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Grateful to be alive, part 1
a personal story
“Grateful to be alive”
This was a phrase I might have paid lip service to, but not a sentiment I could feel as a part of my direct experience until last year.
16 months ago today I was on my bike, bearing a birthday gift for my daughter, head down with racing handlebars, listening to an audiobook, on a street that was busy in the other direction, but no traffic in my lane. The last thing I remember was a stylized siren and a green light in the shape of a cross, but these might be constructed by a traumatized brain from a simple car horn and a headlight. There was no time to stop or even swerve. I awoke in less than a minute, lying on the ground by the side of the road. A good Samaritan was standing over me, advising me not to try to get up. I couldn’t find my bike, but I did notice the blood gushing from a place where the flesh of my leg was torn open and decided to take her advice. I gave her my daughter’s phone number, and she called 911 with an urgency and persistence that befit the situation.
After four months flat on my back, four months in a wheelchair, and eight more months of rebuilding my body, I am mostly able to do the things I was able to do before. Though my left leg is numb in places, I walk with barely a limp. Cycling is once again my main mode of transportation. And I can hike in the woods, climb over rocks, work out in the gym. I’ve resumed most of the yoga poses and tai ch’i form that had been my daily practice.
And I’m grateful to be alive.
The sense of wonder that I had in those first weeks has retreated below the surface, but I can still recall it at will. I tell people, “I’m a statistician. When I calculate that p<0.000001, I feel confident in concluding that this sequence of events was not the result of chance.” In my case, the odds must be much less than 1 in a million. I have never heard of anyone surviving a head-on collision between a bicycle and a speeding SUV, let alone surviving with spine and brain intact and all the damage below the waist, let alone recovering nearly full use of my legs despite my ripe 73 years. I don’t have a religious foundation that would make me comfortable with the inference that God granted me a miracle. A friend told me she had a dream in which my guardian angels were the Divine Twins of Vedic mythology.
It’s something I can’t explain, and it’s left me with a sense of purpose.
There were those ten seconds when something went very wrong, but ever since then so many things have gone right, beginning with my body reflexively contorting in a way that spared my spine and head and (just barely) both knees, continuing with 8 surgeons working on different parts of me for 9 hours to stem the flow of blood so I would live through that first crisis. I’m grateful for an orthopedic surgeon and a plastic surgeon who pieced together a new leg for me out of spare parts and held out a long-shot vision for my recovery when the indicated surgery would have been to amputate my leg at the knee. And all my years of maintaining an active, healthy lifestyle contributed to the recovery my body was able to make once I was permitted to move.
Next thing I know, I’m looking at the sky
My bicycle in pieces far away
Flesh torn, the blood is streaming from my thigh
Atypically, my mind begins to pray.
Forgotten are all thoughts of speeding truck
No pain, no anxious worry in my head
No trace of irony, I praise my luck:
“Now I can know what it’s like to be dead”
No sooner does this thought articulate,
I think of “miles to go before I sleep”
As sure as life itself, it is my fate
To climb along this path, however steep
The coming times will offer difficult
New challenges, occasions to exult.
This past July, I trained to be able to keep up with my girlfriend, hiking on steep trails of the Olympic Peninsula. Last week, the two of us spent the afternoon on the Billy Goat trail along the Potomac, climbing over boulders and along cracks in the rocks.
My ambition is to return next Spring to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, where I had day-hiked 15 miles down to the river and back just before my Date with Destiny.
I’m swimming a mile 2 to 3 times a week, about 85% as fast as I swam last year. I’m practicing each day to balance on one foot. The left side is an ongoing challenge, but I continue to make progress. On the bicycle I have no PTSD — I can’t explain this. I have to remind myself constantly to cycle much more conservatively than had been my wont.
No drop handle bars. I’m always looking up.
No music or podcasts while I’m in traffic.
I’m never in a hurry on the bicycle.
If there isn’t a separate bicycle lane, I will pull off the road whenever a car comes by.
In Center City or in heavier traffic, I stay on the sidewalk.
There have been many blessings emerging from the long weeks in the hospital and my steady recovery. Best is that I’m more comfortable with my intuitions, more relaxed about choices of how to spend my time. I’m reading and writing more about what I am most interested in, less about what my readers have come to expect. The principal meaning I attach to the incident is that I was spared and also annealed in the spirits’ oven of tough love so that I can participate in the greatest transformation of humanity since Noah’s Flood.
(While I was flat on my back, denied visitors because of COVID rules, with only telephone and internet for company, I wrote speculatively about Noah’s Flood, about a technical civilization that built the Pyramids many thousands of years in the past, and an unfolding transformative, apocalyptic Renaissance, of which 2020-22 represent the first stage.)
There have been other blessings. My girlfriend came back to me. I’m no longer afraid of death. Headaches that used to knock me out for a day or two each month have ceased. My insurance company paid off my home equity loan. And most miraculous: The toenail fungus that plagued me for more than a decade has completely disappeared.
In past writings, I have been skeptical of the whole Western medical establishment, and have written critically about how the system works to exclude effective treatments that are unprofitable and to promote treatments of marginal value because they are money-makers. My main criticism of Western medicine is that it treats symptoms with a horizon of a few weeks, and there is no sense of how to support a healthy body for the long term. I have reviewed two books about the criminal excesses of Big Pharma.
What I know now is that trauma medicine is where Western medicine shines. When I needed emergency care, some devoted, knowledgeable, and talented doctors worked half the night to save my life, while others working alongside them were plotting how to save my left leg, in the unlikely event that I would still be alive the next morning.
My family and friends were there when I needed them most. That first afternoon, my ex-wife, Alice, made phone calls all over the City until she found a hospital which had a record of someone fitting my description, then showed up in the ER and waited half the night for me to come out of surgery. When I was too angry and stubborn to sign releases so that the anesthesiologists could start the next round of surgery — two days later, the internal bleeding had still not stopped completely — it was Alice who signed on my behalf.
I knew Meryl Nass as a friend and colleague in alternative COVID education. When I got out of surgery that first night, I was confused and unreasonable. Writing on a yellow pad because the doctors refused to remove a breathing tube from my throat, I demanded that they call Meryl, 400 miles away at 2 AM. She flew down to Philadelphia to meet the doctors who were caring for me. She assured me they were doing the right thing, and encouraged me to trust them. Most stubbornly, I fought the anesthesiologist attending at my surgeries; Meryl told me the drugs they were using were appropriate, and wouldn’t hurt me. I know Meryl as being independent-minded and just as critical of the medical establishment as I am myself, and she was the only person in the world from whom I could have received this reassurance, at a time when I needed it most.
My daughters and neighbors and meditation buddies from my Sangha visited me during the time I couldn’t get out. My housemate and my girlfriend were wonderful. Many nurses attended me; some made real human contact, and all were caring and professional under stress.
Later, there was one occupational therapist in particular who helped me with each adventurous step out of the wheelchair, not yet fully sanctioned by my doctors, from crawling up the stairs on my backside to rocking on my back into shoulderstand and plough pose.
I’ve been reading about near-death experiences, disappointed that I didn’t have one — or at least, not of the classic kind with remembered visions of an afterlife. I’ve been reading about trauma and PTSD. I’ve been reading about miracles from someone who takes seriously the many stories that belie our “scientific” view of the world.
Maybe a year of disability is a small price to pay for a deeper sense of why I am here and an expanded sense of mystery.