My Motorcycle Accident

The Event and Initial Assessment

10 August 1999

I was in a motorcycle accident on July 26th; this message describes in detail what happened. Since I know many of you are not interested in the details (and many of you are), I will summarize briefly by saying that I lost traction on a wet turn and slid into a Jeep in the oncoming lane, breaking both legs. I was in an Albany, NY, hospital for a week and a half before being transferred to a subacute rehabilitation facility in Burlington, VT, where I will probably be through at least the end of August, when I can hopefully return home. An address and phone number for me at the rehab facility is provided at the end of this message. I am currently still bed-and-wheelchair bound, as my left leg is paralyzed and numb from the knee down and my right leg is not allowed to bear any weight. Aside from my legs, I have no notable injuries.

If you are not interested in the details, you can stop reading now. The rest of this is pretty long, and perhaps a tad self-indulgent. I have had a lot of time to think about things since the accident, and this message serves not only to get the word out to my friends about what happened but also as a bit of a catharsis for me personally. Such is the public spectacle of the Internet.

As day broke on Monday, July 26th, I was anxious to get on the road. I had stayed at my friend James Revell's house in Clifton, Virginia, and had about 700 miles of back roads between me and home in northern Vermont. I hopped on my 1996 Honda CBR-1000F at 7:30am and pointed myself north through the northern Virginia sprawl toward Frederick, Maryland.

After a little more than an hour of battling the area's horrendous rush hour traffic, I reached Frederick, where I tanked up and had some breakfast, all in about half an hour. Then I was on the road, eager to get to the country roads that I enjoy so much. After a little bit of highway riding up to Thurmont, MD, I turned off onto Maryland 550 for the real start of my ride.

Riding north through Pine Grove Furnace, Pennsylvania (some of you may remember the long, long canopy of trees from my Covered Bridges Tour at RCR V) I encountered extremely little traffic and was having a great ride. I stopped near Jersey Shore, PA, for 15 minutes to tank up again and get a snack and some Gatorade in me, and hopped right back on the bike to press ahead. 700 miles on all back roads makes for a very long day, with not much room for dilly-dallying.

Cutting northeast from Jersey Shore, I was still having an excellent ride even despite some fresh oil and chip (aka "chip sealing", a paving method that leaves tons of gravel in the road) and a couple of butt-puckering moments on extremely fresh tar snakes (a black sealer used to patch pavement cracks) – laid just that hour by the still-present work crew. I reached Hancock, NY, in the middle of the afternoon, where I again tanked up and refueled my body. It was hot day, seemingly in the 90s yet again.

From Hancock, I took NY 17 a short spell east to the start of NY 30, a wonderful road that swoops around a major reservoir on its way north and east. I intended to take 30 all the way into the central Adirondacks, where I could pick up NY 8 and head east to Ticonderoga and then back into Vermont.

Along the way on 30 I encountered a detour, with a sign proclaiming that the road was out some 9 miles ahead. Reviewing my state road map for options, I took a gamble that the series of county roads around the north side of the reservoir would take me to exactly the other side of the closed portion of the road, which I suspected was where a bridge crossed the reservoir.

That gamble paid off in a big way. Not only was I right about the bridge being out, but the roads I took to get there were wonderful. Curvy, well-paved, no gravel in the corners, and not a single other vehicle on the road. The best forced detour I ever took.

From there it was fairly non-descript riding north to the far western suburbs of Albany, NY. My intended destination was Amsterdam, where I would stop for refueling and refooding for the final leg to home.

Near the village of Schoharie, a light rain began to fall. It was not enough to make me stop to put on rain gear, but it completely wetted the roadway.

It was just about 5:15pm when the drama began. A couple of miles north of US 20, about 8 miles from Amsterdam and around 600 miles into my day, I entered a right hand turn that I believe was a decreasing radius turn. I don't recall seeing any yellow warning signs admonishing anything other than the normal speed limit for the turn, and I was riding very near the speed limit. As I was in the turn I could tell that I would not able to complete it in my lane, and I could see an SUV oncoming in the opposite lane, so I leaned in more and nearly instantly lost all traction, slamming down on my right side and separating from the motorcycle.

I believe this is when I broke the tibial plateau in my right leg with a hairline fracture. This is the top of the shin bone, which supports the patella (knee cap). The initial crash may also have been what opened up a deep, six inch long gash on the top of my left thigh, just a couple of inches to the left of my groin. I suspect that this gash was caused by the handle bars or windscreen, but do not know for sure. This part of the accident is also the most gut-wrenching part to replay in my mind, that quick loss of control and the sickening crunch as man and machine hit the pavement.

As I slid toward the SUV (a Jeep) on my stomach, I could discern that I was definitely on a trajectory for the driver's side. I could also see my motorcycle, sliding on my left, apparently headed for the front of the Jeep. I was strangely calm throughout this, just watching it happen and thinking, "oh, this is not good." If I had died in this accident, I can confidently say I would have died happy from the excellent motorcycle trip I had all weekend, without having it at all marred by panic or fear of the evolving accident.

Not that I wish I had died, of course.

When I slammed into the Jeep I lost all visual perspective of the ongoing events. This is probably when I broke my left femur and tore out my left ACL (more on the these injuries later). I understand from the report of the driver of the Jeep that she did indeed hit the motorcycle with her front end, driving right over it. If I had still been attached to the bike at that point, I would be seven shades of dead. Diane saw the bike later and took a few photos, and it does indeed look like she first described it to me, as though "a cannonball hit it." The Jeep's airbag deployed and she lost control, leaving the roadway and hitting a tree at the side of the road. This caused her some minor back strain, expected to heal normally, and a problem with her fifth spinal vertebrae, which might or not be a chronic problem. Diane and I are keeping her in our thoughts.

Somehow I ended up on my back, still sliding down the road. My armored leather First Gear leather jacket did its job admirably, protecting my upper body from any injury at all. Ditto my brand new Shoei X-Sp helmet. That $500 got consumed in a hurry, with just 2500 miles of riding.

The jacket did ride up a bit; when I finally came to a stop, still on the pavement, it was bunched up around my chest. I immediately started doing a damage assessment on myself. Head ok? Check. Right arm? Check. Left arm? Check. Right leg? Check. Left leg – uh oh, my left leg feels like it is stuck up in the air. I can't move it at all. This can't be good.

My thoughts turned immediately to Diane, my wife. I was so sorry that she would have to deal with this now. We've been dealing with a lot of terrible things in our lives over the past several years, and now here was one more huge thing. I felt more terrible about that than about any of my injuries.

For the curious, unlike the typical motorcyclist's reaction to a spill, I never once during this time wondered to myself, "How's the bike?" I just knew I would not be riding it away from there. All I could do was lie in the middle of the road and wait for help.

Other drivers stopped and immediately began to give assistance to me. The very first thing I told the very first person who spoke to me was to not remove my helmet. I wasn't 100% sure of my head and neck yet, even though they felt fine, so I didn't want to risk anything. She assured me she would not, and then took charge of the situation. She instructed some other drivers to manage traffic while she asked me to squeeze her hands with my own hands. I was able to perform that task fine. Another woman showed up and took over the duty of working my right hand while the first woman kept working my left hand, and I recall them having a conversation about each one apparently being nurses or having some sort of medical training. That gave me a small amount of comfort.

The driver of the Jeep came over and told us she called 911 on her cell phone. I was profusely apologetic about the whole incident, so sorry that my motorcycle and I had been responsible for trouble for her that day.

I started to get very hot in my helmet (it was indeed a hot day) and I finally decided I was well enough to remove it on my own to get some air. I did so, and was happy for it. I lifted my head to see what was going on with my stuck-in-the-air left leg and could see that it was not stuck in the air at all – but it surely was bent sideways in the middle of the thigh at and angle that is not normal for any human being. I knew it was broken.

The EMTs seemed to arrive within minutes, though no doubt my sense of time was extremely distorted. One of the very first things they did, when I reported that my breathing only seemed to be inhibited by the fact that my jacket was bunched around my chest, was unzipper the jacket. Huge difference. I was more sure than ever that my upper body was fine.

They worked on me for about half an hour, as I understand, trying to get some IVs into my slippery veins and to stabilize me for transport to the hospital. They called in a helicopter to airlift me to the Albany Medical Center, the region's top notch medical facility, about 25 miles east of the accident site. I remember the EMT who called it in saying "possible femur fracture" and thinking to myself, "POSSIBLE?! Who do you think I might be, Rubberman?!" The femur fracture is what prompted the call for quick medivac though, as breaking it carries an extremely high risk of very serious internal bleeding. I was fortunate in that I did not have this bleeding.

Before I left on my chopper ride (which, regrettably, was NOT like those in M*A*S*H), I remember talking to a police officer. I recall only one thing about that conversation, him saying, "You're not the first one to blow that turn." Apparently there had already been four accidents on it this year alone, I learned from another source.

The helicopter trip seemed exceptionally short; I may have dozed off for a minute or two. The next several hours at the hospital were fairly uninteresting, except for the increasing pain I was having in my lower back from being strapped to a very stiff body board. I knew it was not accident related so it did not worry me, but it hurt badly nonetheless. I was anxious for them to take me to surgery so I could be knocked out, relieved of that back pain.

After X-rays and various other examinations, they wheeled me to the operating room at 10:30pm and then promptly rolled me back again when it was apparent the OR could not take me. I suffered the back pain for more than another hour and a half before they finally took me to the OR after midnight and knocked me out. (But not before I got to overhear, at the OR admissions counter, the phrases "St Peter", "autopsy" and "body bag". I joked about it, letting my black humor help me through.)

A nurse had called and left Diane a message on our answering machine about where I was, and at some point that evening, before surgery, I got a few brief moments to talk to her and tell her how sorry I was for what happened. She told me she would come down the next day.

During the surgery, they put two screws into my right tibial plateau to hold the bone together for healing over the following four to six weeks. They inserted a long rod down my left femur and pinned it at the bottom. The femur break was clean but complete. Point your two index fingers at each other in front of you and then raise one so that its bottom edge is just above the top edge of the other. That's what the x-ray of my femur looked like.

Around 6am I awoke from the surgery and they took me to the room I would call home for the next ten days. Most of the pain was being reasonably well managed by Percocet, a narcotic mixture of Tylenol and codeine, but being able to get into a comfortable position has been a long term challenge with my limited mobility. I'm on a variety of other drugs and supplements that I confess to not even remembering what they all do. I know one is to counteract the constipation caused by the Percocet, but frankly it doesn't seem to be doing a damn thing, which is quite frustrating to me.

In my hospital room I was able to size up the extent of the damage. When I first awoke, both legs were in full-leg cuff immobilizers, a styrofoam wrap meant to keep my legs from bending. Later that day they restricted the use of an immobilizer to just my left leg, and I have not had to use it on my right leg at all. My right shin has an incision held by five staples, just below the knee where the screws were placed. My left leg has "edema", or swelling, to the point where it was as large as my torso. They needed a logging truck to move it. There is a long incision at the top of my left hip, held by another 22 staples, where the rod was inserted. Just above the left knee is another incision (six more staples) where a pin was inserted to hold the rod in place. I had very, very minor road rash on my right leg which is already all healed, and significant road rash on the top of my left thigh below the aforementioned gash. I'm self-treating that road rash with Vitamin E now to help it heal up nice and pretty, so I'll still have a shot at getting into Playgirl's Geeks of the Internet issue. The gash itself is loosely joined by just two cloth sutures, leaving it as an open wound divided into thirds. It is treated by changing the dressing twice daily, and already the rightmost third is nearly closed up fairly nicely. The other two thirds are still fairly gory. The only other observable external injuries were bruised testicles (mostly healed) and two very small patches of road rash at the boot line of my left foot (no notable change yet). I had no injuries at all above the beltline, save a bruise on each arm where the IVs were placed.

I ran a fever for a good week and a half and was having a devil of a time maintaining my body temperature at a consistent level, mostly feeling way too hot. The fever has abated, but I still have a problem with overheating which I mostly manage with a small desk fan.

The most notable problem with my body right now is that my left leg is paralyzed from the knee down. The swelling has started to go down and the leg is approaching its normal girth, but it is still largely insensate to external stimuli except for a weird tingly feeling. There is a constant burning pain in the foot that medication doesn't seem to reduce, but which is mostly tolerable. It occasionally spikes sharply upward into a sharp, searing stab that I takes all my will to bear. Fortunately the spikes only last a few seconds and it can often be hours between them. I try to look at it optimistically when they come – this is an indication that the nerve in the leg was not completely severed and may be able to mend itself, which bodes well for not having a permanently paralyzed left leg.

My left leg, the one in the immobilizer, is allowed to bear as much weight as it can tolerate because the rod gives complete support to the femur. This is pretty much my complete body weight, but in practice it makes little difference. Because of the paralysis and sensitivity issues in the lower leg, I am unable to stand without assistance, or to move forward without someone placing my lower leg in the right position under me and keeping my ankle from rolling. Mostly in physical therapy my standing has been limited to using parallel bars to just balance over that leg. So the most independence I have at the moment comes when I can slide into a long wheel chair and roll myself around.

The right leg should be weight bearing around the end of the first week of September, which would mean I could probably switch to crutches and be able to leave rehab to continue my recovery at home.

About a week after the accident an MRI was done of the left leg and they discovered that I also had a blown out ACL. The tearing of crucial knee ligament is a frequent sports accident familiar to skiers, football and basketball players. It is expected that when the leg is otherwise 100% better around February of 2000, then they can go back in and reconstruct the ACL. Trying to do it before I get full range of motion back in my left leg is undesirable.

So, enough about the body, I have some other thoughts to share.

One of the greater ironies of this whole event was that on Saturday at the RCR in Ferguson, NC, I remarked to Ian Howie how I had been putting off purchasing an Aerostich because I didn't really like they way they looked. This position, I said, was strangely at odds with my normal attitudes about matters of fashion and matters of riding, because for fashion normally I don't give a damn about having the right "look", and for riding normally I believe in using very high quality protective gear. But on this particular issue, I had still been stuck for several years on wearing blue jeans and a leather jacket instead of switching to an Aerostich. (For those of you who are not in the know, an Aerostich is a riding suit made of ballistic nylon with high density foam armor protecting many of the body parts that are at risk in a fall, including the knees and hips. Aerostich is a particular brand name that receives high marks, though several other manufacturers make similar high quality suits.) I am chagrined to think that an Aerostich might have mediated or even completely prevented the injuries I received. When I start riding again, hopefully as soon as next spring, it will be in an Aerostich.

If there is any lesson I have learned that I could pass on to the rest of you, it would have to be these two pieces of advice. The first is for everyone, motorcyclist or not: look into raising your vehicle insurance coverage, especially if you are at the state mandated minimums. You would be stunned at how quickly the bills add up. Even though I consider what happened to me to be relatively minor (compared to paraplegia or other really severe spinal/head trauma) the final bill is going to be huge. The surgery alone was nearly $7,000 and the ten day hospital stay was around $25,000. I have several weeks of rehabilitation and followup appointments ahead of me, and then the ACL surgery. The Jeep was totalled, which is at least $25,000 right there, and then there are the injuries that the Jeep's driver received. I confess to being a tad fearful that my insurance coverage will fall notably short of the grand total, and it doesn't really cost all that much to increase coverage limits.

The other piece of advice is just for the bikers: never forget that the early stages of rain are the most treacherous. The oils on the road are made much more slippery by the water, and there has not been enough water to just wash the oils away. This was actually the second time in a month I had experienced this principle, the first time being in Ottawa as a group of us rode to the start of the Ottawa Magical Mystery Tour. Five of us approached a green light that turned to yellow, and every single one of us had trouble braking in the mess of rainwater/oil/antifreeze that was not at all visually obvious. Dane Walther and I both just about dumped it right there until we each decided to let off the brakes and run the now-red light. Fortunately nothing happened, but that could have been a lot worse.

(Oh, and as I mentioned before – riding with body armor is the only way to go. I can only imagine with horror what kind of shape I would be in had I worn a t-shirt, shorts and sneakers.)

Also notable to me is that I did not have any great epiphany about life, the universe, and particularly motorcycling, as I previously thought I might when I imagined a severe accident like this happening. One friend, Cliff Weston, called to chat and the first question out of his mouth was, "So, what kind of bike are you going to get?", knowing all too well my true nature. (My response was, "Well, I'm eyeballing the Triumph Sprint ST right now, but nothing's been decided yet.") I've ridden over 150,000 miles in 12 years and I love motorcycling too much to really believe that stopping now would make me anything other than severely depressed. Even if I did stop, it would only mean that I would have more time for the other risky activities I already partake in, or want to pursue – high speed notch descents on my road bicycle, single track mountain biking, snowboarding, skiing, solitary backcountry snowshoeing, getting my pilot's license, and trying sky diving. If I were stop risky activities all together, I would be living dead. No thank you.

In the hospital I had a lot of time to watch the boob tube – quite literally when I watched Baywatch. There was an amazingly bad episode focused on illegal street motorcycle racing that captivated me mostly for how ridiculous the whole thing was. Someone should get a tape of it for next year's Spring Fling. I also managed to catch the World Superbike contest at Brands Hatch, as well as the Hockenheim open wheel auto GP, which were both excellent races.

I've cried a few times since the accident, but strangely little of it has had to do directly with my condition. The first couple of times it was distinctly because of how sorry I was to Diane, making her worry and disrupting her life with another major situation when she has already been through so much with her own nerve disorder over the past two years. As an outgrowth of that, the other times I've cried were just for us to have a normal life. We've had so many trials and tribulations in our five years together, with hardly more than a two month period where we didn't have some major stressor. From the death of her father to her demonic boss to our miscarriage to the long struggle to heal her foot, it seems like we keep just getting handed one lemon after another, more than our share, and frankly there is only so much lemonade a fellow can make. Even as we looked so forward to starting construction on our house this month, now it will be put off yet again, at least until next spring. It is so disappointing.

But I keep my chin up. I know it will get better. Though I still have moments where I fear that my whole life is destined to be one crisis event after another, the optimist in me believes that Diane and I are just paying all my dues up front, and there will eventually be a golden decade to revel in. After we make it through all of this, we'll have proven we can make it through anything.

Thank you so much to the people who have already written and called since the accident. It has meant so much to me to hear friendly voices and see the well wishes in the flowers, balloons, cards and email messages. And to those of you who I told not to bother to visit because of how long a trip it would be ... well, if you really, really want to, I'll stop protesting. :-) (But don't take this as begging that you come. Though I'd love to see my friends, it really is a long trip and I wouldn't expect anyone to make it.)

On Thursday, August 5th, I was transported by ambulance from Albany to my rehabilitation facility in Vermont. Because Vermont has such a small population – fewer than 600,000 people in the entire state, or about the same size as a medium-sized American city – there are no dedicated rehabilitation facilities here. All rehab is done at nursing homes, and the one I am in now is already proving to be a cornucopia of stories of the many elderly residents here. I'll spare you all of them and say just that I have a roommate, a Vietnam veteran with a bit of dementia that can at times be difficult to take. Still, I am happy to be back in Vermont, and the staff here has been universally excellent.

Fortunately I'm not really getting bored. Rehab currently takes about two hours per day, and they're working it up to a full five hours per day. I have my laptop so I can get some work done, and several books to read. The rec room has jigsaw puzzles that keep me busy for a few hours per puzzle, and I can roll my chair outside to get some fresh air during the day. I hope at some point to roll all the way down to the Church Street Marketplace (a nice pedestrian mall in Burlington) and maybe even to the movie theater. My bed is rigged up with fat elastic exercise bands so I can do upper body workouts. I can play StarCraft on the laptop, and there's even a TV I can watch when I just want to plain old vegetate. I haven't turned it on yet.

My address:

David Lawrence
Burlington Health and Rehab Ctr
300 Pearl St, Rm 315
Burlington VT 05401

My phone:

+1. 802.660.9880

Currently there is only one phone line into the room to be shared by roommate and me, so that leaves little time for me to be online. We hope to get a second line installed (for $100! robbery! Give me a screwdriver, wire snips and two working legs and I'll do it for way less than that!) at which point I should be online quite a bit more.

Thank you all for your support. It is deeply appreciated. For those of you who actually read this entire rambling message, I am deeply impressed by your fortitude.


Part 2: the social acceptability of motorcycle accidents