Julia Jenkins: Near Death Experience on the Bike

This page exists to help you track my wreck of Sunday, September 2, 2007.
A NOTE REGARDING FORMAT: This page runs in chronological order. My most recent entries are at the bottom. Use your scroll bar. Thank you. :)
LAST UPDATE: 1/26/09

9/3/07: from an e-mail to my cycling community
I hit something -- don't know what -- someone said a log on the West Oaks ride. We were over 25mph I think and I didn't know what was happening. My hands never left the bars. I landed on my face. My nose is fractured in a minor way. I have a concussion that was already clearing up when I left hospital. Several teeth are broken and my face is smashed in pretty well. My chin was open to the bone (they found some tooth in there). I am swollen, misshapen, in pain, can't eat or talk, nauseous, etc.

more on the wreck, date unknown
The West Oaks ride is an informally understood gathering place and route. I showed up, specifically to meet my friend Gretchen, and to ride with a group of pretty fast guys to get a good workout. At this point I will give my understanding of what took place. My disclaimer: I have a concussion, don't clearly remember much, and may be wrong. A lot of this understanding has come from other people's information.

We were less than 20 miles in and riding close to 30mph -- maybe 28 or so. I was at or near the back of what might vaguely be called a double pace line but wasn't nearly that organized. There was a log in the road. I never saw it but have had it described to me as being a few feet wide and 4 inches or so in diameter. People in front of me variously hopped or swerved around it. I saw this activity but a) had no time to follow suite at high speed, and b) never saw the thing I should avoid. I recall my trajectory changing from straight forward to ass-over-handlebars. The next thing I remember is a hospital bed.

Apparently I hit the log and landed on my face on the road. My hands never left the handlebars. I sustained a concussion that knocked me unconscious for a few minutes. My chin was split open to the bone, several teeth were broken (one was found in my chin) and my upper lip split. Face road rashed. There was some minor road rash to knees, elbows, and one arm, but hardly worth remarking.

I was Life Flighted to Memorial Hermann Hospital and given a CAT Scan which showed some blood in the brain. My face was sown up and teeth capped with some sort of compound to make them liveable until dental work could be arranged. I had something like 40-50 stitches in the chin in two layers (interior and exterior) and just 4-5 in the upper lip. A CAT Scan 4-5 hours later showed the blood reabsorbed so I was judged to be okay. I spent the night in the hospital, vomiting, and went home with my parents on Monday.

My parents are taking very good care of me. I can't chew, so eating is a series of special arrangements. There are medications for preventing seizures, preventing nausea (which may be caused by the medication which prevents seizures), antibiotics, and of course pain. The smushed face has to be kept clean, and moistened with antibiotic ointment so it doesn't scab, dry, and split. I am confused and unhappy. I am easily tired and weak. My parents are saints and have done a really wonderful job.

I think my initial concerns were more about my poor smashed face and teeth than my brain. (The teeth are a special concern because I can't chew, so I'm limited to eating mush and liquids, which is frustrating. And no, I have no taste for beer at present.) I have never been a person who was concerned about scars. Everyone has their vanities and I'm no exception; but my vanities have not tended to live on my face. But then, I've never been threatened with facial scarring. At this point, six days in, my perspective has changed. My face is clearing up nicely. It's still a mess, but there is significantly more shiny, new, healing skin where there was more hamburger; and the stitches, due out in two days, look to be doing their job.

Now I'm more concerned about my brain. I am muddled. I forget things quickly, including what I was, or you were, just talking about. I am easily distracted and easily confused. I am aware of this now, so it's a little frustrating. In the first day or two, I was too confused to realize I was confused. I've been reading about the post-concussive symptoms that I have, and these are normal and predictable. For example, I have some form of "anterograde amnesia", or the inability to store new memories (post-trauma). I am receiving very touching, sweet phone messages from many people, but can't for the life of me remember if I've returned them. So some people are hearing from me repeatedly while some get no call back at all.

I am a big reader; I love to read. And now I can't read so well. I can still understand what word is spelled by the letters on the page (I'm typing just fine) but I can't sustain the reading. I get a page or two, max, before I have a splitting headache, the words jump around in no order on the page, I am massively confused and have no idea what I've read. It's unpleasant.

These symptoms can last any amount of time, from a week or two or three to a year. I am concerned about my brain. So, initially, I was concerned (in a simplistic kind of way) about my face looking like raw hamburger; that concern is quickly fading. Then I was a little concerned about riding my bike again; but I'm comforted by the fact that none of my bike-riding parts are damaged at all -- except my brain. Now I realize my brain is not working properly and I had come to rely upon it.

I would like to state for the record that I would rather be hideous than not be able to ride a bike -- or think, or read.

date unknown
I am weak. I get lightheaded and develop a splitting, massive headache when I climb the one flight of stairs in the house. I can't walk the dogs around the block without feeling dizzy. From the lack of proper food, I weigh less now than I have since I was 18; as an athlete, this looks like an exciting opportunity. But I'm not flat-tummied or in good shape, just light. I would like to capitalize on this by working out in some way but I can barely stand; clearly I'm not capitalizing. It seems that all the nutrition I can find, and all the energy I have, goes towards rebuilding my brain. This is fine with me. I'm just a little impatient is all.

I'm learning a lot by observing myself and seeing patterns. I'm trying to take better care of myself. The last few days I think I've learned some good lessons.

On Thursday night I had my first visitor, Barrett, which was great. He brought me movies and gelato. That was special. On Friday I had visitors all day: Gerber, then Gretchen, then Bob and Susan. I had 8 straight hours of visitors with no naps. It was a great time; I felt really positive and happy, I had fun, I was active, and everyone told me how well I was doing. It was nice to not be bored and lonely. I've had a lot of inactivity, and it's hard to read and TV is boring, so it was nice to be entertained by loving friends.

But Saturday was incredibly, surprisingly hard. I was tired; I was in more pain than usual; and my brain was slower-moving. I had a hard time listening to my parents talk; I had a hard time talking to them; and nothing made sense. I was in a bad mood and for the first time, really depressed about my inability to do normal things. I was sad and for the first time I cried a little over my accident. Finally I realized (with my mother's help) that I was probably really worn out from Friday. Not that I did much; I just sat around with my visitors, but all the conversation and stimulation, and not taking any naps, had really fatigued me. I decided that I can't handle a full day of fun like that. So, I told myself I would limit the visitors and the fun, to better take care of myself. In training, fatigue that leads to very slow recovery and difficulty performing later is generally not productive, especially when recovering from injury. So I'm going to try to avoid this kind of feeling of extreme exhaustion in recovery from the concussion.

On Sunday, I limited my visitors to one, my girlfriend Molly, and she stayed less than 3 hours. I was still really beat after she left, but in a better way. I watched some cycling and some soccer with my parents and went to bed early and felt good about it. I missed Krystol but hopefully we'll have another chance to visit. I know she wants me to recover smoothly more than she wants to hang out immediatly.

Today is Monday and I had an appointment to get my stitches removed first thing. We did it the hard way: because it's difficult to drive to and difficult and expensive to park in the medical center, my father and I walked to the bus stop, from the next bus stop to the train station, and then to the hospital. That about made me sick with the effort. The stitches being out is great! I'm so happy. They were prickly and uncomfortable, and I think my face is ready to heal without them. I am really, really pleased with this development. The doctor who snipped them agreed that my face is healing really well, although he put me on another week of antibiotics to be safe from infection.

After returning home from the doctor, my fatigue had me feeling pretty ill. I chose today to experiment with skipping out on the pain pills, and finally took one about 3pm. I was hurting pretty bad. It's not my facial wounds, but just a splitting headache that bothers me, especially first thing in the morning and when I work at something, like standing up or climbing stairs. (I'm pretty weak.) Not taking pain pills today was in pursuit of two things: 1) to see how bad the pain really is, and 2) to see how woozy and stupid I feel without them. The pain was worse but of the same sort. The pain pills are desirable, but not necessary, to deal with it. And I definitely still get woozy and stupid without them. In fact I think fatigue makes a bigger dent in my mental processes than the medication.

That's another interesting observation I've made: how much everything is related. Walking a block or two, or climbing the stairs, is enough to seriously fatigue me -- and then speaking and thinking and understanding simple concepts becomes infinitely harder. The mental challenges are made more difficult by physical fatigue. My brain is the injured part, and the brain controls all these processes. So now I know: it's necessary to take it easy on all accounts, to get the rest I need to recover.

I have some exciting events ahead of me. Tomorrow I have my first dental session to start replacing the broken and lost teeth. I hope very much to be chewing afterwards, although I don't know if that will happen. Then, either tomorrow evening (if I have the energy, after resting post-dentist) or Wednesday, I look forward to visiting Bikesport! It's my job and I don't normally get excited about going there to work every day. But after sitting around for a week and a half, I find that I miss the people. It's a social outlet I don't have now, and my coworkers are like family. Plus, they've been working overtime in my absence and have been so sweet and supportive that I really want to see them. I will also take my bike in to begin the unhurried process of replacing broken parts.

To get briefly sentimental, I must say that I've been really touched by the response of the cycling community to my bad luck. I've gotten phone calls and e-mails from so many people, some of whom I really don't know that well and don't know how they heard about it. Everyone is supportive and generous in offering to fetch food, cook food, bring beer, and bring me movies. I knew I had good friends, but I'm really impressed at the general response of this community. I am grateful, humbled, and only hope I can return the favor when things go other ways next time around. Thank you friends. And thanks for letting me vent. If you care, I'll continue to do so here.
Can't WAIT to be back on the bike and hope to see you there!

I am noticing patterns, like, I have good days and bad days and they alternate. By that pattern, today should be a bad day, so I'm going to fight it.

Yesterday was a really good day. I woke up feeling strong and in a good mood. I was excited to go to the dentist (isn't that weird? See, I'm getting stir-crazy) and got two root canals, which hurt post-anesthetic for maybe an hour, and then I was excited to go to Bikesport. I was really excited to go to Bikesport! My mother and I took three bikes in and brought one home (not that I can ride it) and I got to see my coworkers, who are friends and who I've missed. I got some quality time with John and Jeff and Scott, but not so much with Mick and Fil because they were busy. But I got a little bit of my bike shop fix.

I got some new parts ordered for the bike that went down with me (but it doesn't need much, since my head took the bulk of the impact). I also had some very minor work to do to my bikes (swapping around pedals and stems) but it had me on my feet for about an hour, moving around a little, and socially interacting, and that was enough to REALLY sap me. I was woozy and off-balance (like drunk) at the end of it and had to leave abruptly. I was real pleased with my visit though. On the way home, stopped at a red light, we saw the West End ride go by, and I saw a bunch of my teammates riding, and that really tore me up. I broke down in the car and it was painful. I just wasn't prepared. On Friday I plan to go to the track to watch the racing, and I expect to be okay with that because I'll know what I'm getting myself into. But I didn't expect to see that group last night, and it caught me off guard, and really upset me. I'm so jealous of them! I've been getting the team e-mails about rides and races coming up and it's kind of painful.

I plan to put the saddle really low on my mom's comfort bike and roll it around the block someday soon when I'm feeling strong, just to test my balance and see if I can get a small fix out of it.

I am sorry to see how weak I am getting already. I've lost a pound a day since my wreck, and you know it's muscle that goes first, not fat. I've lost ten pounds in ten days. Last night after my epic session of standing for an hour (not ready for work yet!) I felt it in my legs when I went to bed. It felt like four days of hard workouts in a row feels in my legs, when I finish with standing starts on the track. That was depressing. The muscle atrophy is well-underway. There goes my awesome cross season. We'll see.

Another pattern I'm seeing is, my recovery is getting quicker. When I got home from the wearying bike shop visit last night, I lay on the couch a little, ate a snack, and watched the U.S. women play North Korea in the Women's World Cup (a pretty ugly game, by the way) and though I didn't feel quick like a ninja or anything I really felt better. I'm glad I have the ability to come back a little when tired. Give me some food, some lay down time, and an hour and I can really be a little up again. So that's good.

Two root canals yesterday! And they ground a LOT away from the tooth that was interfering with my bite, so I can chew again! It's not perfect; I'm pretty sensitive after all that, and can only chew soft things rather gingerly; but that's a great improvement. In two weeks I go in for the new fake teeth. Then the face and the teeth will both be totally resolved (ideally) and it'll just be my brain that we worry about.

The brain is coming along nicely too, if more slowly. I can read now. I can follow the path of the words, I can comprehend (sometimes I review what I've read but it goes pretty smoothly), and I've found my enjoyment again. But I can't go very long. My attention span is shortened significantly. I used to read with pleasure for 3, 4, even 5 hours straight on my day off, if I had a good book. Now I rarely read for an hour (and it's a good book I'm reading now, Steinbeck's Travels with Charley in Search of America). I mix it up, like read magazine or newspaper articles. I just don't have the attention span. But I've come a long way! And the recovery time, from fatigue, being so much quicker is exciting too. Now if I could just get my strength up a little so that I could do some gentle exercises, I'd really feel good. I'd like to start with some non-weight-bearing floor exercises, yoga, simple stuff. But I just don't have it yet.

The time is passing a lot more slowly now. The first week post-accident just flew by; I was so confused and in-and-out of awareness of my surroundings that it was like I took a nap, took another nap, and that was a week. But now the days are creeping along. I'm normally a pretty busy and active person and my time is normally scheduled pretty close, so that time to sit and read or watch a movie has to be scheduled for and is highly valued. So this is a real change. I get impatient with myself for not being stronger quicker. I know it's just something to take a deep breath and deal with. But it is interesting how my perception of the passage of time has changed recently. I'm a lot more aware, cognizant of my surroundings, and frustrated by a feeling of helplessness. Whereas in the first week, I was content to look around sleepily and drift in and out of awareness. This is definitely a positive progression. I just can't wait till I can do a few d*mn situps or something. (sigh)

Today I feel great! I am feeling so excited and positive about my progress. I've come really far since even Monday. I can walk in the morning and again in the afternoon. I took just one nap yesterday. I feel really strong. I'm extremely psyched about the future. I can't wait to work my body a little bit and go back to work at Bikesport. I'm still taking it one day at a time. I don't pretend to set a date for riding a bike or working. But I can feel that it's closer and that it is quickly approaching and that makes me really excited. I am excited about going to the track tomorrow night to watch the races. And I think by next week I'll be doing something different. I don't know what. I've begun to do small, important things like wash dishes (once, yesterday) and clean my room. It's the little things. Wish me luck!

I went to the track last night to watch the racing, and I'm extremely glad I did. I got to see my track racing friends and got all the sympathy and love that was appropriate. It was really nice to see everyone and socialize. It was a little painful to see the events run that I would have been a part of. But that was good for me too. It was also a little bit of a workout to do all that walking, standing, and talking, for several hours. I can really see my endurance coming along by leaps and bounds! It's come a long way. I can now walk the dogs as long as I please (never very long in this heat, but I'm no longer limited by strength in a dog walk) several times a day. I had a bunch of conversations last night without my speech getting too slow or slurred. I limited my walking around as much as possible but still had to see the action, and I didn't cripple myself with fatigue at all. I was up till midnight, which was way late for me, and slept in a little this morning but really feel pretty all right! I did my floor exercises this morning (abs, back, yoga, stretching) for the first time post-wreck and still feel fine. These are all REALLY good signs. I run out of pain pills today so that's the real test.

I think the next step is to get back on the trainer! My coach, Steen, is staying at my (empty) apartment this weekend for track championships, and he's going to deliver it here to the parents' house tomorrow. I can start with whatever I can do -- five minutes, or 20 -- and there's no fear of falling over. I'm excited about pedaling again! That's a good start.

The next step is going to be going back to work. I think Tuesday might be a good start for that. I intend to start with short shifts and the expectation that I may have to wimp out and go home; maybe not work a full week either, but take it a day or an hour at a time. I think I'll take Steen's advice and not move back home until I've worked a few days, even a week, to be sure I can still fend for myself after getting off work. That sounds like a good, safe system to me.

So, here I am actually talking about riding a bike (albeit on a trainer), working, and eventually moving back home! What fun and excitement! Things are really coming together rapidly now. I'm feeling really optimistic, positive about the future, excited, and above all lucky that my wreck is leaving me so very well off. In the end, I'm going to be as good as new, although maybe a little wiser and more cautious, and more grateful to be alive and riding!

Today was my first day back at work. It felt really good to be back. I missed it. This experience has helped me to appreciate things. For example, we don't really get excited about going to work every day; it's a job; that's why they have to pay us to be there. But after missing it for two weeks, I was really happy to go to work today. That makes me realize, and appreciate, what a good job I have. I like the people I work with; I feel good about the work I do; I feel respected and have respect for those around me. My employer and coworkers are like a family to me. That means they get on my nerves when we spend all day, every day together; but it also means we love each other and want to help when something goes wrong. My boss and coworkers have been extremely kind and generous with me during this experience of being hurt and useless. It is a rare and unique place I have there and I am very, very grateful. Thanks guys.

I worked a shortened day today and will work several of those before going back to full-time. But I am anxious to start pulling my weight again, because we're a little short-handed and I know the guys have been burdened by my absence (which only makes their patience the more impressive). I know that, if anything, I'm overly anxious to be "back to normal" and I'm trying to keep an eye on that. I want to ride my bike, lots and long, and I want to work full-time; both need to be tempered just a little. But it's awfully encouraging to see the kind of progress I have seen over the last few days. It's been geometric.

For example: I got on the trainer for the first time on Sunday and rode for 6 minutes. I looked down and watched my legs go slower, and slower, and grind to a stop after SIX MINUTES two weeks after I set out for a several hour, 25+ mph ride with a group of fast guys. That was depressing. But on Monday I rode for 30 minutes -- grueling and painfully, grindingly slow. Then today, Tuesday, I rode 30 minutes like a normal, "easy" day. Tomorrow I hope to do more.

I also look forward to moving back home, into my own apartment, sometime this week. And if things go well, I intend to get on a bicycle outside!

My reading public should know that this journal will come to an end soon. When I leave my kind parents' house I won't have access to website building except when I visit. I'll post one more time when I leave, but it should be seen as a really, REALLY positive step when I stop posting here.

Thanks for all your time spent reading my ramblings. :) Good night.

Today is the day that I move back home into my apartment! I'm excited about that. I've now worked two part-days and done a 45-minute trainer ride. Today I will get on a bike outside. Things are coming along. My face is all sealed up and concerns over face and teeth are done. (Just need to get the new fake teeth; but I am confident all will go well.) I improve rapidly from day to day and feel very positive about the future. Thus formally ends this journal. I want to thank everyone who has kept up and sent happy, supportive thoughts, e-mails, texts, phone calls and visits my way. I also want to thank everyone who has financially contributed to the significant debt piling up in medical bills, and especially those who have organized that effort. I am extremely impressed with the cycling community's support and camaraderie. Thanks all. Mad love.

UPDATE 5/7/08br> Today is my 26th birthday. It has been more than six months since I got hurt and I don't think about it. It surprises me when someone asks about it because it feels like the distant path or something that happened to someone else. I don't remember it; recovery is very foggy; it's more like I had my life before and then life picking back up around the beginning of November, when I returned to bike racing by winning WurstCross. Things are good. Things are no different; life goes on. The cycling community was amazing and continues to be. I aspire to be worthy of this community and this world and want nothing more than to continue to ride and race bikes. Let's all be thankful for what we have. I am.

One year later: 9/2/08
I have just taken note of an important anniversary. This event means several things to me. I learned a lot about survival and overcoming challenges, mentally and emotionally even more than physically. I learned how much I love riding my bike and how important this activity is to me; it is the single most important thing in my life (to be differentiated from the very important people). I found how imperative it is to be grateful for what we have, and that we need to be careful who we ride with. I learned to value my ability to ride, every day. I want to thank everyone (once again) who offered their support -- financial support, yes, but also emotional support from my friends, family, teammates, and the cycling community at large (including strangers) that meant so much. Here's to another great year! Rubber side down!

After four months of this site being down post-Ike, I have the opportunity to write here again. I want to share my continued feelings of gratitude for the life I live now. I hope that my life will remain permanently changed in this way: I want to remember that I'm lucky to be able to ride my bike, and I want to share this by reminding you, my reader, and everyone I meet that we are ALL lucky to be able to ride our bikes, or whatever it is that does it for each individual. I had to remind myself of this recently in a marathon race :) but the truth is, if I inflict pain on myself in an event like the Torture Test, it's a privelege. I feel that pain and challenge because I've chosen it, and it's hugely preferable to the alternative of sitting on the couch -- let alone lying flat on my back in a hospital bed or similar.
I love my life and I feel lucky. I hope that I can retain this positive effect of my near-death experience. Having almost died on my bicycle only makes me want to ride my bicycle. I wish the positive effects of this experience on you, the reader, without the experience itself; but then again, I honestly can't say I'm sorry. I think it's been good for me.

That said, please point out obstacles in the road to your cycling colleagues; irresponsibility resulting in injury or death is deplorable.
In the last 18 months: It's been a time of good changes. Please, remain grateful for what you have, work to change what you don't like, and ride your bicycle.

You can reach me by email here.

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