My Son Survived a Freak Bicycle Accident, but He Could Have Used that Blood

If you ask a parent what they worry about when it comes to teenagers and biking, you’ll hear several themes: inattentive drivers, incautious cyclists, and what about that helmet? You’ve paid money and nagged. Will it stay on your kid’s head once they’re out of sight, or will it be relegated to the backpack to protect your teen’s requisite coolness?

Did you ever worry about handlebars?

Me neither, which is why I’m writing this post with Frank’s full permission.

Last week, the ToolMaster (my husband) and Frank (my son) went on a training ride to prepare for this summer’s holiday biking trip. They were in the home stretch, sticking to relatively deserted city roads, their minds on getting a soda at the local 7-11 to celebrate. Then Frank rounded a corner at the low speed of 10 miles per hour. As best we can tell, he took it too sharply. His front wheel jack-knifed on him and he was abruptly pitched forward.

I got the phone call ten minutes later. Could I come pick them up? Frank seemed fine, but a minor abdominal cut was leaking fat globules.

I took one look at the 1-inch non-bleeding wound, which looked like a tear, and we loaded the bikes and were off to emergency.

Hours later, stitches in place, we went home and to bed. Separately.

I wasn’t concerned. The wound had been probed. Though the forceps went deep enough to make me squeamish, and we hadn’t identified exactly how the injury occurred, nothing had penetrated into his abdomen. Frank’s blood pressure and pulse were stable. The ER doctor didn’t even think he needed antibiotics.

The next morning, Frank was under the weather, feeling all manner of stiffness and pains. He was tired. But this was to be expected, right? We’d gotten home at 1 AM, so he was short of sleep. It’s normal for muscle aches to be worse the day after an accident.

Only when he mentioned a specific type of pain did I realize we were dealing with bigger issues—confirmed on the way to our van when Frank briefly passed out.

So, peeps, in the sense of the Chinese curse, we had interesting times. We had firefighters visit while we waited for the ambulance to arrive. (Unfortunately, Molly was too preoccupied with Frank’s condition to take advantage of the dating opportunities.)

After the CT, things sped up. I’ve retained a montage of video-like clips: the surgeon saying things like “free fluid in the abdomen” and “possible ostomy”.  The street clothes and watch and glasses removed. The cheerful-but-purposeful OR porter. The waiting room, bleak and chilled.

The ToolMaster’s eyes reflecting my fear…

In the end, Frank had the best possible outcome, given the circumstances. We think he landed on his handlebar, its brake lever causing the visible wound, its blunt end causing most of the damage. The contusion and shearing forces ripped some internal membranes and blood vessels, causing a slow leak of 700 mls of blood into his abdomen. He didn’t require a transfusion. They fixed the leak, closed him with tidy stitches and staples, and transferred him to the post-op ward, where his care was exceptional.

We’ve been home a few days now. Life is returning to normal.

However, I keep hearing from friends is that we were lucky — that while I’m upset with myself for failing to think like a doctor instead of a parent, my medical background helped. At least I knew what to look for. At least we got help before it was too late. So let’s fix some of the knowledge-gap right now, okay? Let’s arm you folks.

1. Know that while penetrating abdominal wounds provide drama, they aren’t necessarily what will cause disability or death. Blunt abdominal trauma, can be a silent, slow, but lethal danger. While this list is by no means comprehensive, watch for these warning signs:

  • Increasing abdominal size (bloating)
  • Increasing abdominal pain
  • Diminished appetite, especially if it leads to vomiting
  • Fever
  • Pallor, lightheadedness, passing out
  • Shoulder-tip pain: When blood or infection irritate the nerve which supplies the diaphragm, an affected person feels pain in the tip of their shoulder. It doesn’t respond to massage, though you might mask it with painkillers.
When in doubt, get an assessment. Get help.

2. We think Frank’s superficial wound was caused by a bike lever. While this kind of injury might not be on your radar, it’s not at all uncommon. Don’t believe me? Look at these links.

Frank’s brake lever from one angle

How would you like to land on this?

And so on.

Someone who is design-savvy needs to reconfigure these. The minor bend on the end isn’t enough to prevent impalement, as evidenced by the images.

So parents, when you are selecting your bikes, notice the lever placement. Brakes are obviously mandatory, but some levers are more exposed and sharper than others.

3. Bicycle helmets are a necessity at all ages, and they must be replaced after one impact.

In the hullaballoo about his belly, one thing stood out: we weren’t being directed to a neuro ICU for a brain injury, because though he struck his head at the scene of the accident, Frank’s helmet did its job. The belly heals much better than the brain.

No, you can’t make your kids wear their helmets out of your sight, but have you stressed their importance? And what about you? Are you wearing your own helmet? Are you expecting your kids or teens to sacrifice coolness when you won’t?

How are you on biking safety?

If you’ve found this post helpful, please feel free to pass it on.  

I should be back later in the week with a non-medical post. To receive free e-mail updates from this blog, look to the green sign-up box in the right sidebar. Plus, connect with me on Twitter and Facebook.

30 thoughts on “My Son Survived a Freak Bicycle Accident, but He Could Have Used that Blood

  1. Wow, scary times. Very glad you all were alert enough to get Frank the help he needed before it was any more serious, and that you’re passing on the info.

  2. Jan, so scary for all of you! I can’t imagine watching my child going into surgery or being in a hospital under immense pain. Hugs as I imagine there’ll be worry and nightmares for a while. Love the line about the firefighters and Molly. Maybe you can place yur cat up a tree and call them back? 😉
    As for not acting like a doctor but rather as a mom, show me someone who wouldn’t. When the patient is your child, how can you forget your his mom? You did everything right. Absolutely right.

  3. Jan, thank you so much for thinking about other people in the middle of all this. And thank you, “Frank,” for letting your mom share your story. Best wishes to the whole family for many years of safe biking ahead.

  4. I was thinking as I read, and before you said, thank God for Jan’s medical background! Good info, as we’re pretty big bikers. Can never get enough safety reminders. As for helmets (which we normally wear), I didn’t realize what a habit wearing one was until our recent trip to Montreal. We rented bikes to get around the city (it’s a great biking city, with lots of bike paths, marked routes, and segregated parts of the road for bikes). We hadn’t thought to bring our own helmets, and the bike rentals were automated (Bixi racks throughout the city). I felt sooo naked without a helmet on! Mo and I were in a constant state of worry without them.

    I’m so happy Frank is alright! Thanks for sharing the info and the tips!

  5. Jan!!!!!!!!!!!! Good lord lady. You may not know it, but I’m hugging you right now. Thank goodness Frank’s all right. How scary. But if anyone can get through it, it’s you. You are a rock.

  6. Yikes! How frightening! First of all, I’m so glad everything turned out well in the long run. Secondly, thanks for sharing this information – something I would never have known. And finally, I really hope this is it…no more weird punctures, broken ribs, trips to emerg, etc.
    Take care!

  7. Thank you for providing clear and comprehensive advice and for making lemonade for this column out of the lemons you were given last week. I feel better armed for the future. Hugs to you and family. Doctor or no, you are a parent watching your son suffer and it was a scary ordeal.

  8. Now that, thankfully, everyone is okay and things have calmed down, may I point out that you did a fantastic job? Doctor or no, you need to think about a couple of things before you beat yourself up: An ER doctor, supposedly trained in all this trauma stuff, pronounced him fine and good to go home. He (or she) obviously missed it too. Secondly, doctors, don’t treat their own families because you are a parent first, then a doctor. And three, did I tell you I think you did a fabulous job? 🙂 Glad he is doing okay!

    1. Glinda, you might be less impressed if I kept in all the details — omitted to keep this a reasonable length. I need to let some of the lessons sink in my bones. The main thing is that he’s okay.

      I do appreciate the pep talk. 🙂

    1. I hear you, Kell. The ToolMaster used to commute by bike. It’s a wonderful way to stay trim and keep the cardiovascular conditioning, but it’s wise to consider safety. I’m wishing your husband my best.

  9. Jan, what an awful thing to face as a parent. I’ve been in and seen some freaky bike accidents but I have to tell you, this blows the mind. As a parent, wow, not something you expect to have happen. How fortunate you knew what to look for to denote a serious turn for the worse and deal with it properly.

    I followed the links. Who knew? But of course, when you consider the speeds some cyclist reach and the stunts they do at those speeds, it’s a miracle that those levers haven’t seriously gutted someone. I’m sure the designers are trying to come up with a better and safer lever design, but even blunt protrusions can do serious damage if enough force is applied–like a body falling on one.

    Glad to hear that Frank is well on the road to recovery!

    1. Sia, unfortunately, it seems like these accidents are written off as “unusual”, and even their dramatic nature hasn’t provoked any change. Though some of these articles go back three years or more, the levers look the same to me.

      Thanks so much for your well wishes. Frank is headed back to school tomorrow, so I think he’s really on the mend.

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