Triumph Over Tragedy
Wednesday, April 18, 2012 was the seven month anniversary of a day I wish I could forget… a day I wish never had happened. But it did happen, and I have to live with that for the rest of my life.
On September 18, 2011, I was riding my bicycle with friends on Mount Evans, the highest paved road in North America. I had ridden this mountain many times before. It was a place where one had to expect the unexpected, especially when it came to Mother Nature. I had encountered high winds, rain, hail, and snow. Once, lightning struck so close that the thunder nearly knocked me off my bicycle. I could feel the surge of energy as it hit beside me. I could smell the acrid odor of ozone in the ionized air. The road was riddled with potholes and ruts, but I knew every one of them. I always adjusted to conditions. As such, it seemed my biggest hazards were motorists on the mountain, or perhaps an angry mountain goat.
I was wrong.
On this day, I encountered fierce winds on the mountain. This was no different than what I had encountered on many other occasions. However, I wasn’t feeling my best that day, so my boyfriend and I decided to turn back a little early, as our other friends continued up the mountain (although snow would prevent them from summiting either). We began our descent.
I was taking things relatively easy compared to the aggressive descents I usually rode in the mountains. However, I was frustrated at having to constantly battle strong headwinds, unable to exceed 30 MPH (on the straight sections, I usually would reach speeds of 45 MPH or more). I saw a turn coming up, but had little concern. I knew it to be an easy maneuver. On this one section, however, something was different that day. Maybe it was a thermal eddy. Maybe something else. On the straightaway, I was battling the headwind, and suddenly as I approached the turn, I wasn’t. I remember sensing that to be odd… winds on straight sections usually were constant and didn’t reverse… but didn’t have time to dwell on the feeling. I applied my brakes, and began to skid. How fast was I going?? I hadn’t remembered getting over 30 mph, but a sudden tailwind had pushed me to 52 MPH, according to my GPS cyclocomputer (which I checked later on). I reduced pressure and pulled out of the skid, beginning to make my turn. I was going too fast. I wouldn’t make it. I attempted to fall on the incline, but suddenly those tail winds were cross winds. I left the road and shouted in terror. Then… nothing.
I opened my eyes to find myself on my back, on hard boulders. As my head cleared, I recognized the terrain to be Mount Evans, and realized what must have happened. I couldn’t see the road above me, so I knew I was as invisible to it as it was to me. I had no idea how far down I was. I shouted out for my boyfriend. No answer. I realized I must have gotten away from him. He hadn’t seen me go over and had continued down the mountain.
My other friends would be heading down eventually, but I knew the wind in their ears would drown out my cries for help. I could hear an occasional car above, but it was cold. Their windows would be closed. My single hope was if another cyclist was heading up the mountain and could hear me.
I tried to roll over, and couldn’t. I tried to reach my cell phone in my back jersey pocket, but my arms wouldn’t work right. I kept shouting. I grew cold. Tired. At times, I stopped shouting, almost giving up. Then I’d draw strength from those I loved and start shouting again. I almost gave up hope. I knew I would likely die on the mountain.
Eventually, a cyclist from Switzerland heard my cries and responded, sending for help. In the meantime my boyfriend, Steve, was waiting at the base, worried and wondering where I was. When he saw the paramedics heading up the mountain, he knew, and had one of the park rangers give him a ride to where I’d gone off the road. By then, my other friends had also arrived on the scene, and were told by Mary (the lady from Switzerland) that their friend was “down there.” They watched as the paramedics cut my clothes away, stripping me naked. They watched as a Flight for Life helicopter made the difficult landing on that narrow road in those windy conditions. They watched as I was brought back up the mountain- I’d fallen 30 feet- and loaded onto the helicopter, before flying away to the nearest trauma center.
My injuries were severe. I had nine spinal fractures, six of them relatively major. My rib cage and right scapula were shattered. Both lungs were punctured, with air and blood threatening to collapse them. My left kidney had a grade IV laceration, and my spleen had a grade III one, resulting in massive internal bleeding and a likelihood of losing those organs. My helmet, however, saved my life- not only in preventing injury greater than a severe concussion, but by allowing me to regain consciousness to shout for help.
I was in ICU for 10 days, and in hospital nearly a month. Eventually, I required surgery to remove bone fragments and damaged disks in my neck in order to preserve the diminishing function of my left arm and hand, and preferably to restore it.
I couldn’t work. My pain was constant and severe. For several months, I was unable to fully care for myself, which required me to give up my home of nearly 7 years. I could walk, but being up and about for anything more than an hour exacerbates the pain. I would spend most of the 7 months following my accident in bed. At present, I’m beginning treatments at the pain clinic that involve epidural anti-inflammatory injections (directly into the spine) and nerve blocks. I’m hoping for some relief. In the meantime…
I refuse to be a victim. Why merely survive, avoiding those things that increase the pain? I want to live, and if it has to hurt, so be it. I wish it didn’t hurt so much, but this is my lot, and it’s up to me to make the best of it… and I can. I may not have faced worse pain, but I did face worse odds 12 years ago when I was diagnosed with a disease I was told would most likely be terminal… yet I recovered, had a second chance to pursue my dream of being a physician, and eventually was riding challenge events in excess of 100 miles across the Colorado Rockies to prove that I had no limits. I beat the odds then. What are my limits now?
Seven months to the day after that catastrophic accident, I am back on my bicycle. Everyone suggested I do something easy, but I knew I had to TRY something else. It had to be a ride that meant something to me. I chose Lookout Mountain in Golden, Colorado. Not only was this the first major climb I did in 2009, it also feels like home to me. Ten minutes by bicycle from where I lived, it was a training ride I did more than any other.
I had doubts as to whether I’d actually manage it. I wondered if I’d even make it halfway. The distance isn’t extreme, but it’s unrelenting uphill, the major climb in the final stage of the 2011 USA Pro Cycling Challenge. I should have relied on my determination rather than doubting. I succeeded in what to me felt like a monumental accomplishment, albeit painful. I pedaled to the top of Lookout Mountain.
Ready to Ride again!