Those Left Behind at the Crash Scene

In this blog I want to stay at the crash scene because I think it brings home an important point — I wasn’t the only person who left that crash scene traumatized.

Immediately after the crash occurred a woman pulled her car to the side of the road. She had seen my trajectory into the Fiat and had heard the deafening shatter that followed. She stepped out and began walking towards me. When she saw me on the ground she threw her hands up to the sides of her head, a look of horror transforming her face. Then she about-faced, turning the full 180 degrees so she could bolt back into the safety of her car.

She wasn’t leaving me there to bleed. I was already being helped by the passenger, Steven Clark, who was out of the car in a second. I had the opportunity to speak on the phone with Steven a year after the crash. He attributed his quick response to the fact that he had been a boy scout and spent plenty of time at skate parks where injuries were common. Even still, thinking back on the crash his comment was, “When I see you, I see your jaw. When I helped you out, you changed my life so much.” It was a memory that revisited him often. He told me that he had flown in from Pennsylvania one year after the crash and went the intersection for several hours.

Steven was relieved of medical duties when Officer Crist rushed from his squad car carrying a first-aid kit. Having a professional who knew what to do alleviated the fear of witnesses, but even for medically trained personnel these types of incidents are hard. Responding to the call he received for my crash sticks in Officer Crist’s head like it was yesterday.

I have never met any of these people. Let me clarify – I say in conversations that I have never met them and I am repeatedly reminded that I did see them at the crash scene. I was awake and speaking to them. I just have no recollection of it. Yet, they all have a life-changing memory of me. They all know what a person looks like when their face is de-gloved. To give a sense of how terrifying I imagine seeing me was, without traumatizing you as well, when I looked at the surgeon’s photos from before I was operated on I couldn’t discern where my jaw was. I didn’t see skin. I saw blood, and tissue, and bone. Trauma rarely happens to one person and I was not the only one to leave the crash scene in shock.

I recently discussed some of the details about the crash with Scott, the cyclist who was behind me. It wasn’t our first meeting. Within a few weeks after I returned home from intensive care we had talked at Amante Coffee Shop. The initial meeting provided him a chance to see that I was recovering and it was an opportunity for me thank him for giving a detailed, accurate witness statement to the investigating police officer. We never discussed the crash scene that day. We’ve seen each other around town since then, but again, our conversations never focused on events of that day.

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Scott is off the the right talking with a police officer.

 

Up until our latest conversation that lasted several hours, again at Amante, I figured Scott seeing me alive and out of the hospital was what mattered for his healing. Unlike the others who saw my face torn off and life spilling out at the intersection of Hygiene and highway 36 that day, Scott has seen me recover. He knows I can scrunch my mouth to the side when I’m pondering an idea and smile while riding my bike. My assumption was that Scott had seen my scrambled face at the crash scene and it was good that he has seen it heal.

Actually, Scott never saw my face after going through the window. But he did see the blood and hear the frustration, fear, and anger in my voice. He was aware of how bad the situation was because he saw that woman as her face registered with horror before she turned to flee. What I failed to realize is that Scott and I had very similar experiences that day. I can’t remember the impact, and he can’t recall how he avoided impact and got around to the other side of the car safely. He fantasizes about having the ability to reach out and slow those moments down so that I could walk away unharmed. I daydream about whether I could have somehow navigated my bike around the back of the Fiat. We both agree that there was something about the Fiat, perhaps its bold red color or maybe simply its movement, that had immediately registered to us as dangerous and unavoidable. At one point in our conversation Scott expressed that it was good to finally be able to talk about that day. Over three years later, there was still healing to be done, and not just for me.

During any traumatic event the emotional reaches go far beyond what is normally considered. I am not the only one who has to live with the day of my crash. Others also have had to process what they experienced and find their own way to heal.

Chapter II of my book will delve into what my family went through when they found out I was in the emergency room. While they weren’t at the scene, they also experienced secondary trauma. Stay tuned for more…

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How the Newspaper Learns About Bike Crashes

Be skeptical of crash reports in local newspapers. The police officer giving the journalist a quote is often sitting in an office miles away from the crash scene. He or she is only getting second information from the on-scene officer who has yet to complete an investigation.

The night of my crash The Daily Camera, Boulder’s local newspaper, quoted a public affairs officer who was located 50 miles away in Lakewood, Colorado. His statement to the newspaper read, “The driver had come to a complete stop and yielded appropriately, when they were hit by the bicycle. The driver had started from a stop sign, but stopped for a turning vehicle. That’s when they were hit by the bicyclist.”

It wasn’t until May, seven months later, before my crash was written down otherwise. I remember the day clearly. I was sitting at work when a new email popped up on my screen. It was the Deputy DA’s sentencing memorandum, which had been submitted to the judge for the upcoming traffic case. The case was People of the State of Colorado v. Russell D. Rosh.

While the case did not officially include me, I had been in communication with the District Attorney’s office multiple times prior to May for updates on the case. I asked what punishments Rosh could face. I requested photos from the scene. I wanted to make sure the letters that had been written by friends and family on my behalf were read in court. Most of all, in all of my communication with the District Attorney’s office I wanted them to understand I wasn’t at fault in my crash.

I’m sure law enforcement and the district attorney’s office had determined long before May that I hadn’t been at fault, but nobody had specifically informed me. So all winter I had the Daily Camera article in the back of my mind and it did two things. First of all it made me mad. I hadn’t been able to stand up for myself because I was being treated in the ambulance and emergency room. Second, it made me question my bike skills. I would replay the moments of the crash I could remember and try to decide if there had been enough time for me to avoid the crash.

Now back to the day in May when I opened the email attachment. Here is a little bit of how it read:

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When I got to section 6, where it stated that I could not have avoided the crash, my lips curled upward. My eyes lit up when I got to section eight. The DA understood that it would have been impossible for another car to have turned in front of the red Fiat and not been involved in the crash. The driver had lied. Finally a huge smile broke across my face when I read that I had been following the rules of the road to the “T” pursuant to section 42-4-1412(5)(a)(III) C.R.S.

By the time I saw the bullet points that went from the bottom third of one page and continued for two thirds of the next I was out of my chair reading the memorandum aloud to my coworkers. Each of the 18 bullet points listed a prior traffic offense that Rosh had accumulated. Four bullet points were bold and italicized. That was the way the DA had distinguished the offenses that had led to a crash. Rosh had temporarily lost his license three times. He was listed as a habitual traffic offender and this was only his record in Colorado. The DA could not collect any information on Rosh’s driving record in other states where he may have lived.

Today as I share this story I relive all of the emotions. I grow angry when I pull up the Daily Camera article.  Then I become energized as I reread the DA’s memorandum. I often feel the need to share these documents with someone and discuss my disbelief as though I still need to defend myself three years after the crash.

But here’s the thing: because of that initial newspaper article I still occasionally find myself in situations where I have to defend that I was not at fault in my crash. For instance, over three years after the crash I found myself at the same social event as a prominent figure in the Boulder cycling community. As we began talking over small paper plates of chips and guacamole he told me that he always thought I had not being paying attention and simply run into the stopped car.

So I implore you, on behalf of other future traffic victims, please read each newspaper article about crashes with some suspicion. The article’s writer and the police officers are doing the best job they can do at the moment, but they lack the details that only a full investigation can provide.

Chapter 1

This weekend it was triathlete Matt Russell who was taken out by a driver during the Ironman World Championships and was hospitalized in intensive care. Earlier in the week Tim Don was struck by a driver while preparing for the same race and fractured a vertebrae. This summer there was a similar story involving an older gentleman who got hit a few miles from my house. Last summer it was a father of three children who was killed on that very same road while enjoying his Saturday bike ride. The more egregious stories are featured in the news and, while the circumstances change, the cyclist-being-hit headline has been used too often. Changes need to be made. Each news article does its best to report the physical injuries but the full scope of a crash cannot easily be described, which is why I am writing a book. Below is the first chapter. Today marks three years since my life was nearly ended by an impatient driver.

“I was following Adelaide Perr and witnessed the accident, the severity of her injuries…I will simply say it was the worst single thing I have ever witnessed and left an indelible memory of absolute horror.”

– Scott Robinson, cyclist on March 13, 2015

On October 18, 2014, my future husband, Kennett, and I woke to a brisk but sunny Saturday. I walked our seven-month old puppy, Maybellene, along a bike path and up a tiny dirt hill to a street that led to the 1.5-acre dog park near our two-bedroom apartment. When we returned 45 minutes later, Kennett was in the kitchen flipping two plate-sized pancakes. Decked out with peanut butter, banana, and honey, these pancakes were our standard Saturday breakfast. We ate on the couch, at times resting the plates on the coffee table while we perused the Internet.

As athletes we kept our lives simple and full of routines such as the Saturday pancakes. Money went towards training and racing. Nights were spent eating salad and dessert in front of a Netflix show so that we could get to bed early. The reason we ate on the couch was because our dining room area lacked a table and was filled with bikes instead.

As the final bites of pancake were devoured Kennett and I discussed our separate rides for the day. He was going to enjoy an off-season ride with friends and they planned to climb up Lefthand Canyon, a narrow two-lane mountain road. In my off-season from cycling I was training for HITS Lake Havasu iron-distance triathlon. The 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and 26.2 mile run were only three weeks away. I liked tagging along with Kennett and his fast friends so I decided to ride my first few miles in their pack before separating. I needed one last multi-hour, flat ride to boost my confidence.

We went upstairs to change into our bike kits. I was testing out my old blue triathlon shorts to see if they’d be at least marginally comfortable over a long ride. I also put on Kennett’s old King of the Mountain Jersey that he had won at Sea Otter Cycling Classic the previous year and gifted to me. Even though the short sleeves were snug against my triceps, I loved the red polka dots on this jersey and felt spunky wearing it.

I’m sure we debated what other articles of clothing were necessary for the fall weather. I opted for a pair of black arm warmers and a vest that was given to me by Kennett’s team the previous season. The vest, brightly colored with the Swedish and United States flags, lay against my body better than my other cycling apparel, which made me feel lean and confident. Both the jersey and the vest were irreplaceable and held special meaning to me, but both would later be cut off my body.

Even if you wouldn’t be caught dead in cycling gear, picture wearing your favorite shirt or jacket; they almost surely boost your mood. Now you can appreciate how I felt leaving the house that morning.

We grabbed the bikes by their top tubes and handlebars and headed out of our apartment, down the inside stairwell, and out to the street. We coasted a block down our residential neighborhood to Amante Coffee Shop on the corner — a hot spot for cyclists leaving town on group rides. Like so many others, we met up with friends. I pulled up next to the brick-walled corner and sat on my bike waiting for the full group of guys to form.

Our friend Matt was in front of me and because I was on my triathlon bike, a conversation about racing came up. Matt was at one point a triathlete, but he had become a professional cyclist who occasionally trained with Kennett. I’ll never forget Matt encouraging me to get a coach. After watching my cycling progress over the 2014 winter and spring, he believed I could go places in the sport and that meant the world to me. It was the last time I’d been told I was a powerful athlete before the crash. In the months that followed I often returned to that conversation in my mind and used it as motivation to regain my strength.

Word spread between our small group of eight that we were headed out. We navigated through the black wrought iron patio furniture outside the coffee shop. With a chorus of clicks and beeps, we all clipped into our bikes and hit the start button on our Garmins. The Garmin screen showed my speed, average speed, distance, time, and watts exerted. I would use all of these data points to stay on track for a steady ride.

The group organized into a pack that rode two people side-by-side. I stayed out of my aero bars so my hands were closer to the brakes, allowing me to react quickly to the movements within the pack. The upright position also ensured I could safely ride in the pack because I could see around the riders directly in front of me. We got through the last two stoplights in town, turned left onto the wide shoulder of US Highway 36, and headed north. While the road is designated as a highway, US-36 is only a two-lane road. Each side has a paved shoulder that varies between five and 10 feet wide, making room for cyclists even though the speed limit for cars is 60 mph.

I rode in back of the group next to Matt so that I wouldn’t push too hard for the first fifteen minutes of my planned five-plus hour ride. At the left turn for Lefthand Canyon the guys turned their heads to check for traffic behind and then slid over a lane while waving a quick goodbye to me as I continued along the shoulder of US-36.

Once I was alone I glanced down at my Garmin and refocused on executing my ride. Physically, I wanted to see if I could hold an average pace above 20 mph. My plan was to complete four loops on rolling-to-flat roads, twenty-five miles per loop. I wanted to feel comfortable with that distance but doing the ride as a series of loops gave me the option to cut it short if my energy was dragging.  If I got too tired I wouldn’t be far from home — the end of each loop was only three miles from our apartment. When I parted from the boys I was only two miles into my first lap, so I just settled into a steady effort. Every 20 minutes or so I’d eat a gel or part of a Clif Bar and wash it down with water. I spent the majority of my time hunched over my aero bars. I went from the highway road to 75th where I passed The Purple Door Market, a small local store. I planned to stop there on my second lap to refill on water. I turned right onto Neva Road and had to push a little harder to hold my average speed on the false flat. The quiet two-lane road took me past a field of horses to the north and a trailhead to the south.

I finished the first lap at the intersection of Neva Road and US-36 in an hour and ten minutes, which was right on pace. Cresting the hill, I looked behind me for other cyclists before I took a right turn onto US-36 for lap two. I began calculating where Kennett would be based on the time since we parted ways. To break up the ride, Kennett had agreed to meet up with me after riding with his friends. He was going to ride my loop in the opposite direction until he saw me and, after my mental estimations, I had a feeling that would be on this lap. I’d have to make sure he didn’t pass me when I stopped at the Purple Door Market.

As is probably the case for almost every local rider, I’m normally happy to leave the noise of US-36 behind me. The road serves merely as a means to another destination. Given the bright blue sky and warming rays of sunshine, I was just one of the thousand cyclists who rode this stretch of road that Saturday.  I thought it was odd that, despite being on the busiest road I’d travel, it was my favorite part of the ride. The rolling part of the road varied the pace which was more fun. I specifically remember being calm, content, and proud of my willpower to push through what, for me, would be a hard ride.

Still gauging my speed, I naturally slowed down on the climbs, picked up my pace during the flat sections, and relaxed when I had the momentum of going downhill. In my constant pacing, I passed riders along the way. One guy passed me back shortly after I came by him, and then I passed him again a few minutes later. While I became irritated by playing leap frog, I wanted to stay on target with my goal pace for the ride. I later learned the guy who I had been trading spots with was Scott Robinson.

After passing Scott the second time I tucked into my aero bars and took a deep breath. The upcoming section of road, which heads north into the town of Lyons, was my last downhill to rest until the next lap around. As I approached the intersection of US-36 and Hygiene Road, a two-lane country road, I moved left from the shoulder of US-36. This put me in the center of the right-hand turn lane that existed for drivers traveling east. Moving into the turn lane would deter cars from cutting me off with a right hook, while also providing a straight, safe trajectory through the intersection and back into the shoulder of US-36 again. Since US-36 is the larger road, there is no stop sign for north or southbound traffic; only cars approaching from Hygiene have to stop in order to get onto US-36. This type of defensive riding was instinctual to me at this point. I knew the rules of the road and and how to explicitly show cars what action I’d be taking.

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When I was fifty feet out from the intersection a large red obstacle suddenly appeared in front of me. I knew it was a vehicle, but it drove several car lengths past the stop sign so quickly that when it stopped directly in my lane of traffic I felt my situation to be momentarily surreal. Given that I was on a six-percent downhill my pace was averaging close to 35 mph. My hands jumped up from the aero bars to my bullhorns where I grasped the brakes so tight that they locked against the rims of my wheels. Slowing down wasn’t a good enough option, I needed to stop. The feeling of my rear tire skidding out from underneath me sent an electrifying sense of panic throughout my body. I knew my control was gone, I could no longer correct the situation, and I was going down. The moment my body slammed into the red Fiat, Scott was behind me by mere seconds. With those extra moments, he swerved to the left and into the oncoming lane, narrowly avoiding the Fiat and oncoming traffic. Behind him, tires screeched as another car swerved to miss the Fiat.

While I don’t recall impact, I know that I went straight through the driver’s side window. My face shattered the glass into thousands of shards. Those pieces sliced my face open before they settled onto the car seats, between the folds of the stick shift, and across the soon-to-be bloody blacktop. In addition to the driver, there were two passengers in the Fiat, drivers from other cars, and nearby cyclists who watched the scene unravel. One passenger, Steven Clark, jumped out of the car and ran to my side. He pressed a blue-and-white plaid shirt against what was left of my cheekbone. The driver, Russell Rosh, was shaken and stood back. What felt like split-seconds for some witnesses must have felt like a lifetime to others. I’m not sure how time passed for me.

Away from the chaos, my clear water bottle with a yellow cap came to a stop down the hill. Kennett had filled the water bottle for me earlier that morning and it would be his first sign that something was amiss.

Among the people who assisted me and directed traffic there was someone who made the 911 call. According to police documents, at 11:48 am Sergeant Bill Crist from the Boulder County Sheriff’s office was on patrol in the nearest town, Lyons, when he received the radio call. By 11:50 Crist was on the scene with a first aid kit.

I was sitting against the driver’s side wheel. His entire focus went to me and providing the ambulance updates. I was going in and out of consciousness. He assured me I was doing a good job staying calm. “Stay with me. What is your name? Take a few breaths for me.” My grip on his hand was strong.

I tried to say Adelaide multiple times, but he couldn’t make out the garbles. Finally I spouted out my first name, which is Sara. According to Scott I also asked, “Why is there so much blood?” My unanswered question has been — how was I able to speak at all?

When the paramedics arrived one of them rushed over with a bandage. “I want to get this on her face.”

Officer Crist tried to convey that probably wasn’t going to be feasible. As the paramedic began removing the flannel shirt my face came off with it. With a greater understanding, the paramedic agreed. “Ok, we will leave the shirt there for now.”

All official documents described the bleeding from the left side of my face as significant, extensive, brisk, and severe. Another term used for such injuries is de-gloved. Picture peeling off a glove, except replace that with peeling off skin and soft tissue after blunt trauma to the bones. Officer Christ wrote in his after-action report that he realized it was a level one trauma incident. As such, I had to be transported to a designated level one trauma center. These hospitals are required to have a helipad along with 24-hour emergency care including trauma surgeons, oral surgeons, plastic surgeons, and most important to me at the time, maxillofacial and anesthesiology care.

The helicopter was called to transport me to Craig Hospital in Denver, but an ambulance was closer to the scene. It took four minutes from the time of impact to get me loaded into the ambulance. It took only another seven minutes until I was wheeled through the emergency room doors of Longmont United Hospital, seven-miles due east of the crash. The EMTs weren’t sure I’d stay alive for those crucial minutes. I was in and out of consciousness throughout the entire process. My only post-crash memory of October 18, 2014 is a blurry image of being lifted into the ambulance and the voice of an EMT who said, “Her face is peeled off.”

What haunts me more than those final words from the EMTs is what I can’t recall. The details I’ve written about what happened after I hit the window — those aren’t my memories because I don’t have any. I wonder, what I was thinking during those moments of consciousness? What did I want to ask but couldn’t due to my injuries? Did they tell me where I was headed? Did I realize there was so much blood because I was bleeding to death?

Recently Kennett and I began watching the movie Free State of Jones starring Matthew McConaughey. Within the first few scenes his character’s son is shot. I decided that, while I didn’t want to see this boy die, I’d continue watching because I enjoy movies that are based on true stories. What I wasn’t prepared for was when the son didn’t immediately die. Instead, Matthew McConaughey carried his son towards the medics. The son, in his father’s arms, pleads for answers to his questions, “Am I going to die? Why am I so thirsty?”

I immediately jumped up from the couch and hit the off button on our DVD player. I stood there and started bawling. It made me feel sad for my person after the crash. I say, “my person” because I can’t emotionally connect with who I was while I was facing the possibility of death. I have no idea if I was thirsty or sick to my stomach. Since I lack the memories from the crash, my imaginary experience of that afternoon is like that of a bystander – as if I were a character in a movie who looks down at themselves in an out-of-body experience as they die.

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I’m fortunate. I did make it to the hospital alive that day. I have since married my best friend and happily qualified as a professional triathlete. Still, I deal with the emotional repercussions from the crash on an almost daily basis. Today in particular, because it is the three-year anniversary, my thoughts will turn to how I almost missed getting married, watching my sister get married, and the birth of my niece. Often I’ll yell at a distracted driver and point at the scar on my face as if they should personally be held responsible for my crash. I’ve also learned that what happened extends emotionally well beyond me. When a cyclist is hit by a car the witnesses, family, friends, caretakers, and community at-large also suffer from trauma. My book will share my recovery, my family’s experiences, managing PTSD, and more. Stay tuned for more excerpts.