Our passions make us who we are. Passions must be indulged. Riding a bike is one of my great passions. I own five bikes and desperately need another. The formula for the number of bikes a cyclist needs is n + 1 (n being the number the cyclist already has!). Whether up hill or down dale, the longer, harder and faster the better. I simply love to ride.
In his book ‘It’s all about the bike‘, given to me by good friend Richard Caddick, Robert Penn captures why we ride: “I ride to get to work, to keep fit, to bathe in air and sunshine, to escape when the world is breaking my balls, to savour the physical and emotional fellowship of riding with friends, to travel, to stay sane, to skip bath time with my kids, for fun, for a moment of grace, occasionally to impress someone, to scare myself and to hear my boy laugh.”
There are more I could add as a designer; inspire design ideas, solve a design problem. Some are more important than others but ‘for a moment of grace’ is a key reason I ride. I train and race mountain bikes. All in an effort to attain that moment of grace or flow on a bike. Head down, arms tucked and aerodynamic. Core tight, controlled and pedals flying. All for that moment of grace, when it all comes together and it flows. This winter, I had put in place a great base to compete well in the 2011 season. The National Championships were on the cards again, after scoring my first national points last year. The Leadville 100 in Colorado was a possibility. I enter each year, hoping for success in the lottery for selection. I had done two weeks hard training in the winds and hills of Lanzarote. Winter training was bitterly cold at times. The miles were under the belt.
I’ve always been a lucky cyclist. Small and lightweight, I’ve taken my fair share of falls. I fall well. My luck ran out, not on the side of a mountain, but on the side of a road near my home on the 18th Jan, as I cycled to Mild Bunch HQ to work with my Analog Coop and Mapalong buddies: @dotjay, @jontangerine, @shiflett, and @FictiveCameron.
The chair lift
I was cycling at about 15 miles per hour on a straight piece of road. The sun was bright. It was a cold but beautiful Winter’s morning. Brushing the branches with my shoulder, I was well positioned on the road, as far in as possible. Then, something happened, which my mind could not process. Without an answer, my mind made something up. Telling me the vast increase in speed and the huge impact from behind, was because I was now on a chair lift. My vision became dark and tunnel like, I clearly remember. My response surprised me. I didn’t panic! Maybe that’s how my mind intended it. This chair lift, then dumped me off. Luckily into the side of the road. It was over and I was conscious.
Have others experienced a similar phenomena? Where the mind makes up something when it can’t process what’s going on. There’s research demonstrating that the mind can incorrectly fill in gaps left from our fading memory, but this was new to me. I’m baffled and intrigued.
As I lay on the cold road, I became aware that I had been hit by something. Everything went as you’d expect. People gathered around. The scene was frantic. A lady held my head off the cold, hard road. Her hand was warm. Gently telling me that it would be okay. To stay with her. The emergency service, were quick and practiced. I was off the cold road and in an ambulance. I maintained consciousness.
I didn’t realise at the time but my MacBook Pro being in my backpack, took a huge impact and is a write-off. Right underneath this impact was where my back bone is broken in two places. Luckily the Mac took some of the force away from my spine, as you can see below, saving further injury.
Apple saved my legs if not my life, you could say! Not panicking may very well have helped too. I went the direction I was taken, which luckily was into the hedge, rather than back onto the road and oncoming traffic.
It’s thought I was hit by the side door and wing mirror of a large flatbed van. For many a cyclist, poor design of wing mirrors has lead to great injury. Some are metal and do not fold back on impact, causing great injury. The design of this mirror did not take into consideration its contact with the world around it. Certainly not contact with a softy like me.
The pain was full on now, all down my right hand side. Morphine injections flowed. Oxygen helped with difficult breathing. Frustratingly, uttering my name to help the emergency services, was not possible. Surprisingly, amid all of this, as the medic struggled to take my heart rate, I smiled. There’s either something wrong with the machine, or this guy was seriously fit, I heard him say, which brought on a grin of pride in my Winter’s efforts. I knew then, that I was still with it. My head was no bigger than before! My bike came with me in the ambulance. It also accompanied me to A&E. I wondered when I’d be back in the saddle again. I couldn’t contemplate life without this passion. My recovery already had focus.
The past two weeks, I don’t wish to recount. They were dark. I am very lucky, for lots of reasons. There are people that have to endure a lot more pain and suffering. I had a glimpse and it scared the shit out of me. My heart goes out to anyone going through such trauma. Hospital requires a new vocabulary; intravenous, haemoglobin, pulse, surgical, injections, bloods, bowels, to list but a few of unpleasant words. With the love and support of my wife, Jane, I got through it. Hospitals are no place to get well. I was pure delighted to get home to see my two daughters again.
Two and a half weeks on, I lie here on my good side, typing between naps. My spine is broken. My liver and more importantly, my right kidney have stopped bleeding. I’m less yellow too! The bruised lung inhibits breathing less now. The right side of my body has massive muscle and tissue damage. Time will heal I hope. Of all the mountain bike challenges I’ve done, six hour or twelve hour, this recovery represents the biggest challenge yet. Like all challenges, the mental side is key to success. I know this much. The Leadville 100 motto states, ‘You’re better than you think you are and you can do more than you think.’ This motto focuses on ‘think’ because the people, who run or bike this 100-mile course at 10,000 feet, know to get through it, mental strength is everything. Depending on the various scans, tests, physio and without problems, I hope to walk, swim, run and cycle again. Lets see what time brings.
A designer hospitalised
While in hospital, what was I to do? I was in pain and needing something to take my mind off it. I looked to another passion of mine, design for inspiration. There was little around me to inspire.
Beautiful things make us happy
Hospitals are all about function and utility. They focus on the individual’s physical, rather than emotional or spiritual well-being. Purposefully, hospitals remove all aesthetic from the patient’s surrounds. The approach seems to be, heal the body and the mind will follow! Many hospitals in the UK even remove flowers. Who’s to argue? In practical terms, it works. There’s two sides to recovery, as there are two sides to people: physical and mental. These are inextricably linked. In my experience, hospitals could cater better for the emotional side of recovery. As humans, we’re pre-wired to like things of beauty. Symmetry, colour, form and balance make us happy. Good design makes us happy, as Don Norman points out in his book ‘Emotional Design‘ (Why we love everyday things). Hospitals are devoid of any beauty by design. This compels us to want to leave, and makes them poor places to get well mentally. This got me down after a period of time. I longed for something beautiful to emotionally connect with, to lift my spirits. There was nothing. Perhaps, this is someplace where hospitals can improve.
A patient’s experience
Being in a road accident, my injuries were not contained to one area of the body. A team of doctors dealt with each of the injuries: one each for liver, kidney and orthopaedic. Each specialist, each excellent, but no one taking a holistic view of my well-being. With one group advocating mobility and another total bed rest, I received mixed messages and was left confused – not knowing whether to sit up or lie down.
This process is reminiscent of how some large sites and companies operate. Each department doing their best individually, in a silo. Just as in health care, this disjointed approach leads to an inconsistent experience for people using a web site. As on some web sites we use, the long tail is less planned and focused than the initial period of intense activity. This leads to inconsistency and sometimes neglect over the longer period. For a web site, this can be months or years. In A&E, this can be a matter of hours or days to go from intensive care, surgical to a recovery ward. I thought as I lay there, what if Apple did health care?
In the end…
There is a lesson to cyclists: it was important to the emergency services and everyone there after that I was waring a helmet, with a hi-visibility jacket and was well positioned on the road. This did not stop me being hit. It did deflect any blame away from me and onto the driver. I was told by Police, later in hospital, that they were looking to charge the driver with a serious driving offense. As cyclists, day or night, we need to do all we can to be seen. It not only puts us on the right side of the law, but it keeps us safe nearly all the time. Join the movement to bring hi-vis jackets back into fashion – it could save your life.
The triumph for me lies in the kindness of my family and also strangers. The hand under the head, the encouraging words, the visit from the police officer while off duty. The non-stop and uplifting support of my wife and kids and all my amazing family in Ireland. The past few weeks, the Irish Channel has seemed bridged. The amazing and continued support from other web professionals, though sites like Twitter, is nothing short of healing, priceless. I’m hugely proud to be a web professional. To be part of a cohesive and caring community, that keeps giving.
There’s the triumph of the human body in adversity. To take an impact and not only survive but start to mend itself. To unleash adrenaline when needed, which by comparison, is far more powerful than the best synthetic pain killer. I feel thankful and lucky to still be here. I thank my lucky stars I was wearing a backpack, helmet and didn’t panic. That I fell away from the road and not into oncoming traffic.
I will get around to thanking everyone individually, but for now here are some anonymous sentiments, which really helped heal:
“Good to hear you talking to us. It’s often a long journey to recovery. Take things minute by minute. Go easy on yourself.”
“So sorry to hear about your accident. Please God you’re now over the worst of it. As my late Mother would say about that van driver ‘that his hole may fester’. God bless you.”
“Wow, Alan! Life can be so shocking. You’re dear to my heart; wish wisdom for doctors; strength, healing, peace for you/family.”
“Send your prayers to @alancolville who get hit on his bike by some dope in a truck. He’s laid up in the hospital plotting his revenge.”
“Relieved to hear I still live in a world with marvellous You in it. Sending good vibes.”
Thanks to @colly for this touching video dedication from the New Adventures conference, which I missed due to the accident. At the conference, designer and fellow Analog Coop colleague, Jon Tan, very kindly dedicated his talk to me. Chuffed!