Regrouping From a Bike Accident

When ordinary life leaps suddenly into the extraordinary.

Psychology Today, July 24, 2022

My husband Ned fell off his bike a few days ago, just after his 60th birthday. He doesn’t remember the accident: “First I was on my bike and the next thing I know I’m on the ground talking to an EMT.” On the phone he sounded kind of like a boy—simple sentences and very little information; it was a scary phone call. I moved quickly with hot fear burning my gut. The whole way over to the scene I could only think, “No.”

Unlike many bike accidents, there was no crash, no cuts or bruises. But because he had blacked out, an ambulance came and took him to the emergency room. And that was when the whole thing turned upside down for me. I couldn’t understand why everyone was talking about the waking up and not the fall. But it soon became clear: when someone “loses time,” it could indicate a seizure.

When you’re in the emergency room, it is nothing like on television. No one is yelling “code blue!” All you do is wait and wonder where everyone is. There are nurses pulling curtains closed and tearing open packets of things, lots of beeping, and the doctors just magically appear and disappear. We started to settle into our little makeshift room, and adjust to what would be our world for the next 24 hours.

They wanted to do CT scans and later on, an MRI. They started him on anti-seizure meds. And they started using words like “lesion,” and “brain bleed.” They were also hoping that what they were seeing was not “a mass.” I asked for clarification and then they said “tumor.”

My own brain turned to sludge at that point, and the only word that could get through, again, was “no.” When the neurologist finally arrived, he told us that there was something—not a tumor or a bleed but he described it as a cavernoma, an anomalous cluster of blood vessels near a part of his brain that can cause seizures. I was still inwardly celebrating the no-tumor news when he said sometimes they resort to surgery for this condition but sometimes not and that it was actually a very common condition that many people don’t even know they have.

So there was nothing for my hope to hang onto other than “very common condition.” But even that was slim comfort because common or not, Ned had most likely had a seizure because of it, and that’s why he fell off the bike. And that’s why he would not be able to drive for six months. He would have to stay overnight for observation—but not just for the seizure, for his heart, because his heart rate was very low. Overnight it dropped to 30. We started to hear the word “pacemaker.”

Still, they sent him home around lunchtime the next day. Ned was in no pain except for a slightly sore shoulder. But we were both not sure what to do next or how to feel. Aside from making various appointments with both cardio and neuro specialists, we were in a new kind of emotional purgatory, somewhere between the heaven of everything being sort-of, probably, fine and the hell of brain surgery-pacemaker. The Sword of Damocles dangled heavily over our heads.

Then Ned said to me, “I feel broken.” I rushed to reassure him, to build our new story of what was happening: that he was OK, alive, lucky, and that his condition was common and could be controlled by meds. That all of the current limitations—fuzzy head from the medication, Keppra, not being allowed to drive, and just plain not yet knowing what was wrong—were temporary. But it didn’t work. He would not be assuaged. I had it wrong. He was grieving and I had to let him.

He said, “I always love driving home from Christmas with everyone else asleep in the car. Now I can’t do that.” And that was it. That’s what was broken. He had always been the rescuer, the guardian. The knight. I tried to tell him he still was but I knew it wasn’t true, at least for the near future. Something very big was shifting in our life, like the beginning of a mudslide. And every time we try to grab onto a new bit of knowledge and relief from each new doctor’s appointment, new chunks of doubt arise, knocking him down again.

The strange thing is, during this whole time, I didn’t feel knocked down. I never once felt like screaming or crying. Ned’s unhappiness and uncertainty have pierced my heart over and over, but for my part, all I can think was “we’re so lucky.” All the things that could have happened, at least what we have here is treatable. He fell off a bike somehow and was not killed or maimed. The fall revealed something important that does change things. He won’t drive for a while. He might never bike alone again. But we’ve been together for 38 years. I can do this. I am up for it even if he is not. Now I will be the rescuer, the guardian. The driver at Christmas. Because Ned is alive. And so all I keep thinking is, “yes.”