Saturday, 14 May 2011

Getting Back on the Bike after a Major Accident

I've had a number of requests to post an article about post-accident recovery.  One cyclist I've enjoyed getting to know of late is photographer Rick Robson, who has experienced a major accident.  Bumping into Rick recently, I asked him whether he'd share his story, which has has very generously agreed to, with others.  Recent tragic events at the Giro d'Italia remind us all that there is risk to cycling, whether pro or amateur.  I hope Rick's story will provide encouragement to anyone who has had an accident that you can get back on the bike in time.

Pre-recovery - the scary bit.

Four years ago I had an accident. It was the sort of accident which you hope won’t happen to yourself or anyone else for that matter. I got run over by a big truck, not knocked off but actually crushed under two sets of double wheels. I was working in Melbourne, Australia and I rode my bike to work in the city most days and was used to riding in cities having also survived unscathed working as a cycle courier in Sydney in the late 90’s. I’ve also been a proper cyclist since aged 11. So if this can happen to me it can happen to anyone.

Riding through Albert Park, gentle right turn, a truck was to my right and swung a left turn.  I won’t go through the gory details. I didn’t lose consciousness and as the truck had stopped I dragged my body out from under the truck using my forearms, I couldn’t feel or move anything from the chest down. I laid still and kept calm in the 38 degree heat on the hot tarmac for 45 minutes waiting for the paramedics to arrive.

I had a series of long operations to fix up my injuries; double broken pelvis, 5 broken lower vertebrae, 5 broken upper vertebrae, multiple hip fractures, broken shoulder blade, 6 ribs multiple breaks, punctured & collapsed left lung, torn spleen, severed major artery to my left leg, large hole approx 30cms long in my abdomen which had collected a fair amount of road debris, and some deep cuts.

As I progressed following the operations I moved from Intensive Care to a more general ward and remained in the accident & trauma Hospital for about 4 weeks before the move to rehab’ Hospital. It’s easy to look back on this time as being a total nightmare, but there were glimmers of hope and funny stuff which kept me going. The transfer from the Alfred to the Rehab’ hospital was one of those. I was wheeled into the back of the transfer ambulance on my stretcher trolley, then in wheeled Sean. I think he was mid 60’s, on a lot of medication and originally from Belfast, he had ‘Death to the English SCUM’ tattooed in a bold font down his leg. Luckily my strongest Aussie accent saved me.

Rick Post-Accident with the Bike

 Recovery – The hopeful bit.

The atmosphere of the rehab’ hospital was really positive compared to the ‘life or death’ stress of accident and trauma hospital.  For four weeks I had laid on my back, I knew it was going to be a long road to get from there, to where I wanted to be, to normality, being a dad and riding my bike!

Within a couple of days of being at the rehab’ I had a plan to work to, devised by myself and Stef my rehab’ physio.  First up I had to start to sit up, trickier than it sounds when you’ve been laid flat for 4 weeks. Gradually I became able to have the bed back raised without passing out. Next job was to build up my upper body so that I could use a wheelchair. I was left a pair of 4 KG dumbbells at the side of my bed and told to do about 20 above head presses. I lost count at about 500, well it was either that or watch Australian day-time TV, my arms got strong quick! It felt great to have completely knackered arms! The endorphins were back and I started to view the rehab’ differently; my personal training camp.

The setbacks at the ‘training camp’ were many. First trip out of my hospital room in the wheelchair to sit with my wife and son ended with me going semi unconscious slumping to the side and my little boy Louis completely terrified again, I had already seen him like that just after the accident.  No-one ever said it was going to be easy.

Gradually, after a few days of extending the time I was sat upright, I could do it. I was able to sit up! Once I could use the wheelchair, it took a battering. I could do a lap of the corridors of the 4 wards and pretty soon I was getting competitive. More laps, more speed...I remember wondering if I could get some carbon wheels!

Up until now all the rehab was focussed on getting me mobile again, the next step was to increase the tiny amount of movement which I could manage with my legs. Again the increases in movement seem tiny and insignificant now but took quite a few days. The first time I could use my quad to raise my knee from straight to 20 degrees while lying down was huge. I knew if I could do this I would be back on the bike again. At that stage I still had a lot of work to do to get my legs to support me and walk again, but the bike was always the end goal.

The bit in the middle took the brunt of the crush injuries mainly pelvis and lower back. While I was working hard on getting the legs to work properly I was very aware that there was ‘play’ between my lower spine and my pelvis, not quite as connected together as I once was. It felt like a loose headset. That was going to be the hard part, getting those tricky core muscles and bits and bobs (sorry for the technical jargon) to pull together and hold the pelvis / lower back together as they were. When internal bones break the jagged bone fragments can do a lot of damage to your internal bits. (technical again- sorry)

While continuing with the leg strengthening, I had to start to support the damaged core pelvis / spine area by repairing and building what muscle was there. Again tiny movements, gradually extending what I could do. Testing my improvements in the Hydrotherapy Pool was my twice weekly highlight. Being supported by warm water going for more movement was great.

Gradually over a few weeks the leg strength and movement was coming back and the loose headset was gradually tightening up. Things were starting to improve, the improvements coincided with being able to be weight bearing on my right leg again, back in the hydro’ pool I was taking steps and pretty excited, I knew this meant I could start to contemplate crutches, never used them before but I knew that if I was the best person they’d ever seen on crutches I might be able go home in a few weeks. Nothing was going to stop me now!

I was doing core, leg and upper body training every day, my right leg felt good and the day had come to have a go with crutches. I was supposed to wait for two physios to help, but I wanted to give it a go. I pushed myself up and away I went, turns out I was pretty good at crutches, luckily.
A couple more weeks of increased training and my left leg which was took a lot of damage around the hip, was weight bearing again. It was much harder to train the left leg, the nerves were severed along with the main artery and its felt a bit weird ever since. However with gradual increases in load I was able to put some pressure down on the left leg and move it relatively normally.

A couple more weeks passed by and I was able to go home with my crutches, and go back twice a week for to hospital for tests and more training. Exactly 3 months to the day I lent my crutches against the garden wall and rode around the garden on my mountain bike.  I shouldn’t have. But it was another challenge which I had to do, to feel normal again, the most rewarding 20 metre ride! From then on I don’t think i’ve gone a week without riding. I’ve just been left with a few little reminders; big scars and loss of feeling in back & left leg, not allowed to run EVER because of the titanium hardware in my pelvis. Oh, and severe leg pain after long hard rides, but then I always got that.

Looking back now, I was extremely lucky not to be killed outright, (it was a 38 Tonne truck and two sets of wheels were the two at the back of the truck cab.) I still get deeply affected when I hear about ALL cycling deaths on the roads, because survival is down to physics and anatomy; they could have been millimetres, seconds or grams off surviving and I will always find that incredibly hard to deal with. The fact that people who ride bikes tend to be really nice people with no doubt lovely families makes it even harder still.

Someone much better with words once said;

“The bicycle. It challenges, encourages and rewards effort. It has it's demons but the magic is, the more that DO IT, the safer we all are”

Rick Robson

1 comment:

  1. A very inspirational story. Rick you are a very gutsy guy, I know most people will say when they are recovering from major injuries that they do what they have to do and they did nothing special but with these injuries I'm sure a lot of people would just curl up and give in, Rick you are a great inspiration, thanks for taking the time to tell us your harrowing but at the same time uplifting story.