Sunday, December 16, 2007

Asking for a Little Help

Here's the story my Aunt Dorothy asked me to write down for her.

In the spring of 2004 the biking bug bit me bad. I bought a department store mountain bike (the monster weighed 45 pounds but fortunately I didn't know at the time that was heavy) and began taking it up and down hills. I lost about 25 or 30 pounds and got in great shape quickly. Which was good because, at 48, I had a lifetime of sedentary deskwork to make up for.

Late in August we were scheduled to drive our daughter, Mandy, down to Pt. Loma University in San Diego, California, to begin her freshman year. Much to my wife's chagrin, I tied the mountain bike to the back of our minivan and hauled it 1,200 miles from our home in the Seattle area down to Southern California.

Two days before we were scheduled to be in San Diego, we stopped at my inlaws' place in Wrightwood, California. The next morning the sky was clear and sunny so I decided to take the bike up a local mountain. I started on the Angeles Crest trail and ground my way up the back side of one of the peaks utilized by local skiers during the winter.

It was a grueling, 3,500 foot ascent, which took several hours to complete. And it was lonely -- I didn't see a soul all the way up. About a third of the way to the top, the rough asphalt one-lane road ended and the trail turned to dirt. But I finally made it, enjoying spectacular scenery all the way and feeling the good about the effort.

After a brief rest I turned the bike around and headed down. It was exhilarating. The soil of the trail was soft and gravelly and the bike swooshed back and forth as if I were skiing. The speed was fun and I think I began to feel somewhat invincible, though I thought I was being fairly cautious.

When I picked up the asphalt again, I felt I was able to safely pick up some more speed, even though the angle of the mountain off the side of the road was quite serious. Very soon I was coming around a curve doing maybe 20 or 25 mph ... unfortunately too fast to do anything about a large unremembered rut in the asphalt, where a washout had occurred, which stretched completely across the trail.

Unable to stop, I quickly decided to try and grind through it, but I wasn't sufficiently experienced to keep the nose of the bike up high enough, and the front wheel caught on the far side of the rut's lip. Before I knew what had happened the bike flipped me face-first onto the asphalt.

It happened unbelievably fast. I knew I had hit my head but didn't actually realize I had smashed my face into the asphalt, until the searing pain became quickly evident. I lay on the ground for awhile, unable to move, then finally sat up and began to take stock of my injuries. Most of the skin on top of my right knee was gone, but I soon realized that most of the puddle of blood on the ground was coming from my face rather than my leg. I had widened my mouth by about an inch or so, tearing straight up from the corner like an extended smile. (It wasn't until later I realized you could see my molars through this rip in my cheek.) My nose was gashed pretty good, as well as the tissue around my right eye, but worst of all was the pain in my face. My jaw seemed to hang at a funny angle and I was sure I had broken it. (It wasn't until later I realized I had broken my cheekbone, and simply jammed my jaw.)

In some respects I was lucky. When I removed my helmet, I was surprised to see it was crushed along the top. If not for my helmet, I would have seriously smashed my forehead into the asphalt. It did it's job protecting my brain.

I looked at the cellphone which I was carrying, but I already knew what to expect. I was in a remote area, and all morning long I had been checking for a signal, but didn't see a single bar. I tried to call 911, but it didn't go through.

Unsure of what else to do, eventually I picked myself (and my broken bike, too mangled for riding) up and began limping down the trail. I wasn't sure how long I might have to wait for help, and it seemed like a good idea to at least begin to walk.

I pushed forward for maybe 20 or 30 minutes, checking my cell phone every few minutes for a signal -- but nothing. The pain in my face, blazing hot and seemingly unbearable, went nowhere but worse, and despite my attempts to stop the bleeding in my face with my shirt, I was soaked in blood. My head began to swim and several times I had to stop. Finally, I dropped the bike, and collapsed by the side of the road. This time the haze in my head wouldn't go away, and I found I couldn't really get up again. I started thinking about what might happen if I passed out on that backwoods road, soaked in blood, in the middle of nowhere. I thought about the mountain lions that frequented the area.

Suddenly, in the midst of all these terrifying thoughts, a realization struck me. I had been in one of the worst pickles of my life for a half hour, and for some crazy reason I hadn't even thought to call out to the Lord for help.

I was angry at myself. That should have been my first instinct. So, in as loud a voice as I could muster, I cried out into the emptiness, air hissing from the rip in my torn cheek: "Help me, Jesus! I really don't know what to do here. I need you!"

Nothing. Silence. No response other than the soft breeze rustling the sagebrush.

I looked down at my cell phone and blinked. Was I hallucinating? I watched as the signal skipped from 0 bars, to 1, then 2, then 3, then 4, all the way up to 5 ... and hold there. Suddenly I had a strong signal.

Shakily I dialed 911 again, and put the phone to my ear. I heard it ring and began counting rings. After the 20th ring, a voice answered, "911 Operator. What is your emergency?"

I excitedly described my situation to the gentleman on the line. He asked where I was and I told him, "Angeles Crest Trail, west of Wrightwood." But my heart fell when he responded, "Angeles Crest Trail? Where is that? Up by Los Angeles somewhere?" I tried my best to describe where I was, and he seemed unbelieving. "You've reached 911 service in San Diego!" he told me. It seemed impossible.

The operator told me that he was dispatching a rescue helicopter from San Diego, but would also contact both Los Angeles and San Bernardino County dispatchers to see if one of them could get help to me faster. He told me to stay on the line as he relayed my approximate location to these others.

When he was done he asked me how I was doing. I was relieved that help was on the way, but my head was still swimming. "Help is coming," he told me. "But I want you to stay on the line with me and we'll wait for it together."

As soon as he had said that, I heard a soft beep, then nothing. I looked at the phone. The bars had returned to 0.

I don't know how much longer I sat there. Not long -- maybe 15 or 20 minutes. I glimpsed a swirl of dust rising, quite a ways down the mountain, then was able to pick out a rescue unit manuevering up the road. Within another 5 minutes, help had arrived. They poured saline and wrapped my wounds and strapped a neck brace on (which was excruciating due to the broken facial bone) then strapped me to a backboard. They loaded me very gingerly into the back of the waiting rescue unit then started back down the trail.

As we bumped down the hill, the paramedic gave me oxygen and worked on getting an IV started.

About an hour later I was being wheeled into the emergency room in San Bernardino. Mandy had been planning on being a nursing major. When she and my wife Darlene (who, fortunately for me, is already a registered nurse) saw me in the emergency room, as they were cleaning me up and started sewing up my torn cheek, Mandy changed her mind about her major.

Later that afternoon I was released -- sewn up, bandaged and thoroughly x-rayed. My face and knee healed with minimal scarring, though I had to have several broken teeth repaired. I had about a week of torture from severe sores in my mouth. My cracked facial bones popped and clicked for months, then finally fused back together. But despite my injuries I was grateful to be able to attend orientation sessions with my wife and daughter the next day at Point Loma, though I looked like I had been through hell and back.

Here I am, almost healed up!

Many of my friends asked me if I was going to continue biking. I didn't see any reason I shouldn't, especially now that I knew to be much more careful of my speed on the downhills, and how to grind through a pothole with my front wheel up!

Of course this didn't help me avoid the truck that hit me from behind while I was training for my road race in Southern Africa in May of 2006 ... but that's another story ...

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