The not so Festive 500-ish
Every year Rapha puts out a goal on Strava (and its associated social networks) to challenge cyclists to ride 500km between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. I’ve done it a few times, and last year we did a festive gravel 500 which was marvellous. This year was no different, and three of us (Marty, Masty, and me) committed to chasing the goal down yet again, using mixed terrain as much as possible to get there, with a rough goal of about 100km per ride. However, balancing riding with family stuff over the holidays meant that we needed to get these rides done and dusted as early in the day as possible, meaning 4:40am alarm clocks became the norm (yawn).
On Boxing Day I was up and on the road at 4:40am to meet up with Marty for our ride up to Kyneton where we’d pick up another two crew members for the day’s ride. The plan was to ride up to Bendigo, using as much gravel as we could, and choosing new roads where possible. Both Marty and I are fans of the Wandrer Earth App which tracks all your Strava rides and lets you know when you’ve completed ‘new kms’ (see https://wandrer.earth/ if you’re interested) so were quite keen to explore new roads.
It was quite a cool morning (Garmin temperature says around 7-8 degrees) but very peaceful as the four of us made our way north (possibly because most sane people would still be in bed). I managed to get a flat tyre about 55km into our trip which meant everyone got a chance to try not to swear as we attempted to fix it (normally I run tubeless, but this time I had a tube in and the tyre is a rather snug fit). Afterward, I was riding with that paranoid feeling of getting a flat again, so cycled pretty gingerly for the next little bit.
I still don’t 100% know what happened next. Analysing my Strava file showed some insights, but still doesn’t tell the whole story. We were on a gravel road (Barty’s Road out past Sutton Grange, VIC) and had been climbing a little so the guys were all out ahead of me. I came over a bit of a rise, and just wasn’t paying enough attention. The road went down, my speed went up, and there was a right-hand corner that I hit too fast. I remember skidding through the corner (Max reckons my skid was about 20m long). I remember seeing a tree on my left side, as well as a barbed-wire fence, and then the tree was super close and then… nothing. Strava file says my speed was 32.2km/h at 7:25am. Then it was zero.
Get to the chopper
I came to pretty quickly and remember lying on the ground in silence, eyes tightly shut, listening to the blood pound in my ears while birds chirped in the distance. Quietly I hoped that I had just been winded as I was really struggling to breathe. I remember lying on my right-hand side and feeling really uncomfortable, so tried to roll onto my back. Ohhhh that wasn’t much better, so I kept rolling over and sat myself up. Cue immense dizziness and nausea. I think it was around this time that Dan found me (he had heard the crash and yelled out to the guys before turning around). He asked if I was alright, and if I just need a minute or two to keep going… or if I needed an ambulance. I don’t know how long I took to respond as I tried to assess the damage to my body, but finally whimpered ‘ambulance’ and Dan got on the phone. Marty had arrived at this point and got on the phone with Max (my husband) to let him know what had happened. The ambo’s said they’d be there in 30 minutes, and to just hold tight.
I laid myself down again, shifting around to try and get comfortable, and finally settled on my left side – left arm tucked under my head for support, and knees drawn slightly up to my chest. I remember seeing a large tree not too far away from me, and mentioned to Marty that I’d really like to get up and sit against that tree… but it felt much too far away for that amount of effort (possibly only 2m away). Marty asked can you wiggle your toes? Yes. Can you wiggle your fingers? Yes. It was still pretty cold (Garmin reading – 10-12 degrees) so we all still had all our layers on, but I was getting colder by the second. Dan unwound his wind jacket and tried to drape it on me as best he could, and I started shaking as I went into shock. It felt like forever for the ambulance to arrive, and I remember reaching into my bag of endurance tricks and started counting. Counting and tapping my fingers, trying to pass the time. I remember looking up and seeing Marty sitting next to me, and all I could say was “Marty I’m scared. I’m really scared.” I could hear the guys talking near me but none of their conversations could penetrate the world of focused pain I was in. I had my phone in my hand (somehow it had survived in my back pockets without a single scratch) and held it as if it were my lifeline.
Eventually, the ambulance arrived, and minutes later so did Max. A few conversations between them all (including asking if I was okay to get up and walk to the ambulance. I was not.) and they got my neck in a brace and brought out the spinal board to put me onto. The two paramedics, as well as Max and Dan, lifted me out of the verge I’d slid into and up into the ambulance.
In the back of the ambulance, wires were plugged in, things shoved up my nose to help with the pain, and I was given a green whistle to breathe in to help with the pain. Max followed us in the car behind. They asked me a lot of questions and I tried to answer the best I could (can you wiggle your toes? Yes. Can you wiggle your fingers? Yes.). The road was a bit bumpy and they apologised for that – to which I replied it was my fault for riding in the middle of nowhere on gravel roads! Soon after we arrived at Bendigo Health, where the real fun started.
I honestly don’t remember much of the next few hours except for pain. Pain as they rolled and lifted me onto X-ray boards so they could start to figure out what had happened. Pain as they put stuff into me and did the CT scan. Pain, as they scanned and probed and poked at me to see what I could/couldn’t feel (can you wiggle your toes? Yes. Can you wiggle your fingers? Yes.).
Silence… we’re going to have to cut your kit off. Do you want us to see if we can save it? Just cut it off, I can’t move my arms without pain. All this combined with a frightening realisation that I just could not move much of my body. I was lying on my back, helpless. Unable to look around me because of the neck brace. Unable to understand what was going on because of all the drugs I was on and the pain I was in.
Max stayed by my side as much as he could, and the nurses kept coming by and making sure he got away to eat and was also getting enough to drink. He kept feeding me small ice chips, one at a time, from a styrofoam cup, for 11 hours.
Max says: At this point, I given the impression that it was a few spinal fractures and that Tiff would be out in a couple of days, and she'd be home riding her bike in no time. However, we'd have to wait for a full spinal analysis from the specialists at Royal Melbourne Hospital to confirm. So after 11 hours of being by her side I was sent home when they transfered her to the complex ward at Bendigo Health.
They then transferred me off the hard bed I was on and into a room with a softer bed (the complex ward) so I could rest for a bit. A nurse kindly took my phone off me and put it on charge near my bed. They also arranged for a hospital phone to be brought in so that I could talk to Max, but the pain of trying to hold the phone near my ear and talk was just too much so it was a pretty short conversation.
There seemed to be a lot of discussion about how they were going to get me to Melbourne, and which trauma centre I was going to (I hadn’t realised they had told Max it was only a few fractures). Finally, they decided I need to be airlifted, and that I’d be sent to The Alfred. The nurses and I waited all night for this to happen and I dozed in between having more tests done and more questions (can you wiggle your toes? Yes. Can you wiggle your fingers? Yes.). Someone gave me a sponge bath and tried to wipe all the dust and dirt off my body as best they could. Another nurse got me some eyedrops and some lip balm as my face felt like the Sahara desert. I felt so cared for, and so alone. And so scared.
On the morning of the 27th, they started getting me ready to go. So many people trying to say so many things! I tried my best to respond to all the questions and also tried to keep my spirits up. After all, it’s not every day you get to ride in a helicopter! I had been using my phone camera as a way of looking around, and a few people noticed that and asked if I wanted photos. Hence why I have a lot of pics from my hospital ‘adventure’.
My excitement was short-lived as soon as I got in and the chopper took off. They warned me it was going to be a bit of a rough ride and that there was a lot of turbulence. The ambo sitting right next to me put headphones on me and opened a channel between us. You don’t have to be a hero, he said kindly. There are no prizes here. I tried not to sob and nodded, and he injected me with more pain medication.
A few minutes after we took off I started feeling super nauseous and started panicking. What if I throw up? Will I literally vomit on myself and start choking? The ambo noticed my distress and gave me alcohol wipes to sniff. Yup, cheat trick to stop nausea. He also mentioned that if I was going to be sick to let him know so he could tip me over. Living my best life here folks. I pretty much non-stop sniffed at those wipes all the way into Melbourne and tried to think peaceful thoughts. Meanwhile, my ambo noticed my phone and asked if he could take pics. Go for your life I thought. Glad he did:
We landed at The Alfred around 11:00am on the 27th. The brutal efficiency was quite a shock after the personal care I’d received at Bendigo. And while I was partly reassured by having dozens of people around me doing whatever they were doing, I also felt less like a person and more like an experiment. Understanding why that might be the case is one thing, but actually feeling de-humanised is another, and I was not enjoying the experience. At some point, they must have decided I needed more oxygen, as tubes were put up my nose.
More scans, more feeling like I was being tossed from one table to another. Each time I had to be moved, wheeled, rolled, or lifted I thought it was the worst pain imaginable. I tried to distance myself from the pain but at this high level I had no hope and I just whimpered and hissed my way through the day, wishing someone would explain to me what was going on.
At some point later that afternoon I was wheeled down yet another corridor and some paperwork thrust in my face. Sign here, they said, and here as well. I managed to get my left arm (which wasn’t working properly) up to scrawl something vaguely resembling my signature onto the page. What is this for, I asked? Surgery. They replied. We’re taking you to surgery.
*Side note: They did tell me I was going in for surgery and I had told Max about it already - a check back on my text messages later confirmed this. The fact that I forgot something major like this shows how out of it I was.
Now I was really scared. I hadn’t been able to talk to Max all day other than texts and had no idea what was going on. Why did I need surgery, what was it for? I’m sure I asked and I’m sure they explained it to me, but it didn’t cut through the mess that was my drugged-up pain head. I could see a nurse bending over me, letting me know the anesthetic was coming. Relax, she said, it’s going to be okay.
I woke up a little while later completely disoriented and very groggy. More pain meds, more wheeling me around. Then finally I was wheeled into a dark room and left alone. For hours.
I drifted in and out of consciousness, not really sure where I was or what was happening. Had the surgery been successful? I think I remember someone saying that to me, but I don’t remember for sure. I just remember feeling very lost. Very alone. And very scared.
The next morning I woke in the same room with a tray next to me with food and water on it. Which would have been great except I couldn’t reach it. I wasn’t really hungry, but my mouth was super dry and it would have been nice to get some water.
I was excited as I knew Max was coming to visit that day, which meant he could feed me and give me something to drink. Which he did, but I remember him being really mad about having to do this, and know that he spoke to the nurses about my care. Until I was a little more independent with my movements I was 100% reliant on other people to do everything for me. Which meant if someone moved my nurse call buzzer away from me I was helpless unless someone happened to walk by and see me. Not ideal. And very hard to cope with on top of everything else as I just felt dehumanised. Lying flat on your back for days is really hard. As is taking medication (which was now in the form of pills as they’d taken me off the IV drip) without choking on it. Bendy straws saved the day here as it was the only way I could take any liquids in.
Max says: After Tiff's surgery and during my visit I eventualy got a hold of the surgeon. We spoke for some length about how it had all gone, and I asked him how long the metal should stay in her body for and how it would impact her as a cyclist, but that was a discussion we would have months from now. I already knew this but her surgeon confirmed the obvious. A little bit faster or a few cms this way or that and she would be one of three things: paraplegic, quadriplegic, or dead. F***ing lucky, though it was hard to feel that right now.
We decided that since I’d come out of surgery Max could put a social media post up about what had happened, but he was sure to add in that people should NOT contact me yet as it was just too hard. Even trying to hold my phone (assuming I could find it) was difficult, and I didn’t have the brainpower to read any messages yet. It took me another day of healing to be able to post something, and even at that point I just took Max’s message and reposted it as I couldn’t quite find my own words yet.
Side note: The information that Max was getting at this point was that I would most likely be in the hospital for 2 weeks, then I would be sent to a rehab hospital for another 2 weeks. So him and the kids were mentally preparing that I would be gone for about a month. Pretty hard news to take for my family, especially as I hadn't seen them since Christmas Day. I wasn't told this information at the time. Or if I was, there was no way it penetrated the pain cave into my brain.
The next couple of days I don’t remember all that well, other than it was all about small wins. I’ve got photos of my face and trays of food, so I’m assuming that meant I was able to get some liquids in me as I still struggled to eat because I was flat on my back. I finally figured out how to get my bed to rise up and down, which gave me so much more mobility, vision, and food options. Not that the food options were anything to celebrate. Hospital food is disgusting.
By the 29th they removed the drain tube from my lung and added a few more stitches to my side to tidy that all up. I stood up (with help from the physio) on the 30th, and later that day could sit upright for a minute unaided by a backrest.
I was able to sit up in a chair by December 31st, which was a big win in terms of my mobility and visibility. Unfortunately, this was also the day when the depression hit really hard for the first time, so I spent quite a few hours sitting up in a chair and just sobbing. It was also around this time that I realised why all the ambo’s, paramedics, and Drs kept asking me if I could wiggle my toes and move my hands: they had thought I could have had a spinal cord injury and been paralysed. Needless to say, this sent me to a pretty dark place for a while as I thought about how close I had been and how lucky I was to be moving around. Luckily it was also a visit day for Max, so that helped stave off the sadness for a few hours. And he did bring donuts which brought a huge smile to my face.
Side note: Depending on when you read this and where you live, you might be wondering why Max was visiting so infrequently. Due to COVID restrictions he was limited to three visits a week of 1 hour each visit. So each visit was a HUGE highlight of my day.
I didn’t even register that it was New Year’s Eve until later that evening when one of the women in the ward with me had her TV on and was watching the festivities in Sydney. I drifted in and out of pain sleep until just before midnight when the TV seemed a bit louder. I woke in time to hear the nurses and my roommate say ‘Happy New Year’ to each other. And I just lay in my bed and cried. Happy New Year.
January 1st, new year, new me… or not so much. One of the male nurses did bring over a warm bucket of water and some towelettes so I could at least wash off some of my body, which made me feel a bit more human as I hadn’t washed in days. My physio also got me up and taking my first few steps, which was hard but just amazing for me. I now had some independence and could make it to the bathroom (with a little supervision to make sure I didn’t fall over). One more tube was removed from my body, and I was now moving around tube-free. Very exciting!
It was also a Dr visit day, and Dr Nanda wanted to look at how my back was healing. A small peak under the bandages and he decided to take them off, which meant I also got a photo of how my back looked (no I won’t post that as it’s definitely confronting and might freak out a number of people close to me). He was very happy at how it was healing and made a casual remark that I might be sent home sooner rather than later. As in, within days. Not weeks.
On January 2nd Dr. Nanda came around again in the morning to see how I was doing. After a few pokes and prods and questions, he nodded and said yup, you’re good to go home tomorrow. And then casually walked out as I sat there in shock. My physio came in shortly after and said the same thing – so I hear you’re going home tomorrow? We need to get you up and walking then.
I kept the information about going home to myself for a few hours while I waited for Max to arrive for his scheduled visitor hour. He was in about as much shock as I was, and I could see his brain madly churning through what he’d need to do the next day to be prepared to receive me back home. We both decided not to tell anyone else and leave it as a surprise. Partly because in the back of my mind I thought they were going to change their minds and I didn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up. Including mine.
January 3rd, only 8 days after my accident, Dr Nanda came in early with the official “we’re going to get you home today” word and the rest of the day was devoted to doing just that. Paperwork, tests, more paperwork, physio, figuring out how to get Max in the building when security didn’t want to let him in (nightmare), more conversations, and finally getting some paperwork on what actually had happened to me.
List of injuries
- Four thoracic spinal fractures (spinious process which is the knobbly bit on the outside)
- One thoracic compression fracture (this was the bad one which required stabilisation with the metal screws and rods)
- One cervical fracture (commonly called a broken neck)
- One skull fracture (this was the bad one which, between that and the broken neck, required the neck brace)
- Six fractured ribs
- One punctured lung
- One black eye
- (And a partridge in a pear tree)
More conversations, pharmacy, more doctors, more conversations, more paperwork … and finally just after 4pm everything came together and a nurse wheeled me outside with Max to get in the car and drive home.
Little did we know that now the real fun was about to begin.
To be continued…
It’s going to be a long road to travel. But I am familiar with how to tackle long roads. To hear more about my journey as it unfolds please follow this blog and follow me on Instagram @ tiffo012.