Two years have passed since my mountain bike accident. I go through oscillating versions of reality where it doesn't seem real and settle into the fact that I almost died.
"I'm tough, a little bike accident couldn't do me in."
"No, you almost died."
"No, Phil. You literally came a centimeter away from being paralyzed for life and a little further than that and you would have severed your spine, killing you instantly. Leaving your wife without a husband and your son without a father. Devastating your family and those friends and family who love you. You felt the icy chill of death against your neck. When people say 'you're lucky' you have no idea how right they are."
And I relent to fact.
It begins with an obsession and an early Christmas gift to myself.
I was obsessed with cycling. I wanted to be on my bike every day. I already had a great road bike for paved surfaces, now I felt like I needed a trail bike. I had borrowed my brother-in-laws mountain bike and had fallen in love with the Verdugo mountains in my local area. The thrill of navigating the fire roads and climbing the steep terrain took me in.
I saved my gig money, sold some bass gear and got a legitimate XC (cross country) mountain bike. I was so happy. Now I had a serious road bike, a hybrid for cruising with my boy and a legit mountain bike. I was set for anything.
On a road bike you have to be careful of traffic, namely inattentive or angry drivers. On a MTB (mountain bike) the terrain is the real danger. I fell often and had the marks to show for it. I always wore my helmet and exercised caution, but anyone who rides MTB will tell you that falling is common. I remember the first time I flew over my handlebars after I locked up my front brake. I was surprised at how easily I could turn into a human projectile. One day I had a particularly nasty set of falls on the Turnbull Canyon trails.
Resilience is one of my traits. It's a strength most of the time but perhaps a weakness in others. I wasn't going to let a learning curve get the best of me. I was going to accept this challenge and best it. I picked up a book called "Mastering Mountain Bike Skills" from the local library and tore through it.
On the cover you can see the different disciplines of mountain bike riding. I was only interested in cross country. I wasn't interested in downhill riding or dirt jumping. That stuff legitimately scared me. I wanted two wheels on the ground and the necessary bike handling skills to ride trails safely and skillfully. I was determined to win at this.
I grew up near a fairly large park. It was called Otterbein Park when I was young but later the name was changed to Schabarum Park. I had been there often through the years but had never explored the trails deeper into the park. Once I did on my mountain bike, I fell in love once again. It was a perfect place to practice riding.
Friday January 16, 2015
That afternoon I loaded JP into my truck and threw my bike and gear into the truck bed. It was my day off so I would drop JP off at my mom's and then ride to the park until early evening and then head home for dinner.
Before I headed off my mom said, "Be careful." I responded with "I will, mom."
Up Manor Gate, left on Colima and then into the park I went.
The ride went very well. I practiced the "attack position" (butt behind the saddle, body weight balanced between two wheels) on my downhill sections. Climbing is always hard on dirt trails, especially with a 25 lb. bike and my extra holiday weight, but that's why I enjoyed it.
I always had trouble with single track riding where the path is just narrow enough for the tires. I had the tendency to lose control and bail. I had been practicing on wider fire roads to gain control and confidence. I found a single track trail on the side of a hill that went up about thirty feet. The incline was significant but not impossible. I walked my bike up and tried it out for the first time.
Okay Phil, heavy feet, light hands. Be gentle on the brakes. Lead the bike where you want it to go.
First descent, success! It felt bumpy but manageable. I tried two more times and each time I felt more confident in myself.
I can ride single track with success. Awesome, today was a win.
I never told anyone this, but at a certain point in the ride a little voice in my head said, "This is the day you get hurt."
What? Stupid, I had bested single track. I wasn't getting hurt today. I brushed it away like any fleeting negative or doubtful thought that entered my head. I thought nothing of it and headed home.
It was about 3 PM, the sun was beginning to set and a chill set in. I had passed some hikers on a climb that lead out of the park. Ahead of me, some younger guys without helmets were trying out some Downhill riding. "Crazy" I thought and rode on to my favorite part of the trail, the descent out to the trail head.
As you exit the trail the road opens up to grassy and wide area leading to main area of the park. You can pick up a lot of speed safely because the path was wide open. I had done it at least eight times before and it was a wide-grin moment for sure.
I start picking up speed before the final right turn to the descent. It was clear to me that I was hitting this turn fast. Once my front tire hit a rut in the trail, I knew that this was going to get interesting. I start veering to the left. I had two choices:
- Course correct and aggressively turn the bike back to the trail. This would probably lead to a fall.
- Let the bike go where it's going and ease on the brakes until either the brakes stop you or an object in your way does.
If I was headed off a cliff, the choice would obviously be to course correct and risk the tumble off the bike. In this case, I was headed into a messy bit of foliage and a significant bush, but no trees. Fine, I'll ease on the brakes and hit the bush.
I felt the branches brush against my left arm as I entered the bush.
The Inverted World
Who is talking to me?
"What is your name?"
"Phil Romo" Who the hell are you?
"Are you in pain?"
"No." What happened? I see the trees. Green lines outlined against a darkening blue sky. My teeth are broken.
"Don't move. Where are you?"
"Otterbe...Schabarum Park. Are my teeth chipped?" Everything is fuzzy. I was riding my bike at the park. Why did I end up here? What happened earlier in the day? What am I wearing? My goddamn teeth are broken.
"Yes. How many fingers am I holding up?"
A disembodied hand holding up two fingers comes into my view.
"Two" You crashed. How? There's another guy using my cell phone to call Monica. How does he know my passcode? This is bad. You're on your back. Wiggle your toes.
I pause a moment to consider the implications of a failed attempt.
I wiggle my toes.
You'll be okay. This is probably just a dream.
"Don't move. Help is on the way."
"Are my teeth chipped?"
This guy is alright. He's trying to help me. There's a helicopter landing. This is a vivid dream...
New people, probably paramedics enter the scene. At this point I remembered at least a few minor details like my clothes and what happened earlier in the day, but still no idea of how I ended up in this situation. At least three sets of dialogue are happening around me at once. A new voice asks me a similar set of questions about my name, where I was at and how many fingers they were holding up. Then they ask:
"Can we cut open your shirt?"
Not my Cannondale jersey.
"O..kay..." I'm a little bummed about the jersey but I thought it wasn't wise to argue at this point. They attach devices to me and then ask me to cross my arms over my chest. Then a team of four people load me onto a gurney. Then I am loaded onto a helicopter and in a moment, I am flying in the air. A soothing voice tells me that I'll be okay. Inside of me a truth began to take shape.
This is not a dream. This is real and it's bad.
I land at the helipad on top of the County USC medical building. When I am loaded out I hear one of the EMT's say, "He probably hit a tree."
This sparks my memory and then I remember everything leading up to the crash. The rut, the bush, the branches.
I am already joking with some of the staff as they roll me into the trauma center. I have my backpack, my cell phone and what's left of my helmet.
My helmet was broken into three pieces. I'm shocked when I see it. I say, "Quick, I want to see what my face looks like!"
These are the pictures they took. They are graphic.
My wife arrives with a co-worker. She is distraught and shaken but so glad I am alive. I tell her that I'm fine. Then my father arrives. I rarely see him in a sentimental mood, but I can tell when he brushes my hair with his hand that his heart is in pain. They both had every right to say, "I told you so. I told you that mountain biking is dangerous." but they don't. They are just thankful that I'm alive.
Friday Night In The Trauma Center
I am laid up on my back with a neck collar on, my face swollen like a watermelon.
It was pretty clear that my wrist was broken. A splint was put over my left arm. Stitches were put on the top left side of my temple, which was the point of impact, which wound up healing beautifully.
I do an initial run of X-Rays and MRI's. Some friends I was planning on seeing later in the evening came to visit. I am bubbly and joking to everyone, I wanted to lift people's spirits in case they were feeling sad about what they saw.
The initial X-Ray showed no damage to the spinal cord. The Doctor says that I may be able to go home tomorrow. Good news.
When the Doctor takes off my neck collar he tests to see how much I can move my neck. I can turn my head left to right, but I can't move it forward and back. Not a good sign.
He carefully puts the collar back on. More tests are needed.
While I was awaiting the second X-Ray in a hallway by myself I attempted to sit up on my own. As soon as I supported my weight on my elbows the room starts spinning like I'm drunk. I decide to lay down. This is going to be worse than they thought.
It was. The first X-Ray missed the fact that I had broken a small lateral bone in my C7 vertebrae. This had damaged the ligaments in my neck and these ligaments don't heal. I would need to fuse my C6 to my C7. I wouldn't be able to get up and walk until this was done. If I tried to walk in my current condition, there was a chance that my neck would fail and slump my head forward permanently.
It was worse still, I had a compression fracture in my T4 and T5 thoracic spine. These fractures were small and no invasive surgery was needed, they just needed to repair on their own. I would need to be in a back brace for a while.
Both of these injuries, if any worse would have either paralyzed or killed me.
Saturday-Wednesday January 17-21
I was awaiting surgery on Wednesday for my spinal fusion. My wrist was broken and the initial splint didn't really work. They had to redo the splint on Saturday and I can safely say that was the closest thing to torture that I have ever experienced. I got moved around from room to room as my condition stabilized.
People frequently came to visit. It was very nice to see people. My parents, my wife and my boss, Laura were there constantly. It was nice not to have to be alone for long. I was only on morphine Friday and Saturday. By Sunday I was consciously trying to mitigate any pain I felt without meds.
Tuesday night I was NPO, "nothing by mouth" for my surgery Wednesday morning. Not even water.
Wednesday morning, nothing. The nurse said that the surgery would be in the afternoon. Fine, I was used to fasting.
Thursday and Friday January 22-23
Wednesday came and went, no surgery. My surgery got pushed and then canceled all together. At county USC, if there is another person who needs surgery who is in worse shape than you are, you're out of luck.
On Thursday we are pissed. My spinal doctor comes in and can only he's sorry. We're back in the shuffle.
I let the doctor staff on their morning rounds know that this is not okay. All they offer is apologies.
Time for some advocacy and some action. While Monica's at work I am calling up our insurance to see if I can get transfered to another hospital.
Thankfully, with the help of my wife and concerned insurance agents I get the news that we have the option to go to Keck hospital less than a mile away. This was a Godsend.
I say "see ya!" to County USC and get a paramedic transport to Keck hospital on Thursday night.
It was like a luxury resort compared to County.
Wednesday January 28- Surgery #1
Keck rushed to fit my surgery in. Fortunately, it was a relatively simple process to get all my charts and Dr's information from County to Keck. Keck hospital was awesome. The food was better, the nurses staff was incredible and my TV had a great selection of movies. I didn't mind waiting for surgery as Keck was very helpful in making me as comfortable as possible given my situation. I also had some family members in the medical profession that helped to pull the right strings and get the ball rolling.
Thursday January 29- Surgery #2
The next day was the surgery on my left wrist. That surgery went well and then I was discharged that day to my parents house where I would stay for a few weeks while I recovered.
Everything In It's Right Place
When I crashed, I fell off my bike and hit my head against a tree stump that was obscured by the bush I hit. I broke my fall with left hand, breaking my wrist. The rest of the impact was against my helmet which rocked my neck and my spine.
I was broken. While I was immobile I yearned for movement. I wanted so badly to move again.
I vowed to never stop moving ever again. As long as I was alive I was active in every way. I was going to move my life in the direction I wanted. I was going to move myself into new challenges. While I was alive, I was going to accomplish everything I ever wanted.
I was going to write books. I was going to run marathons and triathlons. As soon as I got the green light to do some "light riding" I trained for and completed my first 100 mile bike ride in June 2015.
In a way, the accident was one of the most important things to ever happen to me.
The love and support I was shown greatly affected me. The people who came out of the woodwork and showed me charity, support and love...it was incredible. The beauty that surrounded me was overwhelming. I could never thank these people enough so I wanted to be a mirror for the beauty and light I was shown. To reflect it back into the world and hopefully be a beacon for others. That would be my way of giving it all back.
I was close enough to death to put into perspective what it meant to be alive. And alive I am and I will not squander this gift.
For every day is a gift.
PR- January 16 2017