Expect the Unexpected: My Helmet Saved my Life

Expect the Unexpected: My Helmet Saved my Life

By John Sladek, Ph.D.

Professor of Neurology, Pediatrics and Neuroscience – University of Colorado School of Medicine and TE Board Member

On June 20, 2013 we had relatives visiting us at our home in Evergreen following our son’s wedding. My brother-in-law loves to fish, so I suggested we head up to Georgetown Lake so that he could fish and I could squeeze in a late afternoon ride to the summit of Loveland Pass as part of my training for the Triple Bypass. I left Jim and my truck parked at the bridge over the inlet at the lake and headed up on my team Jelly Belly Focus Izalco. It’s a beautiful bike, very stiff and climbs well. It descends with confidence which I took advantage of on the descent. This paved bike path is one of my favorite rides and when our pro team rode it as part of a training ride they commented that it was one of the best rides they’ve done. I agree, it’s challenging with about 1000ft of ascent over lots of rollers, blind curves in the deep woods and an abundance of wildlife. In fact, there are signs at the beginning of the trail that warn of bears and coyotes. Deer are abundant and the peeks of peaks ahead are stimulating. More on the animals later.

I climbed at an unusually fast speed for me, at 8-10 mph on the four-mile ascent of Loveland Pass. When I reached the summit, late in the day I was asked the usual question by a family of tourists from Clearwater FL; “did you actually ride your bike up here?” I responded that I did. That usually evokes “wow, that’s amazing” and when I say “not bad for an old guy” they find it hard to believe that I’m over 70. They wanted to take my picture and after they did I asked them to use my cell phone for one for me. They did, my phone went dead and I knew I’d be soloing back to Georgetown with no cell service in case I had a problem that I couldn’t resolve. How prophetic!

The descent to the ski resort was uneventful, but I felt I should hurry because dusk was approaching and I had the five-mile segment to go before riding the frontage road along Clear Creek to Silver Plume and Georgetown. The descent through the woods is fun, speeds of 35 mph are common with the rollers and curves, and the pavement is smooth. There were no other riders at the summit and because it was late in the day I had a sense that I wouldn’t encounter riders ascending, so I let it fly which almost proved to be fatal. At 2.5 miles down through the wooded section to Bakerville, I remember a split second image of my front wheel off the ground and horizontal, followed by seeing it vertical with gravel flying. I was flying, upside down, about ready to hit the pavement with my head first, followed by my shoulder, hip, knee and foot in rapid succession. Remarkably, my carbon frame and wheels were undamaged with only scrapes to the top of my shifters. There wasn’t a scratch anywhere on the frame or carbon wheels, but my helmet looked like a grinder had been taken to its left side, my vest and kit were shredded on the left side and a laceration to my left temporal scalp resulted in plenty of blood. When Danny Van Haute (former national champion cyclist) and his Jelly Belly pros saw the damage and evaluated my wounds they commented that I was hit by an animal. A colleague, Joel Brown, who was raised in Alaska and understands animal behavior suggested that I likely was taken out by a deer that I spooked. At dusk, he explained, deer know they are being hunted and they are easily scared. It jumped and I went flying.

Crash Site: Bakerville DescentI don’t recall being hit and later thought perhaps I went off-road and was taken out by the gravel at the side of the trail. But one of our pediatric ER nurses from Children’s Hospital rode the route shortly after my accident and mentioned that she saw where I crashed. I asked her how she could tell and she responded “I saw a long red streak down the middle of the pavement.” When I asked her where it ended she replied “in the gravel at the side of the trail” which fits with my recollection of the second image of my wheel being vertical with gravel flying at the end. These are vivid images in my otherwise absent memory of the event.

My Garmin 810 revealed that I was down for 45 minutes, which I don’t remember, then started riding back west for a minute, stopped for 30 seconds and then rode toward Georgetown with a seriously fractured left clavicle, five broken ribs, a shoulder separation, a bruised lung, and (only to be diagnosed later) a substantial intracranial bleed in my right temporal lobe along with a skull fracture.

The only memory I have of the ride back was stopping a rider on the frontage rode a half-mile past Bakerville and asking if he would call my wife. He obliged, I talked to my wife Celia and as she reported later, I sounded fine, was calm and asked if she could meet me in Georgetown because “I might need to go to a hospital, my clavicle might be broken.” I also recall asking the cyclist “where the hell am I?” He pointed and said, “Georgetown’s about 9 miles that way.” Celia called him back after I hung up and asked him to keep me there while she called 911 because she suspected I might be hurt more than I suggested. He responded that he couldn’t do that because “he took off!”

Adrenalin from the crash, endorphins from the ascent, and a “get home to a safe haven” instinct probably helped me ride back to Georgetown. The only part of the ride I remember is stopping twice to zip my left arm into my vest presumably to hold it in place. I don’t recall cycling through Georgetown, stop signs, the traffic circle or finding my truck, but I do recall turning onto the gravel road and helping Jim drop the tailgate so we could load my bike.

Helmet Interior“Help me get into some warm clothes because I’m in shock,” I said. My next recollection was pulling up at the ER at St Anthony’s trauma center in Lakewood, but most of the next week remains a blur. Later, Celia told me she asked which hospital I wanted to go to: ours (University Hospital in Aurora where we both are medical school professors), or St Anthony’s which was closer. She made the right decision because I learned a month later from the neurosurgeon who treated me in the ER that night that my temporal lobe bleed and TBI were quite serious. In fact, he said that most people who present with a bleed of that magnitude don’t survive. He then said it was so serious that he was close to opening me up (a craniotomy) that night to relieve pressure on my brain. So I asked him why he didn’t and his response was that there were three reasons.

“Your reflexes were good, you’re in great shape for your age (i.e. an old guy) and finally, you were lucid.” I asked him how he judged the latter and with a smile on his face he replied, “In the ER you asked me where I did my neurosurgical residency training and I said at your place Professor so don’t worry, we know all the same doctors and I’m well trained!”

We had a good laugh at that, but my condition was critical and Celia’s smart decision to take me to the closest ER likely saved me from bleeding more, which could have been fatal. It’s also amazing that I didn’t puncture a lung which would have caused a pneumothorax (i.e. a collapsed lung), that I didn’t sever my cervical spinal cord which would have left me paralyzed on the trail, or that my bike wasn’t damaged which also would have left me in the woods with nightfall approaching. It’s also hard to imagine how I got up after 45 minutes, clipped in and rode back with multiple broken bones, but somehow I did.

Helmet ExteriorMy Rudy Project Jelly Belly team helmet clearly saved my life and when I sent Danny Van Haute a picture of it along with my tattered kit he asked my sizes and the next day Fed Ex delivered a new team kit and helmet. I immediately called to thank him for his generosity and jokingly said “Danny, thanks so much but I’m only sorry that I broke my body instead of my bike.” He laughed and said, “yep, I would have rather sent you another bike!”

I missed the Triple, Courage Classic, Copper Triangle and a summer of cycling that I had looked forward to, but rehab went well and three months later Celia and I cycled back to the crash site and to Copper Mountain. It was as I had expected albeit a bit eerie. The crash was at a blind curve, a deep slope to my left side and just past a roller. The pros and my friend Joel, the naturalist, were right, I probably spooked a deer that jumped into me, flipping me up like a running back hit low by a linebacker. I’ve had cyclists tell me that they’ve had deer jump into their path and even over them as they rode. One cyclist even recounted how he instinctively wrapped his arms around a deer’s neck as they went down together after it leaped out of the woods. We’ll never know exactly what happened on my ride, but our standing joke is that had we been able to return the next morning there might have been a flattened chipmunk laying on the bike path with tire tracks across its chest and a terrified look on its poor little face.

Tattered JerseySo there are lessons to be learned, even at my age. Always wear a helmet, and always make sure it’s adjusted properly. If riding alone, which I no longer recommend, have an ice-dot or it’s equivalent on your helmet to detect a crash so that a message with your coordinates will be sent to a friend. Slow down at dusk, especially near the woods, and instead of just watching the road ahead, keep alert for movement on your periphery; an awareness of your surroundings could save your life.

I was lucky and must have had a deep desire to get home. Perhaps there’s a little “ET” in all of us that says “go home” which is the only explanation I have for how I made it back to Georgetown alone, about 12 miles from the crash site. Happily, I’m riding again and feeling good about the future. We just did the Iron Horse Classic in Durango for The Livestrong Foundation, are looking forward to the Courage Classic for Children’s Hospital, and the Copper Triangle for the Davis Phinney Foundation, all benefitting great causes. Life is good, enjoy it, ride safe, and watch out for Bambi!

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