I have been thinking about writing up what has transpired since I was hit by a car last January. I’ve started countless times and just couldn’t get it out of me. I think it was still too close to home. Too painful. Too depressing. More than half a year has passed and I am about 65% back to where I was on January 29th. Truth is, you aren’t the same person, big injuries change you, you never go back. A friend’s wise mom told me once – only look forward, never look back. And only recently have I turned a corner and now really feel like I can bring voice to my perspective and to the events of this last year. This is a long read – 8.5 months long, and still counting… At least I am here to both tell the story and reflect on it’s impact on me.
January 30, 2015.
I heard the screeching of tires around a corner and then a tap. I woke up in a ditch, my body prone, arms outstretched, legs outstretched behind me. Like Superman.
“Larry”, I say, “you can’t pay for this kind of adventure.”
It was a gorgeous winter day. Bright sunshine, warm temps and we were 8 miles from our first night’s stop. Larry looked at me from the curb, rubbing his shoulder, and smiled. Mike walked over and asked me how I was.
“I have a badly broken leg, but otherwise, ok. No head, neck or back trauma.” My right arm warmer was soaked red, and I thought to myself that they’d never be white again. Mike asked me if I knew where Laura was. “Nope. She was bridging up to you and Mark”.
Two men were on the street walking towards me, both of them smoking, thumbs in their jean pockets. I looked up at them from the ditch where I lay. Their car was up the road, a beat up Honda. I could see my riding partners and friends up the road from where I was except Laura. I had no idea where our bicycles were either. It dawned on me that we were hit from behind – by those men – in that car. That’s how I woke up in the ditch. I put my head down and closed my eyes.
Some time later when I came to, a paramedic was kneeling beside me and was telling me that Laura was going to be all right, she was on her way to Santa Rosa. That’s good, I thought, but didn’t really understand why everyone was so concerned with her. I would find out the gruesome details in due time. “We’re going to get you into the ambulance now, ok?” I nodded and passed out again because I have no memory of how I did get into the ambulance. Once inside and awake again, Mark was settled in beside me and said, “Nice way to meet each other, right?”
The five of us had left Healdsburg that morning for a three-day credit card bicycle trip. Our plan was to ride to Ukiah via Western Mines Road to Kelseyville and then over Toll House Road to Old River road into town. On day 2, we’d head to Jenner via Orr Springs, and then back to Healdsburg on Day 3. Three days, mixed dirt and pavement, just under 300 miles. We were 8 miles from our first nights stop, when the adventure came to an abrupt halt. An 18 year old, unlicensed drunk driver (with .22 blood alcohol), ran his car into all five of us before coming to a stop.
Once in the ambulance I sent an update on Facebook. I had been posting throughout the day to friends who wanted to know about the dirt road conditions and overall course. This would, no doubt, alert people and family members to our situation, and that we’d need help in the next hours. Turns out, we made the newspapers.
In the hospital, the four of us were admitted, poked, x-rayed, and drugged. We had a variety of injuries from severe road rash – all of us had that – to broken limbs. Laura, as it turns out, had been found pinned underneath the driver’s car. She had been hit, landed on the windshield of the car, and finally after screaming at the driver to stop the car, he did. She then slid off the hood, was drug by the car and then pinned under it when it finally came to a stop. She was helicoptered to Santa Rosa for head and neck trauma. I had missed all of that. I had been out cold in the ditch.
I was the last person to get X-rays, and emergency surgery to stabilize my right leg. My doctor was firm and clear, his eyes making contact with mine from behind his bright yellow glasses, “You will have 2 surgeries. One tonight and another in a few weeks”. My X-rays confirmed: cracked pelvis, shattered ankle, and that right elbow had a 5″ gash that had ruined my arm warmers. I was on a lot of painkillers when the nurses cut my cycling shorts off of me. I was hoping they could spare my beloved blue Sidis, but they were gone before I could protest. I managed to save my jersey, which was brand new. My ankle had a compound fracture and the last thing I remember before passing out for a third time was the Doc telling me that this was going to hurt. He pulled on my ankle so my tibia bone would go back under the skin.
In the morning, I woke up to a Frankenstein like contraption in my leg. Two four inch screws were sticking out of my shin, and another two out of my ankle. An “external fixator” stretched in between these anchors. It was incredibly scary looking, and it was then that I realized just how bad my injury I was. I called some friends and my brother in Michigan. I didn’t want them to worry so I waited till I was out of surgery. The pain medication was strong, and the nurses made sure that I didn’t feel a thing.
Mid morning Mike came in to say hello. The update: Larry had a broken shoulder and ankle, Laura narrowly escaped a severe head trauma but had a cracked vertebrae in her neck and was really banged up and bruised. Mark also had a cracked vertebrae in his back, but he was up and around. He took off to Santa Rosa to be with Laura as soon as he was cleared to leave. Mike was going out to the site of the crash to look around and get a sense of what happened. The police had collected our bicycles and gear. I realized that my car keys were missing, and Mike would look for and, amazingly, find them.
Family members showed up to collect Mike and Larry, and Drew and Tuesday, Sherry and Dean, came to see me. I was to be transported to a hospital in Sacramento, yet, my car and stuff needed to be collected and brought home. Later in the afternoon, I was back in an ambulance, heading to Sacramento. I still didn’t have a clear understanding of the depth of my injuries.
It was Super Bowl Sunday and while waiting for release a few surprise visitors came by. It was really great to see Steve and Peggy, Crash and Sue and they really cheered me up – the brew that Steve smuggled in helped for sure. Meanwhile, friends had really stepped up and transformed my house and living room to a makeshift hospital room. Before I arrived home, a wheelchair, walkers, and a bed had been made up. I was carefully moved into my new living quarters and would live downstairs for 6 weeks.
In the coming days, friends would spend the night upstairs, while I would be down. Pain medication was a constant and if it wasn’t right on the 3.5-4 hour mark, it was really acute. Getting up and into a wheelchair to get to the bathroom, which was only 15 feet away was a huge and painful ordeal. I washed my hair in the kitchen sink, and cycled through 3 pairs of sweatpants and t-shirts.
The external fixator was a chore. Kelly and Deb would come over just about every day to help clean and then re-bandage my leg. Wound care was critical to fight infection and minimize scarring. My foot was terrifically swollen and the Doctor had told me that we needed to get the swelling down in order to do the second surgery to repair my ankle. Kelly would massage my toes and foot to get the fluid to move up my leg. Her knowledge about lymph nodes was invaluable, as were Deb’s gentle hands cleaning and dressing the skin around the screws sticking out of my shin. Martha organized a food bank for me and folks came over almost every day to say hello, share a beer and to keep me company.
I was cleared for surgery number two and on Feb 13. Fordie drove me to Kaiser to see Doc Hottie. The nurses swoon when they see him and one nurse told me that her office and desk was right across the hall from him. As an added bonus, he’s damn good at his job. Seven and half hours later, my ankle was rebuilt with some mesh and twenty screws tacking the bone fragments back together with two rods holding everything in place. My painful Valentines Day was made happy with green chile from Dos Coyotes (my all time fav) and a beer or two smuggled into my hospital room by Fordie, laced with oxycotin.
Once back home, recovery started in earnest. The other four had 2 weeks of recovery under them and I always felt like I was behind in healing. Back onto pain medication and very little movement, the rest of February was an oxy blur.
At the time I remember thinking to myself that I was on a 1200k to recovery, only with a few changes to the typical rules that govern these long bicycle rides. There was a beginning and an end goal, but I didn’t have a map of the route, or a cue sheet. I had no idea how long each section would take, or what would be the interim milestones, only that it would be a while. Doc Hottie told me that I might be walking by August. That was six months away.
While my cycling season was completely forfeit, the other four in the crash were getting back to work, even beginning to cycle again. The randonneuring season had begun and I could cheer people on from the sidelines. Wonderfully, lots of friends from the rando community came to visit, which really helped me through some darker days.
I received emails from people I didn’t know, but had heard through the cycling grapevine about my crash. I was really touched by the kindness of strangers…
Max even created a permanent called Dome to Dome, that folks could ride from SF to Sac, with a stop at my house. It was great fun to host the group of SFR rando’s making the trip. Throughout the Spring, friends would come up and stay for a day or two, and help out with groceries and food, bring good cheer and tell stories. It made all the difference in the world, keeping my mind off of my leg, which was incredibly painful 24/7.
My first interim goal was to get back upstairs and into my own bed. At one point in dawned on me that I had a small bench in my shower, and that if I left a walker at the top of the stairs and could pull myself up the stairs with my arms to leverage my now growing butt up them, then I could get into my bed, wear some other clothes besides the same three sets of sweat pants, and take a shower! Oh yeah! It was exhausting to pull myself up the stairs, but the feeling of satisfaction when I was in the shower was amazing.
When it was time to get the stitches out, Fordie drove me over to Kaiser so I could see Doc Hottie. Stacy, my wound care nurse was on hand to unbandage my leg, clean it up and take out stitches. When it was uncovered and I was looking at it for the first time I was overwhelmed by the massiveness of the injury. It was so mangled looking. There were over 50 stitches in multiple places from mid-shin down to and around my ankle. One of the areas where the large screws holding the fixator had gotten slightly infected, leaving necrotic tissue, which looked like a gaping hole in my shin.
I have a Pilon fracture:
Derived from the French word pilon (pestle), an instrument used for crushing and pounding and usually used with a mortar.
The word pilon, which is derived from the French language, refers to a pestle, which is a club-shaped tool for mashing or grinding substances in a mortar or using a large bar to stamp or pound vertically. A pilon fracture describes the motion of the talus acting like a hammer or pestle as it crashes into the tibial plafond. These fractures are described as “explosive injuries” and subsequently, as noted in Orthopaedia Main, they have also described these injuries as “explosion fractures.
Compression High energy injuries to the ankle may be caused by motor vehicle accidents, falls from a height and some sports. Pure compression is rare; usually it is combined with rotation, inversion or eversion. However, compression results in the fracture to the weight bearing joint surface of the end of the tibia. This Pilon fracture is named from the French word for hammer and has the worst outcome of all ankle fractures.
Pilon fractures have a range of outcome based on severity as well as other factors. They’re quite significant injuries, and if you look at surveys that try to measure overall function, pilons on average are more detrimental to level of function as heart attacks.
Reality sucked, and I could finally see the scope of the damage. Doc Hottie was all smiles as he snipped, cut and pulled. I was weepy and jumpy (it hurt!), but he said things looked like they were coming along. In another 12 weeks if all went well, I could start PT. Fordie and I met friends for a brew afterwards to soothe my sore heart and leg.
Coming along? 12 weeks? Three months? That would be the end of May. I hadn’t done any exercise since the crash. Already 2 months down and another 3 were staring at me. I had to do something to get my heart rate up. Something.
I thought perhaps a rowing machine might be the ticket. A fellow Davis bike club member had one she wasn’t using and brought it over and set it up. What a gift! I eased my way over to it and then down onto the seat. My left foot would easily strap in, but my right needed to be free. I borrowed a skateboard from a friend’s son, and rested my right foot on the board, which could move up and back freely as I did on the rowing machine. It worked! Five minutes later, I was exhausted and my leg throbbed. Still, I could do it, and any physical exertion felt good to me. I was both triumphant and bummed. Happy to be able to use the machine, bummed that 5 minutes was all the energy I had.
Another interim goal was to get outside. Sacramento had a mild winter, minimal rain, and my casita had space for a small garden. I had been reading up on the emotional side of dealing with a physical loss and one thing all of the literature said was to do something that you normally wouldn’t have time for or make time for. Gardening was just that thing.
I actually really enjoy gardening, but I’m not good at it. I take care of the plants I have, but when a trip comes along, I tell them that they are on their own! I bought a bunch of plants, pots and soil and set to work. When fully functioning, it’s nothing to pot plants. But doing it from a wheelchair is another story:
Wheel to the back door. Open it, hop outside and turn around.
Pull wheelchair out of the house. Pull crutches out of the house. Turn around and sit back down in chair.
Wheel over to where the pots are.
Drag water, pots and soil to the plants.
Pot plants from the chair.
Stand and use one crutch to carefully hop over to where you want the pot in the garden while dragging the newly potted plant into position. Try not to fall over. Maintain balance on one foot.
When done, repeat the process in reverse to get back into the house. Sit down exhausted. What would normally take a half hour took two. The simplest tasks were exhausting.
The brevet season had started and I desperately needed a way to be a part of it. The rando community is like my family, and while I couldn’t ride, I could help out and volunteer. Friends would accompany me to a brevet and we would be out on the course at one of the controls. Often, I’d be set up with my leg perched on a cooler or chair and would sign brevet cards, which was great because I would see everyone who was riding, get a quick hug and a hello and feel like I was helping out. It was tiring, but I didn’t mind, and some of these days were made extra special watching fellow riders help each other as they came into a control in the middle of the night.
It was also a Paris Brest Paris year, which meant that the rando community was buzzing about the ride. It’s the queen 1200k and is a big deal. A friend who was new to randonneuring had set his dreams on getting to and completing PBP this year. We had talked about it the year before and I had given him tips and pointers.
I jumped at the chance when Jim texted me and asked me if I would like to go for a bike ride. He showed up at my casita with his cargo bike and loaded me into it. Jilayne and Willy rode shotgun and off we went down the American River Parkway. Jim is really strong and he powered me all the way up to Bella Bru where we stopped for brunch. To feel the wind in my hair and to feel the motion of moving on a bicycle was amazing. It was one of the most wonderful gifts brought to me.
We went out again with his fabulous family. His girls, Elizabeth and Eva, were right behind us or next to us and Lorraine rode sweep. We’d pass riders all kitted out doing their workout on the bike path, and Jim would smoke em with me in the cargo bike taking pictures of the girls. Later Jim and I would go out again on the cargo bike and this time I would time him through a set of intervals. It was incredibly fun and it provided me with a sense of usefulness for a friend. That even with a tough injury and glacially slow recovery, I could help someone get to their goal.
By now, I was spending the majority of the day in my wheelchair in my office with my leg propped up on the desk next to my keyboard. Running Rivet Cycle Works was another godsend, it kept me busy, took my mind off my leg pain, and besides, it was a necessity. The business couldn’t fold just because I was hit by a car. Customer service and saddle delivery kept me going, and it took up a lot of time during the day.
Everything took longer to do. Partially because I was still in the wheelchair, partially I think because my head was foggy due to either the pain medication, although I had stopped taking the heavy stuff in March, or just the amount of energy and attention my leg took.
My leg was and still is, a full time job. Managing the pain, managing getting around, managing doctors and managing the court case against the driver all take quite a bit of energy. We were contacted by the Ukiah DA who asked if the five of us would attend a preliminary hearing of the defendant. I was picked up from home and driven to Ukiah, where I met Laura, Mark and Mike for the first time since the crash. Larry was off on a trip and did not attend.
It was both surreal and good to see everyone again. To have a chance to check in and find out how everyone was progressing. Laura was back at work and on her bicycle, although with residual neck pain and stiffness. Mark was not riding, but back at work. Mike was almost done with a qualifying set of brevets to get him to PBP. Everyone was moving back into normal life except me. I was really happy to hear that everyone was doing so well, but was bummed that I felt behind them in terms of healing, still on crutches and not weight bearing on my ankle at all.
I was the first person to testify and I crutched my way up to the stand. When asked how my life had changed as a result of the crash, I first thought, “well, I can’t ride my bike”. But more importantly, I couldn’t do the most basic of things. I couldn’t walk, couldn’t drive, buy groceries, do laundry, clean my house, all simple tasks that we all do everyday. The defendant’s mother and grandmother were in the audience and they broke down when they heard me. They got the extent of the damage done by their son/grandson. That in turn, drove home to me the extent of the damage done to all of us. I knew that all five of our lives were changed, and so was the defendants, and so were his family’s. The impact of this incident was far-reaching and would be long lasting.
It was also the first time to put all the pieces back together about what happened that January afternoon. I was hit first, so I didn’t know what had happened to everyone else or the sequence of events. After each one of us testified, we were allowed to stay in the courtroom and listen to everyone’s testimony. Laura was next after me, then Mark, and Mike was last. Five months after the crash, I finally had the while picture.
That was really important because for me, there is a significant emotional piece to incidents this big in scope. Given the extent of everyone’s injuries, we were all immediately fixated on our own personal health. I would hear bits and pieces about how others were fairing, but I was up in Sacramento, and felt isolated because the other four lived closer to each other. To finally have most of us together again was really important for me. Puzzle pieces fell into place, and frankly, I needed to see everyone again, to make our little group whole again.
In early April I set up one of my bicycles on a trainer. I got on it and pedaled on my birthday. At first I had the big boot on my right leg. It felt so good to be able to do, and soon after, my friend Ted took a dremel to an older pair of clogs and was able to put cleats on them that we clipped into the SPD pedals. I couldn’t clip in or out, nor could I put on a shoe or any kind, let alone a cycling shoe, but my old leopard clogs would do nicely. I could slip my feet into them and pedal. My first ride was 20 minutes of heaven. Tears of happiness flowed making those circles.
I was also using the rowing machine. I had gotten up to a half hour, which doesn’t sound like much, but it felt like a lot. My friend Dennis had come to visit in early April We had been in eastern China together and had ridden across the Pamirs when we got caught up in a civil war/skirmish. We were airlifted out of Khorog and brought to safety in Dushanbe, Tajikistan (read more about it here. ) A crazy adventure.
Dennis asked me if I had any goals:
Sure! To walk again.
How about riding? When do you think you’ll be back at that?
Hmm, you mean riding brevets again? No idea, I’d like to be back in 2016.
Do you think you could ride 100k in the fall?
Hmmm. I thought about it. My old self could ride a 100k at the drop of a hat. At the moment I couldn’t ride on the road at all, only on a trainer. The fall was still 6 months away…
Yeah, I think I could do that by then… I hope.
Well then, why not join me in South America, riding from Santiago, Chile to Ushuaia, Argentina in November?
YES! But. When do I need to commit? I can’t tell what my ankle will or won’t do.
Not for a few months. You’ll have a better idea by then, and no need to commit funds or buy tickets for awhile.
A goal. I was in.
I got on that trainer and tried to ride. I switched out the bicycle to my PBP 2007 road bike. I would rest my crutches on the handlebars, once I had eased myself up onto the saddle. Tell you what, the woman who rode multiple 1200k brevets and other extreme (ish) rando rides in 2014 was not on that trainer. I could barely put any pressure on those pedals. I was supposed to be non-weight bearing anyway, but where oh where had that Randonneuse gone? She surely wasn’t present in my body.
Finally, the 12 weeks passed and I saw Doc Hottie and he gave me the go ahead to start physical therapy. I casually mentioned that I was hoping to go to Chile to ride my bike in November. What did he think about that? He looked at me and gave me that smile that sent the nurses over the edge.
“I knew you’d push the limits”, he said, “I’m not saying, no. It will hurt, but you’ll be the judge of how much it hurts.”
I took that as a green light. AWESOME!
I casually mentioned “Project Chile” to the PT who was assigned to me. She raised her eyebrows and said, “no way”. When I told her that Doc Hottie gave it the green light, she raised her eyebrows further. I fired her then and went looking for another PT.
Friends of Larry directed me to someone who had worked with ballet dancers. Jeff is a bright light for me, knows his stuff and is a cyclist with some knowledge about suffering and celebrating. He’s been the state cx champ in his age group and just has made me feel good despite my often flagging confidence in my recovery. I couldn’t have been happier when I asked Jeff’s opinion about South America and he said, “let’s get you there”. All Right.
I had jettisoned the walker when outside and was now using crutches and my foot was in a heavy boot cast. For exercise, I crutched my way over to the mailbox in our neighborhood to mail a letter. It was a half mile round trip, and I took my Garmin with me for fun. I posted the trip on Strava for kicks, and the elevation graph looked pretty good! Upon closer scrutiny, you’d realize that I was going up a mere 6″, up and down the curbs on the street. The trip took a half hour and I tried to beat that time few weeks later.
One afternoon, I was feeling frisky, so I pulled out of the garage all of the contraptions that were aiding me in my recovery. From wheelchair to walker, to a knee scooter, to crutches, to bicycle. After putting everything back in its place, I decided to see if I could ride on the road. I crutched over to my Rex Mixte and rested my crutches against the mailbox after easing myself up onto the saddle. I pushed off on my left foot, which required a bit of extra balance because I typically use my right, but I did it. I got going and wobbled once around my little neighborhood. I. Was. Thrilled.
And exhausted! Everything seemed to be really tiring, I just couldn’t get a handle on what it would take to heal. My journey seemed so glacially slow compared to others… Even to those who had a similar injury to mine. I had scoured the internet to find information about my injury. Teton Gravity Research, an extreme sport organization, has a listserv with a thread called, “gimp central” and I found folks with my injury. I devoured every posting and added my experience. Turns out, my injury was more severe than just about everyone else who posted (based on comparing the number of screws and hardware in my leg to others), but it still gave me some much needed hope. These athletes were getting back to business and I thought I could too.
From Gimp Central: “Unlike many orthopedic injuries, symptoms after a pilon fracture have been shown to continue to improve over a longer time period (2.4 years on average in one study) than many other orthopedic injuries. Thus, bear in mind that any quoted statistics from research studies start falling apart when they apply to an individual like you because it doesn’t matter how everyone else does – it matters how YOU do.
The tough part, however, as you probably already know, is that pilon fractures are among the most difficult of orthopedic injuries. There are two often-quoted studies that followed patients longitudinally after an injury like yours, both in the premier orthopedic journal (Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery). They found that returning to recreational activities, esp. if they involve running, can be tough. I cannot stress enough that with your determined mindset and with what you’ve already managed to do, I would absolutely be positive. Furthermore, a lot of people do fine – it’s just not the same class as a “standard” ankle fracture that most people refer to when they say, “I broke my ankle.” Best of luck!
Big sigh. 2.4 years. Still grappling with that….
Shoes. I am a shoe whore I admit it. More than a few friends call me Imelda. I have a closet full of shoes, and another one of clogs alone, and yet a third of boots. But I couldn’t get into any of them and this had me incredibly worried. Seriously. I was going to have to get rid of all of my beloved shoes? This both worried me and pissed me off. The asshole that hit me is going to take away my shoes? I. Don’t. Think. So.
Anger can be a powerful motivator. I tried shoes on and felt like Cinderella’s sisters trying to cram my right foot into the glass clog. I could slide into those that were open-backed, but I could not get my foot down into a shoe. In other words, I couldn’t get any of them on. I bought new cycling shoes and tried to ease my foot into them. No dice. Putting shoes on requires a few important yet simple steps that by and large we take for granted.
You need to be able to:
Point your toes forward and down into the shoebox (nope, can’t do that),
Slide the shoe over your instep (not yet),
And then push your heel down into the rear of the shoe (not a chance).
Shoes that are primarily Velcro are better (yep, old lady shoes), because you can open them up and just place your right angled frozen foot directly into the shoebox, and then Velcro the straps over your arch and toes. Shoelaces and tongues are hell!
I have now spent a fair amount of time understanding the bio-mechanics of walking. It is something that most of us take for granted… But I’m here to tell ya… Walking is really hard. You don’t realize it, but when you take a step, you flex your ankle greater than 90 degrees as your weight shifts and as you move forward to push off on your toes. It is amazingly difficult to do, especially when your ankle isn’t flexing. On Facebook I had posted about how tough it was and was feeling kinda low about it. Many people tried to cheer me up saying, “Don’t worry! You can ride! That’s the important thing, right?” Not right. Don’t get me wrong, I was thrilled that I could make circles and ride. But walking is something we do everyday, all day long. And on Maslow’s hierarchy of mobility, walking trumps cycling.
I had asked Doc Hottie how I was going to get to my PT sessions. There was no way I was going to ask friends to drive me to Roseville and back once a week for God knows how long. He said, “Figure it out! Others do.” I went home and tried driving with my left foot. After a quick jaunt around the neighborhood, I had it, but I was really careful, only driving around the local streets of Sac. I eventually did get on the freeway and actually drove myself to SF, but not for months. I was hyper careful, cause I could see landing a fat ticket for driving with the wrong foot. Not what I needed.
The crash was on January 30th and by now it was nearing mid May. I had been housebound for months and I was suffering from cabin fever. I love to travel and do so regularly, friends often wonder where I am on any given weekend. So when Doc Hottie gave me the green light to travel in May, I immediately booked a trip east to NY city. Flying was a nightmare, American Airlines put me in the rear of the plane which was really tough to access with crutches. The flight attendants took them away from me once situated in my seat, which provided quite a bit of a problem once I needed to use the bathroom. I leaned heavily on both seat backs and hopped to the rear bathroom. Nothing graceful about it…
One of my dearest friends, Sharonski joined me in NY and gave me a hand as it was tough to manage a rolling bag on crutches with a full messenger bag slung over my shoulder. She’s from NY and knows it well and we had a grand time at the NYExpo where I showed Rivet wares. Another friend Amy met up with us for a fine dinner at a well loved locals haunt, and Sharonski and I even got in some power shopping at Bloomies after an amazing afternoon at the World Trade Center memorial. The weekend was capped with a quick trip to see Peter Weigle about some saddle business and then to see a dear friend I’ve known since I was 13.
Two weeks later I went to Taiwan (another round of tough airplane rides) to work on the business and design a new saddle (due out spring 2016). Then I took a trip to Michigan to attend my niece’s High School graduation and to see my family. Two weeks after that I made my annual trip to Aspen and Boulder to see friends and work/attend the Aspen Ideas Fest. The flurry of travel was really good for my heart and soul, although not so good for my ankle. Thank God for the restorative powers of ice and Aleve.
Once I was out of my “boot”, I could tell I was getting stronger, because I could ride on the back of a tandem and feel like I was contributing power to forward movement. My first ride was 17 miles, which I barely completed. Darell was a good sport when I began to flag. I did a few rides with one of my closest rando partners, Willy, and a few shorter rides with a Sac buddy, Greg, and I was clearly making progress.
The SFR dart was an important ride – almost a comeback ride for me of sorts. Willy captained the tandem, David and Julia joined on another tandem, plus Philmeister, D-man and Crash on their singles. I was absolutely driven to complete the ride, even if it meant I needed the portable crutches I carried along in a backpack. My Dart team had fun, took it easy (although it wasn’t easy for me), and everyone was really helpful keeping an eye on me. We finished the ride and I walked into the brew pub in Berkeley without my crutches, a first for me, and I was thrilled to be a member of the rando community again, sans wheelchair.
In early summer I began working with a trainer so I could get some overall fitness back. November was still my goal for South America, although I hadn’t mentioned it to many people. Twice a week for an hour, I paid someone to watch me do planks and push-ups, practice balancing on one leg, and a variety of other exercises. I hated doing it, and still do, but knew I needed to if I was going to have a chance in South America. The gym in Sac, Pipeworks, is a climbing gym, and I even had the cheekiness to start climbing the easiest routes on the bouldering wall in my Velcro tennis shoes. Mostly using my arms (better to use your legs for strength and balance), I would pull myself up, balancing on my left and isolating my right ankle.
Being in the gym was a huge wake-up call. I had been fit. I had been strong. I had been a gymnast with great balance. All of that was gone after 4.5 months in a wheelchair. It blew me away how quickly it vanished. Kinesthetically I remembered what needed to be done, but boy, implementation was a kick in the pants. It was really depressing and I struggled. I just couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of a 200k, let alone a 1200k. Still, I kept at it, riding 2x a week when I could, plus time in the gym.
So much of recovery takes place in your head. These long-term injuries are pretty tough to deal with, and I know that mine pales in comparison to many other people. They screw with your identity (athlete, strong woman, independent), and many nights once in bed at the end of a long day, I would dive into exhaustion and sadness. Being alone didn’t help, no one could give me a hug and tell me, I’d be ok. It is what it is. Each morning was a new day, and so I kept at riding and going to the gym, kept at physical therapy and personal massage therapy for my ankle and leg, kept at the business and kept my eye on the prize of South America.
I really wanted to crack the 200k ride mark, and I finally did it in August in Portland with Norm. I drove up to join a fellow randonneuse, Susan who was putting on a mini-PBP, while the grand ride was starting in Paris. So many friends were posting pics from Paris, in Versailles, at the Eiffel Tower, hanging out in St Quentin. Many of us who were stateside grouped up to do events that were somehow connected to PBP, and Susan had a wonderful populaire that a number of us rode in between eating crepes, tarts and all sorts of fancy French pastries. The day prior I met Norm and we rode a 200k together starting in Beaverton, OR, heading to bucolic Birkenfeld, and returning the same way we came. The ride spent some time on a bike path that was gorgeous, and Norm and I merrily made our way up and back. We stopped in the small town of Banks for milk shakes and substance and while the last 26 miles were rough for me, I was thrilled to have finished the ride. I arrived at Susan’s ecstatic.
I paid for it the next day. I wanted to test out riding two days in a row. The trip in South America would be a 100k a day for days on end, and I wanted to do a 200k and follow it up with a 100k. The second day had the same amount of climbing in half the distance, and I was pretty shot halfway through. I managed it with the help and support of friends. A breakthrough day for me.
August means bike shows, and the next trip would be to Europe for Eurobike. I typically go and spend a week at the show and another week doing fun things. A group of us stay in a farmhouse together which is right next to the Messe (the convention halls, in this case, where Zeppelins are made in Europe. Yup, pretty cool). We would ride bikes to the hall each morning and stand around talking to people about our products and walk for the next 12-14 hours. My ankle took a beating during this time, and I came home early, defeated. I think I had hoped that it would be in better shape than it was. I could ride, right. But my leg was incredibly weak.
Three weeks later is the American bicycle show, Interbike, in Vegas. I was able to manage it a bit better because I spent very little time walking, or limping around, choosing to remain in my booth. Luckily, lots of friends and customers came by to say hello, which was great. Always a highlight of Interbike is the critical mass bicycle ride down Las Vegas Blvd. I had skipped going to the CrossVegas race to rest my leg but made sure I rode in the crazy ride down the middle of the Vegas strip in the middle of the night. Total fun.
Somewhere along the way in the late summer, I got it in my head that I should be walking normally. The other four crash victims: Larry, Mike, Mark and Laura were all back to riding their bicycles and enjoying a full summer. Larry and Mike went to PBP, Laura and Mark went to Corsica and the south of France in September. Larry had undergone a small procedure to take out the hardware in his shoulder and ankle and I thought that I should be farther along. I had gone through another round of trying on my shoes, and I could now get into my clogs, which were tight, but I could get them on. A victory for sure. On September 1st, I pulled the trigger. I bought my plane tickets and committed to South America.
I still couldn’t walk limp-free, my leg and ankle still pained me all day, every day. Still swollen, still throbbing, still ugly. It wore me down and bummed me out. I went for a second opinion, deciding to see Larry’s doc who was the orthopedic surgeon to a number of the SF pro teams. I drove 3 hours to see him for 20 minutes, and he told me to keep working it working it working it. He said I was looking at 2.5 years of recovery, and that I’d start to know the end was near when my ankle didn’t make any change in 3 months. Maybe have a third operation in January (the soonest), for some (not all) hardware removal. My leg is still healing he said, it is too soon to know for sure what your outcome will be. Finally, he metaphorically told me to HTFU. I drove home another three hours thinking about my 20 minutes.
The truth hurt for sure, but he laid it out bare. It’s clear now that I was expecting to hear something else. I had jumped ahead to what I wanted, to where I wanted to be (back to normal!), and he was telling me that it’s not possible to know what my new normal is, and I won’t know until I let go of the old normal. That was then and now, I need to focus on each day, and be present with it. Each day, I am where I am.
So where am I?
I am getting stronger. I can even walk for a very short time limp-free.
I still have pain in my ankle 24/7. Not as acute, but enough so that it regularly commands my attention.
I can’t run. At all. Not even in airports (yes, I tried).
I have a long way to go, but I am more accepting of where I am at this moment in time.
… Those last words were written while on a plane returning from a stellar long weekend recently spent on the east coast. I spent it with old and new dear friends, attending a very cool vintage bicycle event, enjoying every minute immensely. How great is that?
When I re-read this, I can see that the worst is definitely in the rear view mirror. I have come a long way in eight months. I pushed myself to resume the activities that make me feel good – being with my friends doing things we love to do — cycling, travel, daily life! In retrospect, I have learned a lot about myself. I have dug deep to keep moving forward, pushing through pain to reconstruct the life I want to lead. It has brought into sharp focus the importance of relationships and community and has re-affirmed the power of positive thinking and practicing self-compassion. There is no doubt in my mind that I would not be as far along without the support of friends near and far. I received lots of support and encouragement from Facebook friends and I have appreciated my connection to everyone through this medium. The social network has worked at its best in my opinion during this period of time, and I have been thankful for it and everyone who has sent me a “thumbs up” of some kind.
And while “bad shit happened to good people”, it hasn’t kept me down long. It has made me more resilient.
In about 10 days, I’m boarding a plane to Phillie for the last bicycle show on Rivet’s calendar. From there, I will fly to Santiago, Chile and start my trip down that skinny country filled with mountains, wind and water. My plan is to take a bicycle that can take a beating but will get me to Ushuaia without falling apart. Once the ride is over, I hope to find someone to give the bicycle to. If nothing else I will leave it for someone to find.
I expect the trip and riding will be hard. It will hurt my ankle, but it will also be beautiful and incredibly special. I will ride as much as I can, and take care of my leg. This is the adventure I want to have to end 2015 and I’ve earned it. For sure I wouldn’t be going without all the love, support, friendship, schlepping and caring from all of my incredible friends who have helped me get to the place where I could go on this adventure. What better way to ring out this challenging year and usher in a new one? I can promise I’ll be bringing home a better me.
P.S. Went to see Doc Hottie for the big thumbs up-have a great trip – check in when you get home – visit. I walked in, limp-free, told him I’d been riding up to 200 miles in a weekend, all very proud of myself, and he was impressed with my mobility. He said, “Let’s look at your X-rays.”
Easy to see and count, 5 screws broken and the ankle had sort of collapsed in on itself. Damn. He ordered a CT Scan and blood work.
Umm, is this gonna jeopardize my trip? I wanted to know.
Blood work came back normal, no infections. Whew! The CT scan showed no bone growth in the front of the ankle. Still mush. It’s called a non-union, and with the failed hardware and the lack of healing in the area, it looks like Surgery #3 is coming my way.
The plan: Come home a bit early and have surgery to remove failed hardware, and replace with new. Also graft bone from my femur (yikes!) and patch it onto my ankle where it is currently still in shards. Surgery slated for December 29. Happy New Year to me.
Recovery: 12 weeks, non-weight bearing, then the boot and back to PT to work on walking … again. In other words, I am back to square one.
I am going to Chile. We made a plan and then moved to good-bye. Doc Hottie’s final words were, “Go. Have fun. Don’t fall off your bike and promise not to do stupid stuff.” Seriously.
Thanks everyone for all the love, support, good wishes and good energy sent my way. Thanks for reading.
I think that photo taken in Banks, OR, with the sign that says, “This is Brave Country,” says it all. You’ve been so brave and courageous this past year and I know you’ll continue to be strong! Have a fantastic trip and safe travels. xo
Ms. Head Rivette, as you so well know one of the greatest challenges today in any discipline, including cycling, is to find the real deal – the real genuine deal – the real article through-and-through!
Ms. Rivette, you are the real deal and much appreciated! It’s great that you have such a loving and effective support platform in place and I wish you a safe return to the USA and an uneventful full recovery from your injuries as soon as possible. It’s extremely comforting to know that Dr. Hottie is waiting for you; and while you may or may not have insurance coverage from a certain large provider, it’s good to know that you will be in good hands with Dr. Hottie!
Damn, Deb. All I can say is I admire your attitude and resilience in the face of such a nasty twist of fate. I hope I could do as well if I were in your position.
You are one of the people I think of when I see this image:
Even though you wouldn’t have it any other way, and recovering to get back on your bike is in your DNA, you are still my hero, girl. Your mental toughness, generous nature, and loving spirit is an inspiration for all of us, especially those grappling with life’s challenges.
Courage and bonne route in Chile!
You are an inspiration. I appreciate you sharing about all the adjustments and efforts you made to be able to get back on the bike. Your tenacity and resilience are amazing. Thanks so much for sharing your story. Wishing you continued success as you keep on the healing path, albeit with major hiccups and obstacles. You are so fortunate to have so many friends in your corner.
Ms Rivette, firstly, I have to say that you write very well and I enjoyed your story very much. I hope that your trip and recovery both go well. Also, your story made me reflect on a little trip that I plan on doing and that maybe I need to consider my own support system before I shove off.
It was also fun to see some names that I have not heard of in a while (Steve Rex, Peter Weigle), to see some of your bike toys and how they are set up. Bike nerds like that kind of thing.
Best wishes for a happy and healthy new year.
Wow. All I ever wanted was to see your saddles madamme. Your blow-by-blow account inspired me to ride harder. Thank you very much for sharing your life-changing experience. And God speed on that 3rd surgery! From the pearl of the orient seas, Philippines.
I am so glad you took the time to write this wonderful article. I was, I think, one of those folks who e-mailed you when I found out how badly you were hurt — I found out by accident probably 4 or 5 months after your injury. I hadn’t checked “The Blab” for a while, so this had been posted a few weeks when I finally saw it. You really really got clobbered, but the fitness and stubborn-ness you need for randonneuring will serve you well now. If you feel so inclined, I am sure folks would love to hear updates on your and your friends recovery. Thoughts are with you.
Oh, and Happy Thanksgiving(!)
P.S. You should really consider writing a book or three. You have a gift.
You rock. Good luck with Doc H. and the 3rd surgery. Continue kickin’ butt.
Merry Christmas everyone!! I’m sure the healing will continue.
Came across your post in my ever-quest of finding others who’ve suffered a pilon who are/where active, athletic people who were majorly laid up by these.
Now that it’s been a couple yeas where are you at?
Broke mine on a dirt bike when another rider hit me trying to force a pass (in a training class none the less). This was December 3, 2016. It’s now nearly the end of June, 2017. There is no real “end” in sight yet – currently dealing with a hardware infection that will necessitate hardware removal in the next month or so. Then it’s on to recovering from that seeing IF my body will kick the infection after that. Not always dealing with it real well – not that anyone else would know, but there are plenty of days where I’m fighting the internal moods and forcing myself to keep going.
Just like to hear from others who’ve gone through these and come out the other side still active!
Deb, I enjoyed meeting and riding with you in the SFR Double Brevet this past weekend. I had heard about the accident, but in reading you post I am amazed by your courage, determination, perseverance, strength and attitude.