On the 6 June 2011 I nearly met my maker via way of motorcycle accident. I decided to write up the story of the accident, how it happened, what it did to me, and what I learned from it. It has been very cathartic for me, and I hope you can also take something useful away from it. I learned many lessons from the experience, I got to know myself as well as my friends and family a whole lot better, and saw how an experience like this can change one’s life forever.
It was my last day of work before my leave started and one of the first proper motorcycle trips I would be doing which wasn’t solo. I would be riding that afternoon to the Wacky Wine Festival with Karl, a good friend of mine and also a novice rider. We had arranged that we would meet at the hospital where I was working, and leave on the trip from there. At the time there was a light drizzle outside, and the road surface was wet, Karl, being new to riding at the time, was nervous about this, and after much deliberation, we decided to rather meet up at our place on the farm and leave early the next morning.
As soon as I could make a run for it, I did. I jumped on my bike in a very excited, hopped-up mood, my leave had now begun and a motorcycle trip was on the horizon. Instead of taking the quicker route home, which was over a stop-street at quite a dangerous intersection in rush-hour traffic, I opted to go around the block and rather use the traffic-light on the other side, you know… just to be safe (Murphy and damned law). After turning right onto the main road at the traffic light I immediately accelerated to distance myself from the traffic around me, I don’t like being surrounded by SUVs on all sides, all rushing home for the weekend. As I twisted the throttle, I suddenly saw a white car pop out from oncoming traffic and block my entire lane. The SUV in the lane to my left swerved to miss him. I wasn’t so lucky.
Time immediately slowed down, all but stopped, and proceeded to provide me with a frame-by-frame record of me seeing my own arse. I grabbed a fist full of brake, pumped down hard on the brakes with my foot and held on for dear life. Its nearly unbelievable how much time slows down in a situation like this, and how much detail one can take in. I struggle to believe it to this day, but as I hit the car I distinctly remember the passenger window bulge out and shatter in slow motion. The next thing I knew I was flying through the air, I was completely upside down with the car under my head and my feet in the sky. Tiny pieces of shatter-proof glass flew past my face so slowly I can remember seeing the individual blocks. Then there was a bit of a blank, and I came-to lying on the road, with people rushing towards me from all angles.
I am very surprised at the calm way I woke up and realised what had happened. With so much adrenaline, I hadn’t yet felt any pain, I decided to check what systems were still intact, if any. I wiggled my toes, both sides, the ability to do this provided me with much elation. I wiggled my fingers- success! As far as I was concerned, lying on the tarmac in the rain, I was now in the clear. Needing some fresh air I lifted my left thumb to open the visor on my helmet, I could feel my thumb on the tab and could push to open it, but nothing was happening, the visor didn’t budge. My thumb was bending all the way back at the joint, in the wrong direction. Still quite calm, and without pain, I racked this up as the first injury on the list and decided to open the visor with the other thumb. This worked quite well and the visor slid open taking some shatterproof glass cubes with it. At this point my wits started coming back to me and with them, a good measure of pain. This was mainly localised to my right wrist and hand, which then revealed themselves as very definitely broken.
I also became aware of the people at this point. The first on the scene was a rather large man who obviously thought that my helmet was the main problem and proceeded to try to pull it off with the strap still done up. I violently protested, waving him away with my broken parts. The road to paraplegia is paved with good intentions. There were a number of other people who showed up afterwards, a few that I distinctly remember. One was a hysterical blonde woman shouting ‘Oh my God’ over and over again before moving on to complaining how unacceptably long the ambulances were taking to arrive. Another person to arrive had a massive impact on me, one that I will never forget. He was wearing a high-visibility jacket and carrying a helmet. He immediately told me that he was also a motorcyclist, and in a very caring, sincere, and personal manner he asked my permission to pray over me. I am a very private person when it comes to my religion and beliefs, I generally keep them to myself, try to maintain some faith, but still try to be practical, all the while remaining sceptical of religion in general. I consider myself a Catholic, but don’t attend much mass, I prefer to keep it between me and God.
I gave the motorcyclist permission to pray over me, not thinking much of it. He starts praying for me audibly, asking God to help me heal, to watch over my body and guide those who would be treating me. I was surprisingly moved by this. I think it was the combination of him making me realise that I was actually in quite a serious situation, as well as realising that this person, whom I had never met, and would never see again, genuinely cared about me, my condition, and my future. This made a huge impact on me, and admittedly nearly brought me to tears on the ground in front of everyone at rush hour.
I was becoming more lucid as the the level of pain increased. I tried to move to see what my bike looked like and was very quickly reprimanded and told to lie still- sound advice. I was becoming restless waiting for the ambulance and decided to try and clear my own c-spine and remove my own helmet- an idiotic idea in hindsight, but I got the helmet off. With the fresh, cool air and rain came more lucidity and more pain. Before I knew it the pain became overwhelming and I started to swear like a fish wife. The last person to help before the ambulance arrived was a medical student who was working at the hospital at the time, he was the one who, on my instruction, looked down my sleeve, went a bit pale and told me my fracture was open, he could see the bone. Its strange in retrospect, that the only medically trained individual to stop at a motorcycle accident obstructing the whole road, in peak hour traffic, one block from the hospital, when everyone was driving past on their way home after their shifts, was one medical student. It really makes one think.
When the ambulance arrived, I was met with surprised paramedics who knew me very well from casualty, where I would see them on a weekly basis. They were fascinated by my Leatt neck brace, having never seen one before, and I instructed them on how to remove it. Finally having received some pain-killers at the hospital down the road from the accident I had to tell the attending doctor which one of my family members they should contact. Obviously I first suggested them to call Megan, my wife and also a doctor, she was not answering her phone. Megan NEVER answers her phone. The doctor then suggested that she call my mother, this made me protest in a panic that filled me with more dread than the actual accident. As we know all know, mothers and motorcycles do not mix. My mother and my grandmother were just starting to come to terms with my two-wheeled pursuits, the news of an accident would cause an explosive situation. I actually expected my mother to fly in immediately from the opposite end of the country, and on arrival, finish what the motorcycle had started. I strongly suggested that the doctor rather call my uncle, he lived in the same small town, and was well known for reckless behavior on motorcycles. He would understand.
Noel arrived immediately with his son, my very cute and very inquisitive godson, now with eyes the size of dinner-plates in the ER in a Friday night. He would break the news to the women of the family, something I still am eternally grateful for. My mangled hand was ‘reduced’, a process I was dreading on arrival at the ER. This involves trying to re-align the fractures by manipulating the bones from the outside – lots of pulling, pushing and grinding with blinding pain. The ER doctor was absolutely amazed that my neck was intact, the X-rays and CT scan showed absolutely no fractures or abnormalities. And this was after face-planting on a car roof with my body following above me. The Leatt brace had not only prevented my neck from over-extending, but had taken the brunt of the impact from the side of the car roof. The roof had connected the brace on it’s front lip, squashing most of the carbon fiber in the brace flat, taking all the impact off my sternum and my aorta behind it. This sort of force applied to your sternum (as is often seen in car accidents from the steering wheel) squashes your sternum right up against your spine, destroying everything in-between: i.e. your aorta. This is near-instant death. The brace had not only saved the use of my limbs, but also my life.
This was actually when the reality of my injuries hit me. My right hand and right wrist were in a shambles and my right thumb was also misbehaving quite severely, I had been gearing my whole life towards being a surgeon, and now I was getting scared. This drove me to begging the orthopaedic surgeon pre-op to save my hand the best he can for my future career. This is a very scary request to make, and makes the injury very real very quickly in one’s mind.
I woke up post-op in agony, I was awake the whole night with severe pain, pain that would gradually, but very slowly weaken. It was my new companion for many months to come. So began my very long, very frustrating recovery. I couldn’t wash myself, I couldn’t feed myself, I couldn’t hold a book to read etc. etc. etc. I was, however, able to wipe my own arse through blind determination, I was NOT about to give up on that. I was in a really miserable state that would last a very long time. It is times like these that you learn a lot about those around you. I learned who really cared and who didn’t. And it is never, ever, who you suspect. I had some very close friends who never even called and I had some distant friends I hadn’t seen in years who called me every day and visited me in hospital. It was a real eye opener and caused me to make major changes to my friendship circles, changes which I have never regretted once to this day. Luckily my family were all fantastically supportive and my wife worked selflessly to help me through it, with no complaint or reward, she is an absolute blessing. I have no idea how I would have recovered if it wasn’t for her. The months that came were very difficult, the recovery and rehabilitation were long and slow, and I developed a generous serving of PTSD on top of this whole mess.
I have now recovered, with only a little functional impairment. Three years and five surgeries later I am back on track with my surgical career. My hand will never be perfect, but it has recovered beautifully thanks to the help of Dr. Gerricke and Dr. Stuart, The orthopaedic surgeons which very patiently dealt with my niggles and problems. The PTSD has also completely resolved with the Help of Tanya, a fantastic psychologist in Stellenbosch that I would recommend to absolutely anyone. I am back on the bike, will never commute again on tired, rushed, busy roads, but I am going to spend a year on a bike with my wonderful wife riding from Antarctic to Arctic Circle for charity. All has turned out well.
I took a lot of valuable lessons away from all of this:
- My wife is radically awesome and loves me plenty (God only knows why she does sometimes)
- My family is also top-notch
- I learned who my real friends were, changed my life to include them, and excluded the crappy ones
- I will never commute again
- Always always ALWAYS wear a Leatt brace and all your gear (ATGATT!)
- Your life and safety is not only your concern, people who care for you worry for good reason and out of love
- Once again, just because someone is a doctor, it says nothing about their compassion. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re interested in helping anybody
- It gave me valuable insight into what our patients go through, one can become blase or insensitive to this over the years
- Dirt > Tar
- Opel Kadetts are HARD
- Avulsion fracture left thumb
- 3 broken left middle phalanges
- Compound fracture 1st and 2nd metacarpals on the right
- Compound, open, intra-articular fracture of right radius with 10 loose bone fragments in the joint
- Right Ulnar styloid fracture
- Right radial nerve injury with resultant hand-cuff neuralgia and sensation loss in right thumb
- Haematoma right inner thigh
Guy with no drivers license and no insurance jumped a stop street with no vision of on-coming traffic. He did not even check to see whether I was alive or dead afterwards and made no attempt to contact me at all to follow-up on the results of the accident.
Thanks for taking the time out to read this. I hope you can take something away from it. Please leave a comment if you have anything to say on the topic or the post, would love to hear from you.