Several people have asked me to share my story, so here it is. May you be both entertained and enlightened. Our sport of mountain biking is amazingly exciting, healthy and fun and it brings us outside in the best and worst of BC’s weather. It also results in a fair amount of carnage. I’ve had my share of the good, and back in 2005 an extra dose of pain and trauma. Here’s my story.
On July 13th 2005 my buddy Steve picked me up for a day of play at the Whistler Mountain Bike Park. Usually our group of seasoned riders pedals up Seymour, Grouse or Cypress to “earn-our-turns” and combine fitness with fun. This day was a bit of an indulgence of fun and what I called “flight training” down the many opportunities to catch air on Whistler’s A-Line. As an infrequent Whistler rider I usually start out in a sphincter clenching combination of excitement and trepidation. This eases by the afternoon of the first day of the season and shortens in duration with repeated exposures to the fun and flying down A-Line, Dirt Merchant, National Downhill, Clown Shoes and all the great and challenging trails at Whistler. This day was to end differently.
The last run of the day, 3rd last jump near the bottom of A-Line (the one just before the longest table top) I apparently went a little to the left and got kicked forward, nose-wheeling at high speed toward the take-off ramp of the highest speed jump on A-Line. I don’t remember a thing for some 15 minutes before the jump until I regained some form of consciousness some 10-15 minutes later, but I do remember feeling relaxed, free and keen to fly at the end of the day. My buddy Steve says he thought I was busting out a new move riding on my front wheel, until I head planted into the plywood that was covering the hard packed take-off ramp. There’s not a lot you can do when you are traveling rapidly on your front wheel while going over forwards.
Steve became concerned when I didn’t jump up after the crash like we usually do, brushing off the occasional broken finger or collarbone. I was extremely lucky Steve is a trained fire rescue first response pro and he saw the crash. He came over, held my neck stable while wrapping his leg around mine to keep us from sliding down the ramp for the 10-15 minutes it took me to regain conciousness. He says the hardest part was keeping hold of me while his leg was cramping, but also deciding to hold my neck or clear my airway wasn’t fun either.
I apparently regained some conciousness but was uncontrollably shaking and unresponsive. Some time later I came to and here’s where I start to remember things. I remember everything being black in-spite of it being one of the first clear days of summer and broad daylight. I remember being told not to move while spitting out most of my top teeth, I remember being held stable and the ambulance coming, being carried and driven to the Whistler Trauma Centre and being put into the CAT scan machine. I remember being told the bad news and the good news. “You’ve broken your neck in two places, …but you are going to make a full recovery.” Youch! I remember the blissful oblivion of the Demerol hitting my bloodstream for the ambulance ride to Vancouver General Hospital. That was the beginning of a whole lot of pain, and morphine, excruciating discomfort, more morphine, daytime hallucinations, morphine induced paranoid delusions, 3 days waiting for surgery, 8 days laying in pain and discomfort before my digestion restarted, two weeks lying in the hospital, trauma for my friends and loved ones, two months wearing a neck brace day and night, 3 levels of pain killers for months, confusion and fatigue from the concussion and drugs….. and grace. After about 6 months I was working to regain my neck’s movement and my health. I started off biking uphill only and riding to work. My first big challenge was the Test of Metal 2006.
Technically, I burst my C1 vertebra into 3 pieces from the blow to the top of my Mad Max II full face helmet, which I crushed. I managed to combine this compressive failure with an extension/bending of the C6/C7 so that one of the facets didn’t slot back in place. The very skilled and experienced surgeons couldn’t pry the C6/C7 apart enough to pop it back in place so they unfortunately had to punch that flange away and fuse the C6&C7 together, as you can see in the x-ray. Two of the C1 pieces were screwed together and then a rod was used to connect this to the remaining 3rd C1 piece. Kind of like a horseshoe to hold my C1 together while it healed. The alternative was to have 4 bolts screwed into my skull and to wear a corset and halo day and night for some 8 weeks while the C1 knit back together, but the pieces were splayed too far apart and the internal fusing was a twice published method they researched while I waited – so they internally fused them.
The C1 is called the “hangman’s vertebrae” and the spinal cord is said to have the thickness and consistency of overcooked asparagus. I was told by one surgeon that the lesser of my two injuries, the C6/7 failure I had makes the patient quadriplegic 70-80% of the time. The C1 burst usually kills. I’m incredibly lucky I can walk. My helmet saved my life, and my buddy saved my ability to walk and use my arms.
Chilcotin’s 2007. Ti bike, Ti neck and many of the most beautiful trails on the planet.
I quickly left behind a litany of neurological curiosities. Odd weaknesses, pains, tingling, and a fuck of a lot of pain and discomfort. Sadly, not every rider gets to walk out of the spine ward. I learned the human spirit can adjust to just about anything. There are some incredibly courageous people out there who have been able to overcome huge losses. I’m humbled by them. Me, I’m just lucky. Lucky and thankful.
Stu enjoying the highs of the Chilcotin mountains, 2007.
I have a lot to be thankful for; my biking buddies, the surgeons, nurses, ambulance attendants, all the health care workers, many close friends, family and a whole yoga community sending me healing energy. I have a lot to give back and a new lifetime to do so. I am lucky to be here, as are you. I just have the privilege of knowing it in my body and soul.
Stu’s Catlike friend Terry Walker keeps his paws dry while Mauri-Mormon friend Arama Jillings does his best Sumo-porter impersonation! One of the many creek crossings in the Chilcotin Mtns.
The surgery report wasn’t pretty; 8 hours face down with my neck muscles dissected from the bone, permanent facial scar from the surgery table friction, 1.5 litres of blood lost and my face was swollen to the point where one eye was shut. The good news was that everything went well.
The cost? One Mad Max II downhill helmet with a saucer shaped piece punched out of the top and cracked through chin guard, body armour that had to be cut off, same for my backpack, 6 months of work income lost, some $25,000 for new teeth implants, some $220/week for neck massage and physiotherapy for the first 6 months along – and all those missed rides!
Rolling down Upper Oilcan during a North Shore Ripper.
But getting to the point, what did I learn? First the obvious; don’t break your neck. It’s no fun and not worth it. Second, take a course and ride so you can ride tomorrow. I’ve taken my chances and done dumb things like overshooting landing platforms after taking a guess on the take-off speed. This time I feel I wasn’t showing off or over-reaching and just had some bad luck hitting a wonky takeoff spot on a jump that had caught other riders before it was signed and rebuilt. I have been guilty more than once of riding to be seen or to achieve something my ego wanted but I wasn’t ready for. I’ve been stupid but you don’t need to be. Ride to ride tomorrow. The stunt will be there waiting for you. Oh yeah, and finally, have fun. Say hi to me if you see me riding the Shore. I’ll be the one with the stiff neck, and oddly blue eyes.
Happy to be alive and just a little wasted in Rossland BC, 2008.
Postscript. Stu Loewen continues to heal and ride. On 6 Nov 08 he had the two Titanium screws, no longer needed, removed from his C1 vertebra, the day after a fantastic night ride on the technical trails of the North Shore. He is currently trying to find a new home for the Ti bits on his xc hardtail. This last summer he enjoyed the wonders of riding the trails around Rossland, BC and last fall returned to the Chilcotins for a backcountry trip, once again with the best riding buddies on the planet. Since breaking his neck he has ridden the Test of Metal and Rat Race twice, and regularly bike commutes to work. (Stuart also recently turned 50! – Ed.)
Safety Suggestions for North Shore Riders
- take a first aid course
- bring a first aid kit and safety blanket year round
- wear your helmet, a good one, and armour and pads
- ensure your suspension is tuned properly
- contribute to NSMBA, don’t take our sport for granted, our playing surface needs to be cared for
Stu would also like to thank Yogapod in North Van for being a huge part of his successful recovery.
Talking to some of Stu’s riding buddies it actually doesn’t sound like he’s slowed down much. I guess it’s all a matter of perspective. If you have some insight to share about injury and recovery – or any comment on Stu’s story – here’s the place…