This story of Natasha Richardson is really freaking me out. I’ve been a skier since I was sixteen, and I only recently started wearing a helmet, which, honestly, was provoked by Michael who aptly pointed out that I wore a helmet on my bike and asked why I wouldn’t wear one skiing. I guess there was an element of narcissism involved with this–how could I be a cool ski bunny with a dorky helmet on? This was a similar qualm I had when I first started wearing the “egg crate” on my head while cycling. I figured I’d ridden a bike since childhood without a helmet, why start now? And, as a child, I used to jump ramps with my bike. I practiced a lot more daring behaviors that I don’t do now.
Of course, I still wore a helmet. And it’s a good thing. The reason for wearing a helmet finally became obvious to me one day a few years ago in Colorado when I hit a dog about a block from my house while commuting home from work. The dog came out of nowhere and was pretty damned lucky that I was not in a car, for he would surely have died. Instead, he ran out in front of a cyclist going 25mph or better, who was trying to get to over 30mph to make a speed sign flash.
That was one of the scariest events of my life and that is why I bring it up often. I was knocked unconscious on impact. The last thing I remember was the sensation–not the sight or sound–of hitting the dog. And then I woke up in an ambulance with the commotion of paramedics working over me. I didn’t remember hitting the dog and I couldn’t remember where I was. One of the paramedics asked me if I remembered what had happened and I must have looked at him confused because he prompted, “You hit a dog…?”
Everything came back to me at that moment in fast-forward. It had rained that day and I had stopped at a BP station to wait out the storm about 5 miles from my house. An hour later, the storm passed, I had gotten back on my bike and rode the rest of the way home. As I said, I was a block from my house, revving up the rpms to get the permanent speed sign by my house to flash because I thought it was funny to speed on a bike, and then the little white dog ran out in front of me. I’d tried to simultaneously brake and pull my feet out of the clips. I was going too fast and we collided. And then I woke up in the ambulance.
It was scary. I always look back to that day with the thought that I could have died at that moment and never have known it. (If there is no life after death, that is.) Only blackness–a void of time–fills that space between the crash and waking up in the ambulance. I must have hit the road forward, for I had road rash on my face. After observation at the hospital, and a few CT scans, it was determined I had had a concussion, but that I was generally okay. I had a piercing headache for two days after, however.
I’ll never forget when I got home and found my helmet left in my yard by the police who had apparently arrived at the scene to my unconscious body. It had a huge dent on one side. As I held that helmet in my shaky hands, I thought, “This could have been my head.”
The dent in the helmet is forever engraved in my memory. I will never forget the way it looked. That helmet may very well have saved my life. It definitely saved me from more serious brain injury. Since that day, I’ve never gotten on a bike–any bike–for any length of ride–quick or long–without wearing my helmet. You just don’t know what could happen along the way. I wear a helmet on the towpath with the Beast; I wear a helmet to take my bike two miles to the library; I wear my helmet to test ride my bike down the street. All it takes is two seconds for something unexpected to happen. Two seconds could be your life.
So it was all this in mind that encouraged me to start wearing a helmet while skiing. I can’t believe I let my vanity rule all those years and I never wore one. Especially since I quite often will force myself down a hill on which I’m not comfortable because I like the challenge. With my speed starting to increase with confidence, I know that I increase my risk. I will always wear a helmet now–especially in light of this Natasha Richardson incident–because my brain is one of the most important things in my body (the heart probably being a close second). It’s the control center for my life. I just have too much to lose by exposing it to injury.
It’s really hard for me to imagine that someone could injure themselves fatally while taking a lesson on a beginner hill. I wonder what kind of hit she took to the head–it must have been pretty hard. Or maybe it just happened that she hit it in “the right place.” Life is so fragile. And it’s sad that because of one two-second decision she could have made–to not wear a helmet–it affected the outcome of her life. And because head injuries are so weird–you may feel okay immediately after it–she refused medical help the first time around. That’s very sobering. Who hasn’t done that? When we fall during any activity, most of us just get up and try to get over the embarrassment. We pat ourselves down and if nothing is immediately hurting, we don’t make a big fuss. In her situation, would I have sought medical treatment? I’m thinking not, if I felt okay. This incident really makes me think. I might become a total hypochondriac every time I take a hit to the head now and show up at a hospital for examination!
Richardson’s story also brings to mind my recent skiing trip to HV where my friend R took a pretty hefty hit to the head when she fell at high speed on an expert run. She was wearing a helmet, fortunately, when her head hit the pipe of a snow machine. Like Richardson, she got up and after the initial shakiness in the aftermath of a fast fall, she said she felt fine. We skied back to the lodge and had lunch the whole while. None of us thought to take her to the hospital at that particular moment nor did she want to go. She actually wanted to continue skiing out the rest of the day!
R didn’t end up skiing the rest of the day–she was sore by the time we finished lunch. She did have herself checked out by a doctor a week later, but for Richardson a week was too late. Was the helmet the difference in these two cases?
I realize you can take all the precautions you want when participating in athletic endeavors. Ultimately, though, random chance has the final say. If you take a hit to the head in just the “right” spot or just the “right” series of events takes place, everything can go so wrong so quickly. I think that’s the thing that scares me most about life, that you can be as safe as you want but it still might not matter because shit still happens. I’ve had to battle the depression of this fact every day since Mike died. Stories like Richardson’s case just pushes the thoughts back to the surface. And I realize just how scared I am of random chance.
It’s not going to stop me from doing the things I love, though. I could die skiing or I could die driving to work in the morning. Or I could get cancer or MS or diabetes. I just don’t know what’s up the road. I can do everything I have the power to control to make it harder for ill fate to befall me, but at the end of the day, I have to submit myself to life and just accept what is to be. That’s really hard for me to do.
Anyway, I reiterate that wearing helmets while cycling, skiing, riding motorcycles, rollerblading, etc, is vital. It isn’t a free pass to safety, but it will at least make it harder to seriously injure your brain. I cringe every time I see a cyclist out there without a helmet, especially when they are on the road where falling from your own mistake is the least of your worries when you’re sharing your route with cars. I cringe when I see un-helmeted toodlers on the Bike & Hike as well. You just don’t know what lies around the next bend in the road/path. Even at low speeds, you could hurt yourself in an unexpected fall.
I’ve seen more skiers take to helmets in the recent years as well; when I started skiing, barely anyone wore them. I think we’re all beginning to realize how important safety is in these activities. Maybe Richardson’s tragic accident will help to make other skiers aware of the dangers of skiing without a helmet.
In saying this, I definitely do not minimize the sad outcome of this story. In some ways, I think I empathize too much with the situation, being a widow, and I think about how events like this change everything forever. I can’t pretend to know how Richardson and Neeson’s marriage was–they are famous and almost on another plane of existence from us common folk–but I’m still brought into the situation by thinking of my own. One moment, you’re life is going pretty good; the next, everything is gone. Sometimes it’s really not your fault at all (as was the case with my husband). It’s not what you were expecting when you got up that morning–that the whole world would change within mere hours. The unexpected is what knocks you over in moments of just plain living. The desire to change the outcome once it’s occurred is overwhelming, the “what ifs” can drive you insane. And I bet somewhere in Neeson’s thoughts–or the thoughts of Richardson’s other family members–is something along the lines of, “Why didn’t I ask her to wear a helmet?” or “Why did she have to go skiing?”
What’s done is done. Mistakes cannot be undone. And in the end, really, it is no one’s fault. Sometimes shit just happens. No use ruminating about whether she should or shouldn’t have worn a helmet because it’s too late–there’s no sense in entertaining the “what-ifs.” My heart goes out to Liam Neeson, Richardson’s two children, and Richardson’s family. Just because they are famous doesn’t mean I can’t empathize. It just goes to show you that we’re all marooned on the same island of Random Chance. No one is immune.