Like Falling Off a Bicycle

I was bombing home on my bike last Tuesday evening, the first warm day of a very odd warm spell, thinking of supper and a nice evening at home, and riding obscenely fast down Odengatan. As I crossed Sveavagan with a green light, at probably one of the busiest intersections in town, a pedestrian decided to walk against the crosswalk light without looking up.

I shouted, I hit my brakes; I wobbled and felt that sickening inevitable feeling of being out of control. I went down. I felt the hard smack of the back of my head and helmet against the pavement.

Dazed, I looked up, surrounded by a crowd of people. A man and woman helped me up, as the pedestrian looked on to see if I was okay. I walked over to the sidewalk as another bystander picked up my bike. Someone handed me the pieces of my glasses, the left side whole and the right half with the lens popped out and arm broken off completely.

A young man, Daniel, insisted on calling an ambulance. A woman my age, Maia (Mai?), asked me to walk down the sidewalk, to see if I could walk, and she helped me sit down in a cafe chair and got me a cup of water from the sandwich shop behind me. (Oddly enough, she kept handing me a small, soft, gray, stuffed rabbit — she found it next to me on the street and assumed it was mine.)

The ambulance arrived, and Maia and Daniel left me in the care of another Daniel, an ambulanssjuksjoterskan (what an American would call an EMT, but is an “ambulance nurse” here), who happened to be a main subject in a story in Saturday’s DN. How odd to see him on the front page — he was so kind to me. His partner, whose name I saw on his badge and which I have now completely forgotten (sorry!), locked up my bike nearby, while Daniel got me settled in the back of the ambulance.

He pressed my vertebra to check for breaks or pain, took my pulse and temperature, checked my eyes, asked my pain on a scale of 1 to 10, and even offered me morphine (I asked for ice for my hip, which hurt so much, but no — I could have had morphine, but no ice packs).

I answered 8 for the pain, and then quickly scaled it back to 5 or 6. But wow, did I hurt. And then I started shaking uncontrollably after the adrenaline cleared from my system.

I called Matt on the way, and we soon arrived at St. Goran’s sjukhus, where the EMTs deposited me in the newly renovated emergency ward in the basement. I’d been there before, about two years ago, and somehow recognized it was totally different. Daniel, and then later the nurses and doctors on the floor, got lost, as I observed several times over the course of what would become a very long evening.

While I waited for Matt, a lovely young girl (yes, I am getting old, she was mid- to late 20s) took blood samples and my information, and again pressed on my bones to check for breaks. I lifted my legs for her as I had for Daniel, and she looked at my eyes again. So far, no evidence of concussion. That seemed so crazy, considering how hard I hit the back of my head.

Matt arrived, and I was so glad to see him. For a moment, I thought perhaps I would be able to go home almost immediately.


Oddly enough, the ER staff never removed my clothing: I wore my boots the entire time, and I could not bear to look at my hip the one time I went to the bathroom and gingerly peeled off my clothes. (That hurt SO MUCH.)

Instead, I would lay on a hospital gurney in the emergency ward for several hours, balancing my broken glasses on my face. A doctor came to look at me (Hans, also incredibly kind), and he repeated the tests: eyes for peripheral vision, legs and hands and arms for strength, and finally poking around for pain — I yelled when he touched the spot where I’d made impact on my lower left hip.

Hans told us that an unnamed factor in my blood tests indicated a possible concussion, but it may have just been from other internal damage — just in case, he would ask for X-rays and a CT scan. I would have to wait.

On a warm summer-like evening, the emergency ward filled up over the course of several hours. Two women came in separately with bloody heads. Two pregnant women, one with her partner, the other alone and with evident mental problems, wandered the corridor in front of the nurses’ station. Elderly men and women checked in, including an older, white-haired skeletal woman with dementia or some kind of disorientation and a bruised face, who kept getting out of her bed and wandering over to the nurses’ station or to knock on the fishbowl window where the ER doctors were reviewing brain scans and medical records on computer screens.

Finally, I sent Matt home at 11 pm. As he got ready to leave, a man came in strapped to a spineboard and accompanied by two police and some security guards.

I tried to doze under the bright fluorescent lights, listening to the suspect’s loud deep voice as he talked to the nurses about being arrested while climbing balconies. I tracked the shuffling steps of the disoriented old woman, who had been ensconced next to me by nurses who brusquely, gently, or firmly pleaded with her to stay put, giving her pillows, blankets, washcloths, and closing her up behind thin panels that she would push open with metallic scrapes. I wanted to tie her down to her bed so I could sleep.

Then, finally, a nurse released the brakes on my bed and whisked me away, through the labyrinthine halls to the corridor where I would have a CT scan (my first ever, and I was so disappointed that I was too tired to pay attention! But thankfully, I was so tired that I lay still enough that it was over and done fast). Then, multiple X-rays: hips, left elbow. I had to lie on my bruised left hip. I wanted to yell at the tech. Instead, I asked about my left hand, which had swelled and bruised a deep purple; the technician said no, no, there’s no time and the doctor didn’t ask for it, and she left me in the corridor to be picked up and wheeled back to the emergency ward — only to come back out and lead me back into the room on foot, after she realized that yes, the doctor had asked for my hand to be X-rayed.

By 2:30 am, I was back in my gurney, lying in the same corridor where Daniel the ambulance nurse had parked me — no room at the ER! By 3 am, Dr. Hans came to talk to me one last time: Nothing broken, no concussion. My left hand’s metatarsal 5 (the side of the hand below my pinky finger) may have been slightly fractured, but broken or not, there was nothing they would (or could) do about it.

I could go home!

Dr. Hans cautioned: no NSAIDs (like Advil or ibuprofen), only paracetemol (Tylenol or acetaminophen). No alcohol. Take it easy for a day or so. Typical advice for concussion (even though I didn’t have one).

A taxi came to get me at the hospital, called for by another kind nurse. I sat in the backseat, cushioned by leather seats and the car’s suspension, looking out at the city in the early morning light. We crossed the bridge from Kungsholmen to Vasastan as the sun started to rise at 3:30 and the birds began to sing their hearts out. The taxi hovered at stop lights, and flew down Odengatan, sailing through the intersection at Sveavagen. My bike’s front reflector winked at me as we passed it, parked facing the wrong direction on the sidewalk.

I opened the front door of our apartment just before 4 am, deposited my bike bag on the floor and burst into tears. The door to our bedroom had slammed shut as I opened the front door, and I could hear Matt’s footsteps from the bathroom as he padded out to check on me.

I took two paracetamol that the nurse gave me as I left the ER, and sucked down the first water I had had since sitting in front of the sandwich shop, what seemed like days ago. I had a bite of yogurt and cried in the kitchen.

Something about holding it all in while waiting to find out — sitting in a hospital gurney under bright white lights as the emergency room hummed along as if no time was passing — exhausted and saddened me. And I was so, so sad that I had been so careless, so dumb. I thought with chagrin about the way that I had looked drivers right in the eyes as I checked to see if they saw me, cutting past one as he blocked me, and another as he turned right and cut off the bike lane. So smug as I sailed by, so dumb — if they had seen my fall, they would have gloated: another cocky cyclist gets what she deserves.

And yet, I was so, so lucky. No concussion. A small patch of road rash on my left hip, small gashes that seemed to heal immediately on my left elbow and hand. The whole left side of my body banged up, but unbroken. Amazing, amazingly lucky.

Not to mention that the only cost for my ambulance ride and half a night at the ER was the taxi ride home, 200 SEK (about $30).

So, so lucky.

Not long ago, Dagens Nyheter published an “investigation” of bicycle-related accidents: the majority were reported as single-person accidents. If I recall correctly, something close to 60% involved only the cyclist themselves. I know now what that means: a cyclist reacted to something or someone else — an errant pedestrian, a car turning unexpectedly, a trigger of some kind — and had their “own” accident, where they were the only ones hurt. I thought about that as Daniel the ambulance nurse recorded my answers to his questions about what happened: did I hit anyone else? Was I hit?

As Matt’s dad says: Assume the other guy is going to do something dumb. Or I will myself. I can be really aggressive on a bike (and used to be so in a car).

So lucky. And so I’ve been dwelling on my first-world problems — good healthcare for which I pay taxes, a bike that feels great and makes me want to ride too fast, work that doesn’t require me to be present so I have time to heal. I have been feeling a bit lost and depressed after that brush with my mortality. Such a small event compared to what other people live with every day.

We’ll see if my fall becomes a watershed, or just another incident in everyday life. I felt a flash of fear, a bit of PTSD, simply walking home yesterday and crossing a crosswalk as cars pulled up to a stop. Would they actually stop? The world is an unpredictable place, and yet we cruise through it without thinking about all the things that could go wrong, things that are out of our control.

I nearly divorced Matt while we were taking a slow walk on Sunday afternoon, over a comment he made about how calm a cyclist was while navigating through a crowd of men cluelessly standing in the bike lane. “See how he doesn’t say anything? Just rings his bell, ding, ding, ding?” OOOOoooh, how I wanted to ring Matt’s bell! Of course I shouldn’t be so aggressive on my bike.

His comment made me also want to cry. That aggression stems in part from confidence and a sense of control. Of competence. At the moment, I am scared to be outside in traffic at the moment even as a pedestrian, scared to get on my bike — but I did on Saturday! The weather here has been obscenely, absurdly, abnormally gorgeous. I had to get on my bike and be outside. I have to get back on my bike.

So, this too shall pass. I am pretty sure that I will be resilient in the end. But that feeling of being completely steady might have to wait until my back stops hurting and my hand stops tingling and going numb and crackling with pain when I use a fork and knife just so.

I am such an idiot. Such a lucky, lucky idiot.

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