Sunday, June 14, 2020

Don't cry for me, Argentina

The man I used to be. National Triathlon Championships, Hilton Head, South Carolina, 1987.

Once in a while something happens that forces you to reassess your priorities, to analyze the things that make you tick and that really matter. That happened to me last Wednesday when I crashed my Trek Madone racing bike on West Rim Road near the Rio Grande Gorge.  I broke my hip. That’s significant enough but is made more so since my osteoporosis doctor warned me not to fall when he diagnosed the condition five years ago. I gave up skiing and bicycling the moment I got the news back in 2015. I reckoned that If you ski you will absolutely fall. And if you ride enough you will probably take tumble. But two weeks ago, the urge to mount my carbon fiber steed and ride fast through the high desert west of Taos was too great to ignore. My calculus was that I had crashed only twice in 35 years and many thousands of miles of riding. At that delusional moment, the risk seemed slight. After all crash one was caused by a broken front wheel during a triathlon in Lewiston, Maine. That was a fluke. And the other occurred when I had to lay my bike on the pavement when a driver cut me off. Neither resulted in an injury though I had to drop out of the race in Maine. Two weeks ago, I rode two times, the first was 20 miles on my favorite out and back route. The second was 24 miles on the same route toward Carson, a speck in the road with a post office and little else. God, I loved it. I was completely pumped. It was so much more rewarding than riding a stationary trainer or even running outdoors. Riding made me feel like the athlete I was 30 years ago.
Then disaster struck. My left foot came out of my Speedplay pedal. That’s never happened before. The pressure of my right foot on my right pedal sent me flying onto my right side and sliding across on the gravel littered asphalt. I found myself sprawled on the tarmac, in tremendous pain and unsure if I could get up at all. After a couple of minutes, I was able to get on my hands and knees and stand up. As I was standing up a car passing in the opposite direction made a U-turn and pulled in behind me. The couple in the vehicle approached me and asked if they could take me and bike somewhere. “Do you have somebody you can call?” the gray-haired gentleman asked. I said.” I can call my wife.”

“Where can we take you? We can take you into town.”

I said I was parked at the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge Visitors center a couple of miles away. “That’s I where always park to ride to Carson or Tres Piedras.”

Though it was almost impossible to walk I declined the couple’s offer to drive me home or to the hospital. I hoped I could move my right leg enough to accelerate and brake. When we got to the parking lot, I called Peggy and she said she’d come to get me immediately. I said I really wanted to drive home so I could shower before going to the emergency room. I hadn’t bathed before my ride thinking that I’d clean up after. And now I was bleeding like a stuck pig from my right elbow and knee. I was picking gravel out of the road rash on my right knee until Friday.

I was in the hospital for 24 hours. I'd never been in one overnight. We checked in at 2PM Wednesday. I was assigned a ER room around 3. Then at midnight I was moved to a hospital bay next to a guy recovering from shoulder surgery. He snored continuously and ta buzzer went off every seven seconds throughout the night. I yelled or cleared my throat every time the snoring became unbearable. I did not sleep.

The point of all of this is that I’ve spent 44 years with fitness as my number one commitment in life after family and career. It’s how I identify myself. The broken hip calls that commitment, some would say obsession, into question. Almost certainly I will never ride a bike again. Dr. Neff, the orthopedist and an avid cyclist who diagnosed my fracture, told me not to jump that conclusion yet and went so far as to recommend a platform pedal that would prevent me from being locked into my pedals. I’m am unconvinced. Now I’m too afraid to ride.

As to running Dr. Neff says he thinks I will be able to run once the fracture heals in six weeks or so. That’s important to me but not as much as I would have thought. The injury has made me review my priorities and to wonder how important exercising ten hours a week should be to someone staring at 79. I realize that part of this introspection is girding myself for the likelihood that my physical fitness life cannot be what it was. I’m preparing to be old. Somehow, I thought I’d be spared that indignity.

The last four days on my back, taking an array of pain pills and managing a walker have been the longest four days of my life. I tell myself that I’ll have all this time to write the great American novel. But I couldn’t care less. I have 41 days left in my sentence. How long is that? 10.25 times longer than the interminable last four days.

Yesterday Peggy noticed that my right foot and lower leg were swollen. She gave both extremities the feather tickle test and the sense of touch on my right foot and leg was 75% of my good leg. Our first thought was blood clot. It’s one of the things you look at when you’ve had a fracture. This was 10:00AM on a Sunday. I called Taos Orthopaedic as instructed if I had any problems. The answering service told me that the doctor on call was Dr. Franklin, but he was in surgery. She told me she would have Franklin call when he got out of surgery at around noon. At 1:00PM he called. I explained my symptoms. When he asked if I had a tingling sensation in my right leg I answered. “Yes. That’s how I’d describe it.” His tone changed. He said, “I don’t ordinarily advise this, but you should get an ultrasound. The only place in Taos where you can get one on a Sunday is Holy Cross Hospital. I’ll call ahead to request the procedure.”

By 2:00:PM we were at ER for the ultrasound only to learn they don’t do them on weekends. I argued that Dr. Franklin said they would. The registration human was unmoved but signed me in so I could to let me fight the ultrasound battle with the doctors and nurses. Nurse Camille took my vitals. I recognized her immediately. She was my nurse when I checked into ER Wednesday. I explained my symptoms to her and told her that if I couldn’t get the ultrasound right then Peggy would insist on driving me to Albuquerque or Denver if that is what it took to find out if I have blood clot.

Soon the hospitalist, Dr. Bouvier, came to the examination room. I retold my symptoms and made my pitch for the ultrasound here and now. She explained that the hospital doesn’t do them on weekends. Instead they administer a battery of blood pressure tests on both arms and ankles and to do a D-Dimer blood test that shows if there are elevated levels of fibrin degradation that would indicate the possibility of a blood clot. My BP numbers were all fine. But I had elevated fibrin degradation. I went from bliss to worry though Dr. Bouvier had cautioned me that elevated numbers don’t necessarily mean you have a blood clot. I’d need an ultrasound to know for sure. Uh yeah, I know that. When she came into the room, she said that she had been able to reach an ultrasound technician who was willing to come in on a Sunday to administer the procedure. I have no doubt that Dr. Bouvier went the extra step and made that happen. Knowing whether I had a blood or didn't would be a relief. Knowing matters and next steps can be taken in real time.

The ultrasound came back negative. No clots.

Wednesday I start physical therapy. What a guy can do when he can’t use one of his legs is a mystery to me. Some upper body work while sitting I’m sure. Maybe a recumbent style bike with enough cushioning to protect my aching ass. To quote the immortal James Hindman, “More will be revealed.”


John Ellsworth said...

So sorry to hear! These intimations of immortality never come except as a surprise. Guess what? I do have limits, we learn. My right hip and knee are titanium. I walk 20 steps and there's a low back spasm. So I tool around the neighborhood on a 3-wheel electric bike. It's better than nothing. Sort of. Last week I bought a Vespa. I will inevitably lay it down or go sprawling. Your message hits home particularly hard with me. Do I really want to go through yet another hospital stay with orthopaedic inquiry? Not really. Your article has me re-thinking the whole thing. I used to race Harleys in Northern Arizona. Without helmets, yet. But much has changed. I still remember Dave, the Harley-riding psychologist who popped his head open on a Sunday morning nothing charity ride. Here then suddenly gone, without announcement or preparation. Shit, brother. What have we finally begun to become? You called it old. I call it old, too. Maybe it's time. Get well, let Peggy bring you tea or coffee or whatever is your favorite quaff. Time will pass and you will become a new kind of well.

Blacks Crossing said...

We read your blog, word by word, step by step, in all its finery. Fred said "Poor Steve." He also thought your prose "I'm preparing to be old. Somehow, I thought I would be spared that indignity" was brilliant. The man that ran and bicycled and competed in triathlons will return. Jack LaLanne was 96 when he died and we firmly believe that you will be walking soon without the walker. And before the autumn frosts land on the leaves, you will be running and cycling. You are not preparing to be older, but better. These damnable lessons in patience are the pits, but seemingly necessary for us to have more empathy for our fellow humans. Perhaps collecting a little wisdom along the way.