Experiment #21: Getting hit by a Car (Part I)

The second week of February in 2019, I had a work trip to LA, and I took my beloved travel bike, Tuna, with me. The whole week Tuna and I had had a pretty magical time - commuting to work, checking out the mountains and exploring beaches during lunch breaks. I had thought several times "LA isn't really that great for cyclists" just with some of the infrastructure (i.e. cars parked in the bike lane). I commuted to work every day (normal) which was a ~7 mile bike ride on mostly bike trail. It was sunny, beautiful, and such a nice break from Seattle winter. 

One of the last rides of Tuna

On the last work day of the trip (February 13th), I commuted to our research sessions for the day. They ran late, and we were supposed to go to dinner after. Tiffany asked if I wanted to carpool with her over to dinner because it was dark and drizzling. I hesitated because I had the bike ("where do I put it?"). I told her I'd just meet her there, it wasn't that far, I had my lights, fluoro rain jacket, and I'd probably be faster on the bike. I was wearing my backpack on with my laptop, extra clothes, and tennis shoes, ready for the best part of my day - the bike ride home. 

I took my normal commute home and was about 2 miles from the hotel when I had to cross over an overpass to get to the bike trail (smooth sailing from there!). Traffic wasn't that heavy and it was a neighborhood road with a speed limit of about 30 mph. I pulled into the center of the road-lane (from the shoulder) to make a left turn, but a car going above the speed limit meant that I had to stop in the lane to make my left turn. 

I waited uncomfortably a few seconds, looking behind me and keeping my eye on the road trying to gauge when the oncoming speeding car would pass so I could turn safely. In those few moments, I was nervous but didn't think this was a life or death situation. 

The last thing I remember was seeing the flood of lights at my legs and through my body. I was hit by a Subaru wagon type of vehicle going 30 mph directly from behind.  There was no pain and I have no memory of the impact. My last conscious thought was "I am about to be hit by a car" not even enough time for a "this is it" or "bye parents and cat, I love you". Time stopped in that moment, and like a movie scene, it cut away in total silence to all black.

The next memory was being disconnected from my body. It was like I was above myself looking down (not to get transcendental spiritualism here, just relaying what I remember). I came to, sprawled out on the pavement, my cheek on the ground, after being out for at least 15 seconds, if not longer. 

First thought "I am alive". 

Everything was fuzzy and then I saw headlights. The next thought wasn't human -- I was a deer in a blinding world and knew I had to run but didn't know which way. I leapt to my feet, and took a few steps to run, anywhere, I didn't know. Away from the lights. On the third (or fourth) step I staggered, my leg giving out and the pain hit, finally. I stayed upright but looked around extremely confused - the headlights weren't moving and a man was standing a foot from me, staring at me in horror and holding a cellphone. He looked at me and asked if I wanted him to call 911. I told him "yes, please" before I fell back to the ground.

Apologies that the rest of this is going to be super fuzzy. I sat down in the middle of the road, my right leg feeling like it was shattered from the knee down. They asked if I was ok and I said my leg hurt and was probably broken, as we waited for the ambulance and watched it swell. They asked me so many questions, and then explained to me I had hit my head too, the helmet was broken. 

Another guy came and insisted that they move me to the side of the road. They asked if I could walk, and I think I told them it hurt so much I couldn't. They carried me to the side of the road. They found my phone and cycling glasses and asked if there was anyone to call. I couldn't dial, I couldn't read the phone at all. The woman and the guy with the phone at the beginning texted themselves from my phone so I would have their numbers. 

The woman who hit me was there too. Side bar - you want to be able to hate this person so much. You want this person to be a horrible, demon spawn who is mean to his dog and just a terrible person overall. No, I was hit by a nice, tiny woman in her 70s who was a cyclist too and was on the side of the road in shock, horrorstruck that she hit me. At one point, I heard her being upset with herself, and I wordlessly reached over and held her hand, and she burst into tears. I remember that moment, or at least I think I do - that moment of trying to say that I didn't hate her and never would.

The firefighters came, and they were so nice to me. I remember almost nothing about them except their kindness as they tried to see how much they could do before the ambulance arrived. At one point, a call came through - it was Marion, one of my team mates from the research trip, wondering where I was. One of the bystander women had my phone and asked if I wanted to talk to her, I said yes. The first person I knew I told that I had been hit by a car -- Marion: "Hey we're waiting for you". Me: "Marion, I got hit by a car" Marion: "What? Are you OK?" Me: "No I am not. I am waiting for an ambulance. People are here. I have no idea where I am" Her: incoherent noise. Me: "I can't hear you but I will call you soon I promise". Poor team mates! 

We sat there on the side of the road, people asking me things and time moving in weird ways. They brought my bike over. Tuna was dead - broken spokes everywhere. That was the first moment it hit me how devastating this accident probably was - my beloved bike was twisted and broken in unimaginable ways. My first tears came then - not Tuna, no no no. 

The ambulance came after what seemed forever but was probably 10 minutes. My leg was double the size of the other one and it hurt, omg it hurt. I was bleeding too, in so many places, and my clothes were ripped everywhere. They put me in a neckbrace and on a stretcher. They said they couldn't take the bike (Tuna, his name is Tuna) but the friendly firefighters offered to take him to the station where I could pick him up later. 

In the ambulance, I remember the brightness. Everything is illuminated. There were two of them I think, a driver and an EMT. The EMT kept talking to me the whole time, he told me it was the day before his vacation and his name. He talked about his wife, how excited they were about this vacation. He asked how I felt and I told him I was really scared. My brother had been hit by a car years ago and had significant skull and brain damage from it; I was worried it was the same for me. I told him how I took pictures at the scene, or I asked the witnesses too because I remember that was an issue for my brother. I babbled incoherently. He babbled back. 

He asked if I wanted to call anyone. I babbled about how I didn't think my mom could handle the call until I knew, but I could call my housemate. He helped me call Daniel Perry - Daniel, who on the other end of this, was eating snacks and talking to our other housemate Adriana. They both saw my name on CallerID and laughed that "oh maybe she got hit by a car". Whoops. I babble to Daniel and somehow get out to him that I've been hit by a car, I'm not sure what is wrong but my leg really hurts and I am in an ambulance. I ask him not to call my mom yet. At some point I tell him I have to go (who knows where I had go...) and I hang up. I talk to the EMT more and then we arrive. I ask him his name again, he gives it to me, and I tell him thank you so much for everything. He said something incredibly kind like "I'm cheering for you". 

The next part is the worst part. Entering the ER is a flurry of activity. I'm in a big, well lit room before I know it and there's like 10 people around me, attaching things to me and taking off all of my clothes. They struggle with my bike shoes, and I have to explain the ratchet on them since I can't move my head and I think they have me strapped down. They remove everything, slicing my favorite rain jacket off me, my bra, my skirt (was still in work clothes), everything - and put it in bag somewhere. I think my helmet goes with them. I think. 

A very pretty young woman's head appears upside down in my vision. "Hi, tell me what hurts". She's the ER attendant. I tell her my leg. She asks a bunch of questions (recurring theme here) that I kind of answer. The only one I remember is her asking me when my last tetanus shot was. Me: "uhhh" Her (as she gives me the shot): "I see, today then! 

After the flurry of panic and activity, they conclude I am not about to expire on the table - no organs appear to be hemorrhaging and I am not bleeding profusely. I am smiling and just... the feeling was of profound gratitude and luck. I was alive. I was ALIVE! I made jokes with them, and they said I was the happiest ER visitor that night. One of them says at one point that most of the cyclists they see that come in after getting hit by a car are near death; they've never seen one smile. 

They send me off to get MRIs and xrays for everything in my rolling hospital bed -- every part of me that was bleeding is documented. At this point, it is like I have a little more clarity on the events and their order. I look at my hands, they are bleeding. My elbow, my knees. My ankles. Every part is noted as a potential break site and then x-rayed. They give me an MRI for my head, I'm still in the neckbrace (which they remove for the imaging). 

The euphoria of being alive starts to wane as I am in the MRI tunnel. I am struck by a feeling of being utterly alone, lying there hearing "stay still" and clicking noises. I start crying silent tears - tears of fear, of uncertainty, of wishing I wasn't alone in a hospital, of wondering how broken my leg and head were. The fact there is a future and it may not be bright starts to enter my head. 

I am rolled out into the hallway - the ER is overfilled and they have run out of room. I wait in the hallway as people rush by. I have my phone, it's almost dead. People are sending messages it takes a ton of mental effort to read. I text a few people, Daniel was one, and another ex boyfriend who I knew would want to know. I think Daniel called my mom and she calls me. I answer crying, telling her I don't know if I am OK but I will let her know first. It's top of mind for both of us that my brother, years ago when he had been hit by a car, had told my parents he was fine and the doctor's said he was great, and then latter the head scans showed he had fractured his skull and was then in ICU for several days. 

A doctor comes and says my brain is OK and that there is no fracture. He doesn't use the work "concussion" but he does say that there may be damage and trauma but not ICU level. At this point, my team mates arrive - Marion, Heath, and Tiffany appear in the whitescape of the hospital alleyway. I am back to a good mood and laugh and smile. They comment that I'm bleeding and we inventory all the places I'm bleeding and try to make sense of it "how is your back bleeding when you were wearing a backpack?" "Yeah... oh my, my laptop! Oh no! someone want to check what shape the laptop is in..." as my backpack was on my bed still (how it was there, I have no idea). My backpack is ripped up and has blood on it, but my laptop is fine! Not even a cracked screen! I declare it's another miracle. This titanium plated laptop probably saved my life by protecting my spine. 

The police come at some point after I am on pain meds. They interview me and ask lots of questions. They are largely useless and seem almost hostile at times (later I found out the woman who hit me turned herself in, so they had no reason to be hostile towards me). 

Time passes. The guy in the ambulance appears again and I brighten. He asks if I remember him and I say of course I do, he was so kind to me, but... I can't remember his name. I tell him I can't remember his name and his face falls a bit, like he knows then something I don't know - that my head is not in good shape. He tells me I was the bright point of his night - "still cheering for you" he says as he leaves.  

A guy comes and says my leg scans were fine, not broken (!), and he roughly picks up my right calf. I scream. "Oh, this might be worth another check". They diagnose it ultimately as a pulled muscle (which is actually a torn muscle, and my right sprinter's muscle was mostly torn). I am discharged sometime around 3 AM and Tiffany/Marion/Heath make sure I get back to my hotel room after stopping at a 24 hour pharmacy and getting my pain meds. I tell them I'll be fine and probably still get on the plane (Saturday). It's now Thursday, Valentine's day. Gosh, what an awful holiday.

I don't sleep that night much, and wake up after maybe 2 hours of sleep very disoriented. I was given crutches, so I can kind of hobble to the bathroom. Tiffany and Marion had brought me food, which was next to me. I occasionally eat it, it doesn't taste good (I was nauseous but didn't realize it), and I'd put it back down forgetting that I hadn't eaten it. People at work are asking where I am and I try to explain (even though I can't read the screen) that I was hit by a car. 

Rumors are circulating, I don't feel well, I can't figure out what I need to do or in what order they need to happen. People keep asking me for things, my phone feels like it is constantly ringing, there is a guy who tells me he is a lawyer and wants to help. Ex boyfriend comes, says a bunch of even more confusing things, he picks up Tuna from the fire station and tries to say it's probably still rideable (typical bad advice from him, it's a carbon bike). I am on heavy medicine but feel almost happy, a drugged sort of happy. Doga, who had seen my FB post about getting hit by a car, asks if she should come visit. I say she can but doesn't have to, and Doga decides that even though it's far, this is probably serious and comes after work. 

Doga is the first person to realize the extent of how bad this situation is despite what I have been saying. I am laying in bed, still bleeding and she sees that I can't speak coherently, can't follow a train of thought, the uneaten food that I claim I've eaten, and that I seem to be on loop saying things are OK, it's OK. She insists to take me home with her, but I don't want to be a bother. "It's OK Doga, I'll fly home Saturday..." "Well, come home with me first". 

She takes me to Pasadena and puts me in her bed. I sleep fitfully and erratically, waking up very ill the next day. I hurt, I feel like I am going to vomit, my leg aches constantly, my head feels like it's going to explode. I can't think. I can't eat. I tell her that I think something is wrong, very wrong. Doga takes me to the ER in Pasadena, and we begin a very long journey (like a 4+ hour wait and watching a small child puke in the waiting room). After several hours, we see a doctor, he gives me more pain meds and checks my leg for blood clots (it's clear, whew). He is the first one to mention "concussion" to me, that I need to follow up with specialists for my head and leg. 

Doga cares for me throughout the weekend, which is a full time job. Like a baby, I don't sleep through the night, I am in pain, I can't read, I can't really understand what people are asking me (like fake Lawyer, whole other story). Doga feeds me crackers and cheese cubes, makes sure I have water, and puts me to bed often. On Monday (Sunday?) I fly back to Seattle, my angel Doga putting me in a wheel chair and turning me over to the airport staff to take me to the plane and helping bring Tuna in his bike bag in. 

When you're in a wheel chair but not obviously maimed, people give you funny looks. A couple of brave ones ask what is wrong, and I explain that I was hit by a car and can't walk. They turn pale and express their concern -- you don't have to explain to people that if you were hit by a car the outcome isn't good. I remember little of the flight except that it was awful, and I remember thinking as I flew away from LA that I would never come back. 

Daniel picked me up at the airport unsure of the state he would find me in -- he's surprised I can walk with crutches (which I am getting ok at). The next week is a blur -- Daniel forgets to feed me one day and like a cat, I send him a picture of my empty food bowl and that I am out of cheese cubes (edit: Daniel wants me to add that the didn't forget to feed me, he didn't know I couldn't feed myself). I am entirely dependent on those around me. I still don't sleep through the night, and sometimes I have nightmares about headlights. It's been 5 days? 6 days since the accident? I realize that I can't add - like if I try to add 11+24 in my head it's like an eraser comes along and clears the answer before I can say it. 

Cheese cube rationing

People keep asking questions. This is the cruelest part of this whole process - the questions. Insurance companies call. My insurance through work. The woman's car insurance. The hospitals insurance. People keep asking how I am and I can't read. A few get through to me -- they realize I need more help than I am getting. A friend of mine who is a doctor insists that I need to see a concussion specialist. I try to say I will, I just want to sleep, but he insists and helps me get to the doctor. The concussion specialist says I have a very, very bad concussion that will take months if not a year to heal from. 

Machiko takes me to the orthopedic doctor too, and he puts me in a walking boot and says my calf muscle is severely torn. He says it will hurt for a very long time, up to a year. He tells me to start walking on it as soon as I can, and in that moment (a week after?) I still scream if people touch it. I can't imagine putting weight on it, but I promise him I will try eventually. He says I need to do physical therapy too if I want to heal correctly, and I make the appointment (which is exhausting for me). Every day is exhausting. 

Most of my days are spent on the couch, lying there looking at the ceiling, my leg hurting as I lay there and the tramadol wears off. I can't look at screens, they hurt my head so much. I listen to audiobooks but I can't follow the plot and forget all the characters names. I have guests, which are the only bright part of my day and break up my ceiling watch. I am so grateful for every visitor who comes and tells stories and just takes my mind off the pain and boredom. I remember being happy though, very very very happy. So lucky to be alive, so blessed to have friends that visit, so glad that I can dream of being myself again one day. Everyone says they can't believe this happened to me, and I reiterate that I am happy. I'll heal. 

(... to be continued, Part II, Recovery

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