2016 was lining up to be a really exciting year for me. I was super excited to be racing on the Knolly Grassroots team, racing as part of the Muddbunnies again, and I had lots of races planned. I had even gotten into the inaugural TransBC, which was undoubtedly going to be my big goal for the year. On February 21, 2016, all of that was derailed when I had a very serious crash.
The day of the accident, I was riding with a group of five ladies and we rode a trail I have ridden many times. Part way down the trail is a rock feature with a roll-down onto one of two wooden ramps. The roll is blind and in between those two wooden ramps is nothing. For some reason, on that day I was distracted with new pedals and neglected to check that I was lined up with the ramp. When I rolled off the rock, I had my eyes on the exit and my focus on my new pedals. I had gotten comfortable with the roll so I didn’t notice that I rode left of the ramp, and my bike dove straight down.
I had gotten a little complacent and distracted, and the consequences were far worse than I could have imagined. I went over the bars and landed on the suspended wooden ramp with the right side of my face. Because I didn’t notice that I’d missed the ramp, I didn’t do anything to mitigate the effects of the mistake – I didn’t brace, I didn’t put my hands out, and I didn’t try and pull my wheel up. I was lucky that the people I was with were pretty much the dream team of accident management. They kept me still, calm, and lied to me about the extent of my injuries so I didn’t panic. I was evacuated on a spine board by a fantastic team of paramedics and received exceptional care once I did get to the hospital. I had three trauma doctors, several nurses, a plastic surgeon, a neurosurgeon, and an anesthesiologist working as a team to help me (yay, Canadian healthcare!). I had X-rays, a CT scan, and was in surgery within an hour or two.
I had taken a huge amount of force through my face in the fall. I had broken the bones on top of, and below, my right eye, my nose, my left hand, and fractured the base of my skull—a bone called the occipital condyle, which is the part of the skull that connects into the C-1. I also had bone deep cuts all around my eye (the upper and lower areas) and across my nose. My right nostril was detached, and wood was embedded in my lip and the inside of my mouth. My right cheek had also been sheered from the skull, but not detached, and several nerves to my right eye were cut. A concussion and severe whiplash completed the package. A very talented plastic surgeon took three hours to remove the wood from my face and reconstruct it. There are still microscopic bits of wood in me.
By the time all of this was over, I was in a cervical collar for seven weeks, had a cast on my left hand, and had hundreds of stitches in my face. My face was incredibly swollen and, because of the trauma, it was impossible for me to eat anything solid for a week. It probably took up to two months after the accident to be able to eat food that required a lot of chewing. My right eye could not blink and it took over six months for those nerves to function properly again.
That was about a year ago now, and the recovery has taken both longer and shorter than I expected. I have had my fair share of injuries and consider myself pretty good at recovering, but experiencing such a complex multi-site injury and head trauma has changed my perspective on a lot of things.
It took me a long time to accept and understand what a long-term process this type of recovery is. I remember going into my neurosurgeon’s office two weeks after the accident and asking if I could get on a spin bike. At that time, I really thought I’d be able to race that summer. It’s crazy to think of because I am just starting to get back on a bike now, and I am nowhere near racing.
This accident and the recovery has taken and given so much to me. This past year has been frustrating, eye-opening, beautiful, and sometimes infuriating. Even though it has been a year, I don’t feel like I can truly reflect on the accident yet – I’m still recovering, I’m still learning new things, and I’m still very much “in it”. But there are some aspects that really stand out for me, and I want to share those. Although, I hope you will never need to experience anything like this yourself.
Being truly out of control of my own path for a while has been really hard. I thrive on goals and challenges; I like to plan and have events or trips to work towards. Most injuries have a timeline that you can plan around, but not this one. When you hurt your brain, nothing is on schedule. There is no typical timeline and the symptoms, healing process, and triggers are different for everyone.
My neck has also had its own agenda. It’s a year later, and my neck is still weak, tired, and needs regular maintenance and treatment. My energy level still sucks, and hard days at work means that my energy is spent so there is nothing left for fun.
It took me a long time to accept that my agenda is not my body’s agenda, and that setting expectations for myself based on what I think I should be able to do is just a recipe for frustration and disappointment. Sometimes I pushed it too hard and I suffered big set-backs. I realize now that I push myself because I want what I think will make me happy and fulfilled. Instead, I’ve tried to find more creative ways to satisfy the elements of happiness that I need – I get my outside time by going for hikes, I get some adventure in my life by trying new trails or new coffee shops, I got into stand-up paddle boarding so I could feel “challenged”. Most importantly, I learned to accept that I couldn’t control what I could do at any time, some days my body or mind said no. But I could control how I did things and try to let go of expectations. I decided if I couldn’t control what I could do, I would control how I did things, so I did my physio with purpose. I walked to coffee shops to get used to being in public and sat and slowly masticated some form of pastry because that was what I could do. Learning to listen to my body instead of getting my body to listen to me was, and still is, a challenge, but it’s a good skill to learn.
My community and the people in my life saved me. This may sound strange, but the weeks following my accident are the luckiest I have ever felt. My friends rallied around me and I received help from so many places. For the first few weeks, people were at my house 2-3 times a day to walk my dog, to visit me and ensure I was okay, to bring me food (lots of soup!), and I ran out of flower vases in my house. I didn’t tell anyone about the accident, they just found out. People showed up and helped. I felt loved, cared for, and supported. And I continue to feel that way to this day because of the amazing people in my life; I cannot express how much that has meant. If you know people dealing with a serious injury, reach out – it makes a difference.
When I realized how long my recovery was going to take, one of my biggest fears was being disconnected from my community and feeling left out. Because I still couldn’t ride, I decided to do a lot of volunteering: I volunteered at the Fivers on the North Shore, at a few BC Enduro Series events, and I went along for the whole week of TransBC, even though I couldn’t ride and I was still dealing with recovery and a concussion. Being at an event was really tiring sometimes, but I was so much happier to be there supporting people I care about and giving back to a community that I love, than to be at home feeling left out. There are lots of ways to be involved in the riding community, or whatever other communities we are part of; volunteering is actually fun and rewarding.
Staying connected to community throughout my recovery was really important to me.
Being strong is important because it helps us ride our bikes better, be healthier and, for many people, feel better about ourselves. In my case, it’s probably the reason I’m still alive and walking. I have strength trained for a lot of years and I was pretty strong when I crashed. I have been told a few times that if I had not been so strong at the time of the crash, I could have been killed or paralyzed. It is not uncommon for death or paralysis to accompany the fracture I suffered. When I went to see my physio after getting my neck brace off, he looked at me quite seriously and said, “We don’t see many of these fractures…there aren’t many people who walk into an office with these types of injuries”.
Being strong is important and I will never take that for granted. This knowledge has also changed my personal definition for recovery – now it’s not just about when I feel like I can ride hard again, but when will my body be strong enough to protect me if I fall? Of course, I have lost a lot of fitness and strength over the last year, but I’ve been working on getting it back and will need to continue to work at it for a long time. Knowing how important being strong is helps me keep focused on making those incremental gains and getting back to a place of physical strength again.
I’ve been Karin a lot longer than I’ve been a mountain biker. I’m also a lawyer, a dog lover, an aunt, a sister etc. But being a cyclist has been a big part of my identify for a while now, and it’s an aspect that I chose. I identify with my friends in the bike community and I like feeling like I belong to that tribe. Losing my identify as a rider was very tough and, unfortunately, it is a challenge women probably face more frequently.
I remember going to mountain bike events with my then-boyfriend and people just assumed I didn’t ride because I wasn’t riding at that time. Some people talked over and around me, like I was just there to carry his sweater and pick him up at the finish line. No one (male or female) ever asked me if I was a rider or why I wasn’t participating. Maybe if I’d still had my neck brace on, or a cast, people wouldn’t have made the assumption so quickly. Once my injuries became less visible, it wasn’t obvious that I was hurt, and it wasn’t obvious that I was a rider. I started to feel like I didn’t really belong anywhere. I don’t think I found a good way to deal with that other than to try and ignore it, but it certainly made me more conscious to never assume that the person driving the shuttle or standing at the finish line isn’t a rider. Losing riding was hard, but losing part of my identity was almost harder.
Shortly after I crashed, I lost consciousness briefly. I remember blacking out and the process was slow enough for me to wonder if I was going to wake up again. That was scary. One of the best things I did after my injury was get help: for my body and my mind. I saw a therapist who helped me process the accident and to try and have a healthier relationship with it. Because my injury was so obvious and visual, people were always staring at me or asking me personal questions and wanting the “story”, which got really old. My therapist also helped me to deal with that and to find better ways of setting my own boundaries or keeping those conversations to a minimum. Therapy has been very helpful for me in dealing with the trauma of the accident and the struggles of recovery.
Be your own Advocate
I have had great treatment in many ways, but there have also been gaps. For example, my concussion was never really treated seriously from a medical perspective, and most of what I have learned about healing a concussion has been through trial and error (bad way to learn), researching the internet (terrifying way to learn), from my own therapists, my physiotherapist, chiropractor, counsellor (lucky way to learn), and from people I know who have suffered concussions.
No matter what injury you suffer, you are your own best advocate. Learn about your injuries, talk to people who have experienced similar things, get an A+ team of people helping you through, and make sure those people are engaged in your recovery, open to looking beyond the obvious, and open to referring you out if they can’t help you.
Complex injuries are no time for being passive in your care or protecting egos. Complex injuries ARE an important time to set boundaries – say no to things more often, prioritize your own rest and health unapologetically, and take care of yourself first. It took me a long time to learn that my brain needed way more rest than my body needed. The things that usually refreshed and restored me didn’t anymore. If I had a hard mental day, then physical activity was only going to hurt – there is one source of energy in the body and if you exhaust yourself physically, there isn’t enough left over for the brain. Sometimes saying no to work, social activities, exercise, volunteering, etc. is what I needed to do to take care of myself.
My Furry Besty
Three months before my accident I adopted a rescue dog named Sasha. She’s a wonderfully unique dog who is a bit socially awkward with other dogs but loves to cuddle, and is blissfully happy not to be living on the street anymore. Sasha was my #1 recovery buddy. For the first few weeks I couldn’t walk her, but once I could take her out even for short walks, she got me out of the house 1,000 times more than I would have otherwise. She never looked at me like I was ugly or disfigured, she never complained when I walked too slow, or needed to lie on the couch for most of the day. There were so many days when I didn’t want to get off the couch because I was tired, or I was battling feelings of depression, deep frustration, or sadness. I never would have left the house those days if I wasn’t for her brown eyes looking up at me and begging me for a walk. Having her needs to focus on gave me a purpose and some direction, seeing her happy gave me joy, having her always by my side make me feel less alone, and walking her has helped me get healthy and fitter. I’m not suggesting you run out and get a dog if you suffer an injury, but consider signing up as a dog walker at your local SPCA or foster a dog for a rescue organization. Having purpose (and puppy cuddles) really helped keep me out of some dark places.
My physio once told me that these injuries are like an onion, when you get through one layer other things come up, which are not always apparent until you get there. That has been so true. After dealing with the initial trauma and being cleared orthopedically to remove my neck brace, I started moving my neck, which was a whole new challenge. After movement started to come back, building basic strength started. Once I could do more, I started to push myself physically a bit and my concussion symptoms flared up in ways they hadn’t until that time. Plus, there have been memory issues, my emotions are all over the map, my balance is not great, and spatial awareness is a work in progress.
Sometimes getting through one challenge just means there is another one waiting. Recovery from a major injury is a long-game so balance is important. I could probably put more focus on my recovery and tailor more of my activities to exactly what will help me get better fastest, but I need to feed my happiness, too. And make sure that I have the heart to continue with recovery. I figure I’ve got somewhere between 10 seconds and 70 years left to live, and I want to recover purposefully but also enjoy my life. I’ve been told more prescriptive treadmill programs might help me, but I’d rather get out into the woods and hike, ski, or do a short and remedial ride—even if it’s not in exactly the right heart-rate zone. Paying attention to the details of recovery and respecting limits is important, but so is finding enjoyment and pushing the envelope from time to time.
My cuts healed really well, I’ve been lucky. My scars are less visible than I thought they’d be, but they are still there. For a long time when I looked in the mirror, all I saw was scarring and swelling, I felt like a monster and I was scared that I would never look like myself again. Considering the amount of trauma to my face, my surgeon is basically a magician, but the evidence is still there. I have subtle differences between my eyes, especially when I smile or squint, my right cheek is thicker, the right side of my upper lip is fleshy, and my mouth doesn’t smile quite the same on both sides. The scar over my lip is fairly visible, and I still notice the scars across the bridge of my nose and down the side of nostril, but you know what? I’ve learned to like them (mostly).
I’ve always felt like experiences in life are more important than appearances – that a pretty outside is less important than how we use our bodies and the quality of the life we live with them. I am happiest when I’m sweaty and dirty, and my scars won’t interfere with that. My scars are mine for life now, a reminder that I can get through the toughest physical and mental challenges, and it doesn’t change who I am on the inside.
My scars are also like little tiny treasure chests, they hold microscopic bits of dirt and wood in me. I left a lot of blood on the mountain that day, and the mountain left some of itself in me. While I have always felt like mountain biking was a part of me, now it literally is, and I’m a part of it. There’s no going back now, except I’ll probably wear a bit more armour 😉
Karin Grubb lives and plays in North Vancouver, BC. Karin started mountain biking in 2006 while working for the summer in Rossland, BC. Once she finished law school mountain biking became a full-time love and a great way to ensure student debt was paid off as slowly as possible. Karin has raced mountain bikes for fun for the last 6 years, has been a ride-leader for the Muddbunnies Riding Club and is passionate about the benefits that mountain biking brings to her life and community.