Sunday, August 30, 2009

Late at Night I Hear the Trees

This past week has been very rewarding on a personal level while serving as a reality check on a professional level. We'll start with the good news first.

Katie is working up in Mammoth this summer for the National Park Service, and was able to obtain a couple cancellation permits to climb Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states. I climbed Mt. Whitney back in 2005 when I was working in Mammoth, but the allure of high elevation called to Katie and she asked if I wanted to join. I've been doing a lot of tough hiking this summer in our local mountains, so I figured I was ready for an easy stroll up Whitney.

I was quite wrong.

Turns out that 14,505' is a bit more of a challenge when you live at 1200' than when you live and work trail crew at 7500', as I did back in 2005. Nonetheless, I made it sluggishly up the mountain while Katie pranced around as if the air were thick as can be. The views were spectacular, better than I remember, and the weather was perfect. The hike had no issues and we made it up in 6 hours and back down in 4.5 hours, 22 miles round trip with roughly 6000' climbing. I felt much quicker on the descent and we stuffed ourselves with pizza back in Lone Pine before I drove back home Tuesday night.

Other than Whitney, I took it easy this past week and stuck to daily bike commuting and easy 4 mile running loops, mostly flat. Tomorrow I'm really excited to see my surgeon after 4 weeks of physical therapy, and decide what to do next for my arm. I switched to the local hand, wrist, and arm specialist and am very happy I made that decision. Some day I'm sure that I'll look back with fondness on the experience of breaking my arm, but I'm not there yet.

On the work front, the reality of a poor economy is manifesting itself in my life. I had a big lay-off scare about 8 months ago, and the possibility has always been present in my mind since then, but now it's looking like something will definitely happen in my department at work. My coworker, who is 60 years old, was offered an early retirement package and, as of Friday, will likely turn it down. If he does that, there's a good possibility I'll go instead. Hopefully that would happen, and the company wouldn't go ahead and lay him off despite turning down the retirement package (which has happened several times in the past).

My biggest worry of being laid off is not receiving the proper care for my broken arm, but with COBRA and unemployment I will likely be alright. I have to laugh at the irony of possibly being unemployed, having lots of free time, without the option of riding my bike. Thus is life. I'm not completely unafraid of being laid off, but I would really like to keep my job, and I think if I had the responsibilities of my coworker combined with my duties, it'd make my job very interesting and enjoyable. I've had to be careful not to overstep my boundaries as a new employee in the past year, coming into a department where my coworker has been there for 30+ years. Sure would be nice if that pressure were removed and I could just do my job.

Have a great week and hopefully I'll return with some good news about my arm and future employment status.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Breaking Free

A lot has happened regarding my arm since my last post four months ago. I always had it in the back of my mind to update on what was happening, and admittedly it would've been handy to have a journal of events to look back on what was going through my mind. In all honesty, though, I fell into a mild depression after I broke my arm and really didn't feel like writing anything. It was tough going from an active lifestyle, riding 25 miles a day commuting to work, to mostly sedentary activities and driving, with even the most tame of exercises causing discomfort. I am sure the narcotics I was taking didn't help.

Deep down I knew that I was really fortunate I was not hurt more in the crash, and that a broken arm simply requires time to heal. I knew I would likely return to 100% and be able to participate in the activities of my choosing. But it can be tough to convince our superficial, everyday person to believe what we want to believe. Additionally, my ulna was refusing to grow and I was stuck with a 6mm gap in the bone, held together by 316L stainless steel and maybe some scar tissue.

In late June, my original surgeon officially declared my ulna as an atrophic nonunion, meaning that the bone hadn't shown any signs of growth in 90 days and I would likely need a bone graft surgery. My radius, the bone that did not exit my skin during my accident, was showing healthy signs of healing. I was frustrated and confused; it's not easy to hear that your body won't heal when you considered yourself a young and healthy adult. Lots of questions were floating through my mind. Did I do something wrong during recovery? Should I have eaten better? Slept more? Did my surgeon mess up? In addition to the news that I'd need surgery, my original surgeon said she was going out of town for 6 weeks and due to insurance issues, I'd have to wait until she returned in mid-August to get the surgery. This meant that I was stuck in a cast with a bone that was not healing.

I waited a couple of weeks, then decided sitting around in a cast was pointless and I was wasting time. I was done being patient and decided to visit a couple local surgeons to get their opinion on my arm. My original surgeon was located about 2-2.5 hours away in San Diego, and at first I was determined to continue care with her despite insurance issues and communication difficulties with her staff. After visiting the local surgeons, however, there was no doubt in my mind that I was leaving my original surgeon and switching to these local docs.

I visited two local orthopedic surgeons, one more experienced with sports trauma and the other more of a hand/wrist/arm specialist. Both seem extremely confident and have excellent bedside manner, something that was lacking profusely with my original surgeon. I actually spent over 45 minutes discussing my situation with the hand/wrist/arm specialist and was surprised to learn I am 10-12 years past the age where a gap such as the one my ulna has would be expected to grow. Both surgeons were concerned that I'd been left in a cast for 4 months, and both suggested that we remove the cast and start physical therapy. The purpose of therapy was multi-facted, primarily to regain range of motion and strength in preparation for a bone graft surgery, but also to increase blood flow to the nonunion site and see if we couldn't convince that bone to grow without surgery.

On August 3, nearly four months after I flew over my handlebars in the Sagebrush Safari, I had the cast cut off and felt a sense of liberation words cannot describe. Initially I was very apprehensive about my arm, feeling that it was fragile and that a simple bump against the wall could break it. As it turns out, stainless steel and 6 screws do a pretty good job of holding a bone together. Re-breaking the bone is certainly possible, but I am able to go about my daily life with almost no notice of my arm other than the occasional aching pain and lack of rotation. It's very odd to consider that my arm is still broken.

I started physical therapy with a fantastic therapist who has been a joy to work with, despite the pain she puts me in. I've learned that physical therapists often give the best advice, as they see the work of all different surgeons and basically are around to fix what the doctors mess up. The good news is that my bones near the fracture site look healthy and my strength is returning at a quick rate. The bad news is that I have a lot of hardware in my arm, and it's getting in they way of my rotational movement. Supination, the rotation of the wrist to palm up, is extremely painful and I still have about 90 degrees to get through. I'll go to PT for 2 more weeks, then we'll get updated x-rays and decide what to do next. Likely I will receive a bone graft in September, taken from the Iliac Crest bone in my hip. Using my own bone will give us the best chance of the bone growing.

In addition to physical therapy, I have started commuting to work on a recumbent bike and have started doing some serious hiking and running. I would venture to say that I'm in better overall fitness at this moment than I was before my crash, when I was near the peak of my biking fitness. I've been spending a lot of time in the local mountains around 8,000-10,000' elevation, and hiking with a pack seems to be more of a whole body workout than biking.

Most importantly, I feel fantastic both mentally and physically. That feeling of being fortunate that my injury was not worse has finally surfaced and become reality, not just something I'm trying to convince myself of. I love waking up in the morning, I love going to work, I love mundane tasks like going to the grocery store or sweeping my floor... I think you get the point. My attitude reminds me of a Radiohead song, "Fitter, happier, more productive," without the cynical part that follows, "a pig, in a cage, on antibiotics".

So, now you're up to speed. Hopefully from this point forward I'll start updating more regularly. For those of you who read multiple blogs, might I suggest that you start using Google Reader (or a similar RSS reader). It allows you to follow any number of blogs without visiting all these different websites -- each update appears similar to a new email in your inbox, for you to peruse at your convenience. Very handy and very cool.

And with that, I'll leave you with a few pictures from the past four months.

Climbing Mt. Baldy for the first time, highest point in the San Gabriel Mountains

Driving up to Big Sur along the Pacific Coast

Fourth of July trip to Mammoth to visit Katie

Backpacking with Katie in the High Sierra

Hiking Islip Ridge in the San Gabriel Mountains above Los Angeles

Bighorn sheep along Islip Ridge

My "new" 1983 Toyota pickup

Hiking with Sheba (coworker's dog) up Cucamonga Peak

Morning hike near Mt. Baldy

On Pine Mountain Ridge, with Mt. Baldy in the background (right)

My new recumbent

The San Antonio Ridgeline, a future hiking goal

Thursday, April 16, 2009

A Tale of Two Breaks

Well, I did it now. After about 7 years of biking (but less than 1 of real serious mountain biking) I broke my first bone(s). I went over-the-bars during a fast downhill section in the Sagebrush Safari US Cup race on April 5, my second race as a Cat 1 racer. Landed (I assume) on my left arm and suffered a compound fracture of both my ulna and radius about 4" up from my wrist.

From Broken Arm
I was having a great race, enjoying the scenery and course and was really into the last long descent when I lost balance on a series of small rollers and flew over the bars. I think I was riding the front wheel into the last roller and couldn't bring the rear down before hitting the incline.

It felt like any other OTB crash; I stood up, assessed my head, neck, back, all felt good. Knew that I was a little scratched up. A fellow racer named Justin passed me and asked if I was OK, to which I replied, "Yeah I'm fine!". At this point I bent to reach for my bike and saw my arm pulling this wild gooseneck trick I had never seen it do before, S-shaped with the ulna protruding about 1-2". "Oh, wait! I broke my arm!".

As Justin came to help it became quite clear to me that I was in shock. I felt completely calm, felt zero pain, and I actually wondered if I was really looking at my own arm. I was already up and walking. Justin helped me stabilize my left hand with my right hand, I was trying to straighten my hand but my bones were all that moved. He took my bike and kept the trail clear as we walked down, all the while telling me I'd be OK. We cut through the brush to the paved road, and hiked some more. This all could've lasted 5 minutes or an hour, I have no idea. We stopped a passing truck and serendipitously the passenger was an anesthesiologist. They loaded me in the back, we found the course medics and they wrapped and stabilized my arm, put me on oxygen, and we started the drive back down.

I was loaded into the ambulance about an hour later thanks to the help of many people acting calmly and efficiently. I have no words to express my gratitude or amazement at how well I was taken care of, but thank you to anybody who played a part in this, I owe you an arm (or at least a beer!).

The paramedics put me on antibiotics and morphine right away. My capillary refill, which was almost 10 seconds after the fall, was back down to 1/2 second on the ride to the hospital and I was beginning to feel slight pain.

We checked into Grossmont Hospital in La Mesa and I was again amazed at how quick and friendly everyone at the ER was. They dressed my wounds, took x-rays, and got me all cleaned up for surgery while joking around. Eventually my surgeon arrived and, after unwrapping my arm, she broke into a huge smile and said, "This is going to be fun!".

Of course I remember nothing of the surgery. The anesthesiologist was talking about the history channel and before I knew it I was awake in a cast. Surgery took over 3 hours and she ended up having to shorten the ulna due to dirt ground into the bone, in fact she said the whole wound was filled with dirt and required extensive cleaning. I have a small 1-2mm gap in the ulna which will require about 3 months to completely re-grow if all goes well. I was on antibiotics for 72 hours to minimize the risk of infection before being released last night to the comfort of my own bed.

From Broken Arm
More on how life has been after the break later! I can say that I was extremely fortunate to have such a "simple" injury. Screw on a few plates, close everything up, wait a few months, and hopefully I'll be back in business. This could've been much more serious, such as anything dealing with joints, my neck or back, or even my brain. Heck, I'm even right-handed and still have full use of my right arm. Even if I do walk around like C-3P0 now...

From Broken Arm

UPDATE: Justin's account of the accident is worth a read:

I was pushing hard on the descent. Everything was clicking! I was in full BMX mode pumping and doubling up bumps. My Specialized Sworks Stumpjumper HT was on FIRE! I was passing quite a few people and came upon a group of three that obviously had a slow guy not letting people pass. I yelled up that he had three people back and needed to let everyone pass. Shortly afterward he graciously pulled aside and the pace came back up some. I was starting to think that it would be best not to pass and just stay where I was at as we were nearing the bottom of the descent when the guy at the front made some sort of mistake at very high speed.

The guy in front of me speed checked, swerved to miss the downed rider's bike and sped off. I braked hard and asked if he was alright, he replied that he was... for some reason I hesitated for an extra second and he turned to face me and said calmly, "I think I broke my arm." I had only seen one other compound fracture, but there was no mistaking that he had broken his arm!!!!

I dropped my bike and ran back to help. I made sure he could walk and then sent him walking in front of me while I pushed both bikes. Another rider came up from behind and helped to slow down traffic. Once we got to the road I looked both directions and saw a truck coming up the road through race traffic. I flagged him down and let him know what the situation was and that we needed help. The driver of the truck was extremely helpfull and we got Jeff into the back and tried to help make him comfortable. The drove off up the road in search of aid while I pedaled my bike up the hill, pushing Jeff's Kona.

Some distance up the hill the race officials had dispatched paramedics in a Rhino and they met the truck and were working on Jeff. They asked to take his bike and I was glad to no longer be riding two bikes! :) My legs were almost as toasted as my mental state after the ordeal.

Monday, January 19, 2009

A Tale of Two Deserts

"Take your time here, too, and let the desert take hold of you. Joshua Tree National Park provides a haven from everyday routines, space for self-discovery, a refuge for the human spirit, and a sense of place in the greater scheme of things."
- National Park Service

I've spent two of the three weekends of 2009 exploring the nooks and crannies of Joshua Tree National Park. Given the way things are going, I have a feeling I'll be there most weekends through February, and maybe even into March. There are lots of nooks and crannies to be explored.

My first visit to Joshua Tree was in 2005 with my friend Lizo. While that was a great trip, we didn't have much time to explore and probably spent less than 36 hours in the park. We drove the main road, camped at two of the campgrounds and did a short hike to an oasis. Back then, the park seemed to me to be filled with vast swaths of inaccessible desert landscapes. Boy was I wrong. Joshua Tree is criss-crossed with dirt roads and hiking "corridors", as they call them, leading into all sorts of exciting locations. In addition, a great portion of the park is wilderness, open for off-trail bushwhacking, which is surprisingly easy in the desert. See a big rock out there that entices you? No problem -- pull over and walk towards it. In 30 minutes, turn around and be amazed how far you've made it.

Getting to Joshua Tree requires a 2-hour drive to escape the L.A. Basin, often with rush hour traffic, but once there it feels amazingly isolated. Arrive on a Friday night, lose your worries in the milky way, soak in the desert on Saturday and Sunday, return to civilization Sunday night.

Rinse and repeat.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

A SoCal Snowshoe

Today I woke up with an idea for adventure -- climb Mt. San Antonio (aka Mt. Baldy), the 10,064' mountain that towers over about 10 million people, and see the Santa Ana winds in all their glory at the same time. The Santa Ana winds come a few times a year and blow from Nevada down through southern California, they'll last a few days and winds gusts can be 40-50 mph in places. We had a wind event start yesterday, scheduled to end tomorrow, and while I don't even notice them where I live (thanks, mountains) I knew they'd be strong up on top of the mountains.

I've always had a strange attraction towards horrendous weather. Of course, part of me wishes for endless days of "sunny and 72", but there's something satisfying about standing on the shore of Lake Superior during a winter blizzard, or biking in a thunderstorm, that commands a deep respect for the power of nature.

The mountains have been snow covered for about a month now, so I strapped my snowshoes to my pack and headed out. The Baldy trailhead is a 20-minute drive from my apartment, and starts at 4,000' elevation. I made it to about 9,200' before the winds were too strong and my snowshoes weren't cutting it for the icy slopes, so I turned around.

The winds literally knocked me over 3 or 4 times, and their low humidity chapped my skin. At some point in the video below I think I said "feels like burning". Sorry for the poor audio quality.

Mt. Baldy + Santa Ana Winds from Jeff D. on Vimeo.

Pretty cool to have a snowshoe adventure in southern California, even cooler that 20 minutes after reaching my car, I was back to 65 degree temps and was able to squeeze in a short mountain bike ride.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

2008 in Photos

December 2008 Mileage: 485.3
2008 Total Mileage: 5475.1

January, traveling through Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and southern jungles.February, trip to Albuquerque and XC skiing on my lunch breaks.
March, snowshoeing with Jay in Canada and visiting Canada's wind turbines.
April, I didn't take a single photo! For shame.

May, making the drive from Michigan to California, via Colorado and Utah.
June, seeing mountains while I wash my dishes.
July, trip to Yosemite to visit old friends.August, riding Glendora Mountain Road with a local bike club.
September, racing in 24 Hours of Adrenaline at Hurkey Creek.
October, getting my first taste of backcountry mountain biking near Wrightwood.
November, back to Michigan to visit the newest member of the family.
December, Christmas in San Diego with people I love.
It's been an eventful year, filled with some great losses and some great gains. Hard to believe that exactly one year ago I was wandering down a road near Cancun, Mexico, completely unaware that I'd be moving to California and starting an entirely new phase of life. It's very exciting to think what the new year will bring, but at the same time it's a little frightening how fast all these experiences have come and gone. It's almost like life is pouring through a faucet like water, and I'm holding my hands underneath trying to catch it all; most slips through my fingers, but I'm able to catch and hold onto a little. This is why I love taking pictures and documenting my experiences, partially to share with others, but for me these pictures hold much more meaning that what meets the eye. No words could ever describe their depth.

While I have no specific goals for 2009, I'd like to work on my ability to stop and "smell the roses". Happy new year to all!