As I accelerate out of a turn, I always check my mirrors to ensure the riders behind have followed. I love to watch the smile on their face as their headlights straighten back up.
But this time was different.
Just as I went to look in the mirror, I heard a screech and saw the smoke of a skidding tire, followed by bike and rider flipping in the air. Phil didn't make the turn.
RIDER DOWN!!! RIDER DOWN!!!
Yesterday afternoon was the ideal setting for the perfect ride. After a cool, cloudy morning, the skies cleared and the temps edged into the lower 70's. I strolled over to Phil's to talk him off the mower so that we could take a ride before it got too late. I'd mapped a three hour ride that covered both known roads and a couple of promising new candidates, and was anxious to check them out. We'd be back in time to have dinner with the girls and play cards well into the night, a ritual that we've all cherished for over 34 years.
The first leg of the ride was outstanding. Traffic was very light and the sun peeked though the tree canopies that enveloped the quiet, two-lane farm-to-market (FM) roads that snake their way through the East Texas forests and countryside. The FM road network was built in the 1930's and '40's to allow the transport of farm and ranch products to regional markets. Sometimes the roads follow old stagecoach or cattle drive trails that crisscross Texas. But for the most part, the roads follow the property lines of the day because the landowners donated portions of their land to allow the roads to be built.
The result is sweeping turns and twisties that follow the natural lay of the land. The roads are generally well maintained by the great State of Texas and are the routes of choice for most bikers, especially if you just want to cruise along at 50-55 mph so that you can really enjoy the scenery.
Today's routing took us west along FM-346 and FM-344 towards Lake Palestine. We stopped for a butt-cheek rest on the south end of the lake, talking about the perfect weather, the great condition of the roads, and the honey-do lists that could wait until "tomorrow". The next leg followed the southwestern shoreline of the lake to FM-315. Turning south on FM-315, the road meanders through the countryside, providing an outstanding mix of woods, ranches, and farms that mask the historic oil fields beneath. We crossed over US-175 and the road got even better - all the way down to Brushy Creek. We turned west on FM-837 for what was to be a 5-6 mile journey through the sweepers before turning north to begin our return.
The plan was to take a couple of FM roads that I'd not travelled before. On the map, they looked to be a great find, running parallel to the beautiful FM-315. But it turns out they were little more than county roads, so we continued west to TX-19, then north into Athens. The extra distance added a little time to the trip, but we had plenty of light remaining and would make it back in time to help with dinner.
We took Loop 7 around the southeast corner of Athens, exiting at TX-31. We had a couple of choices for the way back to Tyler - TX-31, a four-lane divided highway that is the most direct route, or FM-317, the more scenic route. About 100 yards beyond the TX-31 merge is the turn-off for FM-317. It's more like a "Y" exit, actually, a 45 degree type turn that we've all taken a thousand times without a second thought.
I don't know if he was distracted by the merge and took the turn-off to FM-317 a second too late or too fast (though we were only doing about 35-40mph at the time), or if something else caused him to over-shoot. But Phil swung a little wide and hit light gravel in the middle of the turn. It's not obvious whether his footboards grabbed or the tire regained traction, but when "whatever" happened, both he and bike became airborne. Luckily, in different directions. The bike flipped 2-3 times while Phil went into a "tuck and roll" maneuver that he learned from playing high school and semi-pro sports.
For all the things that went wrong yesterday, a few things went extremely right.
The oncoming car was already slowing for the stop sign ahead and saw everything happen with plenty of time to react. He was also an ER nurse at the hospital that Phil was about to visit. By the time I turned around and parked, he was already in action, providing pertinent patient medical information as I was talking to 9-1-1. An off-duty policeman was the next vehicle to arrive and began directing traffic. Then a Good Samaritan trucker (who I believe was also a biker) came over to help.
The 9-1-1 operator kept me on the line and was relaying emergency care tips (keep him talking, don't move him, etc.) until the cavalry arrived. For a small town, the response time was amazing - the Emergency Fire Response team was there within five minutes and the ambulance within another two. While it seemed like an eternity, the total duration of the call was only 7:46 minutes. Thank God for the caring people who choose this calling. The local hospital was a 7-8 minute ride away.
The emergency room staff initiated care based on the field diagnosis - difficulty breathing, a fractured clavicle, broken ribs, and lacerations on the left side of the head and left arm. X-rays revealed that the broken ribs had bruised and/or penetrated the lung and the spleen was bleeding. When the doctors inserted tubes to drain the chest and abdomen, he began experiencing a heart attack.
At that point, it was determined that he needed to be transported to a Level 1 trauma center in Tyler for further treatment. The CareFlight helicopter arrived 20 minutes later and he went into emergency surgery to have his spleen removed immediately upon arrival. He made it through the surgery and his vitals were stabilized by heavy sedation. Further diagnosis and surgical treatment of the heart condition will have to wait until his overall condition improves.
While Phil lies there fighting for his life, I write this blog entry to show respect for a husband, a father, a friend, a man I admire. I write to try and remember the smallest of details that will give us any clue as to what really happened. I write to heal, thinking there must have been something I could have done differently in leading this particular ride. I write to accept the fact that, sometimes, accidents happen.
We always ride safe, but perhaps never safe enough. Please be careful out there and pray for my friend and his family.
It's been a little over ninety days and, as recoveries from motorcycle accidents go, this one has been spectacular.
Once Phil stablized from the spleen removal, the doctors began working on the heart attack complication. A secondary artery was 100% blocked, but had already begun to self-bypass, so no repair was deemed necessary. The other blockage was 99%, so they inserted a stent. The blockage was in the main artery running across the front of the heart, known as the "Widowmaker". Had the heart attack occurred anywhere but in the hospital, it would likely have been fatal. The test also revealed the left side stent (from a previous heart attack) had begun to narrow, but the cardiologist recommended deferring repair until he fully recovered from the injuries. In a twisted fate sort of way, the accident saved his life.
Phil spent twenty days in ICU and another three days in the hospital before being released. His recovery was impressive enough that the team of doctors did not feel physical therapy was required. A second, more exhaustive, x-ray revealed that he had actually broken his clavicle in two places and had six broken ribs, not three, as originally diagnosed in the first emergency room. Only time will heal those bones.
He was very fortunate, to say the least.
Phil spent an additional month recuperating at home with very limited activities and returned to the cardiologist a month later to get the old stent repaired. Today, he lives in pain, but gains strength and mobility daily. And he suffers from some short-term memory loss from the concussion. Let that be a lesson for those "real" bikers who try to justify riding free - if you want to remember where you left the keys to your bike, wear a freakin' helmet. At last tally, the hospital bill (excluding the doctor/surgeon bills) was over $500K and he is just now getting back to work.
Not exactly the ideal way to "take some time off".
We documented the entire recovery in a separate blog and it served as a great communication medium for his extended friends and family. It has also served to help Phil understand the severity of his injuries, as well as appreciate the love and support of those around him. He definitely has a different perspective on life today.
The bike came through the accident much better than the rider. It was repairable and has been returned to like-new condition. Phil has taken a couple of short rides to test his confidence, but his limited mobility and low tolerance to heat limits his endurance.
The whole experience has changed me forever.
© 2011 Twisted Road Motorcycle Company, LLC