I’ve been riding bikes in China pretty much every day for five years and I finally got into a big accident this past Sunday in Beijing. It came out of nowhere, out of the blue sky, on a big broad stretch of road with almost no traffic on it. Here’s what happened.
I was on my road bike on Shuguang Xilu traveling south from Wangjing/Ikea direction toward the Third Ring Road. It was 2pm in the afternoon. I’ve been down this road a bunch of times, even on my road bike because that’s how I get back home after a Wenyu River run. It’s a relatively new road. It used to dog leg through some construction which slowed everything down. A few years back it was fully connected up and is now a nice broad straight boulevard with little traffic.
I passed through the last intersection before the Third Ring, probably crossing against a red light, which meant there was basically no traffic beside me in my direction. I kicked up my speed a notch. I’d been riding intervals with Halberstram at the Olympic Center earlier that day and wanted to get the legs pumping a bit. I wasn’t going at any incredible speed and I had my hands in the safest position on the bars, the position closest to the brakes. Regardless, when the kid came out in front of me from behind a parked van, I knew I didn’t have a chance. I don’t remember even trying to stop or swerve or slow down. I slammed into his bike with a full head of steam. There was the awful sound of metal bars smashing. I was not wearing a helmet.
In my mind I sort of thought there was a chance we would both get out of this okay. But when I found myself on the ground I knew something was very wrong. Pain shot through my chest and I was frighteningly short of breath. I knew I was in trouble. The kid was actually standing up. I don’t think the collision even knocked him down. I remember seeing his boot by my face I reached out my hands and grabbed it and started blubbering in Chinese, “Help me, help me, don’t leave, help me.” I spit on the ground and it was all red. I could feel that my limbs were fine and I knew I hadn’t knocked out a tooth or hit my face. I knew that blood was from inside me and that I was haemorraghing internally. I knew that people died from stuff like that. “Hospital! Hospital! Get me to a fucking hospital! Ambulance! I need ambulance!”
I still can’t recall exactly how I fell, the physics of how I could take that serious a tumble and not even scrape my palms (which is what most people would use to try to break a fall) eludes me. My head never touched the ground. The only outward emblem of the crash remains a couple of small scrapes on the back of my right wrist. I must have twisted in the air and landed on my right side. Later the doctor said it was like I tossed my lung onto the ground.
Th first reaction of the onlookers was pretty typical–they tried to drag me back on my feet “Mei shi, mei shi! Ni mei shi!” I understand why they did that. I wasn’t bleeding from anywhere obvious. I had no obvious broken bones. I told them in Chinese not to fucking touch me. At this point I lost interest in whether the kid stayed or left and realized I had to do something so I somehow dug my phone out of my pocket and called Ji Li who luckily was in Beijing at the time having lunch with some friends in Guomao which is actually quite far from where I was.
I scared her to death. Later she told me at first she thought I was joking. Then she went into panic mode. “Oh god please call me an ambulance,” I moaned “Where are you?” she screamed back. “Sanyuan Qiao, Sanyuan qiao…” This actually wasn’t quite right. I was actually just north of Sanyuan Xiqiao. I handed the phone to someone to explain in detail. Meanwhile I layed on my back, my knees bent up, working my legs as if we were trying to run in the air, trying to get breath. I remembered my hum. I started the deep hum with every exhalation. But it hurt so badly that it became more of an “Ah ah ah…” Breath in. “Ah ah ah…” Breath in. “Ah ah ah…”
Above me a circle of unfamiliar Chinese faces formed. Above them was the brilliant blue sky of a Beijing afternoon. “Ah ah ah…” This is how it ends, sometimes, I thought. I didn’t know if a rib had punctured my heart. I didn’t know if my sternum was cracked. But I had a strong feeling this was not going to be the end. Not today at least.
Someone called a cab. I rolled my head a bit and saw a Beijing cab parked there the back door thrown open the driver motioning to me. “Fuck that, I’m not getting in a cab.” I called Ji Li again or maybe the phone was still connected and I merely resumed talking. “Where are you???” “I’m almost there, I can see the Waijiao Dasha. Three or four minutes.” Waijiao Dasha was Sanlitun. Miles away. “Where are you now?” “I can see the Westin. I can see the Hilton. Almost there.” At some point our friend Island was on the phone asking to me to think about something positive, like some place I wanted to go on vacation. The idea almost made me laugh.
Eventually they arrived and so did the ambulance. The paramedics didn’t exactly give off a feeling of top notch professionalism, but they had a stretcher and that was enough. I suspected that if I tried to get up or stand up, I would hurt myself badly–maybe beyond repair. They examined my neck and limbs, they made me wiggle my extremities, they lifted me onto the stretcher and stretchered me to the ambulance. I could hear them discussing where to take me. “Hemujia! Hemujia!” I said. This is the Chinese name of Beijing United Family hospital. “He said United Family. He wants us to take him to United Family.” “I have insurance.” Luckily I always carry my insurance card in my wallet. Even when I am MTB or doing the Wenyu run I always carry my insurance card. Ji Li dug out my wallet and looked through the cards. I helped her find it. The ambulance ride cost RMB170. 1-2-0 is the emergency line. 15 years in China and I didn’t even know that.
In the ambulance I continued the hum. It’s something I learned on my own a year ago–a calming technique. It’s also based on the behavior of cats who purr to heal internal injuries. The hum is my purr. In tried to stay in the world by noticing things. There was a bright yellow bar attached to the roof of the ambulance above me. Being horizontal and moving through the world is disconcerting.
Thirty minutes later–almost exactly one hour after the accident–I was in triage at BJU. Ji Li, Ding Yi, Island and Island’s assistant were all there. The ER orderlies gingerly took off my winter jacket. They pulled off my pants and long underwear. The Nike base layer up top–they scissored it off. They piled a few blankets on me but I was cold, really cold. No matter how many blankets they put on me I was still cold and beginning to shiver uncontrollably. I was experiencing shock.
They rolled me in for a CT scan. Transferring from one bed to another caused wonderful amounts of pain to shoot through me. I started not to mind the pain so much–it reminded me I was alive. Sometime later the doctor told me I had 4 broken ribs and a torn lung. They wheeled me up to the ICU on the 4th floor. I stayed there for the night hooked up to an IV and a bunch of monitors and devices. One of the devices was this thing wrapped around my upper arm which would automatically inflate every hour on the hour to take a blood pressure reading. The next day I was transferred to inpatient on the 3rd floor. That’s where I would stay until being released yesterday (Friday) at 2pm.
Final count: six broken ribs and a punctured lung (pneumothorax). For all that, I consider myself incredibly lucky. Today I go to fetch my road bike. See if it fared any better.