It is now just a few weeks shy of the fourth anniversary of my accident. The updates stopped coming because for a while there was very little to update, The paralysis of my leg has shown essentially no healing progress in all this time, though I confess I might be too close to the problem to notice subtle changes. Still, many people have been curious how this experience has affected me during the years, so I thought it would be good to finally put out a public update that summarized the many private conversations I have had with friends and strangers.
If you don't care to read all the details below, here is the summary: Though the leg is still paralyzed, I've been able to bicycle, snowboard, and hike. Following the separation from my wife, I'm riding motorcycles again and loving it. Now, on to those details...
It wasn't long before my leg stopped being consciously on my mind and faded into the ho-hum background. It's just there, an organic prosthesis that I don't even think about most days. I only ever needed to consider it when I was starting some new activity for which it would need special accommodation.
The first such activity was mountain biking. It was very important that my left foot be secured to the pedal since without sensation in it, I would constantly slip off a flat pedal. Since I could not step into my clipless pedals as noted in the October 1999 message, in order to make it work I had to install the traditional cage-style pedal for my left foot on both my mountain bike and my road bike. I kept the clipless on the right pedal. I was surprised to discover that hardly anyone manufactured the traditional cleated bicycle shoe anymore to go with the pedal. Finally my shop found and ordered some hideous white patent leather shoes which made their way to me via a slow boat from Italy.
The pedal arrangement worked out pretty well. By using my rigid AFO rather than the articulated one, I was able to deliver enough power to the pedals to still tackle sizable hills, although in an easier gear than I was used to. Only two notable problems materialized.
One was that because my left foot was strapped to the pedal, the margin for error while riding technical single track on my mountain bike went down. If I screwed up while trying to get past obstacles on the trail and started falling to my left, there was little hope of getting the foot free in time to plant it and arrest my fall. I fell a couple of times like this but kept trying, until one day I snapped off my derailleur on a branch. Fortunately it was mostly downhill the couple of miles back to home. I'd forgotten my toolkit, so I took the Velcro that secured the frame pump and used it to secure the chain and derailleur to the chainstay. I must have looked quite the sight with one white leather shoe, one mountain bike shoe, an AFO, a handpump stuffed down my Lyrca shorts, a ratty old mudding shirt, clear lens Oakleys, and a flashy bicycle helmet. On the descent down a gully I managed to fall over once more on my left, and I've not ridden single track since.
Things went relatively smoother on the road bike, where all stops are planned and I could just lean toward my right foot. The problem that showed up with the regular cadence over a longer time period. I came home from a 27 mile ride to discover that my left ankle had swollen up like a grapefruit. I hadn't felt it happening. On the phone with the emergency room that Saturday evening, I said, "Well, I'm not sure whether I need to come in. Its not like it hurts at all..." They had me come in. After x-rays, the very pretty doctor who took care of me said it was just soft tissue damage and she had me ice it for a day or two until the swelling went down. I added some padding to the ankle area of the hard plastic AFO and the problem has not recurred.
Injuring myself without realizing it is probably the single biggest problem of the paralysis. Two or three times I managed to lose the big toenail of my left foot thanks to not feeling the damage happening as my foot slid forward in my boot with each step I took. This problem was finally remedied by stuffing the toe area with foam and being extra careful to lace the boot snuggly each time I tie it.
The first winter after the accident I decided to not try any alpine sports out of deference to the concerns of my physical therapist. She did approve of snowshoeing though, which is basically walking but more stressful, a good way to build muscle strength and aerobic capacity. It was wonderful; I'm man enough to admit that the first time I got back out by myself in the quiet woods again, surrounded by all that snow, I teared up. It was almost a spiritual experience.
During the spring and summer of 2000 I was busy with building my house, which provided a convenient excuse for avoiding dealing with my wife about the matter of riding again. With finances all tied up in the home until at least the final mortgage was signed, it was easy to tell myself that it wasn't a good time to buy a bike.
Christmas 2000 came and went without any new responsiveness from my left leg. This was roughly when the revised estimate was for me to being seeing some recovery. There was never a precise date offered, and Christmas was just something for my brain to naturally latch onto. Yet when that day came and there was nothing new, it really didn't trouble me. I'd long since accepted that the injury was what it was, and it would get better whenever it finally got better. Awfully tautological, I know, but at the same time very stress free.
That winter, with reserved approval from my doctor, I got back on the slopes with my snowboard. While I used to both ski and ride, I thought skiing would present a special challenge with having one ski moving independently on my left foot when I couldn't feel its orientation with regard to my other ski or how well its edge was set. As a proof of concept with the board, I first took a few runs down my front hill. I was shaky, but definitely felt that with practice I'd be back in pretty good form. It was time to go to a real hill. Of the local areas at my disposal, Sugarbush seemed the best choice because they hosted Vermont Adaptive Ski And Sports, an organization that helps handicapped folks (er, pardon me, "individual with disabilities") participate in a wide range of outdoor activities.
After a couple of sessions where I was improving but thought I could be doing better, I opted to take some private lessons from a VASS instructor. In just a few hours with him I had made significant advances in my abilities, nearly back to my pre-accident skill. It was wearying, but I was very happy.
In early 2001 a friend told me about Degree Confluencing, a hobby that involves going to places on earth that are only significant because they are where the latitude and longitude come together as perfect integers. Just the idea of it was strangely alluring, and I bought a GPS straightaway. My bad leg has gotten me through 27 confluence trips, including wading through a swamp in the Malaysia jungle, bushwhacking through a wilderness area in the Adirondacks, and trekking overland in Australia. I've been hiking on 12 mile days and firmly believe that my dream to hike the Appalachian Trail end-to-end isn't all that far-fetched, if only I could get the time for it.
That summer I hosted The Tenth Annual Right Coast Ride, a regular gathering of net.bikers. During that weekend Blake Johnson kindly lent me his bike so I could confirm what I had suspected – that I was mentally ready and physically able to ride a bike again. I could shift up by swinging my foot around in front of the shift lever, hooking my boot under it and then pulling up with my thigh muscles. Downshifting was as easy as stepping on the shift lever with my heel. I only rode for about 15 minutes, but I had a blast. There was no doubt about it, I had to ride again.
That summer was not to be the time, however. Diane and I continued to struggle in our marriage, already having been in joint counseling for more than two years. While the issue of me riding had been discussed, it clearly was a very difficult thought for Diane to bear and so acting in what I thought were the interests of harmony, I did not push the subject. Counseling would later reveal that even though I thought I was being a good guy for this, it probably wasn't actually the wisest thing to do and it would have been better to stand for the things that were important to me.
In January, 2002, we separated, but not with the intent to divorce. It was a terribly, terribly difficult time during which I often internally debated when it was that continually recurring arguments became irreconcilable differences. Why is this relevant to reviewing my recovery? Because it was in May that I finally decided to take heed of that lesson about standing for things that are important to me and chose to get a new bike, a Honda VFR 800.
My riding skills were a bit rusty, but I found I didn't really have any notable mental blocks lingering from the accident. I wasn't scared into going slower (which could be seen as a bit of a downside), I didn't get anxious heading into tight turns, and I didn't have horrible flashbacks when it started to rain. I did need to relearn some basic principles of fast cornering, but once I practiced on that a bit I was back to wearing the tires to the outside edge and scraping the foot pegs.
I put 16,000 miles on that bike within the first five months of having it, with trips from my home in Vermont to northern Quebec, eastern Maine, central Texas and many places in between. It was a rediscovery of myself, finding the parts of me that I had let be ignored for far too long in my marriage. Reconnecting with old friends around the country and making new friends was pretty much the best thing that happened to me that summer, especially as Diane filed divorce papers on me in June.
The ensuing year basically sucked as the divorce became a very drawn out process of which I'll spare you the details (though if you really want to know, ask, I don't mind sharing). It got bad enough that for the first time ever in my life I actually sought out whether medication would be right for me, and went on the anti-depressant Lexapro. The financial situation with the divorce meant no money for lift tickets to go snowboarding, and not being able to ride throughout the winter didn't help much.
When the mud on my Vermont dirt road finally firmed up enough that I could take the bike out, I was so happy to be riding again. With a trip out to California and another down to North Carolina, I had more than 14,000 miles on the bike in the first two months of the riding season.
That brings me up to date with my story. The final divorce agreement was signed just a few days ago, and two hours later I was one of 25% of my company that got hit by a Reduction in Force. At least that gave me a little more time on my hands to be able to write this. I'm not really all that bummed about it, since I am moderately optimistic I'll be able to find another position before my financial situation becomes truly desperate, and in the meantime now I can go out and ride some more. Might even break 40,000 miles on the bike in less than a year and a half.
One concern I had about my injury, especially as I was a single guy again, was that it would turn me into an untouchable in the minds of women. With my sometimes funny gait and the atrophying of my calf muscle, I thought some women would be put off. Heck, probably many are, but not all. You'll pardon me if I don't provide any details here, but I am extremely happy to report that it seems to mostly be a non-issue.
Where to from here? Well over the next few years I hope to get a rat bike so I can extend my riding season through the snow and the mud. I also hope to get back out on the race track, but it will have to wait til I can get a bike just for that. I also have in mind that I'd like to try skydiving, but the skydivers might have something to say about my bum leg.
The leg will just continue to heal on its own rate, if it is in fact healing at all. My physiatrist has been very optimistic that it would come back, and expected it to do so before now. He told me, however, about one patient he had who didn't regain nerve function until 17 years after his injury. That was supposed to be a case way outside the norm, but just goes to show you can never rule out things coming back naturally. Medical technology also makes enough advances that by 2020, if I have not healed on my own, I'm fairly confident there will be some procedure that will be able to reconnect things.
I don't expect to write any more updates until finally I am able to move my muscles below the knee, and then you can expect it to be the briefest of all my writings. Thank you all so much for the interest you have shown in my recuperation.