Eager to get a start on the 2013 cycling season, we packed up our Bike Friday “Q” tandem and headed for an anniversary retreat on Lake Quinault, the southwest access to the Olympic National Park. It was a wonderful spring day, not to cool, not too warm for a ride along the south shore and up the river into the Park.
The journey took an hour and a half, compressed into a 12-minute video of the highlights, below:
The road does go all around the lake, but we had decided that was a bit too far for the first long ride of the season, so we turned around at the bridge across the river and retraced our path back to the ranger station, for a 35-Km ride. Later, we relaxed at the historic Lake Quinault Lodge, where we had stayed on our honeymoon, 28 years ago.
This was on Monday. On Friday, we decided to combine business with pleasure to get in some more riding. We loaded up the bike and drove to our son’s house in Olympia, near the Olympia-Woodland bicycle trail. In the morning, we rode east, then south on the Chehalis-Western Trail.
We turned around at the 10Km mark, where the rail-trail followed a dirt path along the present-day Amtrak line to detour along Rainier Road, and returned to our son’s house, using a side trail into his neighborhood.
Collecting our materials for our afternoon meeting, we headed back to the trail and continued west into downtown Olympia, to Traditions Cafe, on 5th and Water, a 5-km downhill cruise from the trail into the heart of the city, highlights shown in this video, to contrast with the wilderness tour earlier in the week:
After the meeting, we retraced our route (picking a more bicycle-friendly route out of the city core, on Legion Ave), we made the sharp turn onto the side path shown above, when disaster struck. The thin layer of leaves at the start of the path turned out to hide a layer of wet, slippery mud, and the front wheel skidded to the left, dumping us on our right sides heavily onto the asphalt trail.
I sustained a few abrasions, lacerations, and bruises, from falling on hip, back (cell phone in rear jersey pocket), elbow, shoulder, and helmet. But, Judy fell on her right shoulder and head. It quickly became apparent that, not only did she not remember falling, but she did not know where she was or what year it was, just that her neck and shoulder hurt.
With other injuries being minor, we remounted the bike and continued on the 300 meters to our car. Judy’s confusion continued, and my elbow was bleeding profusely, so we left the bike at our son’s house and drove to the Urgent Care Clinic. Being a Friday night in the city, the backlog for a CT scan at the nearby hospital was several hours, during which time her confusion continued, with complete amnesia, unable to maintain a thread of conversation more than 20 seconds without repeating the question. All she knew for sure was that we were in a medical facility in our bike clothes, and her shoulder and neck hurt, so something bad must have happened.
We don’t know a lot about the workings of memory in people, but we have devised information storage systems that, when they fail, act a lot like a person with a concussion. Brain science currently classifies memory as short-term (like looking up a phone number and then dialing it) and long-term (like that spectacular Bitterroot sunset in 2001), but what happens when a person sustains a head injury and suffers an episode of amnesia is more like when a computer “crashes.” In a computer system, “short term memory” are things we put in the processor registers and never commit to disk storage at all. In a person, and in a computer, events that happened recently that we intend to remember get put in volatile (meaning it goes away if we lose power) memory, then gets transferred to disk (long-term memory) over a period of a few seconds to minutes, sometimes hours. At the same time, we periodically make a second copy of everything we want to keep, in case something happens to the primary disk.
When we have a brain injury, all the short-term memory gets wiped out–we don’t have any recollection of what we were doing at the moment of injury. If severe enough, we don’t remember anything that happened for several hours before the incident, because a “backup” copy never got made, and we have to rebuild the medium-term memories from existing backups. When a computer disk is physically damaged, we can work around the damaged area and restore the lost data from backup, but need to take the entire disk off-line while this is done. When we first build a computer, we make a “recovery disk” that contains the computer’s identity and the network environment, like a person’s name and the names and images of close family members. When a person has persistent amnesia lasting several hours, it is like this: we may know our name and recognize family members and know their names, but don’t remember what day it is, and, because the “disk” containing our long-term memory is being rebuilt, we can’t store any short-term memory, so the entire time it takes for the pathways to be rebuilt to access the copy of our long-term memory, we don’t remember, either, after the damage is repaired.
Judy was lucky that she apparently didn’t have any internal bleeding, because that can block recovery of memories and functions for a long time, if not permanently, but she has not retained nor can she recover the memories from a few hours before the accident until we put ice on her head about eight hours afterward to reduce swelling and allow some short term memories to be saved and older memories to be recovered.
The next test will be, after she has recovered fully (I’ve said this will be after my external bruises, corresponding to her internal bruises, have faded completely), to resume riding. Even though she has no memory of the accident, there seems to be a deeper, physical memory not consciously accessible, and she might have some anxiety that can’t be rationalized. Time will tell. But, we have enjoyed traveling by bicycle so much that we should be able to overcome any such fears. Though, when I went for a ride by myself today, I was extra-cautious about muddy areas and areas of loose gravel. Two-wheeled vehicles are light, efficient, and highly maneuverable, but they are much more susceptible to irregular surfaces and local friction than 4-wheel vehicles.