that only I know about. I have told a couple of people a couple of the stories but not in much detail. Borrowing from radio personality Paul Harvey, “Here’s the rest of the story”.
In one of the e-mails I sent to friends and family keeping them informed of my progress, or at least my take on my progress, I mentioned that when I first awoke I felt like I was coming from a spot that was pitch black, quiet and I was alone. I’m sure that many felt I was thinking I was in that spot between living and dying and was having one of those “near death experiences”. That isn’t what I felt at all. My accounting geek thought process had to put everything into its proper niche. I thought the appropriate niche was the reaction of the brain when severe trauma occurs. I have no medical background but felt that when the brain is injured it shuts down all non-essential processes (dreaming; unrelated thoughts, etc.) and devotes its entire existence into healing and recovery.
That doesn’t mean I never worried that I was close to death. I’m not afraid of dying. It will happen to all of us sooner or later, but I wanted it to be later. I have some things left undone and probably always will. Maybe I see the need now to tie up all the loose ends because life can change in one split second. I joke about wanting to spend the money I worked hard for all my working life rather than let Jean spend it on Guido, the cabana boy but that really is a joke unless anyone has seen Jean and Guido while I was in Florida. My worry was that what I set up in my trust in 1991 when all the kids were home it is different than what I would set up now that they are all grown up (no jabs intended-they are all grown up much as Mothers think they aren’t). So it’s time to get the trust fixed along with Jean’s will which leaves everything to me that I don’t need and her boys do.
I’m sure that many also felt that the part that talks about feeling all alone was a scary part to me and it wasn’t. I felt all alone because I was. I know there were doctors, nurses, family members and friends around but they were only around part of the time. I had lots of trouble sleeping at night, probably due to the pain, and I was alone most of that time. Family and friends were home sleeping in their beds and the nurses were trying not to bother patients so they could sleep so there was no one there.
It sounds like a complaint but it’s not at all. It’s great to have friends that come by and show that they care; doctors come by and tell you that you are improving; nurses that come by and take care of your basic needs (I hope I was never catheterized or had to crap in a bedpan); family that would come by and show you their love and concern; but you are still alone with your thoughts-sometimes for long periods of time. I also don’t think I had life changing revelations. I thought about the thoughts and beliefs I have had all my life even though they often oppose the accounting geek side of me.
In that same e-mail I say I fear that …”an arm could reach out and pull me back to the black hole”. I’m sure that many readers felt again that I was worried about dying or becoming a vegetable and that wasn’t it at all. During that long time alone I had lots of time to think about my life and life in general. I worried about family and friends and their uncertainties but in the long run my biggest worry was that I would be the kind of person I read about in the papers or hear about on the news programs that spend all their time trying to blame someone else for their misfortune. My heart breaks when I think about the victims of the 9/11 tragedy but it wretches when I hear newscasters push and prod people to put a price tag on “compensation” for their loss. The same goes for the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing and the other disasters in life; some man-made and some natural disasters.
It’s not that I disagree that individuals that directly cause tragedies should not be accountable, but the blame finger points in too many directions and tries to include too many of the indirect sources. The argument can go on and on and many people feel strongly that the blame should go as far as it can. But how many people agree with the jury award of millions of dollars for the woman that sued McDonalds because she spilled hot coffee in her lap? A friend of mine is the treasurer for a boat manufacturer that was sued by the family of a man who drank liquor all day long, was extremely drunk, pulled the pontoon boat into two feet of water, climbed onto the roof of the pontoon and dove into the water breaking his back because there wasn’t a sign that said “DO NOT DIVE OFF THE ROOF OF THE PONTOON-IT MAY CAUSE SERIOUS INJURY OR DEATH”. The family won the case.
My worry was, is and will always be that I try to blame someone or something for the bike wreck or other things that changed my life. I think it’s healthy to try and find out how it happened so I can do what I can to prevent it from happening again. But first of all my accounting logical brain tells me that there’s a huge possibility that the wreck was my own fault. I don’t care if a six foot trench caused the accident. Probably 1,200 plus riders went by that same spot before I did and didn’t fall so I shouldn’t have either. I have second guessed all kinds of possibilities and the Ironman organization has been no help at all. From the front tire catching in an expansion joint or road crack to too much weight forward causing a loss of control and everything in between, blame doesn’t matter. I was telling one of the guys at the YMCA about the accident and he asked me if I was wearing a helmet. I said yes but it broke into three pieces (that’s second-hand information-someone threw my helmet away for me so I’ve not seen it). He said “You ought to sue them”. I said “If I didn’t have the helmet on I would probably be dead by now”.
I’ve made arrangements to enter the Ironman Wisconsin again in 2004 against the advice of some of my friends but mostly with support and understanding. I’ve used the macho explanation that I have to “beat the race that beat me” but that’s not really how I feel. I feel that I have to face down the “demon” and the demon is me. I’m sure I will make a pilgrimage to the spot where the wreck happened and spend a few minutes alone to look or pray or swear and that may be a necessary part of the race but I need to do the race without trying to pawn the blame on to myself or anyone else. What happened has happened and nothing in this world will change it. If I use the tragedy as an excuse I’ll be losing control of my choices and that’s not the way I want things to be.
For some people maybe pointing the blame finger works so they feel better. I could blame someone else or myself and use that crutch to excuse myself for drinking too much or living in anger or carousing in bars or becoming depressed. Maybe some people feel that I do any or all of those things although half my time in bars is spent drinking caffeine free diet coke but that’s not the point. We all live all our lives the best way we know how but do things that are “life’s choices”. We are on this earth to live and we make our own life’s choices every day. Some of those choices are good and some (mine included) are, in hindsight, not so good. But that’s the human condition. And when our final number comes up we add the pluses and minuses and see if we are where we wanted to be. For those who have a base in religion as I do, we feel we are ultimately judged by God. For those who aren’t religious and those who are, we know we are judged by everyone who has ever known us.
But before those other judgments happen we spend our whole lives living and judging ourselves on an ongoing basis and I want to think I have a rolling “A”. As Anna recently put in an e-mail about her history test, maybe only a 90 but still an “A”.