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Bicycle Accident Story
by Gary F. Zeolla
On July 28, 1999 I was in a bicycle accident. My dad posted a message on the "What's New" page about the accident as I knew it would be some time before I would be able to type again. I would like to thank everyone who sent me well-wishes and who said they were praying for me.
Before getting into details of the accident, I would like to give some background. As I have mentioned before on this Web site, I have many health problems. The most serious of these is severe low back pain. I first began having problems with my back in college, but it was manageable until June 3, 1994. On that day, lifting a heavy object, I re-injured it. And since then it has been very problematic.
After trying just about everything traditional and alternative medicine have to offer for chronic pain control, I finally gave up on looking to the medical establishment for help. So I ordered several books from various Web sites on back pain and chronic pain in general, and I began doing a lot of reading.
There are many different ideas on how to control chronic pain, to say the least! But a few common threads ran through most all of the books, and one of these was exercise. I had been walking, doing some stretching exercises, and using Nautilus machines. But the books described many other stretching exercises I hadn't tried, along with suggesting swimming and bicycling as being particularly good for back problems.
I live beside an outdoor, public pool, but hadn't gone swimming in years. And I used to be an avid bike rider when I was younger, but hadn't ridden my bike due to my health problems, also in years. But I decided to try both for the summer, along with stepping up my flexibility program.
After several weeks it seemed to be working. For the first time in five years I felt I was finally making some progress. My back was beginning to feel a little better and, at the very least, I was getting in the best shape I had been in years. Despite the pain, I was up to swimming forty laps (1000 yards) in forty minutes, and riding my bike for about half an hour (swimming and biking on alternate days), along with doing the flexibility exercises for about half an hour on the biking days.
Now that may sound like a lot of vigorous activity for someone with severe back pain, so I guess I should explain a little about the nature of my pain. Basically, I need to lay down periodically throughout the day.
More specifically, I can only be "up" for about 30-40 minutes before I begin to develop pain in my lower back. If I try to stay up longer than that the pain grows increasing severe. But if I lay down for 20-30 minutes before the pain grows intense, then the pain alleviates, and I am able to be up for another 30-40 minutes. And it does not seem to matter that much what I do while I am up, be it sitting, standing, walking, cycling, or whatever, after 30-40 minutes I need to lay down again.
So my day consists of continually getting up for a while then laying down for a while. So when I would go cycling, for instance, I would lay down before I left, go for my ride, then immediately lay down, usually with an ice pack on my back, upon my return. So whatever exercise I do, it needs to be limited to 30-40 minutes, including time spent warming-up and cooling down.
Needless to say, if I can only be up for at the most 40 minutes, then I am unable to go anywhere or do much of anything outside of my home. About the only time I go out is during my exercise. And I've been living this kind of life for over five years now.
In any case, that is the reason I was riding my bike on that fateful day. It was part of my therapy for my back. I mention all of this so the reader will understand how frustrating the accident really was. To finally be making progress with a problem you've been struggling with for over five years, then to have it all end in a fraction of a second is frustrating indeed!
So that's the background. As for the accident itself, I was on my way back on my bike ride. I had been riding to a local park, riding around the park some, then riding back. Unfortunately, to get back to my home required riding a short stretch along a busy, four-lane highway. Actually, there is another way for me to get home. But it requires riding down a long and bumpy hill. And the bumps were rather hard on my back. So I was going along the highway to get to a hill to go down that is not as bumpy.
I was going straight, riding along the right-hand side of the far right lane, trying to stay on the white line as I usually do. Now my personal memory is rather fuzzy for the last few seconds before the accident, and is a complete blank for about half an hour after the accident.
I vaguely remember going through a main intersection with stop lights. As usual, I believe I slowed down for a red light, but I coasted in enough that it changed to green before reaching the light. So I didn't have to come to a complete stop. Then I proceed straight along the road toward the next intersection, which does not have lights or stop signs on the main road which I was on.
I only vaguely remember traveling the distance from the one intersection to the next. The next and last thing I remember is seeing a white car moving perpendicular, left to right, a few feet in front of me, and having an anxiety attack knowing I was going to wreck. I believe I remember trying to turn to the left in a futile attempt to get behind the back of the car as it passed by.
Then next thing I remember I was lying in an ambulance. I was in great pain and barely able to breathe. I asked the paramedic what happened. He responded I was in an accident, and slowly I began to remember about seeing the car in front of me.
As for the details of the accident, I have been able to piece them together from talking with a witness who saw the accident, the policeman who was on the accident scene, along with a lady who lived at the corner of the intersection and saw the aftermath.
As I said, I was going straight along the right-hand side of the highway. So it was my right-of-way all the way. The car I saw was being driven by a 75 year old lady. She was uninjured in the accident, but quite shaken up, needless to say, by it.
In any case, she was coming from the opposite direction on the highway and was making a left hand turn towards a side street to head to her home a couple of blocks away. For whatever reason, she apparently did not see me. And as indicated, I do not remember seeing her turn. Whether that is because I simply don't remember seeing her turn, or was distracted for some reason I can not say. Maybe I was looking in my rear-view mirror, or maybe, there was a car passing between us.
In any case, with the car moving left to right, and with my slight turn to the left, I was moving right to left when we impacted. As a result, according to the witness, I slammed into the car with my right side. I then dragged across the car, front to back for a couple of feet, then I flipped over the top of the car and landed on my back on the road on the other side.
In light of this description, my injuries make sense. When I slammed into the car on my right side I collapsed my right lung. Hence why I could barely breathe in the ambulance. I also bruised my entire right rib cage, although initially I thought for sure I had broken some ribs given how much pain I had in my chest.
In addition, my right shoulder slammed into the car. I broke both bones in the right should (the scapula and clavicle I believe they are called), and I cracked the shoulder socket itself. Needless to say, my shoulder was also a source of the great pain I felt in the ambulance.
When I flipped over the car and landed on my back, my left elbow must have slammed against the concrete, thus fracturing my left elbow. My head also apparently hit the ground causing a concussion.
Finally, I had numerous cuts and scraps all over my body (I was only wearing gym trunks at the time of the accident). The worst was a gash under my right eye. It was still puffed up days after the accident. Also, it looks like I'll end up with a scar on my right knee. But that will just make it match my left knee which has a scar from a childhood accident!
In the Hospital
The ambulance took me to Allegheny General Hospital, on the north side of Pittsburgh. There is a hospital in my small, hometown, about 20 miles north-east of Pittsburgh. But I gather the ambulance personal decided my injures were serious enough that I needed to go to AGH since it has a better trauma unit.
At the hospital, I was basically "in and out of it" most of the day. What I mostly remember is a lot of pain as they were taking X-rays and CT scans of my head, and shoulder. At some point, a "chest tube" was put into my right lung. This is a tube going from the side of the chest to a "box" with bubbling water in it, which in turn is connected to the wall. I gathered the bubbling water in some way helped to keep the lung inflated.
It was only after I was in my bed in the trauma unit that I noticed the pain in my left elbow. With all the pain on the right side, the left side was minor in comparison. But they brought in a portable X-ray machine and sure enough, there was a minor fracture in my left elbow. So a soft cast was placed on it.
So there I was, laying in the hospital with a tube connecting me to a box, connected to the wall, my right arm in a sling to keep my shoulder as immobilized as possible, and my left arm in a cast, and my right rib cage still feeling like ribs were broken. Not very pleasant to say the least!
When I became aware in the ambulance, the paramedic asked me, "Gary what is your last name?" Later I found out the policeman remembered me from when we worked out at the same gym years ago. He apparently remembered my first name but not my last. So I gave the paramedic my last name and had enough presence of mind to immediately tell him my parents phone number as well.
My parents were called from the hospital. But it was hours before my dad was able to see me. I can only imagine the anxiety he, and my mom at home, were experiencing as they were awaiting news of exactly what had happened. (Note: my mom has many health problems of her own, so she was unable to travel to the hospital).
After a day or so, I was moved out of the trauma unit and into a regular room. But with the chest tube in it was impossible for me to move around at all. So I went from being more active than I had been in years to being almost completely immobilized. Although I didn't appear to injure my back any worse in the accident, I could tell that just laying there for days was making it worse.
But as soon as they removed the chest tube (about four or five days later), I began taking walks around the hospital floor. I had to move around some! After a week, the soft cast was taken off of the left arm, and I was released from the hospital.
Once home, I began going for walks outside. Even thought there was still much pain I was determined not to get totally out of shape, and let my back get even worse than ever. I also borrowed my dad's exercise bicycle. Let me say, I can understand why these things end up being used for hanging clothes on; they are boring indeed to use! But for now, it is the best I can do.
As of this writing (9/3/1999), it is now over five weeks since the accident. I still have some pain in the left elbow even though the bone is healed. My chest still hurts some, especially when I cough and worse of all sneeze. And to make matters worse, I have hay-fever, and it is now the height of the "ragweed" season. So except for my walks, I'm trying to stay inside as much as possible.
But it is my right shoulder that is the real problem. The day after the accident, a doctor told me I probably would not get full range of motion back. This is very disturbing, especially since swimming really seemed to be helping my back, and without full motion in the shoulder, swimming could be rather difficult. But only time will tell whether the doctor's prediction will prove true or not.
I just had more X-rays taken. The shoulder bones are not healed completely yet but enough that I can begin physical therapy. I started PT yesterday. I will begin working on range of motion first, and then strengthening later.
In the meantime, typing with my right hand is still rather difficult. But for about a week or so I have been able to do some left-handed typing and left-handed mousing. The latter is a real trick given I am right-handed, but I'm getting the hang of it.
In fact, to keep busy, I scanned several articles that had been submitted to me sometime ago in hardcopy form only. And I have been proof-reading them, and posting them as I am able. And I am just now beginning to be able to type normally again.
So Where was God?
So that's the details on the accident. But how have I been handling it emotionally and spiritually? The first theological question is, did God cause the accident, or did He merely permit it? Let me first say, when you're in the type of pain I was in the day of the accident, such questions really don't come to mind! But what did come to mind was to call upon Jesus for His help.
In fact, at one point, I believe I was just repeating over and over again, "Jesus help me" to which a nurse replied, "He is!" But more importantly, I was able to calm myself down by praying quietly and mediating on God. I knew that if I allowed myself to get scared and worked up too much, it would only make the pain worse and my breathing more difficult. I would really hate to face such a situation without having the Lord to lean on.
But what about God's sovereignty? It is very true that He could have prevented the accident altogether. And you can be sure I have asked "Why?" on more than one occasion. But as for the question of "cause" or "permit" I will say this, it took a myriad of circumstances for me and the old lady to be at that intersection at the same time.
In other words, if I or her had been a minute earlier or later, the accident wouldn't have happened. And as I look over the events during the day prior to the accident, many things could have caused such a slight change in timing.
For instance, I usually take a water bottle with me on my bike rides. And I had been in the habit of stopping at the park for a short break and to get a drink. In the 80 degree plus weather we've been having this summer, such a break is helpful. But on that day, for some reason, I forgot my water bottle. So I didn't bother to stop at the park. But if I had ... well, you get the idea. And that's just one event in my life. And the same could be said for the old lady too.
But the accident did happen. So either God was behind it, or it was pure chance. But looking at the surrounding circumstances, I'll say it was God.
A minute earlier or later would have avoided the accident altogether, but a second earlier, and rather than the lady cutting me off and me slamming into the side of her car, I would have been in front of the car and she would have ran into me. Now it's hard to guess which would have been worse. But it would seem to me the latter would have been.
Moreover, I can see God's protection over me in the course of the accident and its aftermath. First was the gash under my eye. I'm not sure what caused it, but I must of hit something on the lady's car. The gash was about half an inch under the eye. If whatever I hit had hit just a little higher ....
Then there's the situation of me flipping over the car. Remember I said I landed on my back. But miraculously, I didn't injure my back even worse than it already was. With as fragile as my back is, I would have thought I would have suffered some damage.
More seriously, there's the fact that I landed in the middle of the street. Mind you, this is a very busy, four lane highway, and there I am laying right in the middle of it! How easily I could have been run over. But I wasn't.
Part off the reason for this is, the policeman who knew me "just happened" to be a few cars behind the lady who cut me off. So he was on the accident scene within seconds of the accident. So I am sure he was immediately directing traffic around me.
Moreover, I am sure he also immediately called the ambulance. So I didn't have to wait very long before help arrived. Eventually, according to one of the witnesses, altogether, there were three police cars and two ambulances at the scene. So I guess I caused quite a stir!
But most of all is my landing on my back. Obviously, when I did so my head had to have snapped against the pavement. As I said, I did suffer a concussion. And as a result, I have been having headaches and some dizziness since.
In fact, a week after the accident I had the worse headache of my life. Since then the headaches and dizziness have been easing up, and since my CT scan was clear, my doctor is assuming they will eventually clear up on their own. But where the sovereignty of God comes in is in fact it could have been much worse, very much worse in fact, if I wasn't wearing a bicycle helmet.
For some background, as I said, when I was younger I was a very avid bicycle rider. I rode literally thousands of miles all over western Pennsylvania. During that time, I never even thought of wearing a helmet. But that was back in the 1970s-80s. So bicycle helmets weren't really in vogue yet.
When I decided to start riding my bike again after a break of almost ten years, I didn't even think about getting a helmet. It was my dad who first suggested it to me. But I just shrugged it off. But about a week later we went to a sporting goods store together and bicycle helmets "just happened" to be on sale, and my dad "just happened" to see them and suggest I get one. With some hesitation, I decided to go ahead, with them being on sale and all.
About two weeks later is when the accident happened. When I got home from the hospital and saw the crack on the back of the helmet, I must say, I felt sick in my stomach. Without that helmet that crack would have been on the back of my skull. What effect that would have had on me only God knows. But I doubt very much I would be able to be typing this right now.
Let me take this chance to give a short "public service announcement." If you ride a bicycle and you don't wear a helmet, you're crazy! If you're a parent and you let your children ride a bike without a helmet, you're also crazy! And don't let the idea that "I'm only going for a short ride around the block" keep you from wearing the helmet.
My accident occurred less than a mile from my home. The old lady who cut me off was a couple of blocks from her home. So it is true that most accidents happen near your home.
For the Curious
A couple of final points for the curious. The bicycle I was riding was a Schwinn racing-type bike. It was 22 years old. I just spent a $100 getting it fixed up after the break of almost a decade of not riding it. But to get a bike of similar quality today would have cost hundreds of dollars. I paid $218 for it back in 1977. So I figured it was worth getting fixed up.
But now it is totaled. The front of the bike is twisted perpendicular to the rest of the bike. So if I do decide to ride a bike again next spring, I will have to get a new bike.
The old lady was driving a four-door, Suzuki hatchback. The insurance adjuster told me her car had a long dent along the side, from where I dragged across the car I assume. But it was quite fixable. In fact, I saw the car on my walk recently (she lives not too far from me), and the car was already fixed. Despite her living so close to me, I have never met her, either before or since the accident.
And finally, I'm sure some have thought of the issue of compensation for my "pain and suffering." And you can be sure I have thought of it too. I have talked to a lawyer friend of my brother's, but I haven't signed anything yet. I am waiting to see what kind of offer the lady's insurance company makes.
Hopefully, we can negotiate a settlement without getting a lawyer involved. But the insurance company won't be making an offer until after I go though therapy and see how well my injuries heal. But one way or another, I do expect to get some kind of significant settlement.
"What if ... ?"
Summer is ending in a couple of days. And it is hard for me not to play the "What if ...?" game and think about where I might be at today if it wasn't for the accident. In other words, if I had spent the second half of the summer continuing with my swimming/ biking/ stretching program as I had the first half, would I be significantly better by now? Instead, I have spent the last five weeks struggling with various bouts of pain and feeling my back deteriorate and watching the musculature in my right shoulder and arm atrophy.
But such "What if ...?" games are futile. I know I need to trust in the sovereignty of God through all of this. It's not easy, but I must say I have not been feeling very depressed through this whole episode, despite all the problems. In the past, such episodes in my life would be very difficult to deal with, but now I know God is in control, whatever happens.
There is much more I could say on this whole experience, but I have probably already said too much! I would like to thank once again all of you who have been praying for me. It is much appreciated and still needed. I have weeks of physical therapy ahead of me and, God-willing, I do want to be able to fully use my right arm again! And I wont be able to fully pick-up again on my exercise program for my back until my shoulder is rehabilitated. So there are still a lot of struggles ahead.
I had my last physical therapy session on October 21, 1999. I am now working out on my own at a local Nautilus center. My left elbow has healed completely, although it still gives me slight pains at times.
I have gotten back most, but not all of the range of motion in my right shoulder. It looks like I probably won't be getting back the final last bit as I've been at the same level for some time now. And my strength level is still much reduced. I am only using a fraction of the weights at Nautilus as I was before the accident. It will take some time for me to re-gain all the strength. And it still hurts quite a bit to do some of the exercises.
I also just started swimming again at the local YMCA. Ive gone a couple of times so far. Surprisingly, I have been able to swim rather well. Im almost able to do a normal stroke with my right arm, but my shoulder does hurt in the process.
I continued to experience dizziness and headaches for some time. I went to my neurologist, and he prescribed Meclazine. It has taken several weeks, and adjusting the dosage a couple of times, but the dizziness and headaches finally seem to have cleared up.
I will be going to my orthopedic doctor for the last time tomorrow (November 8th). That should be the end of my doctor visits in relation to my accident. So after that appointment, I will be contacting the insurance adjuster to settle the legal/ financial issues.
I would like to thank everyone who has been praying for me. There has been a lot of pain along the way, but overall, my recovery has gone better than expected.
I settled with the insurance company on May 12, 2000. I got basically what I was asking for. And I already bought a new car! And again, it was what I was hoping I could get: a '99 Buick Century. It is really nice!
Thanks to everyone who has been praying for me since my accident almost ten months ago. Things have worked out rather well. I have recovered almost fully, with only a slight loss of range of motion in my shoulder.
Less than a year after my accident, I finally got over my back pain problem. How I did so is described in detail in my eBook Overcoming Back Pain.
Also, my shoulder never really recovered. The bones never healed correctly. If you look closely at my right shoulder, you will see a “bump” on the top that is not on my left shoulder. Apparently, the bones healed at an angle. And this is causing my right shoulder to be noticeably weaker than my left and for me to have less than a full range of motion.
I found this out when I began powerlifting again. I can tell the difference
in my shoulder strength when I am bench pressing and in my range of motion and
strength when doing overhead presses. As a result, my benches are not doing nearly as well
as squats and deadlifts. See
Top 100, Weight Class
and Gear Differences for further details.
For another update, see Bicycle Accident Anniversary and Hamstring Update.
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