Accident put fate in hands of health care system


July 31, 8:30 a.m. I’m at the tail end of my usual morning bike ride, heading down 26th Street after having ridden to the end of the pavement on Gold Camp Road. It’s a beautiful day, the road ahead is clear and I’m reveling in the fast, sunny descent.

That’s my last memory, before I opened my eyes and found myself lying on the pavement, surrounded by first responders. Had I blown a tire, hit an obstacle, been clipped by a car? At that point, it didn’t matter.

My life had changed in an instant. I was no longer an amazingly fit (if somewhat slow!) 77-year-old cyclist in perfect health, but a frail elder with multiple injuries. Instead of an August vacation, I could look forward to a month’s immersion in the Colorado Springs health care system.

Still in shock, jouncing along in an AMR ambulance to Memorial Hospital, it was comforting to recall the advice that Nora Ephron’s screenwriter parents had passed along to her: “Everything is copy.” You don’t get to choose your experiences, but you do get to use and learn from them.

Pulling into Memorial, my spouse was there, loving, concerned and pissed off.

“Why did you tell them to take you to Memorial?” Karen asked. “Don’t you know that our insurance only covers Penrose?”

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I did know that — and that was when I understood that I had cognitive as well as physical problems. The Memorial staff went to work, stitching and bandaging my wounds, ordering up CAT scans and X-rays, and figuring out the damage. It was a pretty long list — seven fractured ribs, multiple bruises, cuts and abrasions, a separated shoulder and traumatic brain injury.

Karen sorted out the insurance issues, and a few hours later I was in the intensive care unit at Penrose Main. After three days there, I was transferred to St. Francis Rehab, a Penrose unit at Woodmen Road and Powers Boulevard, where I’d stay for the next 11 days.

Thus institutionalized, your horizons shrink. Unable to get out of bed unaided, peeing in a hand-held plastic urinal, too dizzy and disoriented to read, hearing and memory impaired, you aren’t exactly the master of your fate. You quickly understand that your health and comfort depend entirely upon the doctors, nurses, therapists and caregivers that you interact with.

It was clear that my usual grumpy, entitled know-it-all old man persona wouldn’t fly in this new environment. Time to be cheerful, self-deprecating, undemanding and grateful, or so I thought.

Did it work? Not really. There were more than 20 patients on the 6th floor, most in worse shape than me. Staff members had jobs to do, and the attention you got was directly proportionate to your perceived needs. Some staffers were warm, attentive and efficient, while others were cold, distant and efficient. One or two seemed ineffective.

I was released from captivity on Aug. 14. It was paradise regained — Karen, our house, our three unruly dogs, our books and pictures and the familiar landscape of our scruffy Westside neighborhood. Still hurting, but definitely on the mend — until I wasn’t.

An infected cut on my left leg suddenly blew up and sent me back to Penrose for a day. We’ve been dealing with it since.

As someone once told me in another context, “Sometimes you pay tuition, and you didn’t even know you were going to school.”

So what did I learn?

The Colorado Springs health care system is enormous, complex and amazingly good. That said, your trauma of a lifetime is their daily routine. You still have to advocate for yourself, or have a significant other who can do it for you. And it doesn’t matter how fit you are or how much you exercise, or how carefully you live — you are not the master of your fate.

I learned that I’m mortal. Yeah, it took me 77 years, but I somehow thought that serious accidents, chronic diseases and old age were just things that happened to other folks. That denial crippled me — I wasn’t particularly compassionate or empathetic, didn’t visit the sick and didn’t send get-well cards.

In other words, I was a jerk. It may be that the crash took a few years off my expected lifespan, but so what? I’ve been sleepwalking, and I’m glad to wake up.

So get well soon, friends! And for the next few months, I’ll stick to stationary bikes.