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August 31st, 2005 Angela Valdez | News Stories
 

BIKER, INTERRUPTED

Here's what I do remember. Lying curled on the street with wincing pain gripping my back, thinking I must be paralyzed.

     
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Wednesday, July 27, 2005-about 8:07 am

Here's what I do remember. Lying curled on the street with wincing pain gripping my back, thinking I must be paralyzed.

With relief, I circled my feet on my ankles, and repeated, only half-convinced, "You're going to be OK."

Seconds earlier, I had coasted toward the light, a soft breeze raising goosebumps on my bare arms, and thought how glad I was to be headed to work so early.

A red blur streaked to my left, and a red car turned into my path. Even as I tried to veer to the right, I sensed, already out of body, a panel of metal colliding with my bike.

I do not remember the shock of impact or what happened next, falling from my bike and landing on the street close to the curb at Northeast 15th Avenue and Prescott Street.

Twenty minutes earlier, I'd been a determined 27-year-old, not invincible but sure of my strength. I wrote for Willamette Week, ran every day to make up for a chocolate addiction and biked to work because it got my heart beating. Does all this change now, I wondered, at eight in the morning, lying splayed in the middle of traffic?

a pair of shell-toed black leather work shoes walked up and stopped before my face. Above them stood a man who'd parked his red Chevy down the street. I yelled up that my back hurt, and the man told me not to move. It was the only thing he ever said to me.

Other voices arrived, and I strained to yell that the man had hit me. But he snapped back to the gathering crowd that I had hit him. "There's a human body on the ground," a woman responded. He told her, "Get the fuck out of my face."

Sirens climbed over the voices until, soon, EMTs eased me onto a board and strapped me down, sending my back into contortions of pain. They secured my neck in a collar and stuffed rigid foam pads around the edges. In the dark chamber of an ambulance, a woman stuck an IV into the soft skin at the bend in my arm. A police officer appeared at my feet, asked a few questions and disappeared. Wanting a distraction, I babbled at my EMT as we drove. "Will I be able to walk?" I asked. "I think so," she said. "But I think your back is pretty messed up."

I knew I was damned lucky to be alive. But I felt mad, not lucky. Mad at myself, mad at the driver and mad at life. I know there's some grand wisdom to be gained from this, but a month later, I still can't find my way through the accident to enlightenment.

Arriving at Legacy Emanuel Hospital, I waited in an empty room until my fellow staff writer, Nick Budnick, peeked in and I waved him closer. Hovering nervously, he asked what happened. "Holy shit," he said, continuing to curse. He had thought that I was just a little scraped up. I told him to stop swearing and made him hold my hand until my mother arrived. A police officer hurried in, said he wouldn't be investigating the accident and handed me a form with the name of the driver, Charles Myrick.

By then, the pain was so bad that I couldn't care less about the cop or my assailant. I was thrilled when a nurse brought in a vial of morphine.

Orderlies moved me to a bright room in Emergency, where my mom, with my stepdad at her side, embraced her role as protector-provider with only a few sniffles. Since my dad had custody of me until high school, my mom missed out on sick days and midnight trips to the emergency room. She seemed to relish this chance to care for me.

Drifting in and out of sleep, I calculated my possible fates-like never being able to run or bike again, living with pain, or not being able to work as hard as I do. But my woozy state-from morphine and lack of food-acted as a shield, blocking me from comprehending the gravity of these unlucky prospects.

Every hour or so, red-smocked orderlies pulled me onto a gurney and we clattered away to Radiology for X-rays, CAT scans and an MRI. A nurse walked in with a little kit and kicked my visitors out. She forced a plastic tube inside my urethra-the pressure felt like peeing sand-and left the bag under the blankets.

Much later, a man in a flowery Bermuda shirt strolled in and said "Hi!' and, in a tone usually reserved for ribbing an office buddy: "So, you broke your back." Like, what do you think of that?

Dr. Jeffrey Flemming, my smirking and capable spine surgeon, told me I'd probably need surgery. Maybe later that day. And then he left. It turns out I had a doctor for every quadrant of my body. They came in one after the other, dispensed their diagnoses and walked away.

A white-coated neurosurgeon with a brain lapel pin followed Flemming, and said my neck might be fractured, too. Until he knew for sure, he said, I'd have to wear the collar. An orthopedist strolled in next and explained I'd fractured my sacrum, a triangular bone at the end of my spine. It will hurt when I walk, he said, but it's an injury with no treatment other than rest.

Late that night, I got transferred to a 35-bed unit in the Trauma Department. It was sobering to realize that so many patients were as bad off as, or worse than, me. People kept saying "You're so lucky!" but somehow that word made me uneasy. Perhaps my pain and anger just blinded me from seeing my good fortune.

After midnight, a neurosurgeon woke me with great news: My neck wasn't broken, and I could take off the collar. I savored a cup of apple juice and fell back asleep.

sometime during my second day, we received a slightly more complete diagnosis.

My fall had triggered several fractures in L1, a vertebra in my lower back near the end of my spinal cord. The bone fragments were being held together in a delicate embrace of ligaments, muscle and a thickening blood clot. Because the fracture hadn't pushed into my spinal cord, I escaped paralysis. It may take time, the doctor said, but I would run and bike again.

The news eliminated the worst possibilities and gave me some comfort. But I still didn't know what my injury meant, if I faced years of pain or was at risk for other injuries. I felt grateful but still unlucky.

I began to feel at home in my little room, which slowly filled with flowers and gifts. I waited all night for visiting hours to begin. My dad, who has multiple sclerosis, arrived in his wheelchair with two stuffed dogs from my childhood, and my mom took off work to visit everyday. At first I worried what to do about the bike mechanic, Jens, who had kissed me by a bar-room pinball machine a week and a half before my accident. But a friend called him with the bad news, and Jens visited late every night, after everyone else had gone.

In my dependence on others, I lost my humility and gained an appreciation for little luxuries. Even after my period started, and nurses had to change my pads, I learned to relish sponge baths and rub-downs with itch cream.

Whenever nurses moved me, to prevent skin irritation or to send me off to Radiology, my spine erupted in a double pain: partly this deep ache in my broken bones, and also the yank of spasming muscles, tensing to splint my back.

Now, a month later, I remember the fear the pain inspired more than the pain itself. My pain has declined dramatically in this month-but it's still here to put me in my place.

CNN anchors narrated through most of my days in the hospital, while my thoughts often got stuck, in a blurry, druggy way, on my own frailty. In my narcotic shroud, I didn't feel high but rather as if the volume had been turned down. When the drugs faded, the decibels shrieked in my ears.

I panicked when left alone and worried that one of the younger nurses would hurt me by moving me in the wrong way. Once, when an orderly left me alone in an alcove outside Radiology, I got nauseated and panicked that I'd puke and choke on my own bile. I screamed for help and the staff inside Radiology simply shut their door to block my cries.

When visitors arrived, I felt and acted much more confident. It's not so much that I was putting on a face, but that friends made me forget my private neuroses.

On Friday, I woke from a nap to find a bright white plastic bodice shining up at me from the floor, my new polyethylene brace. Pushed into log roll, I moved my hips and shoulders in unison, arms crossed, and a nurse shoved one half of the clam shell under my torso. I rolled back and she strapped on the top, which has two round outcroppings about where my breasts should be, It felt stiff, uncomfortable and very, very safe.

Soon I realized that the brace gave me precious freedom. If a nurse helped me, I could walk to the bathroom with a walker. Goodbye, catheter. Over the next few days I figured out how to get my underwear up and down, a complicated operation that requires pulling my panties just a little over my rear, sitting down, and then remembering to yank them down to my knees before peeing.

For the next several months, I will wear the brace whenever I'm standing up or sitting at an angle greater than 30 degrees. Even with it on, I cannot twist, bend or arch my back.

Besides pain, my biggest concern in the hospital was constipation. My steady intake of narcotics-OxyContin, oxycodone, morphine-essentially put my intestines to sleep, a coma undisturbed by regular servings of prune juice, stool softeners and milk of magnesia.

One night, in desperation, I guzzled two cups of prune juice and did laps around the ward in my walker. Unfortunately, my system revolted in the opposite direction, and I spent several minutes with painful dry heaves wrenching my back. I looked at my nurse and whimpered, "I just want to poop." She cracked up, which calmed me, and then gave me an injection that banishes queasiness.

on wednesday, Aug. 3, a week after my accident, I got cleared for release. The hospital sent me off with a junior-size walker, a grabber that's especially handy for getting clothes on and off but isn't long enough to pick up my newspaper every time I drop it, and an essential tool called toilet tongs.

My mom and her husband bundled me into the car and we drove-godDAMN every pebble hurt-to their house on Corbett Avenue in Southwest Portland.

I last lived at home in 1995, and then it was just Mom and me, in a funky West Burnside apartment. My mom, who took the month off work, marked my return to the nest by resurrecting old habits: goopy forehead kisses, nagging, doting, spoiling and a constant concern about whether I've brushed my teeth.

Her husband and I have no such traditions to fall back on, since he and my mom were married four years after I moved out. Now, six months after moving back to Portland from Philadelphia, there's a slight edge to everyday dealings-setting the table or negotiating turns in the bathroom.

Dave is a follower of a minimalist movement called voluntary simplicity. At the house on Corbett, there is no dishwasher, no clothes dryer, the VCR is banished to basement storage, and almost everything gets composted or recycled. By comparison, my habits are lavish: I use paper towels and the microwave daily, plus real toothpaste (not Tom's of Maine), fake sugar and, sometimes, bacon.

The scaled-back system puts extra pressure on my mom, who must line-dry the armsful of towels it takes to get me showered.

At first, we were all too busy and exhausted to fight. I needed help with everything. Chairs pulled in and out, getting dressed, pouring a glass of milk.

We were not prepared for the surprises to come.

On my first night home, I woke at 3 am to more pain than I'd had in days. Stranded on my twin bed, I called out for my mom. She held me as I cried, terrified that it still hurt this bad. My doctors had neglected to tell us that they'd sent me home without OxyContin, my most powerful, and addictive, medication.

Doctors, we realized, were not here to guide us step by step, but to provide lightning flashes of wisdom, make a decision and then disappear.

The next day, Mom and I had our first fight on our way to pick up clothes at my apartment, and from then on, we quarreled like clockwork.

At home, my cycles of neurosis have vacillated wildly, from feeling guilty that I'm making everyone so worried to conjuring dark nightmares of a twisted and hunched back.

Lying in bed at night with my brace off, I struggle to stay perfectly still, convinced that a wiggle could inflict nerve damage or crack new fissures in my bone.

And then I begin to itch. The disturbance is more than a nervous tic: spending all day in a sweaty clamshell makes for chronic skin irritation. In bed, my itches get so bad that I grab a wand of taped-together tongue depressors fitted with a comb-an invention concocted by my favorite nurse-and flay my flaming back.

Not long after I've calmed down and fallen asleep, I wake up, my bladder tingling and full. My only recourse is to go back to sleep or call out for my mom until she wakes up, wanders in and sleepily straps me back into the brace. The more I tell myself to sleep, the more I have to pee.

a week out of the hospital, we visited Dr. Flemming for a follow-up. A sideways X-ray showed the damage. Instead of a square block like the others, my vertebra looked more like a slice of pie with the first bite gone. The pieces of broken bone had compressed into an awkward wedge, with the narrow end pointing toward the front of my body. Flemming told me the picture was bad news; the vertebra had compressed at an angle of 16 degrees, and he'd need to operate if the wedge widened to 20 degrees.

Sitting in his cheery exam room, I felt befuddled and gloomy. He said there wasn't much we could do-it's just chance and nature and gravity. Of course, he said, I shouldn't be riding around upright in the car, and I should spend most of my time "lying around the house."

Back at home, we began to wonder if I'd done damage by being so active. My doctors never told me to spend most of my time "lying around." The physical therapists actually predicted I'd soon feel well enough to scoot around the house without my walker. No one instructed us on the proper way to travel in cars.

Days later, we were still dealing with the uncertainty when we had our first meeting with my attorney, Ray Thomas. We learned that my legal battle with the insurance company of the driver who hit me would take at least a year. And once Thomas secures for me the proceeds of Myrick's liability insurance, most of the check will go toward legal fees and reimbursing my health insurance for more than $30,000 in medical bills.

My next set of X-rays brought good news: My vertebra had stabilized at 16 percent, and I didn't need surgery. As for a long-term prognosis, Flemming said I'd be close to normal. My bones will take several months to heal, and I will have to learn to live with a little bump on my back where L1 sticks out above its neighbors. If I "overdo it," he said, my back will hurt.

Instead of celebrating, my mom and I had our biggest fight ever and ended up crying over steaming bowls of broth at Pho Oregon on Northeast Sandy Boulevard. Inexplicably, we followed our fragile truce with a trip to the mall.

Inside the Wet Seal store at Lloyd Center, an 8-year-old girl caught sight of me and, transfixed, began following me around the store. I cracked. Catching her in full, open-mouthed ogle, I made the "turn around now" motion, swirling my index finger in the air, only to be chastised by her mother for harassing a little girl. I took this as a cue to flee the mall as quickly as possible.

The brace is something I'm still figuring out. Sometimes I relish the attention it brings, and sometimes I want to flip off gawkers. It has the funny effect of slowing the progress of my physical relationship with Jens; occasionally, it gets used as a drum. Watching a movie on my twin bed, it gets fondled and then we both realize how silly that is and he stops, but starts again, subconsciously.

Even though I've sunk to the level of snapping at children, my mood is getting better and my pain is improving. My mom and I have spent entire days without fighting. And she finally persuaded Dave to get a clothes dryer.

But I still don't feel lucky.


Auto insurance includes coverage for personal injury protection, or PIP, which pays the policyholder's medical bills regardless of fault. Because I don't drive, and thus don't have PIP, my workplace medical insurance is stuck with the tab.

A clause in most health-insurance policies, including mine, stipulates that the insurer has a right to some reimbursement for medical expenses from any monetary settlement I receive.

Portland Police Bureau policy is to investigate any traffic crashes that result in injuries serious enough for the victim to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance and entered into the state trauma system. Even though both were true in my case, police did not investigate because I was transferred to the trauma system after I arrived at the hospital.

The driver who hit me, Charles E. Myrick, has a criminal record and, perhaps more damning, several traffic violations, including tickets for speeding and failure to obey a traffic device.

The Bicycle Transportation Alliance offers legal clinics on cyclists' rights held by Ray Thomas (who is also my attorney in this case). The next clinic will be held at 6 pm Wednesday, Sept. 14, in the BTA office at 717 SW 12th Ave. Call 226-0676 or visit www.bta4bikes.org for more info.

 
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