By Richard Howard —
A flash of white and then…nothing. Later: slowly my eyes open and I hear a loud groaning – was it me? And then – PAIN. Oh so much PAIN. I lay there for I don’t know how long trying first to figure out: why was I in so much pain? What happened? What was I? It seemed forever before I came out of the fog and put everything together – all while I was feeling incredible pain throughout my body and mostly concentrated in my left arm and shoulder. Oh how I hurt!
The weekend previous I’d ridden in the “Six Hours of Frog Hollow” and now planned to practice the trail again for the upcoming “Cactus Hugger.” Early that morning I put on all my protective gear – G-form knee, elbow and hip protectors and Bell ¾ helmet. I’d soon loaded my prized Trek Fuel Ex in the van, and headed up to the JEM trail just up the hill above the town of Hurricane – a trail I’ve ridden, literally, hundreds of times over the past many years. A trail I knew very well. The JEM – such a great ripping, flowing ride with an occasional rock garden and near-edge thrills. Just 10 minutes from our home, riding the JEM before the main duties of the day has been a near-daily biking destination for me – a trail, along with the Dead Ringer and Goose Bumps trails, I never tire of riding.
But not today. Not right now. Right now I hurt like crazy and knew I needed help. Somehow, on this trail I knew so well, I’d found that special rock a-waiting, hidden just behind a bush immediately trail-side. Practicing for the upcoming Cactus Hugger, I was riding hard with my Garmin telling me I was climbing past 20mph, when a hit that rock with a hard pedal strike which had thrown me, head and shoulder first, hard onto the trail and knocked me head over tea kettle. A subsequent visit to the crash site revealed the offending rock – and the near-miss pedal strikes by many-a-rider passing the same spot.
Finally I got enough of my wits about me to rise and find my bike had flown over me and down the trail. I staggered up and to my bike. I was plenty wobbly and fully in pain but getting more and more oriented to where I was and what I needed to do to get help. Heading back up the JEM to the van was a several mile hike – something I was not in any kind of shape to attempt. Sheep Bridge Road, which more or less parallels the JEM for much of its distance, was not too far to my east.
So I headed cross-country and found the road. And most fortunately, found Morgan, a mountain biking friend, who was just passing along in his Suburban. He’d seen me from a distance looking distressed and stopped to help. Thank you Morgan! He loaded my bike in to his vehicle and drove me the 2-3 miles back to my van and loaded it in for me. We both didn’t know at the time how badly I was hurt so I gave him my most grateful thanks and climbed in the van to head back to Hurricane – and straight to the Insta-Care center.
There the doctors confirmed: “yes, you’ve shattered your left clavicle.” A pretty straightforward diagnosis. The next day the orthopedic surgeons confirmed the same thing – “yep, broken”. My gratitude to them for both their care – and their discretion for not saying “what were you doing riding a mountain bike at your age?”
I knew the answer to that question but was still grateful not to be called out about it. Biking, as any bike-addict knows, runs deep and powerfully through my veins. It’s a lifelong habit and I thrill every time I climb on any bike to ride. Even throughout my 35 military years I’ve ridden whenever I can – and usually daily. Like when I was assigned to the Pentagon and I’d cycle to work everyday. My bike would wait patiently in the rack all day and, after a grueling day of dealing with every kind of issue, I’d climb on my bike at the end of the day and pedal toward home feeling instantly refreshed. It was like a rejuvenation-of-life: all my stresses seemed to just flow away with every pedal stroke and before long I’d be stress-free and feeling great. Biking does that for me – as I’m sure it does for everyone who knows that feeling of bike-freedom and pure exhilaration that comes when on-a-bike.
Not that riding bikes has been accident free for me until this April day. I’ve had a great share of bicycle accidents, big and small. Other broken bones, scrapes, cuts, bruises, and teeth knocked out. A lifetime of riding and crashing – but at least spread out over decades of riding. And plenty of other accidents wherein bicycles are fully guilt-free. My body represents a war-zone of broken bones, scrapes, bumps and bruises, many of which can be directly attributed to the tens-of-thousands of miles I’ve ridden throughout the decades of my life – and many not bike-related: Broken nose (baseball), three broken ankles (motorcycle, basketball, softball), and three broken arms (auto shop, motorcycle, bicycle). And now with this last collarbone break my wife said to me “you’ve literally broken bones from head to toe – you can stop now!” Hope she’s right!
She understands my passion. She has her own road, gravel and mountain bikes. We ride regularly and love our rides such as Rebecca’s Private Idaho, Cache Gran Fondo, Tour de St. George, Cedar’s Fire Road, and oh-so-many other rides big and small around the west. We’re a biking family and, gratefully, not even with this recent episode, our biking passion only seems to grow and grow.
The Story Continues…
But the story doesn’t end with this latest bone-break. Fast-forward eight weeks from my 19 April 2017 crash: we’d sold our home with plans to build new on the old family homestead. Lots to be done. Boxes to lift and store. Couches, chairs, beds and tools to be lifted, moved and stored. An old house to tear down board by board. Tractor work on the farm. Grandkids to spoil. A life to be led and moved forward.
After eight weeks of this lifting, moving, and go, go, going, in southern Utah’s heat as well, my recurring headaches now wouldn’t abate. I couldn’t find anything that would cut the pain. I started feeling “wobbly” and told my wife “it feels like my head is full and sloshing.” The crisis came on a recent Saturday when there was no way to deal with the excruciating head pain. My wife raced me to St. George’s Dixie Regional Medical Center’s emergency room.
There the staff rushed me in for a CT scan and confirmed I’d sustained a subdural hematoma those many weeks ago – blood had been constantly leaking and pressing hard on my brain. The on-call neurosurgeon was immediately contacted and within a short time he and his team performed emergency surgery and, as he related later, hit a “gusher” when relieving the pressure on my brain.
There followed five days in the ICU and other hospital care. The staff at Dixie Regional were exceptional in everyway and provided the recovery care I desperately needed. How fortunate we are in southern Utah to have this top-notch neurosurgery unit. Just a few short years ago such an incident would have, as happened to my brother, resulted in a rushed, but delayed, transport to Salt Lake City for such care. Thank you Dixie Regional staff and doctors! Thank you!
So what does the future hold for me? I’m home recovering, grateful to be healing and for professionals that knew how to provide that healing. I’ve a garage full of bicycles – touring bike, gravel bike, road bike, mountain bike(s), all anxious, surely as much as me, to be back on the road and trails and riding like a kid and feeling like those Pentagon days when all my stress would leave at the start of the first pedal stroke.
Is there a moral to this story? Possibly – at least for me there is. A few things stand out as I reflect back on the crash and subsequent events: I’m glad I had on my safety gear – especially my helmet. In thousands of miles of riding I’d never really needed it like I did that day. But since one never knows which ride is the one when you’ll want it – always wearing my helmet was key in this crash to preventing something possibly much worse. I wish also I’d had a complete physical examination after my crash. It’s likely such an exam might have caught my head injury early and might have avoided what happened eight weeks after the crash. And finally, I can’t say enough about the incredible skill and attention that was provided by the health care professionals of the Dixie Regional Medical Center. These doctors and staff are amazing – and their skill and dedication were there exactly when I needed them. And finally, my deepest thanks to my wife Cozette. She has been there with me through every step and moment of these post-crash events. Thank you Cozette! We’re both looking forward to being back on our bikes in the near future. See you all out there soon!
Rich Howard served 35 years in the military and is a retired Air Force Colonel. He lives, and rides, in LaVerkin, Utah with his wife Cozette.