This is a column I wrote in Oct. 2005, for the Christmas issue of Inside Motorcycles.
An acquaintance recently asked me if I ever wished I could walk, particularly with Christmas and all of its associated activities coming up. The simple answer is no — I’m comfortable with my new normal.
Regular readers of this magazine are probably aware that I crashed my 1978 Suzuki GT750 more than a year ago. The date, to be exact, was October 2, 2004. I spent last Christmas in the hospital, and am just looking forward to this holiday season at home.
But let me tell you about the accident.
I’d been riding two-wheelers since I was 11 years old–started out on a Briggs and Stratton-powered mini-bike, and eventually moved up to larger off-road machines, and then street bikes. I got my motorcycle license after graduating from the Canada Safety Council course when I was 20 years old, and started riding a 1972 Triumph Tiger to work and college. In all those years, nothing untoward had ever happened while riding a motorcycle.
But after the crash so many motorcycling friends have asked me what happened. It was one of those clear, crisp fall days — the perfect day for what I like to call ‘the last ride of the season’. Riding with two other friends, we headed west on the 1A Highway from Calgary towards Canmore. A gas stop in Cochrane proved to be the last time that I would ever walk.
About 40 kilometres after the fuel stop the bikes entered a long, sweeping corner that headed downhill. I wasn’t racing. I wasn’t stunting. I was simply traveling about 80 km/h when I took my eyes off the road for the briefest of moments, and the next thing I knew the front wheel was off the pavement. With the corner tightening up there wasn’t time to react.
I’m sure there are more experienced riders who could analyze the situation and suggest ways that the outcome might have been different. But I think it was just one of those things.
I went down into the ditch hoping that I could ride it out. No luck there. According to the RCMP officer who attended the scene the front wheel hit what looked to be an old embedded fence post, twisting the handlebars and flipping me up and over. I landed flat on by back, with a rock no larger than the size of my fist just between and below my shoulder blades.
Lying there, I knew it was serious. I wanted to get up and check the bike, see how much damage I’d done. But I couldn’t move, and I couldn’t feel my feet, legs, or anything else for that matter. My friends witnessed all of this, and actually had to ride past and return to the scene. It was another motorcyclist, following further behind, who stopped and called 911. He sat beside me, making sure I wouldn’t move.
People kept talking to me — I don’t remember what was said — but I was conscious the entire time. The highway was closed while the STARS air ambulance landed. I was cut out of my riding gear (which didn’t include a spine protector — naturally) and was strapped to a stabilizing board. If I’d really wanted a ride in a helicopter there were other and better ways that I could have arranged for that.
Airlifted to the Foothills Hospital, and MRIs and X-rays completed, the doctor gave my wife Linda the news. His prognosis? I’d never walk again. I’d broken my back at the T-6 level, severely damaging the spinal cord.
Linda took the news and immediately decided there was nothing to do but ‘go forward’, a phrase which has recently been adopted as the motto for the Christopher Reeve Foundation.
I can only imagine what was going through everybody else’s minds. I was just focused on getting through the next minute, the next hour — and all I wanted was a drink of water. Surgery was scheduled for Sunday morning. I don’t remember the surgery, just waking up afterward and not being able to move my right arm. That wasn’t supposed to happen! My arm had been bent in such a position during the 12-hour surgery that nerves were pinched, and my arm was slow in returning to strength.
It was after the steel rods and clips had been installed in my back, and I was lying in my intensive care bed that I understood what I now was. The doctors and nurses kept coming in, asking me to wiggle my toes. Try as I might, they wouldn’t move.
‘This must mean I’m a paraplegic,’ I thought. ‘I can move my arms, and that’s it.’
Of course, all of the professionals in the world can you tell you what’s happened, but actually living the new life isn’t quite as easy. I stayed in intensive care for about 10 days.
From there the nurses rolled me over to the opposite side of the unit, a less intensive care side. While there, I was weaned back onto some real food, and I couldn’t get enough water. A brace was fitted (without which I was not allowed to sit up at more than 45 degrees), and the nursing team was pretty quick in using an electric lift to hoist me up into a clunker of a used wheelchair.
Physiotherapy wasn’t far behind. In fact, the physiotherapist had me down in the gym two weeks after the accident. She rolled me into the gym and sat me in front of a full-length mirror. I think she should have prepared me for what I saw — I hadn’t seen my reflection for days, and there I was propped up in a wheelchair — looking like hell.
Not long after I was moved over to a rehabilitation unit. From mid-October, right through November, December (Christmastime) and January, a kind and dedicated group of people taught me how to live without the use of my lower body.
Linda, by the first week in October, had bought an accessible low-level bungalow, and moved in on December 17. I don’t even really remember Christmas 2004 — Christmas was cancelled.
So, back to whether I wish I could walk at this time of year — Christmas.
I find myself wishing for even lesser things, like some abdominal muscles so I could sit up straighter in my wheelchair.
Nope, this Christmas, I’m just happy to be spending the holiday with Linda in our new house.
Merry Christmas to all — and just remember to count the blessings you do have — and always go forward.