Opinion Columns & Blogs

Helmets have been life-savers for me – twice

Take a moment. Focus only on any sensations from your neck up. Then imagine absolutely no feeling at all, no ability to move, below your neck.

I was there following a bicycle accident in early June. I felt like a completely disembodied head lying cheek down in the dirt. This gets your attention in a very serious way.

Some background. I'd been mountain biking that day on local trails. I rode off a wooden tabletop jump, the type of feature I had handled many times before. Nothing remotely special or difficult, even for a 65-year-old like me. But part of my bike caught the edge as I biked off it. I augured in head first.

My friend Brett, the perfect unflappable companion in a situation like this, asked how I was. I said I couldn't move below my neck and felt nothing at all there.

I volunteer with disabled skiers of all sorts with Outdoors for All, including a few years tethering quadriplegic young people in sit ski sleds. I was completely aware of what such injuries could mean. However, while intellectually I got that in an instant my life might have changed forever, I was in that state after accidents where you are functioning but, thankfully, not emotionally there.

By the time my emotions were emerging again, I could move my elbow, then my arms, and finally all of my body. Fifteen minutes of total paralysis was enough of a glimpse into the world of the people who I volunteer with to get a visceral understanding of what it feels like physically. I respect them even more.

After four days in Tacoma General's Trauma Unit, where I got thoughtful care, I was released. The swelling in my spine in this central cord syndrome injury may take a year to resolve. However, with extensive daily physical therapy, I was recently able to bike 60 miles. Arm and hand strength and dexterity haven't totally returned, but the prognosis is good.

But some things have changed. Following my accident, news stories about people dealing with paralysis grabbed me as they hadn't before. Another way my attention altered since my crash occurs when I see people biking, rollerblading and skateboarding without helmets. Before, I would see them and perhaps internally shake my head a bit. However, that changed. Today, I really notice them.

As before, I see young people biking in our neighborhood, University of Puget Sound students and other invincible young riding without helmets. I've also observed people even older than I cycling unprotected. But today when I see them, sometimes it rivets me.

This story could be just that of an older guy, an explorer of bad ideas (like trying small hill ski jumping in my 50s). But most bike accidents don't happen while you are going 50 mph down a winding mountain road or doing jumps on mountain bikes. People fall, sometimes very hard, when they are just dawdling around, perhaps very slowly, on bikes. It's when you are distracted, careless, even just riding around your neighborhood that you can take a life-altering fall.

Most crashes will involve only scrapes or perhaps, more seriously, a broken wrist or collarbone. However, you could, like the helmetless young cyclist a friend saw riding by UPS years ago, go down in an instant and die on the spot.

You might take a Darwinian view of helmetless riders. However, if we all died when we did something unnecessarily risky, no one reading this would still be alive.

So if something useful comes from my accident beyond my even deeper appreciation of life and mobility, it would be if some reader genuinely thought about getting a helmet for themself or a loved one. Helmets have saved my life twice. Consider them seriously.

Bruce McDowell of Tacoma is a former reader columnist. Email him at bmcdowell@harbornet.com.