Part 1 - THE CRASH
Of the many thousands of wheelies I have done in my 48 years, I have had three flips that ended with memorable falls on my back. Memorable for different reasons.
The first, age 12 on my way home from Pelham Primary School, Pietermaritzburg on my Raleigh BMX in front of some girls from my school that I would have been too shy to talk to. My satchel cushioned my fall, but did nothing for my embarrassment.
The second was while doing a no-handed wheelie at Honeydew Quarry, Johannesburg in 2001. I was doing a ride/photo shoot with the National XC Champ, Fritz Pienaar (who’d recently taught me how to do no-handed wheelies), Koos Groenewald, National Junior XC Champ at the time, the late, super-skilled Wes Fowler and Greg Minnaar, who’d just won his first UCI DH World Cup Series. Obviously I felt stupid - and sore. Missed that night’s party with the guys due to the pain in my coccyx.
The third was on Saturday 15 September 2018. I pop a few wheelies during any given ride because I can and I enjoy it. After around 40 minutes of riding, I popped the front wheel up for probably the 10th time on that ride and then - THUNK!
Yoh! The surprise. The denial. The inability to breathe. Might I die? Panic! No, I CAN breathe. Just. Winded. I’m somehow on my hands and knees. The pain! The PAIN! My spine! Might I be paralysed? Breathe. Wriggle my toes. They wriggle. Breathe. Move my legs. They move. The pain! The PAIN! My back! I flipped? Wow! How? HOW! Where was the back brake when I needed it? WHERE? WHY? HOW? The pain! The PAIN! I can’t talk.
My riding buddies André and Mxolisi sound worried.
I start talking. Sort of. Rasping
“I’m okay.” Breathe.
“No I’m not okay.” Breathe.
“I won’t move.” Breathe.
“I’ll stay like this for a while.”
Wait. I CAN’T move! Oh the pain. I’ve never been in this much pain!
“Call paramedics. I don’t want to risk moving. They’ll bring the right back support gear,“ I manage to say. Breathe.
They spring into action.
Wow! I flipped? I FLIPPED! Me!The pain. The PAIN!
On all fours I realise that I’m normally the one rendering or calling for help on rides. This is surreal. Did this just happen? What now?
I dial my wife. No answer. She’s riding elsewhere with friends. I dial again. She answers. She knows a mid-ride call isn’t good news.
“I have fallen hard.” Breathe.
My voice is raspy and I struggle to talk and breathe simultaneously.
“But I’m okay.” Breathe.
“I think.” Breathe.
“I’ve hurt my back.” Breathe.
“I’m waiting for...” Breathe.
“... an ambulance” Breathe.
“I’m on my way,” she says.
I visualise what she has to do to reach me and realise it’s going to be a while before I see her (we are on different ends of Johannesburg).
“Can you move now?” asks Mxolisi.
“No, I can’t. But I can move my toes, which is good.” I groan, still staring down at the brown, dry grass for what seems like years now.
I manage to drop from my hands to my elbows. That’s a bit better. But I’m still in the same position on my knees. Maybe I can move? But I don’t want to risk it. Wow! The pain! I flipped? Me! How?
André had called Chris the trails manager. I feel Chris touch my back gently and speak calmly:
“Can we lie you down?”
“No!” I rasp. Breathe.
“I may have a serious spinal injury and I don’t want to move.
On the wristband I attached when I paid and signed the indemnity at the trailhead was an ER24 number.
Someone dialed it and spoke to the paramedic on the other end and that made me a little less tense.
After what seemed like an age, the paramedics arrived and after some brief checks and questions I was firmly strapped to a backboard with my neck secured too. Being carried by four men on this backboard through the bush to Chris’s offroad-ish vehicle to get me to the ambulance, not an offroad-ish vehicle, felt like torture. Being loaded into the ambulance felt like more torture. The pain in my back! Every small movement felt huge. Groan.
I felt like crying but didn’t. I needed to focus my energy on being strong, not weak.
The drive to the hospital seemed to take an age but was just less than 1 km! The pain! The PAIN!
Can I move my toes? Yes! Can I breathe? Yes, but very raspy. Can I talk. Hardly. Wow! The pain is just massive!
I had some ideas what my injury might be - I had a worst case and a best case already planned in my mind.
As they wheeled me into the ER, the doctor on duty asked a few quick questions. I could hardly speak.
I showed them my ICE ID on my wrist, which has my name, medical aid name and number and the cell numbers of two family members.
“I wish everyone had one of these! This is great!” said the paramedic as he completed some sort of admission form.
“On a measure of 1 to 10, with 10 being the worst pain, what would rate your pain?” asked the doctor.
“Teeeen!” I rasped.
What a stupid question I thought. Can’t she see it’s a 10?
“Let’s get some morphine,” I heard her say.
“More-phine, Less pain” I heard the paramedic chuckle...
Now on a softer ER bed (another painful transfer done carefully by five people), I begin to try and relax and breathe. No! Not able to breathe deeply. The sharp, stabbing pain across the whole middle of my back is excruciating.
I flipped. Wow! How? Me?
Will I be okay? Still in my cycling gear, I wriggle my toes inside my shoes. Yes! I think I’ll be okay. I wonder what is hurting so damn much.
My phone rings. ‘Beautiful Wife’ is the caller.
“I’m on my way,” she says with a calm, firm tone. I try to smile.
“Okay,” I rasp. “I need you.”
The call ends. Since I met her at high school in 1986, she has always been a problem-solver, or, as we call her, our solutionist. But can she solve this new, unexpected problem? I’m unsure, but I know damn well that when she’s with me, things are always better...
Part 2: THE DIAGNOSIS (to come)