Ride London 100
Trauma, healing, growth have occupied me for the last three weeks. Dealing with a severe injury was not something on my list of 2023 goals. But it has happened, and my plans have changed. How do I turn trauma into a growth opportunity?
On Sunday, 28 May, I had a high-speed crash at the closed-road Ride London 100 cycle event. A cyclist some way from me, touched another rider’s rear wheel and hit the tarmac. A rider ahead of me and to the left swerved right to avoid the rider on the deck, and I tried to evade him and didn’t have the space. An incident in lane one affected my clear lane three in no time.
I went down hard; my on-bike GoPro showed me hitting the tarmac face-first. Hence the lack of abrasions; I didn’t slide. I did manage to make 103kg of body mass travelling at 40kph stop in a very short distance, and this explains the nature of my injuries. It could have been much, much worse; a severe head impact was avoided by a miracle.
I remember being hunched over on the tarmac, unable to breathe. For some reason, my face drew an arc side to side, only millimetres from the tarmac. Back and forth. I was suspended in a moment of shock but was expecting sharp pain. Then my breath came back, together with a wall of pain, as though I was inhaling fire. My upper body was ablaze in agony, and I had pain around the waistline too.
People stopped to help me. The rider who hit the deck first was helping me, too, a young guy called Danny. By total coincidence, we had ridden together two weeks before. I was concerned for him, as he was bleeding from the mouth, and his helmet was damaged. Amazing that he was standing. I most definitely wasn’t standing.
I was trying to get up, and I couldn’t. People were shouting, “don’t move, don’t move!” Yet somewhere deep in my mind I felt if I didn’t get up, I would be swallowed by the ground, or I would drown. An odd feeling that I would be sucked into somewhere black. I got into an odd position where I was half up and couldn’t go further, or lower myself. I felt two gentle hands pull me into a sitting position.
A woman rider was sitting behind me, supporting my back and shoulder. She was a nurse who happened to be riding the event. There was a guy in front of me who was also medically trained, and he had turned up on a motorbike. I owe both of these people a lot. They were cool and calm, which was exactly what I needed. After a few minutes, the nurse moved to my side, and I asked her how her hand was still on my shoulder. It turns out it had never been on my shoulder. My collarbone was broken and protruding, and I had been feeling its pressure on the skin.
Hospital(s) – Not In The Plan
I expected an ambulance to arrive quickly as we had passed three parked together only a few minutes ago. That was not to be, as 45 minutes went by. Eventually, a St John’s ambulance arrived, but it wasn’t one of the three that had been nearby. They assessed me while I generally grumbled about pain. They handed me a narcotic vaping device, and I sucked on it as though my life depended on it. I wasn’t sure it was helping a lot.
Then the first of many negotiations over the next 24 hours took place. “We are going to have to get you up, Stephen.” I responded, “Give me a moment. This is fucking killing me. I’m on fire.” There were a few laps of that, where they politely informed me of the practicalities, and I was contemplating asking to be left to die on the tarmac. I was in so much pain that ridiculous scenarios ran through my mind, anything to put off severe pain getting much worse.
Once in the ambulance, I took a photograph, a proof of life signifier. I wasn’t sure if my helpers had reached my wife, Mish. This was no Instagram photo, given my circumstances. I wanted to text it to her; I’m unsure if I ever did.
There was a short ride to a hospital, and Mish was there. I was wheeled into a bay and was immediately surrounded by medical staff. Some moments later, I was vaguely aware of going through a CAT scan machine. I remember this because I’m ridiculously claustrophobic and needed to understand if I was to go into any enclosure. How high-maintenance is this guy? Negotiating about being moved, asking about procedures?
Shortly after the scan, I was told I would be moved to another hospital. They may have been nervous I would leave them a poor Tripadvisor review. Sadly no, it was worse than that. I had a fractured collarbone; ten fractures in eight ribs; three fractures in my pelvis, including one in my hip socket; and a punctured lung. They felt a better-resourced hospital could help me more. I went on another short ambulance ride, one I remember nothing about.
Royal London Hospital – The Best
A large team at Royal London assessed me on arrival. Pain management was the staff’s major priority at this stage, and I was a firm supporter of this; it’s difficult to explain the intensity of the pain. I was moved to a bed in a sparsely populated ward for a while.
A long time later, in the evening, a consultant anaesthetist explained they would move me upstairs and insert an epidural in my lower back to help manage my rib and shoulder pain. Off we went on a trolley, and I was moved to a table. The point of terror was apparent to me now. Several times, I had been moved from bed to bed, trolley to bed, and so on. It was agony beyond description each time. The anticipation of being moved was becoming a major mental blockage.
Upstairs I was put on a table; they explained they would need to sit me up and insert the epidural and that it would hurt. “OK,” I said and yes, they were right; it hurt. Fuck me, it hurt. I looked at the clock when they sat me up for some reason. It was one thirty on Monday morning. I had gotten out of bed at six on Sunday morning, my accident was around nine-thirty on Sunday morning, and I was still awake in the early hours of Monday morning. Long day. Eventually back to my bed, and I remember being awake at three in the morning. After that, not much.
I woke up, and the consultant who had seen me on arrival stood over me. I asked why he was still there. He had started early on Sunday, was with me at one thirty, and was here again at around eight on Monday. It was my first clue of how hard the medical staff work at a hospital like this. He told me I looked a lot better, and I parried by telling him I felt shit. He then described what I was like the evening before, and I said, “ok, I’ll give you that one then.”
The Critical Care Unit
He also explained I was to be moved to a Critical Care Unit given the concerns about the number of fractures, fluid on my lung and something else I didn’t quite catch. I had another painful bed shuffle and then to my home for the next ten days. Four patients in the unit, a high level of staffing and a lot of high-tech kit around. Beeps and alarms around the clock, some of them my alarms being raised. I had a few hours to myself to reflect. Strange thoughts passed through my mind; this could be a renewal for me. I was here, and I was alive. Why not forge a new opportunity? Trauma. Healing. Growth. I knew I was deep in trauma, but already I could see the growth potential.
I read the nanakorobi yaoki text on my shin. Seven times fall, eight times rise. I’ve fallen in the past and gotten up again. So why not this time? The koi carp swam upstream and turned into a dragon on my right leg—the story of my mental health and recovery.
I’ve struggled mightily with my health for years, to the point of serious suicidal actions, but I’ve come out the other side and have never felt better than in the last year. I’ve defeated mental health issues, and I want to enjoy that, and this isn’t going to stop me. That early in my recovery, before my condition was fully understood, I was firm on returning faster, fitter, and stronger. There was no doubt. This wasn’t a throwaway, Hollywood, Rocky-style impulse. It was a clear and firm resolve I was going to get better, and indeed I was going to improve. My trauma, healing, growth triumvirate had been played out once before in my mental health. I can do this.
Serious Injuries, But Serious Support
The staff were incredible for my whole stay. I can’t remember the names of the various teams who visited daily and sometimes more frequently. One doctor was concerned about my bones and fractures. He and his assistant had both ridden the same event on Sunday, and he was a keen cyclist and carried the scars to prove it. What struck me was the approach. A debate would happen in front of me with two or more medical staff, sometimes from more than one team—a proper discussion. And then, the thinking process was explained to me, the course of action proposed, and why—genuine openness to my comments. Of course, I wanted to be led by professionals, but the inclusive approach was fundamental; I felt part of the process rather than the process happening to me.
My cyclist friend explained to me the severity of my injuries. In patients over 60, two broken ribs are seen as a severe injury, which can quickly escalate into serious breathing issues and pneumonia. I had ten fractures and other trauma; close observation in a critical care unit made sense. We discussed the prospect of surgery, and this was a wait-and-see scenario.
My fitness was cited as a reason I wasn’t in much worse condition. I had my annual medical a few days before my accident and was in excellent shape. My lung capacity and function stood out as exceptional for my age group. This was now evident in a real-life situation. My ability to keep my respiratory system functioning, relatively high bone density, and muscle mass. All of these helped me and are aligned tightly with scientific research on ageing healthily.
The young male nurse who attended to me for the first couple of days was also a keen cyclist, and I came across more and more staff members who were cyclists. It looks like we are an Illuminati-style global movement.
My Second Bad Trip
The following day intense pain woke me up. It felt like every fibre of me hurt, and it kept worsening. I started to moan, and over the next few minutes, it turned into loud screaming. The pain was indescribable. I felt like I was sinking into my bed, made of molten metal and invading my inner organs. Screaming like I had never screamed before. I watched and listened as nurses and doctors conferred face-to-face and by phone. Every second seemed like an hour, and I wanted the pain to disappear.
A nurse told me she was going to give me some ketamine. I wasn’t sure if she injected me or squirted an oral dose into my mouth. Then a feeling of warmth. I looked up at the ceiling, and the white tiles became stark white. The joints between the tiles became the purest black. Then they started to rotate towards the far wall. I lifted my head slightly and could see that as the tiles reached the wall at the end, they began to slide down the wall, and as they did, they split into scores of identical small black tiles—hundreds of tiny black tiles against a brilliant white wall.
Looking to the right, the ward’s wall had disappeared. I was looking out at a vast expanse of brilliant white. In the distance was an angled structure, a ceiling or buttress jutting out. Below it stood a tiny figure, parallel to me, in stark profile. I turned to my nurse and said, “Can you hear me?” but my voice was robotic. Her facial complexion had become somewhat android-like, and her glasses were black and square, and they started to rotate. I looked to my left, and the second nurse also had an android-like face. “You’re not going to leave me?” I asked the nurse. I asked her again, and everything went black.
Routine. Egg Sandwich, Please
The next few days turned into a routine. The food menu was explained in great detail each mealtime, and despite what I ordered, something completely random arrived. Great medical attention, lovely staff, and shit food was the summation. For six days running, I had an egg sandwich, apple juice, and yoghurt for lunch and dinner. I thought that a tight brief would remove risk. Yet one evening, only the apple juice and yoghurt arrived. I asked where my sandwich was, and the rapidly departing catering team member told me that she just delivered the food. It never showed; it could be wandering the streets now.
My medication also fell into a routine. My self-administered Fentanyl dose device was taken away. I had to do with only ketamine, morphine, another pain killer I can’t remember, Nurofen, and industrial-strength paracetamol. I had enough stuff to start a drug cartel.
Seeing visitors: family members, workmates, and friends from the cycling club was a huge boost. I found myself putting people off coming, as given this was a critical care unit, hours and numbers of visitors were tightly policed. I received flowers, doughnuts, The Art of War, The Communist Manifesto, a signed David Goggins book, and cyclist-shaped biscuits, a Fucking Legend mug, to name but a few. Does the quirkiness of gifts say more about the giver or the receiver? – I’m not sure. See the photo below. It also includes my tattered club jersey and a pack of morphine tablets.
On the second day, I got out of bed and sat in a chair. The day after, I went for a walk with two of the physios. One carrying my oxygen tank, the other carrying my catheter bag, a gown draped over my shoulders so the crack of my ass wasn’t on display to one and all. It must have made for a strange sight, but it felt so good—trauma, healing, growth. Even after a few days, the first strands of my physical healing began manifesting.
Sadly two of my other companions in the unit died on the day I was due to be discharged. Both had suffered significant falls and were beset by breathing and lung issues. It took me back to the assessment I had received ten days before explaining how traumatic injuries significantly increase the risk of death in the elderly. Families were consulted and gathered. The last words were exchanged. The man opposite me was to have a small party. He pointed to the Pringles someone had brought for me, so I donated them to the party. An ice pop, a sip of a beer, a Pringle, and then he slipped away—a quiet exit from life with his family at his side.
The nurses were tremendous. Delicate, comforting and unobtrusive. I was waiting for my discharge form and medication, and I asked two who had been looking after me why they did the job. Poor pay. Ridiculous hours – I didn’t see anyone work less than thirteen hours of their twelve-hour shift. Cleaning up human waste and listening to round-the-clock moaning and whinging. The answer was “because we love our jobs.” Angels walk amongst us, and these angels in blue scrubs are a testament to that,
I hadn’t – fortunately – experienced the inside of a hospital ward since I was a child. I left feeling humbled. The sheer passion, the day-after-day grind, the expertise and the professionalism blew me away. And I remembered I was one of hundreds who passed through this hospital every month. How these angels face that is beyond any level of resilience I can comprehend. My treatment was special to me; I felt cared for. They do this hundreds of times a month, everyone receiving superb care and attention. I think back to us applauding the NHS staff on Thursday evenings during COVID and feel embarrassed. That recognition does not come close to understanding and recognising what these fine people deal with daily.
Home in an Uber, the driver was so careful and professional. I returned to our flat eleven days after leaving it and was glad to be home. Yet also aware of my frailty – getting into bed or cleaning my teeth was now a major task. I find myself sleeping during the day. I have watched a lot of Netflix. I’m in constant pain, but that’s a result of my weaning off medication and my fractures knitting.
I’m feeling optimistic about life, and I feel reborn. I am excited about what is to come. This is a new start; I will embrace life with more relish, and physically I will be fitter, faster, and stronger. No question. Trauma. Healing. Growth. I’m fully focused on growth, and I want to grab it with both hands.
There is no avoiding the risk and reward equation. My age makes me twice as likely to die following rib trauma. Having broken more than three ribs also make me twice as likely to die. I need to be robust and rebuild muscle mass and cardiovascular fitness. I’m whistling as I walk past the graveyard if I don’t.
There have been surprises. I have been stunned by how many people have visited, called, emailed, or messaged me. How did I know so many people? I wasn’t ready for the emotion this unlocked in me. I have this all to common human flaw where I focus on the negative people, the detractors. A few people have attacked me over recent months and years, and that’s been a source of stress. Yet all the time, I have been unaware of the scores of people who love me, like me, hold me in high regard, and see me. The real me. It’s been beyond humbling, and it’s been tough for me to recognise and accept. But I get it now. This life gives back what you put in, and I’m seeing more and more of that.
My physical rebuild is commencing. I can do little, but I’ve started with tib raises, working on grip, using a Power Breath device, and walking. Every day a little more progress. I know my exercise regime has at least minimised my injuries, and potentially it saved my life. I enjoy it, and now I am more motivated to work hard. My 2023 goals are wiped out now, but I will develop new plans to give training a purpose, something to underpin my ikigai.
Life is a gift. Trauma, healing, growth. They are part of the gift of life, and I’m embracing them, embracing life.