The Motorcycle Accident
A true story by Brad Berson

"There are two types of motorcycle riders:
those who have fallen, and those who will fall."

I've done "get-off's" from motorcycles lots of times.  I've been vaulted over cars at obscene speeds, and gone sliding from off-ramps and curves at speeds from near -crawls to knee -dragging testosterone -saturated displays of egomania.  I've ridden in sand, rain, snow, and ice.  I've fallen over at stoplight standstills like Arte Johnson on "Laugh-In," and I've been pitched from the bike in wild rodeo tank-slappers.  Amazingly, none of these adventures have ever really hurt me.  I've wrecked bikes, hit cars, and been hit by cars, and I've walked from the accidents pissed-off only because my leathers got scuffed up.  I always wore a helmet, and I always walked away.

On a motorcycle, a helmet is your best friend.  The helmet keeps your head from exploding like an egg thrown against a wall.  Forgo the lid if that's what you want to do.  America is the land of the free - it doesn't matter either way to me what you do or don't do.  But a full-face helmet would definitely have prevented the massive injuries I sustained in a simple 15-20 MPH fall in November, 1985.

The weather that afternoon was unpredictable and drizzly.   Bored and restless, I came down to the indoor parking garage with a pail of soapy water and a sponge, a few tools, some chain oil, and a can of WD-40.  New York City apartment life doesn't give me much of a chance to clean the bike thoroughly and I don't trust the shops to give my precious toy, a 1985 Yamaha RZ-350 Kenny Roberts Special, a true mechanical once-over.  Now I had the time for a full wash-down and tune-up.  I spent the next couple of hours washing, cleaning, scrubbing, rinsing, lubricating, adjusting, and inspecting.

When I was done working on the motorcycle and felt ready for a short test run, I glanced outside and the skies were still grey and miserable.   I then realized I also had neglected to carry my helmet downstairs.  I was dirty and sweaty, and too lazy to go back for the helmet, so I got on without it.  Not caring to venture into the rain without a helmet, I thought, "what could possibly happen in a garage?  I won't even be able to go very fast."  I went up and down the aisles of the garage, testing gears and brakes and listening for engine sounds.  In an instant the bike slipped out from under me, and the next thing I recall was staring up at the undercarriage of a parked car, choking on my own blood.  I would later discover there was engine coolant on the floor of the garage, and that I had fallen face-first into the back bumper of a parked Cadillac Coupe De Ville.

I had been unconscious for several minutes.  The garage attendant had called for an ambulance, and I awoke to the wail of the siren outside.  I pulled myself out from underneath the back of the parked car, stood up, and began an "equipment check".

When you have a motorcycle accident, the first thing you do is think "Shit!  My bike!".  Then you realize you should check your own equipment.  Perhaps you begin with your extremities and work your way to your head.  Or if you were helmet-less, perhaps you begin at the head and work your way down.  I started with my head, and immediately became too concerned with my discovery to worry about my extremities.

My nose was numb.  My jaw was numb.  My face was numb.  I could feel shredded flesh and taste the blood with my tongue.  Many teeth were broken or missing.  Blood was pouring from every orifice and my vision was tinted crimson.   Since the ambulance personnel hadn't made it into the garage yet, I decided perhaps I would save time and avoid confustion by going out to greet them.

"Knock-knock", I said as I tapped on the driver-side window, trying not to move my mouth too much.  The driver dropped the radio microphone and both EMT's jumped out in a pie-eyed panic.  I must have been quite a startling sight.  They helped me around to the back of the ambulance and rushed to get me in, onto a stretcher and back board, and onto oxygen.  In their frenzied haste, they even forgot to turn on the valve on the oxygen tank.  They couldn't understand why I was frantically pointing at the oxygen mask and making valve-turning motions with my hand.

I never was billed for that ambulance ride.  We couldn't even find a record of the ride!  Perhaps the EMT's feared their mistake with the oxygen would make them liable.

The nearest city hospital with a Trauma Center was Elmhurst General in Queens, NY, but they were full.  I was delivered instead to nearby St. Johns - a busy hospital with a notorious reputation for setting bones crooked and letting people out with gangrene.  Luckily, a trauma team of experienced specialists was assembled to handle my case.  The hospital called in two maxillo-facial surgeons from Astoria, an ear, nose & throat man from Maspeth, a neurologist from Park Avenue, and an orthopedist right from Elmhurst.

When asked which next of kin to notify, I of course viewed my father as the pillar of strength and chose to bring him in, and insisted that my mother shouldn't be permitted to see me in such horrible condition.   They handled it OK that way, but I was told afterward in very certain terms that my father is the one who panics in bloody emergencies and that Mom was the one who stayed cool.  With family there, papers signed and surgeons on the way, the preparations for surgery began.   This meant X-rays and blood tests.

Have you ever needed X-ray pictures done for a bone injury?  "Lie down."  "Sit up."  "Turn this way."  "Lean over."  And if course, "Hold your breath."   Picture having to go through the next hour or two in more positions than the Kama Sutra while choking on your own blood every time you lean your head back, and that is my X-ray experience.  Now think about just what exactly an X-ray technician might be.  Maybe he was interested in medicine but couldn't handle blood and guts too well?  It's certainly possible.  He sure didn't last long.

Much of the exterior bleeding had abated but there was significant bleeding into my sinus cavity and every time I tilted my head back, I'd choke on my blood.  By about the fifteenth head picture, just as the glass head of the X-ray machine was brought down mere inches from my nose, the choking got the best of me.   Reflexively I tried to sit up, and unavoidably smashed my face into the X-ray head glass.  Blood sprayed everywhere!  Whatever cessation of bleeding there was, was history.  The X-ray technician screamed in horror and ran out of the room with his arms flailing like the robot from "Lost in Space."  I swear I actually saw his hair stand straight up.

I never saw that X-ray technician again.  They must have given him trauma leave.  A replacement technician came in to finish the job, and he wisely exercised much greater caution with what he asked of me in positioning my head.   Finally all the pictures were complete, the operating room was available, and the doctors were all on-site, conferenced, and ready.

Pre-op procedure was mostly limited to a liberal lathering of Betadine and the sadistic bastards in the operating room insisting that they could not wait until after anesthesia to catheterize me.  Nice, folks.  I hope I can do likewise for them someday.

The operation began with a tracheotomy, since the doctors would have to work on both my nose and my mouth simultaneously and they would not be able to guarantee a functioning airway otherwise.  The trache' was carried out before I was given general anesthesia.  They started with a local anesthetic in my throat, then used a large spring-loaded contraption to quickly punch a precise hole through to the trachea.  The tube was inserted, and as soon I gave them the "OK" sign that I could breathe through the trache' tube, the anesthesiologist put out my lights.

I spent six hours on the operating table that night.

My nose was smashed so badly that it could not be properly set.  They stuffed my nose full of gauze to give it support, taped down a piece of shaped plastic to give it form, and hoped for the best.  Nearly a dozen teeth were broken, missing, or impacted, and shards of tooth and bone material were floating around under my gumline.  A small piece was missing from my lower jaw altogether.   There were fractures of both the mandible and the maxilla.  The doctors cleaned up the shattered bits as best as they could, and wired my jaw shut.  The bleeder into my sinus could not be located, so my sinus cavity was stuffed with yards of thin gauze to stop the bleeding.

Bloody MessI awoke in the Intensive Care Unit, hooked up to I.V. bottles and wired up for monitoring of every imaginable bodily function.  The trache' tube was still in, so I could not speak.  My family was there as well as my girlfriend.  My sister cut her vacation short to come back and be there for me.   Apparently the doctors told everyone that they weren't sure I was going to make it through this.  That seemed hyperbolic to me at the time, but the damage was considerable.  Dad showed up with a camera to take a few gruesome pictures.   Everyone tried their best to hide their emotions from me, but it wasn't working.   I knew they were crying when they turned around or stepped into the hallway.  I knew things would be OK, but they did not share my confidence.

Frustrated with tedious communications through notepads, and deeply stricken by watching everyone trying to hold back their tears and hide their grief, I knew I had to do something to break the dark mood and prove to everyone that I would be OK.  Showing everyone the urethral catheter wasn't getting any laughs, but I finally elicited a smile and tears of relief when I wrote on the notepad to my girlfriend, "I guess a B.J. is out of the question?".

Demerol does strange things to your sense of humor.  But there was nothing funny about the weeks and months to follow.

The tracheotomy was the single most horrible aspect of my recovery.  Breathing with a tracheotomy is a living hell.  At first, it's merely disconcerting that your breath is not moving through your nose and mouth.  Your body wants to do things the way it was designed to, and there's a good reason for that.  Your nose acts as a filter for incoming air, and also warms the air.  With a tracheotomy, you're breathing in cold, unfiltered air.  Your trachea is reacting to the foreign body (the trache' tube) by trying to cover it with mucus.  Your trachea tries to shield itself from the unusually cold air by generating even more mucus.  This mucus ends up in your lungs (kind of bad) and plugging up the tube that you're trying to breathe through (very bad).

The answer to all this mucus is suction.  A nurse squirts some saline solution down the trache' tube, so you feel like you're drowning.   This is meant to loosen up the mucus a bit.  Then a suction tube is inserted into your trachea and you feel like you're choking.  Then suction is started and hopefully, while precious life-giving oxygen is being sucked from your lungs and you claw desperately for life, some mucus comes along for the ride.  That keeps you going for an hour or two until the next time there's so much mucus blocking the tube that you can't breathe again.

The trache' tube stayed in for 2 weeks.  The relief of going back to breathing normally cannot be suitable described.  When the tube was removed, the opening in my throat was not sewn shut.  This practice is just in case there's a problem with your airway after removal and the tube needs to be quickly re-inserted.  The result is a large, ugly keloid scar where the tube was, surrounded by four tiny scars from the sutures that anchored the tube into place.  This scar is a conspicuous souvenir from The Accident.

The sinus packing was removed a couple of days after surgery.  It was drawn out of an opening into my sinus cavity through the socket of a missing tooth.  I was reminded of a magician's hankerchief trick, as I looked down past my nose to see yards of blood- and pus- soaked gauze being pulled from this tooth socket.

The ear, nose & throat doctor - a sharp fellow named Dr. LaMarca - came by and was not suitably impressed with the bend that my nose was taking.  Of course he didn't tell me this.  Instead, he quietly and gently examined my nose.  Without saying a thing, he removed the plastic brace, and with a gingerly touch probed the bridge, stood back, closed one eye, and applied the artist's thumb for a moment, then came back.  Then without warning Dr. LaMarca grabbed my nose by the bridge and gave it a mighty yank.  I saw stars for almost an hour.  In spite of his questionable bedside manner, I still see Dr. LaMarca even now.   He and his assistant always make sure to express their dismay toward my continuing desire to ride a motorcycle.

The hospital stay lasted 2-1/2 weeks.  It should have been longer but when I was riding the I.V. pole down the hospital aisles and chasing the nurses and drinking their entire supply of Ensure (trust me; don't drink the chocolate!), they reconsidered my need for further convalescence.

My jaw was wired for three months.  Desperation knows no bounds when for three months you are doomed to a diet of Ensure, broth, soup, and anything else that will fit through a straw.  I went so far as to cram a steak into a blender, but it still was too fibrous to make it through the straw.  At about the two-month mark I resorted to carefully disassembling the bands and wires, gingerly eating soft things like burritos, cleaning off the food and putting it back together.  Dr. Cheris, the maxillo-facial surgeon, remarked that he had never seen anyone keep the wires as clean as I did.  I never told him how I managed!  Dr. Cheris was great throughout the whole episode and I still see him too.

The dental work dragged on for several years, requiring a maxillo-facial surgeon and two dentists from Central Park West.  I now wear two permanently cemented porcelain-on-metal bridges that cover eight upper teeth and five lower teeth.  The bridges alone cost about $8000, as they had to be carefully and artfully designed to compensate for mismatched curves between my upper and lower jaw - a result of the trauma.

The medical bills for this adventure totalled somewhere around $100,000.  I stayed out of work for about three months, recovering my strength and attending to constant medical follow-up care.  I went through a six-pack of Ensure every day plus soups and Jell-O just to maintain my weight.  If I never have soup again it will be too soon.

TheAccident2Most of the nerves in my face have reconnected, but a few, somewhat haphazardly.  Dental anesthesia is a frightening hit-and-miss operation now.   My nose isn't that bad, but the bone in the bridge now has this jagged feeling that makes wearing glasses very uncomfortable after a few hours.  Even more damage lay underneath - click on the MRI thumbnail at the left for a detailed picture.  My new porcelain teeth look great and are pretty easy to care for, but were incredibly expensive due to an altered jawline.  My mouth will never be the same.  When the bridges need to be redone, that expense will again be considerable.

A $2000 motorcycle was wrecked and cost over $1000 just in parts to repair.   A friend of my sister offered inexpensive labor to get the job done.  Otherwise it might have been declared a total.  A week after the wires were removed from my jaw, I got back on the proverbial horse and took a ride around the block on a friend's 1976 Kawasaki KZ-650.  I thought only for the first moment, "What the hell am I doing?!".  After that it felt perfectly natural.

The scars I wear are a permanent conversation piece.   They also serve as a life-long reminder: ALWAYS WEAR A HELMET WHEN YOU RIDE.


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