Long post today! Every other week I will post a new chapter to my upcoming book “Renewed – The seven minutes that should have changed my life, but didn’t.” This week is where it all started, with a bang (so to speak). I’m also thinking about changing. More on that in two weeks when I release Chapter Two. Please comment! I’d like to hear your feedback, questions, and comments.
“Do we have a have a bird?”
“How long to Loyola?”
“He has seven. Prep him.”
James Hussey saved my life, and I’ve never had the chance to properly thank him. I don’t mean the metaphorical saving of a life. I mean he literally saved my life. In 1993 I was a somewhat serious road cyclist, and James Hussey was a friend. He called, wanting to go out for a ride. He didn’t have a helmet, and for whatever reason I chose not to wear mine that day either. Probably to avoid looking like a helmet nerd. I have self-confidence issues.
We headed out for what every road cyclists looks for: hills. The longer and steeper the better. In Illinois we don’t have “longer” but we can do fairly well on steep. Especially on Bluff Road. This road is a twisting string of brutally steep hills woven through a thickly wooded and sparsely populated part of the Chicago suburbs. It’s an area so steep that you see driveways reaching upward into the woods but can’t see where they end as they weave back and forth through switchbacks.
The lead-up to Bluff Road is dramatic. Weaving through some small neighborhoods you eventually erupt out onto a fast-moving four lane Lemont Road. Turning out of the neighborhoods onto Lemont Road, you immediately head down a long and relatively steep downhill, with a right turn onto Bluff Road at the bottom of it waiting there like a prize. Road cyclists like one thing more than they like hills: carving a turn fast enough to test the limits of your tires. And even though Lemont Road is a major road, back in those days it was often quiet enough that you would get long stretches without traffic. Long enough to swing all the way to the left, cut a brutally fast apex on the right turn onto Bluff with all your weight jammed down on your outside pedal in a desperate attempt to maintain traction on tires as wide as your thumb. It was exhilarating to say the least, every time.
On this day the entrance to Bluff Road was something of a dream come true. No traffic anywhere. Full use of all available lanes to swing the widest turn possible, the fastest turn possible. I’m not sure how fast I was actually going, because this isn’t one of situations where you take a peek at your handlebar-mounted computer. But it recorded a maximum speed for the day of 37 miles per hour and I would have to assume that happened at the bottom of Lemont Hill (as I called it) at the junction with Bluff Road.
This turn off of Lemont Road pours out into a nice flat, straight opening section of Bluff Road that is almost a deceptive tease when compared to what is coming. Up ahead you can see that the road rises, but it disappears over the first small summit and off into the woods, hiding it’s true offerings of punishment. Crossing over that first summit is normally effortless as you are still riding the wave of having blistered a world-class turn off of Lemont Hill. Your mind is still hearing an imaginary Phil Ligget shouting in his trademark British accent that you are off the front of the biggest race in the world. And you’ve dropped the hammer. Well, Bluff Road is about to drop its own hammer on you.
Bluff Road features the only types of hills that Illinois has to offer: rolling hills. In Illinois you don’t really climb for miles and miles like they do in the Tour de France. Rolling hills are the best we can do and there’s an argument to be made that our hills present an interval workout that is tough to beat even in Europe. I’ll believe that after I try out a few climbs in the French Alps. But for what it’s worth, Bluff Road dishes up some good, steep, repetitive rolling hills. It’s the best of the best within riding distance from home.
Jim Hussey and I survived the screaming descent down Lemont Hill and our tires held as we calmed ourselves on the opening yards of Bluff Road. We regrouped on the first climb and started the rhythm of climbing out of the saddle and overpowering steep hill after steep hill. The trick is to carry as much speed from the last descent to get you as far up the next ascent as possible. The hills are packed tightly enough that this becomes something of a dance in and out of the saddle. But there is a point on Bluff Road where you come down from a slow turning descent onto a fairly flat portion of road which uses up any momentum you wished you could have carried into the next climb. And there it was: the climb that should have ended me.
On the right the trees open up to a large mowed field with one of those covered concrete pads surrounded by picnic tables maintained by the local park district that people use for family reunions and birthdays. I am actually surprised at how clearly I remember it all. That day there was some sort of gathering going on that involved motorcycles and guys with long beards. I remember them staring at me from a distance, after.
Having lost all momentum from the last hill, I started into the short climb on the far side of this clearing. It was what I called a “hop”. Very steep but very short so you really want to just punch it and pop over it. It’s steep enough that you’ll probably come to a dead stop if you lose your momentum so a fast initial burst is your best bet. And that’s what I did.
And about halfway up, with all of my strength and whatever weight I had back in those days mashing down relentlessly on the pedals, the rear wheel slipped. I was cranking on the chain so hard that it literally pulled the wheel right out of the frame. This was not a dramatic crash. The lack of “amazing” in this crash would set the tone for my renewal, now that I think about it. Non-dramatic but highly impactful. The rear wheel slipped right where the hub meets the frame. The technical name is the “dropout” and on racing bikes the wheels attach not with a bolt but with a quick-release lever. Perhaps that lever was not tight enough. Perhaps it was my relatively new Mavic hubs which lacked the knurled axle nuts that would normally grip against the inside of the dropout. This crash was slow enough that I actually had time to think through all these options as the rear tire slipped, became jammed against the frame, and the bike stopped. With my feet clipped mercilessly to my pedals, I was not able to free one them fast enough.
And I fell.
My elbow hit the pavement.
Then my head hit the pavement.
But I’m okay. I think I’m okay.
This crash was so slow it barely qualified as a crash.
And I stood up.
I am not okay.
My entire body vibrated almost as though I had a low voltage current running through all of me for about three seconds. My vision was not right. Not really blurry. But not right. I needed to sit down. In comes Jim Hussey.
“You okay man? I saw you hit your head. You okay?”
Then the standard litany of questions. “What’s your name?” “What’s my name?” “What road are we on?” “What year is it?” Jim Hussey was already saving my life. He knew what I didn’t: I had a head injury.
“Okay I’m going to go get help. Sit down at this park bench. Do not lay down. Do not go to sleep. You’re going to want to go to sleep. Don’t.”
“No I need you to promise me.”
“I won’t go to sleep.”
“I’m going to go get help.”
Then the mosquitoes. I was covered in a salty gritty sweat and it was hot. I remember feeling like I was completely covered in mosquitoes but I just couldn’t muster up the energy to wave them away. I was 100 percent focused on my instructions. Do not go to sleep. Do not go to sleep.
This was before the time of cell phones, so the group having their family reunion or biker convention wouldn’t be of any use. Jim Hussey ended up going to some woman’s home to use her phone to call a mutual friend Becky Grush to come pick us up. In my memory, I remember some kind of story about this woman charging Jim Hussey money to use her phone but you’d have to ask him. That might be an invention of my memory.
Becky, or Becks, showed up in her dark green Geo Storm and I honestly don’t have any recollection of getting into it, putting my bike into it, or much of anything. Bits and pieces of the ride to the hospital pop into my head from time to time. Becks was trying to make conversation. Jim Hussey probably told her to keep me talking. As I am writing this, I am realizing for the first time that Jim Hussey probably rode his own bike back home. Man I owe that guy a lot.
At some point, in some way, I ended up at Good Samaritan Hospital and my step father was either there, or showed up later. I’m honestly not sure. But regardless the staff at the hospital appeared to think I was drunk and they were not taking me seriously. I was just some kid that fell off a bike and was slurring his speech and trying to pass out. At some point, my step father became concerned at how long it was taking and knew this was more than just a bump on the head. He finally played the “lawyer card” literally. Without launching into the standard, “I’m a lawyer and I’ll sue” speech, he was actually pretty clever. He handed one of the intake nurses his card and said, “I didn’t know if you would need this for contact information. It’s got my office number on it.” They saw those precious letters, “JD” or juris doctor and suddenly I was at the top of their to-do list. Is that wrong? Yes. Did it save my life? Yes.
I was finally moved out of the waiting area and into the actual ER processing area. They needed a urine sample and I had just spent the previous two hours sweating out anything that might have qualified as expendable water. I was tapped out. But I remember my step father being kind, encouraging even. He explained that the lack of a sample would necessitate a catheter. I didn’t know what that was and I believed him when he told me I didn’t want to. He started talking about waterfalls, swimming pools, tall cool glasses of water. And it eventually worked. They got their sample. It’s a fond memory of him. Things would change later with him, but you can read about that in my mother’s book. She tells it better than I do.
Speaking of my mother, she was in California at the time visiting her sister. To this day I think this was a blessing. I’m pretty sure she would have lost it if she were there. Even if she left instantly she would never have made it back in time so I was able to be at peace while my step father and I waited. And waited. And waited. While we sat there together, he did his best to keep me awake. I distinctly remember some hurried conversations between nurses and staff about a patient that had apparently been misplaced. This probably contributed to my wait time as all troops were summoned to locate this patient gone AWOL.
Finally the orderly came to take me for some tests. The neurologist had finally arrived and was ready to take a look. I was slid into a CAT Scan machine head first. Time to see what this kid really did to himself. And apparently I did a lot. A team of people in white lab coats stood on the other side of the “I don’t like radiation” glass and stared at the screen which would at some point pop up the image of the inside of my head that we were all waiting for. And then it happened.
All eyes widened. I remember this clear as day. They stared down wide-eyed at the screen for a few seconds and then their heads all looked up at me simultaneously just as wide eyed. Something was wrong. Something was seriously wrong. For the first time I snapped out of my daze and knew something was seriously wrong. A team immediately pulled me from the CAT Scan machine and started moving me down a hallway, fast. In my memory they were running. I was told later that someone went out to the waiting room to tell my step father to come say goodbye, and that this was just standard procedure since I needed to go into surgery. Years later my wife would tell me that this was anything but standard procedure. And that’s when I heard the conversation that would be burned into my memory for the rest of my life.
“Do we have a bird?”
“Is it running?”
“How long to Loyola?”
“He’s got seven. Prep him.”
At this point they started shaving the right side of my head. Shaving a head while running down the hallway is an ungraceful process and I was now seriously wondering what the hell was going on. As foggy as my head was, I knew something was up here and I wanted to know what.
“We’re going to take you into surgery. Right now.”
We came to a stop and the lights were bright shining into my face. Someone asked me to start saying the alphabet backwards from Z so I did. I don’t remember getting much past W when I heard either a drill or a saw coming closer to my head. And then I was out.
I would later learn that a “bird” was a helicopter and that the neurosurgeon had wanted to fly me to Loyola because their brain trauma center was better equipped to handle what I had. And what I had was a fractured skull. One of the bone fragments had cut a vein in my head and I was bleeding internally. What the doctor would later call a subdural hematoma. I had a blood clot the size of a baseball already in my head and it was putting pressure on my brain and getting bigger. Fast. The power tool I heard coming at me as I went under was a saw used to literally cut open one side of my skull to remove this blood clot and repair the bleeding vein. I later asked the surgeon, “You were coming at me with that saw before I went under. Would you have started cutting even if I was awake?” “But you weren’t awake.” Yeah, but…. Well I wasn’t going to get a straight answer on that question obviously. And I probably didn’t want one.
Ultimately they removed one side of my head and then reassembled me with fourteen screws. These screws later led to one of the greatest pranks of all time against my mother, but perhaps I’ll save that for another book.
What I can tell you right now is that I have fourteen screws, an amazing wife, and Jesus Christ holding my head together. And sooner or later I would come to a point where I wasn’t going to waste the new chance that had been given to me.
Well let’s be honest. You’ve read the title of the book: It was later, not sooner.