Elbowing my way back to health

Fifty-two weeks ago today, I rode my bicycle for what I can pretty much guarantee will be the last time. I shattered my right elbow in an accident, bringing to an end what had been a fairly remarkable run: despite leading a pretty active life as a backpacker, a runner and a cyclist, I’d made it to 54 without ever having broken a bone.

The actual anniversary date of my accident is tomorrow, Sept. 19. But today, the third Sunday of September, feels more like the real anniversary.

My injury was devastating and yet not all that debilitating. I broke the tip of my elbow almost clean off, and there was cracking of the bones all around. It was put back together with plates, pins and screws. Despite being very diligent about doing my rehab, it doesn’t feel remotely the same. Yet there’s been very little pain, even within a few minutes of the accident. Today I have almost the full range of motion, and can lift reasonably heavy objects. I’m told it will continue to improve.

I know how lucky I was. In fact, as you may know, Boston Globe reporter Bella English suffered far worse injuries in a bicycle accident the same day that I went down.

For those who are interested, here’s what happened. Because of recurrent gout, I had pretty much given up running in favor of cycling. I had a few favored 18- to 20-mile routes, but on the afternoon of last Sept. 19, a Sunday, I decided to try something new. I headed out along Route 127 past Endicott College, then cut toward Wenham, and rode around the Gordon College campus.

I didn’t like the route, as there were too many cars, and the roads were rutted and bumpy. Still, my accident really came out of nowhere. I was cutting through the empty parking lot of the Briscoe Middle School in Beverly, turning right, which of course had me leaning to the right. I wasn’t paying attention and hit a speed bump at maybe 17 or 18 mph. The weather had been drizzly off and on, so the pavement was wet. My bike slid to the left, and I went down, directly on my right elbow. I also slightly injured my back and bumped my head — though not hard, and I was wearing a helmet.

For a few minutes, all I knew was that I was in a lot of pain. I tried to lay back, but every time I did, a driver would stop and ask if I was all right — much appreciated, but I didn’t want an ambulance coming. So I forced myself to sit up. It soon became clear that I’d hurt my elbow, though I didn’t know how badly. I stood and walked around a bit — dizzily at first, but soon I started feeling better. I called my wife, who came and got me.

Now, as a sign of how little pain I was in, while we were riding home I tried to decide whether to ice my elbow or go to the emergency room. I opted for the latter, but went home first and took a shower. I did discover that it hurt a lot if I tried to lift my right arm over my head. I got dressed and drove myself to the Lahey Clinic emergency room in Peabody — a choice I made solely because I thought it would be less crowded than Beverly Hospital. I had to sign something at the desk, and it was really difficult. Still, I figured it was just a momentary thing.

Barbara and I were supposed to go out to dinner. I called her from Lahey, and groused that if I wasn’t seen in a few minutes, I’d leave. But I got in, X-rays were taken — and the damage was revealed. The doctor on call put a cast on it. The next morning, Monday, I drove my daughter to school, then drove to the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, prepared to go into surgery that day. Not sure I’d thought through how I would get home.

At Lahey Clinic, post-surgery. I walked around and slept with that thing for several weeks.

As it turned out, surgery was scheduled for Tuesday morning. My surgeon was Dr. Andrew Marcantonio, from whom I learned the seriousness of my injury. First, there was his name tag — “Traumatologist,” it said. Second, when I asked him when I’d be back to normal, he said (I’m paraphrasing), “With an injury of this nature, we speak in terms of functionality.” Oh, great.

I went home that day, feeling pretty good, and even watched part of a gubernatorial debate that night. I fell asleep, but I’m not sure the Percocet was to blame. I was out of work for three weeks, and when I came back, I was wearing a huge brace on my right arm.

Anyway, I will fast-forward here. Thanks to my amazing physical therapist, Julie Peterson, I made fairly rapid progress and got some help for a longstanding problem with my right shoulder as well. I don’t mean to suggest it was all onward and upward. I lost my confidence to the point that I got scared being so far from home on a trip to New Haven on Nov. 30, and drove back that night rather than stay in my hotel room. It was months before I could bend my elbow enough to tie a necktie. But I kept getting better.

Overall, I was so impressed with Lahey that I switched my primary-care physician, and finally started treatment for gout, which I’d had occasionally for about a dozen years, but which had suddenly gotten much worse in 2010. (I have learned that gout is serious business. If you’ve got it, get help.)

And because my gout is now under control, I started running again last February. Believe it or not, I lost a month when, in March, I tripped over a root, landed on my face, banged the bionic elbow and injured a rib. (I had to make a presentation to Northeastern faculty and administrators the next day with a scab covering my entire chin.) But I got back to it, and am now running five miles a day, three or four days a week. At 55, I’m probably in as good a shape as I’ve been in a while.

My one remaining frustration is that my elbow feels strange, almost constricted, when anything rubs against it, like a shirt sleeve. I won’t go backpacking because I need protection, and when I’ve tried things like a rollerblading pad, I can’t stand the feel of it rubbing up against my elbow. Dr. Marcantonio has suggested it might feel better if I have the metal removed at some point, but I don’t like the idea of elective surgery. And even he said most patients opt to keep it in.

Overall, though, I know I’ve been pretty lucky — lucky not to have been hurt more seriously, lucky to have gotten good treatment and lucky to be healthy and physically active at 55.

Besides, I can say with certainty that I will never be in another bicycle accident. How many people can say that?

19 thoughts on “Elbowing my way back to health

  1. Dan,

    Welcome to the Trauma Club. So sorry to hear about your injury. Here’s hoping you regain your previous strength and agility in no time flat!

    BTW, why are you wearing a giant cheese?

    – Mary
    (survived a lacerated liver, bruised ribs, wounded pride, 2005)

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Mary: What did you do to yourself? Car accident? Biking? Falling off a barstool at Foxwoods? Hope there were no lingering effects.

  2. Funny you mention falling.

    Actually, it was a freak accident. On a warm summer night, while Salmon was sizzeling away on the grill, I realized the marigolds on my deck were in need of dead heading. It’s a small deck, and in order to reach one of the flower boxes, I had to stand up on a picnic table. While I was doing it, I think one of the kids or pet must have come by and moved the bench. Anyway, I stepped off into thin air, hit the grill with my liver and ribs, and fell from a decent distance onto the deck. It was amazing the grill didn’t fall on top of me.

    Anyway, even though I was pretty sure I had internal injuries, I didn’t want to go to the ER on a Sunday night. I had kids to feed after all. When I was still alive the next day, I decided I really should go. Later, the EMTs who medivac’d me to Boston told me that everyone figures that the weekend is a bad time to go to the ER, which is why Monday is the worst day to go. While I was laid up in bed, I had a desperate need to write about the whole ridiculousness the incident and my subsequent exposure to the world of emergency medicine. And a blogger was born.

    Later I learned that on the same day, a young girl had a similar accident and died. The moral is, if you are hurt, no matter when you are hurt, GO TO THE ER.

  3. Christian Avard

    *** But I got back to it, and am now running five miles a day, three or four days a week. ***

    Wow! That’s great Dan.

    I returned to swimming after a 22-year hiatus. I swam for the Nashua YMCA for four years and had some of my toughest meets, ironically, in Beverly, Mass. They have an amazing swim program. I’m determined to get back into shape and qualify for the USA Masters National Championships… if the stars line up correctly and all.

    Good luck with running. For some reason, it’s more punishing on me than swimming, hiking, or biking (knock on wood).

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Christian: Running is definitely more punishing than any of those things, but it’s also more efficient. I don’t have time for anything else. Good luck with your swimming!

  4. Dan Kennedy

    As an email friend pointed out, I should note that I was also lucky in several other ways: I have a job with great insurance and enough flexibility that I was able to stay home, with no pressure to return until I was ready. Everyone should be so lucky, and it’s a shame — and a scandal — that my situation is so rare.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Matt: Funny you should mention that. My surgeon gave me a card to show people at security. The one time I’ve flown since the surgery, they weren’t interested, and my elbow didn’t set anything off. Then again, I forgot to remove my belt, which has a large metal clasp, and that didn’t set anything off, either — even though it’s always been a problem at courthouses. Reassuring, eh?

  5. Aaron Read

    See, what ya need to do, Dan, is take up a hobby so insane that cycling seems the prudent thing to do by comparison! Perhaps skydiving? BASE jumping? Driving thru the Big Dig Tunnel? 🙂

    As for the metal in your elbow and the TSA, I have two words: Security Theater!

    More seriously, though, I’m glad to hear the update and glad to hear you’re doing better!!!! 🙂

  6. Eoin O'Carroll

    Dan, I understand your choice not to ride a bike anymore, but there’s no need to start spreading the word that cycling is uniquely dangerous compared other outdoor activities. (Actuarial data and NHTSA statistics show that the risk of cycling is about the same as that of walking near traffic.)

    Some of us are out there trying to hold accountable those who endanger cyclists. The perception that cycling is somehow inherently dangerous tends to give them a free pass when they hurt us.

    I’m glad to hear that your elbow is mostly okay, and I expect that it will improve with time.

    I can relate to to your anniversary. I was knocked off my bike by a jaywalker on 17 Sept. 2010, breaking three ribs (mine). It was only very recently that a whole day passed where I didn’t feel any pain.

    But I got back on my bike in weeks, confident that, as one of my journalism professors once said, “the plural of anecdote is not data.”

  7. Mike Rice

    When I was out and about the other morning I stopped by White Crest Beach, here on the outer Cape, and watched a brave soul hang gliding. I’m thinkin’ if I gave this sport a go, with my luck, I’d end up in Nova Scotia or dead.

  8. Rachel Alembakis

    I’m glad to hear that you’ve made such a good recovery, Dan, and glad you’re back running. To what do you attribute the sensitivity of the elbow? The metal under the skin creating friction or some such?

    I haven’t given up on biking, but I will tell you that after reading of your accident and Ms English’s accident, I’m a hell of a lot more cautious. I have a big ol’ heavy bike with fat, knobby wheels for when I’m riding around with my younger daughter on the back – I’m slow, but I’m very well balanced. I only ride on our city’s designated off-road bike lanes when I’m with my girls. I avoid wet weather. Biking was never going to be a mainstay cardio activity for me, and I’m more reluctant to make it so now.

    However, I should note that we’re really lucky in Melbourne (Australi) – the bike roads that do exist are really, really well maintained, so fewer cracks/potholes.

    Anyway, sorry you have to be a cautionary tale, but I have taken it on board!

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Rachel: I used to have a bike seat for my son and would tool around with him in the back. Can’t believe I was so stupid.

      Not sure why I have the elbow sensitivity. I saw my surgeon yesterday for (probably) the last time, and we talked about the pros and cons of having the metal taken out. He’s against it unless I’m having trouble, and I agree. He said I could go under the knife and have it all taken out, and it could either take care of the problem or do nothing — could be nerve damage that has nothing to do with the metal.

Comments are closed.