Obituary for a brain bucket

Mountain bikers not-so-jokingly refer to their helmets as “brain buckets”, slang from a culture that embraces possible danger somewhere ahead, yet goes forth in search of adventure and fun.

Like so many days before, last Tuesday this brain bucket was strapped to a head in Chandler, Arizona, for a short 12 mile ride. In the early morning, the rider does two six mile loops on a flat course of pavement with bike lanes for all but a small portion of the journey.

The Tuesday ride went differently. About half way around, there was a flash of moving paint and metal in the bike lane near an intersection, the rider braked, and the helmet contacted something – hard. The rider still isn’t sure what, but the best guess is it was the side of a car that had made a turn in front of the bike, not seeing the bike at all until it was way too late. (Sunny day. Biker wearing bright red shirt, 6′ 3″, 220ish lbs. Big bike, in bike lane between two lanes of traffic and right turn lane, travelling between 12 and 15 mph. Not seen.)

The brain bucket was still attached to the rider when he came to on the pavement, and fortunately there were no major leaks. The first passer-bys arrived at the scene telling him not to take it off, which he did anyway. Sometime in the aftermath, the dazed rider heard a police officer say “there’s penetration damage on the …”, meaning the helmet had hit something on the car. There was a bewildered driver sitting sobbing on a curb, screaming “I killed him, I killed him!” From the multiple cracks in the lining of the helmet, the violence of contact is evident.

The rider actually stood up for a few moments at the scene, still running on adrenaline, wanting to assure everyone he was not dead. He told the EMTs “my groin really hurts.” While he was scooped up and transported to an ER with “level 1 trauma”, the helmet lay on the ground shattered. It returned home with the police officer, with a bike and sunglasses, to a scared wife and a forlorn dog who weren’t quite sure what was going on. (Pretty amazing considering the rider had no ID and no phone, but was able to correctly cite a phone number. RoadID might make a good gift.) The news was the rider was alive and receiving care.

Later, after the rider was transported, then backboarded, neckbraced, and CT scanned, an orthopedic surgeon came in to the ER recovery area. He said if you’re going to have a pelvic fracture, this is the kind to have – inferior pubic ramus, likely from contacting the crossbar of the bike somehow, and non-displaced so no surgery required. There was also a very bruised elbow, a few other bumps and scrapes, at least one chipped tooth, and a lump on the head only noticed after arriving home.

There could have been far worse damage. Folks in the hospital were amazed at the rider’s recovery, and attributed the results to him being in fairly good physical shape and wearing a helmet. (Yeah, and you should see what that car looks like.) They were a bit flustered that he refused any pain medication for the first 36 hours, and had dragged himself into a restroom at 3am with a walker and an IV tree along for the trip. They asked if he was going to give up riding, to which he responded with a smile: “No, but maybe the driver should give up driving.”

During the psychological evaluation, the first question the psychologist asked was “What do cars, trucks, and buses have in common?” The rider retorted: “Things your bike can crash into.” After a laugh and getting serious for the rest of the evaluation, she said something that explained a lot. When the body undergoes significant and widespread trauma like this, the brain switches all functions over to checking and maintaining life systems, and there’s not enough bandwidth left for the short-term memory to be written to storage. This explains why the rider can’t remember anything for a mile and a half before, only an instant but no details during, and fragments for a few hours after the accident.

Because of this helmet, a writer is able to write today (for the first time since the accident), and a wife still has a husband, a daughter still has a father, and a dog still has a friend. This obituary could have been for the rider, but instead is for the helmet.

There will be another helmet, shortly, and more rides. This is just one bump in the road for the rider, who understands there is a purpose as to why his life was spared, and the role a helmet and a lot of prayers from a lot of people played.

If you or your kids are thinking about getting on a bicycle without a helmet, tell them this “brain bucket” story and get one before the next ride. The life it saves might be one close to yours.

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  • Larry Terry


  • Dale C Blankenship

    OK, Don, You convinced me. I ride 1.5 miles to work most days, all on residential streets. So far without a helmet, but that will be corrected quickly. Glad to hear you are doing well. Hope the driver had insurance to pay for your expenses.