Seriously, if medical details are not for you — don’t read this.
This an account of me shattering my face in 2012.
My cycling team and I had ridden out to Claudio’s Dock — a destination spot here on Long Island. The planned ride was there and back, something like 65 miles.
For breakfast/lunch I had a fabulous Ahi wrap which was a hybrid Mexican/sushi thing. This may sound like an extraneous detail. It is not, just wait.
Upon riding back, we rode through a street fair — man, that’s a challenge.
Then we got back to the highways, where we ride on shoulders and bike paths, which are really decent on the north shore of Long Island.
I was riding next to the leader of the club, discussing where we might ride in the next few weeks. We were right next to each other, as we often are to talk, doing in the 20 MPH range.
When you ride as far and as often as we do, you get used to road hazards. When you ride over a storm drain, which is sometimes unavoidable, generally you just lift up a bit off the seat so you don’t take a possible bump right to the hips.
As we were next to each other, I was closer to the curb, he was closer to the street. The shoulder we were in was narrowing to about 3 feet up in the distance, so he began to pull ahead.
That’s when I hit the storm drain.
A drain is SUPPOSED to fit into its frame and have the edges filled with asphalt. This is why.
The one I hit had no asphalt. I only learned this 2 weeks later as the rest of the team went to investigate how the hell an experienced rider suddenly does this.
My front wheel went into the gap between the frame and the drain. The gap is 1.1" wide. My front wheel is 7/8".
Now, you would think — OK that means the wheel gets caught. No. The gap had no bottom. My wheel hit and the bike fell in all the way to the front forks, which are nastily bent now.
That means as I’m cruising along, all of a sudden, my front wheel dropped about 15". It was like biking down stairs or something, but steeper.
I have replayed this moment in my mind thousands of times since it happened. The chance of hitting this one grate without the asphalt edging and at exactly that point seems impossible. But there I was, suddenly jolted down.
Less than a tenth of a second later, my forward momentum is hurling me over the handle bars. My bike is the kind where I have these weird clips on my cycling shoes that clip into latches instead of regular pedals. They snap.
I have that tenth of a second to prepare for what I know is about to happen. That’s not a lot of time, even if you are expecting it.
I try to move my arms up in a martial arts block. This is instinct created by years of training — I’m trying to put up a boxers guard — take the hit to the forearms.
Except at that speed, with my hands still clutching my handlebars, I don’t quite guard in time.
There’s the impact.
Struck with a force that you simply cannot conceive. 20+ MPH, arcing over the bars into blacktop. This is not like a punch. This is not like getting winded. This is like nothing I’ve ever felt, even having been in car accidents. Cars are soft. The crunch and crumble. This is so much more harsh. CAT Scans later would reveal I bruised the BACK of my brain from the slam.
I am stunned. I start to go into shock.
My face hurts.
My lips… teeth…
I get up on all fours.
My bike — I’m not attached to it any more at my feet. Where the hell is it?
I’m bleeding. Bad. I look to the blacktop, inches in front of me. Blood. Not a spray of it. A thick layer. A pool. Teeth in it. Several. Several fleshy globs in it.
Now I see — hanging from under my nose, I can see my lip. An open flap.
For some reason, I cup my hands under my mouth to catch the blood — as if I have to keep the street clean. $50 biking gloves ruined. That starts to annoy me. But my hands are shaking too much to remove them.
Then I start thinking “Damn — this is bad. This recovery is going to take forever.” And my gloves — why did I ruin my gloves?
I reach up to touch my face but I can’t feel it. Not on my face, not on my fingers.
The leader of the riding group is heading back. I didn’t scream — no time — but all of a sudden I wasn’t there.
“I’m hurt. Real bad,” I spit, with spoonfuls of blood pouring out. I look at some of my teeth lying on the ground. They came out from the root. One is split lengthwise. Can those really be from my mouth?
I hurt. Everywhere. I rest my head on the ground between my hands. This is when I realize the visor is gone from my helmet. Great. Another piece of gear destroyed.
The group of cyclists behind catch up. It’s been seconds. Maybe half a minute. One of the girls is an EMT.
Things blur. Calls are made. Ambulances. My wife. Within a few minutes, there are sirens. I don’t know how many, I can’t look around. Questions are asked. They want to remove my helmet. Several men help me roll to my back.
I answer the questions by shouting like a marine, afraid my words are unclear without my lips. “P! A! U! L!” Then some of my cycling buddies start answering what they can for me.
Why can’t I stop shaking?
My name and address are taken. Some woman who either lives nearby or was passing by comes to help.
I understand these guys are doing their job and communicating to each other, but when one guy yells “we have catastrophic facial damage” to another, it does not instill comfort.
“Get those teeth,” one guy yells. They have a cool little container — a “Tooth Saver” that will follow me to the ER.
“My front teeth are wrong, too”, I say, realizing that my top 2 front teeth are now angled into my mouth. I pull, wondering if they are no longer attached. Somehow, they are. Weird. They’re obviously not in the sockets. Later, I will learn this is because I have a horizontal fracture just below my nose and the top of my mouth hinged inwards.
I am strapped to a board. A neck brace is put on, even as I protest that my neck is fine. IV is inserted. Vitals taken. After some hurried conversations, my wife is told on the phone where to go.
They change their mind. The nearest hospital won’t due. They need a place with a better reconstruction facility.
That sounds terrifying.
I am told the ambulance will take me to the airport and I will be airlifted. “Can I change your mind if I tell you I hate flying?” I ask.
Lifted into the ambulance. They’re all taking pictures. I don’t like the neck brace. I’m not claustrophobic, but this thing is horrible. It makes me far more uncomfortable than I need to be.
I’m moved into the helicopter. Incredibly loud. I ask over and over to get the brace off. The guy huddling over me says “I can’t do that, man. Twelve minutes. They have to check you out first. We’ll be there in twelve minutes.”
Twelve minutes to contemplate the fact that had I been 1/4" over in either direction, I’d still be riding. To fear the results of what I’ve done to myself. To regret a thousand things.
Now comes a new sensation I have never felt. Maybe I am claustrophobic. I start to panic. The guy keeps telling me to calm down. I attempt to meditate to calm, which I have experience in.
“Wipe my ears,” I shout. “I have blood dripping into my ears.”
We land. More faces. More guys. Lifted. Moved. Run through hallways. My face wrapped in gauze. A huge flurry of activity.
“How bad does it hurt,” an intern of some sort asks, holding up one of those 1–10 charts with the cartoony faces on it.
“Four?” I ask. Mild discomfort.
“That’s no four,” another says. “He’s in shock.”
No surprise, and thanks for reminding me that this is so much worse than I think.
“I’m scared,” I say as I hear my wife’s voice. “Don’t look at me.” She’s in the room somewhere. With the neck brace, I can’t look around.
“What are you scared about,” the guy shining lights in my eyes asks.
“Scared I’ll never look like me again.”
He puts his hand on my shoulder and hunches over me. Its the first time I see him. He looks like Ryan Reynolds. “Don’t do that. You’re with the best. You’ll be fine.”
CAT scans. Wife. XRays with radioactive traces to check internal damage. Have you had this done before, yes, I understand the strange warmth illusion of the trace. Multiple XRays. Wife holding my hand between each. More CAT scans. My daughter and son want to see me. We agree not a good idea. My dad is here, as are brothers.
The damage tally starts to come in. Multiple facial fractures. My maxilla crumbled. That’s the bone under your nose. Hinged right in. My upper lip split up to the nose and torn sideways. Fractures on right cheek and jaw. Several teeth missing, several chipped. Multiple abrasions on my arms. Lacerations on my face. Chin open, like a flap. Concussion. Blood loss.
Had I just been over 1/4"…
Then here’s the callback to my ahi wrap. They can’t put me under, since I recently ate.
Oh yes, I get to be awake through the whole reconstructive process, local numbing only.
The Maxilo Facial team shows up. Two will simultaneously readjust the bones and sew me back together while others assist.
Six and a half hours.
On my back, on a hard table, in a neckbrace, unable to move.
I need to roll off my back. It hurts.
The first few hours are shifting bones into place. Lidocaine — it’s like stronger novocaine, is injected repeatedly.
The dozens of injections hurt. Into my lips. Into the roof of my mouth. Into wounds.
I need to roll off my back. It hurts.
They wash the wounds. Bits of rock and blacktop are removed. They decide that I can be stitched together with only a bit of ‘bio-gel’, some sort of flesh epoxy, to help fill in.
With all the medication in me, when they ask “is this about right” when moving the bones in my lip around — I really can’t tell.
I need to roll off my back. It hurts.
For hours they are setting hardware around my teeth and gums. Wires, springs, clasps. The good news is I won’t need to be wired shut. Is that a power screwdriver? What the…
I need to roll off my back. It hurts.
I start shifting to kind of lie on my hip. Unfortunately, they’ve been using me as a table and I throw surgical tools to the floor. Tough.
After a few hours and them plugging one of the recovered teeth back into a socket, they move on to the soft tissue. Now, for this part, they tape your eyes shut and cover your face with a sheet, cutting a hole over the area to be operated on.
People always ask how many stitches.
Well, there’s the ones in the mouth, and the ones outside. After 40 something, I lost count. And the chin, I forgot that.
They discuss that my nose isn’t broken and that they really won’t know how to handle it for a while. There’s abrasions. The angle of the helmet kind of kept the nose off the ground.
And that helmet also prevented that ‘catastrophic damage’ from hitting my skull and brain. I would no longer be me without that helmet.
My chin is stitched closed with the help of whatever goo they put in there. My kids have been in the waiting room. Everyone decides they shouldn’t see me before any work is done. Possibly even afterwards.
One of the damn doctors keeps leaning on my nose for precise positioning. Excuse me — that nose has been skinned and has no numbing agent, please stop. And stop poking my damn lip — stick to the one you’re working on — the other hurts.
Always ask for more shots before it fully wears off, so you don’t have to feel the shots. You know you’re on the table a long time if you start developing strategies on when to ask for drugs.
Six hours is a lot. It’s a torture I would not wish on anyone.
I am tired. I hurt. Morphine, please.
I have a bad reaction to morphine. About twenty minutes after getting it, I feel worse than anything — nausea and feverish and a need to be unconscious. Then, I feel nothing.
They’re going to release me.
I need my bed. It is soft. I can lie on my side.
My brothers have taken my kids to dinner during this time. Its late now, not everyone was able to stay for after the whole procedure.
When my 10 year old daughter sees me, after begging to get to see me all day, she turns away. “Is that daddy?” She cannot approach. My wife will drive her home.
My 13 year old son helps me out of the wheelchair and into my brother’s car. Everything hurts.
When we get home, it is midnight. My wife and daughter are on the front steps. My brother and son help walk me up. My daughter is shaking. She’s a huge fan of things like The Walking Dead, but that’s just pretend. This is real.
“Hi, Cas,” I say as I shuffle up to her, looking and sounding like the Elephant Man, slurping after each word. “I… broke my… face.”
She bursts into tears and gingerly hugs me, afraid to touch.
“You look like a monster,” she sob laughs.
The recovery was slow, uncomfortable and ongoing. I had to go back for oral surgery over twenty times. Add a bracket, remove a brace.
When I could finally eat, some nine weeks after the accident, it was seafood bisque. We sat in the corner of a diner so no one had to watch this Seth Brundle-like slurping from the man with torn lips and shattered teeth who could not close his mouth. Up until that point, it was protein shakes taken in a straw like an eyedropper and dribbled in.
Yes, I sued the county for incorrect installation of the drain cover and won. Trust me. It wasn’t worth the money. I have tried twice to ride again, but I am far too jittery and that makes it more dangerous. Right now, I have no feeling still at the center of my lips and various impact points hurt when the weather changes. Sometimes I cannot tell if my lips are properly around a straw.
Wear a helmet. Had that impact hit my forehead and not my chin…