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Crossroads

A bike crash sends the rider on an unexpected course

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By Bella English
January 23, 2011

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Sunday mornings have always been my favorite time to ride my bicycle; few cars are on the road. And Sunday, September 19, was a beautiful day. My husband, Francis, and I set out on what we call the Braintree Loop, a 27-mile ride with lots of good hills. I’ve done that route at least 100 times over the 10 years I’ve been cycling. I know the hills and curves by heart.

Well into the ride, I realized that I had to hurry home. We had a noon Skype session set up with our teenage son, and I was desperate to hear his voice. My husband told me to go ahead, so I took off.

I was about 5 miles from home, on a gradual downhill, going about 22 miles per hour. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I believe my Trek hit a large pothole, probably as I was looking out for cars. I went down, hard, though I have no memory of it. Of course I was wearing a helmet, but I struck my head on asphalt below the helmet line, beneath my left ear.

Fran, riding five minutes behind me, saw a scrum of people, then my bike and me. He didn’t know whether I was alive.

I know people’s lives can turn on a dime or come to an unexpected, screeching halt. I’ve spent much of the past 25 years chronicling such stories in the Globe. There are so many people whose lives are fine – until they are hit by a car, a diagnosis, a fire, violence, a devastating loss.

As a reporter, I’m more interested in the recovery than in the trauma. What is it about the human spirit that defies the battered body or the heartsick soul? Where do people find the resilience to keep putting one foot in front of the other?

I am now finding out firsthand.

It has been nearly four months since the accident, and I am still out of work on medical leave. My injuries included a fractured skull, bruising and bleeding of the brain, a broken left clavicle, a broken shoulder blade, two broken ribs, a fractured pelvis. My 19-page hospital file includes this notation: “following traumatic injury.” I prefer to say I fell off my bike and bumped my head. To have traumatic brain injury was not on my radar. Until I started writing this story, I adamantly avoided looking at my medical records. I did not want to know the exact extent of my injuries; they are my constant companions. My days have been dictated by hospitals: X-rays, MRIs, CT scans, visual and audio and neural tests, and therapies of every sort.

I refer to my experience as “Life, Interrupted.” After the accident, in my journal, I wrote: “I’m struggling with who I am now, who will I be and how will I get there?”

My new full-time job is recovery.

The lovely strangers who came to my aid – we still don’t know who they were – parked their cars on the edge of the road, got out, and protected my inert body from being hit by a car. One of them later dropped our bikes off at our house.

They called 911. The ambulance, going 80 miles per hour, bypassed the local hospitals for Boston Medical Center, which has a level-one trauma unit. According to my husband, doctors greeted me as I came in on a stretcher, which they, along with EMTs, tipped sideways so I wouldn’t choke on my own vomit.

In the emergency room, staffers cut off my cycling clothes: the spandex shorts Fran had given me for my birthday three weeks earlier and a jersey from Best Buddies, my favorite charity ride. Doctors and nurses spent hours testing and monitoring me while my husband shared the ER waiting room with a woman whose son had been shot.

I can’t remember much. I have only a vague memory of doctors peering at me with worried faces. I spent two days in intensive care and two more in a regular room. In the ICU, doctors and nurses hooked me up with IVs, a neck brace, a catheter, and painkillers. From the catheter, I got a urinary tract infection. Two days after the accident, Fran, who was sending out update e-mails, wrote: “She is a little cranky today, which I take as a good sign.”

After four days, I was transferred by ambulance to Braintree Rehabilitation Hospital, where I spent 10 days. In the rehab hospital, I could not sleep. My bed was hooked up to an alarm at night. If I moved an inch – and who doesn’t? – a piercing siren would go off. One night I counted 10 times from mine and several more from patients’ beds up and down the hall. At the hospital, I caught a cold. Every time I coughed or sneezed, it felt as if someone were stabbing me in my broken ribs.

A neuropsychologist tested my cognitive ability. In one test, I had to look at scenes of a family, then answer questions about what its members were doing. The questions got absurdly detailed. I knew Grandpa and Pa were grilling in the picnic scene, but I did not know what they were grilling. I said to the doctor: “You know, I am not emotionally invested in this family, so I am not doing well on this test.” He replied, “Miss English, do you really think my other patients are emotionally invested in this family?”

Two months into my recovery, he tested me again, and I did fine on all the tests – except one. The doctor noted I had trouble with my sense of direction and that I would set things down and forget them. I told him I’ve always had a bad sense of direction and, since turning 50, have forgotten where my sunglasses are, even when they’re on top of my head.

This time, however, I correctly recalled what Grandpa and Pa were grilling: hamburgers.

For my first outing, as part of a functional-living skills group, I went on a field trip to the mall with half a dozen other inmates and a therapist. At Johnny Rockets, I ordered a vanilla milkshake. There I was, at a place where I’d taken my kids dozens of times, and now I was with a group of other injured people, being chaperoned by a woman maybe half my age, who paid the check.

But it’s hard to feel sorry for yourself in a rehab hospital: Other patients had suffered strokes or had brain surgery, had lost limbs in accidents or were slowly making their way in wheelchairs or with walkers. Like my story subjects, they inspired me to keep putting shaky foot in front of shaky foot.

The head injury gave me serious vertigo; six weeks after the accident, I flunked the “drunk-walking test” in my doctor’s office. I had funny things dancing before my eyes, a ringing in my ears. My short-term memory was impaired. My right leg fell asleep, prickly and numb from the hip to the toes.

When I first went back for outpatient therapy, I could barely stop the room from spinning. I could scarcely move my left arm. What was happening with my right leg was both annoying and scary: It would not wake up, and it hindered my walking and my sleeping. I was in constant pain.

I was diagnosed with positional vertigo. In physical therapy, I could stand on my right foot for only 10 seconds. In her notes, my therapist wrote that I staggered when I walked. I had trouble tapping either foot on one of those small orange plastic cones.

At home, I learned to put my left arm in a shirt first, then my right. When I got up from bed, I had a route mapped out to the bathroom: I’d slide to the end of the bed, grab the finial on the footboard, haul myself up, and lean over to the dresser, using it to make my way to the bathroom door frame. I’d hold onto that, making it to the sink and along the radiator to the toilet. On the hospital’s recommendation, my husband bought a shower chair for me.

When friends visited, I’d put on a game face; I wanted them to think I was doing well and to tell me how great I seemed. Those sorts of reactions helped me believe it was true, that I was getting better. Then they’d leave and I’d collapse with exhaustion from the effort.

In truth, I had a long way to go. In occupational therapy, to strengthen my left hand, my therapist would stretch a rubber band over my fingers and have me try to pull it apart. I would also squeeze pieces of clay between my fingers. Both of these were extremely difficult. Using a handgrip, I had to retrieve pegs out of a box and place them into holes on a pegboard. Many of them tumbled to the floor. It was the only time I swore in therapy.

I’m now in the dwindling days of it all: My therapists chased my vertigo away and helped restore mobility, range of motion, and strength in my left arm. I dropped out of speech pathology, which I had nicknamed “Are you as smart as a fifth-grader?” Early on, I had to name the president and vice president and when and where I was born. Time passed, and I still had to listen to paragraphs on various subjects, such as skunks, and then answer questions like “What color is a skunk?”

I have learned from my ordeal. I know how to let people help me. When we got married, my husband called the vows I wrote “Bella’s declaration of independence.” Now I’ve had no choice but to depend on others, and I’m grateful they’ve been there. Cards, casseroles, flowers, and books arrived at the house. Friends stepped in with trays of meatballs and sauce, soups, enchiladas, salmon, chicken Marsala, asparagus salad, homemade biscotti. My husband and I never ate so well.

A friend who has been through much worse than I left a warm velour track suit on my porch; I have lived in it. Another brought me a long wool scarf, perfect for covering up the bone chip protruding from my clavicle. It has all been a reminder of the importance of the cast of characters who make up our lives. I hope I’ve learned how to be a better friend from them all.

There are also, it must be said, the clueless. That includes those who, well meaning though they may be, have said the most tactless things. “Bella, I heard you almost died!” said one man. Others used words like “horrific,” “ghastly,” and “hideous” to describe the accident or said things like how “lucky you are that you weren’t killed.” Someone even asked me for “all the gory details.”

One e-mail from a woman said she was familiar with my kind of injury because several years ago her sister fell from a horse and immediately had a stroke “from which her brain never fully recovered.” Another told me her niece had been injured in a “horrible bike accident like yours years ago” and has never been the same. Such comments freaked me out, as I was choosing to downplay the seriousness of the crash. Maybe my accident wasn’t so bad; maybe I’d be better in just a few weeks. Denial can be a useful thing.

Worst of all, though, is “What happened?” I hate this question – I consider it re-traumatizing – and reply that I do not remember and am focused on healing.

Henry Miller said that one’s destination is never a place but a way of seeing. I feel I’ve been through the looking glass, and here’s what I’ve seen: the importance of accepting what life hands us, independence and pride that must at times give way, and the generosity and love of family and friends, which are the greatest prizes in life.

I attribute much of my healing to my family: my husband of three decades, our son, and our daughter. Nick flew home from college for a (gentle) hug at the hospital. Megan, who is working in Hanoi for the year, was there when I arrived home. Her boss had given her a month off, and she took care of me – holding my arm for walks, grocery shopping, cooking, helping with our beloved, ailing dog, and driving me to all of my appointments. I hated putting her through this role reversal at age 24, but she said she had felt helpless 10,000 miles away.

My accident has been a painful, frightening, and humbling experience. I’ve learned that with one hand I can’t put on a bra; step into pants; pull on socks, boots, or underwear; wash my hair or dry off well; do housework or yardwork; scoop ice cream; open a jar or even a candy bar; pull anything over my head; tie a scarf or sneakers; fasten a necklace; or give a full hug.

But I have nearly come back to my old body. My memory is about what it was before the accident: imperfect but not bad. I’ve gone from sleeping with six pillows to just three. To borrow a quote from Jimmy Breslin’s memoir: I want to thank my brain for remembering me.

I can’t say, as so many subjects have said to me after illness or accident, that my life is richer because of it. Nor could I ever imagine saying “Why me?” but rather “Why not me?” I’ve been cycling for a decade, and though I’m a careful rider – I write an annual column on cycling safety – I believe that sooner or later most cyclists crash. You just hope it’s a soft landing.

Mine wasn’t.

When my neurologist ended a recent appointment with the words, “You know, you really are lucky,” I had to agree. I am.

Still, I can’t stand to look at my bike in the garage. I loved it so long and so passionately, I must admit I feel an irrational grudge against it, as if it’s a friend who betrayed me. I look at the scrapes on its silver frame and the crack in my helmet hanging from the handlebars, and they remind me of the scrapes on my body and the crack in my head.

I don’t think I will ever get on it again. But I might.

Bella English has been a Globe reporter for 25 years. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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