Why you should always wear a bicycle helmet
(and why I always wear a bike helmet too, and I'm glad I do!)
I can't say for sure that my bike helmet saved my life, but it certainly saved me from a lot of pain and possibly a concussion and permanent disfigurement. If I weren't wearing a helmet, all of those scrapes on the helmet would have been on my face. Without a helmet, what cracked might have been my skull. Read my story and judge for yourself. As for me, I won't even ride my bike around the block with my kids without wearing my helmet.
On November 6, 2006 I was returning from a 40 mile solo training ride. I'm an experienced road cyclist and ride several thousand miles per year. I was going about 25 mph and I was less than a mile from my house, on a road I'd ridden on hundreds of times. Unfortunately my mind was a thousand miles away, thinking of what I had to do that afternoon. I didn't see anything on the road, and I'm still not sure exactly what happened, but suddenly it was like my front tire had turned to Jell-O. The next thing I knew I was flying through the air. It all seemed to happen in slow motion. Then I hit the pavement. Hard. I slid for a while before coming to a stop against the curb.
There was a moment of unreality, like this couldn't be happening to me. I was stunned, but it didn't really hurt. I guess the adrenaline was flowing. A lady in a car who had been behind me slowed down and pulled up beside me. She rolled down her window and asked me if I was all right. Without even thinking I said, yeah, sure, I'm fine. However, I clearly was not fine. I looked down at my legs. My shorts and tights were shredded and I was bleeding from road rash in multiple places. My gloves and my jersey were also torn and I was bleeding from road rash on my torso as well.
Even with all the bleeding, I was more worried about the condition of my bike. I stood up and tried to pick up my bike, but my right arm did not work. It was the strangest feeling. My brain was commanding my arm to lift my bike, but my arm wouldn't move. That was when I knew that I had broken my collarbone.
The lady then looked at me strangely and asked me to take off
my helmet. I hesitated, but she insisted. Take off your helmet she said with
authority, and I complied. What I saw scared me. My helmet was shattered. I
didn't even remember hitting my head, but clearly I had hit my head hard enough to break my
helmet. Miraculously, I did not have a scratch on my face or my head, but my
helmet was destroyed. It had done its job and it had protected me.
|Not a great picture because I had to take it with my left hand. I broke my right clavicle and of course, Murphy's Law, I'm right handed. With a broken clavicle I could not raise my camera up to my eye with my right hand. You can see the right side of my helmet is all scraped up. Probably caused by the initial impact and then by my head sliding along the road. Click on the pictures for a better look.
|Here you can see the damage inside the helmet. From the outside it was scratched up but still looked like it was in one piece. However, from the inside you can see the foam is clearly broken into several pieces and was being held together by the thin plastic shell. I later learned that bike helmets are designed to break on impact to absorb the shock and protect the cyclist's head. Unlike helmets for other sports such as football or hockey, a bicycle helmet is good for one hard impact only, and must then be replaced.
The lady offered to drive me to the hospital or call an ambulance but I refused. This was stupid. I should have listened to her but I realize now that I was in shock. I was hurt, like a wounded animal, and I just wanted to get home, to safety. So I straightened my handlebars, got back on my bike, and rode the last mile home to my house. The lady, bless her, insisted on following me to make sure I got home safe. She waited by my driveway until I let myself into my house and waved goodbye to her. It was a caring act of a stranger that I did not appreciate at the time, but in hindsight it restored my faith in humanity. I wish I had gotten her name to thank her later, but again I was not thinking clearly at the time.
I stowed my bike and my gear, showered, put on clean clothes, and drove myself to the hospital.
X-rays revealed a shattered right clavicle and several cracked ribs. The orthopedist wryly remarked that I had done a good job on myself. I had a fair amount of road rash, mostly on my right side from my shoulder to my knee, and on my left hand. I didn't have a scratch on my head. It could have been a lot worse.
Luckily my bike suffered only minor damage: torn up bar tape, scratched pedal and shift levers, and a bent derailleur hanger. All were easily repaired. My clothes were torn up but most were still wearable. Of course I needed a new helmet.
My helmet was a Specialized Decibel model, and Specialized offers a trade in policy. You can trade in your broken helmet for a partial credit against a new one. I figured it had worked well so I bought a new one of the exact same model.
|You can see the big lump where my collar bone used to be. This is almost a week after the accident. My entire shoulder had this ugly yellow bruise for weeks.
|Here is a spot of road rash on my knee. I had more on my hip, shoulder, and elbow, but this spot was the worst because every time I bent my knee it hurt.
My broken collar bone was bad enough that my orthopedist said I was borderline for needing surgery. But he explained that surgery, even minor surgery like this, is not without risks, and it is always better to let nature heal your wounds if possible. Surgery would always be an option later if I didn't heal. He said the tradeoff was a bump without the surgery, and a long scar with the surgery.
|I had to wear this sling for six weeks. For the next several months I couldn't do anything that might cause me to fall on my shoulder. That was the end of my ski season until the spring and I had to take a year off from ice hockey. I rode my bike on the trainer in the basement, but between the injury and the winter weather in NY, I was not on the road again until March.
I chose to wait on the surgery. The first two weeks were a blur of pain and required painkillers just to get through it. Luckily I was out of work, between jobs. I delayed the start date of my my new job a couple weeks until I felt better. I didn't go out of the house much. I was nervous around people, afraid that someone would bump into me. I spent a lot of time watching TV. I didn't do much on the computer besides check email once a day because I couldn't type well with one hand. I learned to use the mouse with my left hand, and still do to this day. I had to sleep on my back and learn to sleep without moving. Rolling onto my right side brought excruciating pain that would wake me up.
After six weeks and several rounds of x-rays, my doctor finally said I was healing. I began physical therapy, first to work on range of motion, and later to build up my strength. After two months of physical therapy, I was about 90% back to where I was before my crash. The cracked ribs took almost six months to heal completely. They hurt every time I took a deep breath, coughed, sneezed, or laughed. There really isn't anything that can be done for cracked or broken ribs. You just have to tough it out and heal on your own.
June 2009 update: It has been almost three years since my bike accident. My shoulder is fully functional, and has been for a couple of years now, but it always a little sore especially when the weather changes. I guess I've just gotten used to it, because it really doesn't bother me, and I can ride my bike and do everything else I used to do so there really is no problem. I have fully recovered my strength and I can do pull-ups and push ups without a problem. I have also not lost any detectable range of motion in my shoulder.
If you have broken your collarbone recently, it is very depressing and you may feel that you will never be the same, but don't worry. If my experience is any guide, you will eventually be back to normal. Be patient, it just takes time.