I’m writing this post with a cold pack under my butt, thinking, yet again, about how Vicodin can ease many ills.
Let me back up: Today is “Ride Your Bike to Work Day” in San Francisco.
So, like almost every morning since I started radiation treatment, I hop on my bike at about 6:30 a.m. and start riding the four miles or so to UCSF Mt. Zion: down, down the hill from our house, toward Golden Gate Park, zip into the park, past the ball fields, the park nursery, the Children’s Playground (first in the nation!), the AIDS Memorial Grove, tennis courts, the Conservatory of Flowers, then past a big intersection and into the “Panhandle” section of the park.
This is probably my favorite part of the ride. There’s a dedicated, two-lane bike path that winds through the Panhandle. You can watch people exercising their dogs, see the homeless guys from the Haight-Ashbury lining up to use the public bathroom, admire the beds of Iceland poppies and foxgloves, dodge the runners, try not to feel disgraced as the super-serious cyclists with a body mass index of about 2 zip past you on their titanium speed machines. By taking this bike lane you skip about 8 intersections, 8 red lights. There’s only one light about halfway down the mile-long strip, at Masonic Street.
As I approach the Masonic intersection, I can see the light is about to change. I start to push harder. “I can make it! I can make it!” I think. By the time I realize that I’m not going to make it, I’m going too fast to stop. The light changes just as I enter the intersection, but the motorists see me. No prob. One lane, two, three, four, five. Then, just as I cross the sixth lane, I see the car, an old Jaguar. The driver’s view has been obstructed by an SUV. The motorist doesn’t see me, and he has just started to move.
The crash happens in slo-mo: I see the car. I swerve, my front wheel “t-bones” the back passenger door of the Jaguar. I start to fall to the right, down, down, then, wham! I hit the pavement with my tail bone.
As soon as I can look up and start to get to my feet, there are people all around. The motorist has stopped, horrified, and repeats “Are you OK?” over and over. A big SUV, part of the UCSF police, has seen the whole thing happen from the other side of the intersection. The UCSF cops rush to my other side.
“Can you get up?” a big blonde officer asks.
“Yes, I’m OK,” I say. “I just feel like a complete idiot. That was completely my fault.” I start to stand, and the bones in the middle of my butt hum with pain. But I can stand, and I hobble over to the sidewalk.
“Well, you did run the red light,” he says.
“Yes,” I say. “I did. I’m usually good about that, and the one time I’m not …I feel like such a moron.”
“Come over here,” the officer says. “Can you sit down here?”
“Actually, it’s my bottom that hurts,” I say. “I’d rather stand.”
The big blonde officer radios for more help. He says that while he saw what happened, this intersection is really the jurisdiction of the SF Police. Soon, a police cruiser, a fire engine and an ambulance have arrived to clog the intersection and mess up other people’s commutes. Cyclists keep passing with knowing looks. Motorists honk.
The driver of the Jaguar keeps asking, “Are you OK? Man, it could have been so much worse. Man! Are you OK? Man!”
Poor guy. If he wasn’t awake before this moment, he’s buzzing with panicked alertness now.
He keeps asking the cops, “Is it OK? Can I go now?”
I keep saying, “I’m fine, I’m fine. Really. Look, I’m on the way to the hospital. I need to be there for a radiation appointment. Breast cancer, early stage. No, I’ve finished chemo. But I’ve got to be there now. I’m fine! Stupid, but fine!”
The authorities are not letting me go. A fireman examines me, convinces me to sit so that he can make sure I’m not in shock. As I sit, Indian-style, on the pavement of the bike lane, he presses every single vertebrae from my neck to just above the bits that hurt: the sacrum and the coccyx or tailbone. He checks the pupils of my eyes, palpates my abdomen to rule out internal bleeding, asks me what drugs I take and if I have any drug allergies. Then he hands me off to an ambulance crew, summarizing my case. They ask me to step into the ambulance, do the same exam. They ask if I want to be transported to the ER. I say, no, I think I’m fine to just ride to Mt. Zion. They have me sign a release saying I refused transport. I step out of the ambulance.
Back on the sidewalk, the motorist is still asking if he can go, and the UCSF cops are watching my bike.
“Look, it was totally my fault,” I say. “I have no intention of pressing charges of any kind. If you’re not going to do an accident report, don’t hold him on my account.”
“Well,” the UCSF cop says. “You’re obviously a strong woman if you’re cycling to cancer treatment. We won’t do an accident report, and I’m not going to give you a citation for running the light. But … be careful. And, get better!”
I get back on the bike. My tail bone smarts a bit, but that’s not where a bike saddle makes contact with your body, so it really feels pretty OK. I continue the last mile, on to Mt. Zion, stopping at ALL the red lights and arriving only 20 minutes late. As I start to lock up my bike, I notice Al, one of the radiation techs, walking in the hospital entrance. I call out to him and explain why I’m late.
He looks pretty horrified and assures me that they can fit me in. “We’re really not that busy right now,” he says.
As he walks away, I see Dr. Hwang, my surgeon. She gives me a big hug and tells me that cycling to radiation is a great thing to do. Exercise is great! I decide not to tell her about the crash. After all the work she’s done to try keep me alive, I don’t want to tell her how stupidly I might have thrown it all away.
I go downstairs, change into a robe, and walk to the treatment room. Diem, the other radiation tech, first clucks and then teases me about the crash. We walk into the treatment room and there’s jazz playing.
“Al says this is bike accident music!” Diem laughs as she arranges me on the table.
“My husband is going to be really annoyed,” I laugh. I need a little help getting up from the table; backbone is getting more sore.
On the way back to the dressing room, the nurse on duty says that she’s going to page Dr. Fowble, my radiation oncologist. “She should just check you out,” she says. “I know she’d want that.”
Dr. Fowble comes into the exam room, looking completely fabulous as usual. I’m always amazed that she can be so put-together at six in the morning, classicly fashionable, hair just so. Dr. Fowble eyes me with a bit of amusement. I explain that both the firemen and the ambulance crew have examined me, and pressed on every vertebrae, but not my tailbone.
“You mean they didn’t look at your butt?!” Dr. Fowble says as she washes her hands. There’s a bit of merriment in her voice, and I think to myself that “butt” isn’t a word I’d normally expect out of Dr. Fowble’s mouth.
I bend over the exam table, and Dr. Fowble does look at my butt.
“I think you’re going to get a big bruise there,” she says. “The main thing to worry about is a blood clot. If one forms, you should let me know. I think you should just take some baby aspirin to thin your blood and prevent that clotting. And lay off the bike for a couple days, just until we’re sure you’re OK.”
Back at the bike rack, I can’t figure how to get the bike home without riding it. You can take bikes on MUNI buses, but not on the Metro, the subway. The only way I know home from Mt. Zion is a route where you take a bus and then transfer to the subway.
So I start pedaling. I go slowly, stop at all the lights. When I’m almost home, I stop at a “Ride Your Bike to Work Day” table and join the San Francisco Bike Coalition, which is sponsoring the Bike to Work Day event. SFBC gives bike safety workshops. Obviously, I could benefit from a little brush up. Years of cycling in New York City with nary an accident or fall has made me a little arrogant, perhaps, certainly foolish.
I get home, and husband Pete is saddling up his bike to ride to work. As predicted, he scolds me, then tells me how much he loves me, then shakes his head and asks how I’m going to explain this to our daughter, Erin.
“How much has the insurance company spent trying to keep you alive?” he asks. “Don’t you think it’s a little crazy to push it like that?”
I bow my head, contrite. For most people, simply battling cancer might be enough of a reminder that life is fragile, and precious. Some of us, with thicker skulls, need to have their butts slapped to the ground to really get the message…