First confession: I spend an inordinate amount of time in-line skating (rollerblading) and listening to 80’s pop music. I’m stuck in the 90’s, love the 80’s, and taking my skates and my music and hitting the trail is my favorite escape from the now. The trail on which I skate was once a railroad line that has been paved over and is a popular spot for all sorts of recreation. The section I frequent runs through wooded areas, farmlands, and marshes. Though it’s a popular trail, many trailheads and parking areas situated on the borders of nice suburban neighborhoods, it’s not nearly as busy as some of the trails in the parks closer to the city. That’s why I like it. I can feel like I’ve gotten away from it all on a trail that’s just around the corner from my house: just me, my skates, and that 80’s music. For the most part, alone. It’s one of the rare times that when I say I’m living the dream, I’m not being sarcastic.
Confession number two: I hate personal protective gear. Absolutely despise it. I wouldn’t wear it as a kid—it was off the second I was out of my parents’ sight—and up until recently, I refused to wear it as an adult. The shit’s uncomfortable: it inhibits motion; it itches; I just don’t like it. In addition, as a former figure skater, I’ve always been pretty cocky about my need (or lack thereof) of it. However, the “up until recently” coupled with the title should indicate where I’m going with this.
One minute, I’m skating, taking advantage of being alone on the trail to really get into the music and how my body moved to it. The next, I’m waking up, the right side of my face flat on the pavement, both tingling and throbbing. Both numb and in pain.
I’d fallen before, and the figure skater who is still very much alive within me knows that falling is no big deal. Get up; brush off; keep skating. But this time, for the first time ever, I couldn’t.
“Get up,” the voice said. Sometimes when people talk about accidents or traumatic experiences, they talk about how they weren’t really alone, like there was a presence with them. Some people credit a guardian angel; others have mentioned their higher selves. I don’t know what I believe the entity speaking with my voice inside my own head was, but whatever she was, whomever she was, she’s kind of a bitch.
“Get up,” she repeated, voice stern, no time for sympathy. I, however, was still rebooting and taking assessments of the damage.
I could feel my fingers and toes; I could move my head. Good signs, but there was something wrong with my vision. I was blind in my right in my eye. “Close it,” the voice said. I obeyed. “Can you see well enough with your left eye to navigate yourself out of here?” I nodded and responded to myself in the affirmative. “Then get up.”
I tried to push myself up, but my left arm wouldn’t hold my weight. You know those survival stories in the movies in which the hero digs deep into their spirit and proves that it really is mind over matter and all you have to do is want your body to work badly enough and it will? Bullshit. All of it. My left arm was useless.
“How’s your right arm?” the voice asked.
“Then get up.”
I sat up and the world spun. I focused on the ground under me as the blood dripped from my face and splattered in little droplets on the pavement. I wanted to lie back down.
“That would be a horrible idea,” the voice admonished as I tried to remember how many serial killers had come from Washington state.
It was at that moment that I realized the pepper spray, which I always keep tucked in my bra when on the trail, was no longer there. I spotted it about ten feet away and tried to push myself onto my knees and crawl to it, but the dizziness hadn’t subsided, and I swayed and fell. Ten feet or ten miles made no difference. For the moment, I was utterly helpless and alone.
I reached for my phone—which had also fallen from my bra to the pavement, but hadn’t gone nearly as far thanks to the earbuds still attached and in my ears—and tried to call my husband. He was also on the trail, but he’d been jogging, so he was way behind me and wouldn’t be covering as much ground. Given the time (the plan was to go 20 minutes down and then turn around), he was likely already on his way back to the trailhead, expecting me to skate up behind him any minute.
It was then that I lived one of my actual recurring nightmares. Do you ever have the dream where you’re trying to operate your phone and you just can’t? You can’t tap the numbers, or you consistently dial the wrong person, or your keyboard is set to the “moving staircase at Hogwarts” setting, created especially for nightmares and stress dreams? That became my experience in the waking world. I couldn’t make my brain and my fingers work together to make the call. I just sat there and stared at my phone and fought the urge to cry.
“Panicking won’t help,” the voice reminded me. I’m honestly not sure if she was talking about my inability to use my phone or what happened next.
I saw people coming and—glancing longingly with my good eye at the pepper spray I couldn’t reach—I could do nothing but hope that they meant me no harm. I couldn’t have fought if I’d wanted to and panicking about it wasn’t going to help. I reminded myself that I was on a family trail, running parallel to the freaking suburbs. I really didn’t have anything to worry about. These people were probably far more likely to be of help than harm.
Then I reminded myself how often the murder shows on the Investigation Discovery channel take place in the suburbs and how many times the killers seem nice and helpful.
I held my head up, which I was grateful I could do, and smiled, trying to look as well and healthy as possible. Drip…drip…drip, I heard my blood hit the pavement and wondered how grotesque my smile must be.
Exclamations of, “Oh my God!” and “Do you need help?” came the second the man and the woman on bicycles got close enough to see my face. I noticed that the man had blood on him. The woman began explaining, as she gathered my scattered belongings, that she’d just bandaged her companion after his bike accident only moments before, and that she didn’t have any more band-aids but she’d do her best to clean me up with what she had left. I think that ended up being a clean napkin and some of the water I had left in my bottle, but unsurprisingly, I can’t recall.
The woman was quiet as she handed me my pepper spray, a silent acknowledgment between us that it wouldn’t have done me any damned good in this situation. If anything, had someone wanted to hurt me, I’d have supplied the weapon. Still, she smiled approvingly as I tucked it back into my bra. She and her companion helped me up and got me to a nearby picnic table so we could continue to assess the damage.
They kept talking to me and asking me questions. I assumed this was because, though I knew exactly where I was and what had happened, I’d had a hard time communicating it. I can only guess what these truly kind people must have thought when they heard me barely string together slurred words, and they did their best to keep me alert. Bless them! Soon, a third cyclist, a woman who told us she was an EMT, also stopped to help. She asked which trailhead I’d started from and if there was someone waiting for me.
“My husband!” I exclaimed. “I need to try and call him.” I took a gamble at trying to operate my phone with an audience. My vision had started coming back and I was sure that if I concentrated hard enough, I could make the call. I had to. I’d heard the EMT whisper the word “ambulance” to the others and I assure you, nothing scared me more than that word.
For the handful of international readers my WordPress stats tell me I have, I want to be clear. The United States health “care” system would be a joke if it wasn’t already a nightmare. It’s bad enough if you have to visit the emergency room, but you definitely don’t want an ambulance to get you there. Depending on your economic status and your healthcare coverage, an ambulance ride and the subsequent ER visit can be financially devastating, especially if you end up being admitted to the hospital. Even with “good” health insurance, the debacle that followed the care I sought…well, that’s a whole other story. The short point is, I knew there was no way in Hell I was letting anyone call an ambulance. I’d take my chances with The Reaper first. I prayed my husband answered his phone.
“Hi babe, what’s up?” his chipper voice answered. He’d been enjoying his jog.
“Where are you?”
“I just turned around a few minutes ago.”
“Well, I’m gonna need you to turn back around.” I calmly told him what happened and that I was going to be fine, but his assistance was definitely required. He said he was on his way.
The vision in my right eye was returning in time to watch the swelling in my right cheek rise underneath and impede my vision in a different manner.
It occurred to me that I hadn’t heard the voice in a while. All of my thoughts were distinguishably my own. I had the sense to thank the source of the voice mentally rather than verbally. I really didn’t want an ambulance ride.
Talk of an ambulance had stopped since reaching my husband, but the EMT kept telling me that I really need to go to the emergency room, that I was pretty badly swollen and continuing to swell quickly. She told me that she was concerned about broken bones in my face, and when I told her about my arm, she was adamant that I get that checked, too. Still, I very clearly stated that I was already feeling better and that I had no intention of going to the ER.
Based on where my husband told me he was when I’d spoken to him, he made it to that little picnic table on the trail in record time. A look of suppressed panic crossed his face when he saw me; a look that said, This is really bad but I don’t dare tell her how bad this is. As if I wasn’t dying to take a selfie to see it for myself.
I told him what happened, and then each of the three wonderful humans who’d stopped to help filled in bits of information. “She needs an emergency room,” the EMT wasted no time telling him. “She says she’s fine but she’s very clearly in shock. Where are you parked?”
There was much discussion about the best way to get me back up the trail. Do we walk the 2.5 miles back to where we were parked? Where was the closest trailhead? Should my husband go back to the car and drive to that one? No real option was better than the last.
“The best way for me to get out of here is to skate out,” I said. I was tired, and nothing good could come of me wasting time sitting there if I did have a serious problem that needed attention.
“No,” literally everyone responded in near perfect unison.
“Any way you slice it, I’m going to have to get out of here, under my own power, on foot,” I said, trying to keep exasperation out of my voice. Everyone there was trying to help me, after all. “The fastest way is to skate.”
Turns out, threatening to skate was the best way to convince everyone that I was fine to walk back to the car. I thanked my trail angels and swore that I’d be okay. My husband thanked them and promised that we’d get some medical care. He took off my skates and carried them, while I strolled down the trail in my socks, holding my arm and smiling sheepishly at every passerby who gasped at my appearance.
By the time we reached the car, some of my shock had worn off and so some of the pain had set in. Though I’d had the opportunity to take a selfie and had seen how mangled my face was (no one but me, my husband, and my doctor have seen the selfie from the trail), I still refused to go to the ER. We went to Urgent Care.
Urgent Care took one look at my face and sent me immediately to the ER, which I thought painfully silly. I said that, though I was concerned about a concussion, my injuries overall looked far worse than they were. I insisted that if Urgent Care wouldn’t treat me, my husband should just take me home; my husband decided we were going to follow recommendations.
At the hospital, I maintained that it all looked far worse than it was. The X-rays and CT scans said that I was basically right, but it still wasn’t good, and yet it still could have been worse. I’d broken my right orbital (eye socket), but I wasn’t going to need any reconstructive surgery. I’d also fractured my left elbow, but when I saw the orthopedist, he advised against a cast, so I thankfully didn’t need that either. My vision fully returned.
The accident happened at the end of last summer, right before Labor Day (at least it didn’t wreck my whole summer), and so it’s been a year since. My elbow has healed, though sometimes it locks, and my smile is still a little crooked from the last bit of a swollen hematoma that my body has yet to absorb. It makes the right side of my face pull up a little higher and wider when I smile, like Jack Nicholson’s Joker, only half. I’ve been assured that my Joker face will heal, but if I hadn’t had a similar hematoma on my hip from a previous accident that ended up taking a year and a half to re-absorb, I’d be really discouraged by it.
And yet, I have a love/hate relationship with my crooked smile. In my better moods, I think of it like the sexy scar marring the tragic hero’s face just enough to be unnerving. I like to think of my new facial flaw as being barely noticeable in the right light, but just unsettling enough to suggest that I’m not to be trifled with. After all, I’ve been through some shit (no one besides us needs to know that it was something as silly and avoidable as a rollerblading accident). I’ll likely miss my crooked smile the second it finally heals.
I do wear protective gear now, but that also means I skate a little less. One of the things that draws me to skating is the feeling of freedom, and I can’t help but think of helmets and padding more as shackles than safety devices. It’s a tiny inconvenience and yet, more often than I’d like to admit, the drudgery of donning my armor (no matter how bad-ass I look in it) has been the deciding factor when choosing not go to the trail for a skate, and going without gear isn’t an option. As an American, I really can’t afford the thousands of dollars (after insurance!) a mistake like that costs.
But, as I said, that’s a story for a different post.
Oh! And if you’re one of the human angels from that day, thank you for not being a serial killer. Thanks to you all for being kind, and wonderful examples of humanity. I appreciated it more than you know.