With five kilometres to go, Emily broke from the peloton and sprinted for the finish line. Sylvia and Tashiqua stood up and pulled alongside her, blocking any moves by the riders in the field. Everyone knew what was happening. After the races last fall and the two this spring, Emily was becoming famous in women’s cycling, not only as the fresh new face on the circuit, but for her ability to sprint after gruelling hills. No one understood why a girl from Kansas could do that (except her mother, who did not grant interviews).
As the trio cleared the front of the pack, the two domestiques fell back and took their turn leading the peloton. Neither could have kept up with Emily anyway. The hills of the Shenandoah were cloaked in a thin layer of bright green, which signalled a new spring, but no one had time to admire the view.
The organizers were especially proud of this race. It was being held on the last weekend before the Blue Ridge Parkway reopened to tourist traffic. It had taken years of negotiating with the National Park Service to do it, but finally the growing interest in bicycling – and in women’s sports in general – wore down the career bureaucrats. That Sheila Barstock, the new Director of the NPS, had been a gold-medalist in the Olympics put the lie to any excuses about the seriousness of women’s athletics.
Emily pulled up to the pair of leaders, Augusta Bivens from California and Céline Daubry from France. For about 1 km, they rode essentially abreast, then Emily began inching ahead. With only 2 km to go, the other two pulled up, but never quite even. Emily dug down for that last bit of reserve that she kept for finish lines.
There were still at least six sharp curves to the tape. The police escort was struggling to stay ahead of the racers. Escorting professional bicycle races was not something that they were trained for, and they had not expected the women to be so damn fast! It was as if they did not even slow on the curves. They had no idea that these three women trained on curves to increase their speed, until any of them could round a hairpin at speeds that would push a sedan over the edge.
Five curves later, Emily was alone in front. She had no interest in where anyone else was as she took the last curve. The road flashed, and she saw it – a large oil stain. Then she was flying straight over the guardrail. In slow motion, she saw her Colnago sliding on its side and wedging under the guardrail. She twisted instinctively and tucked. She recognized a white oak from her Girl Scout Handbook, then everything went black…
A voice. Familiar. But who? “Hey, Emily. Over here.” She felt a hand on her cheek and opened her eyes. Bright blue eyes, high, sharp cheekbones in a black face, long black ponytail, big smile.
“Hilda.” She tried to move, but excruciating pain seared up her back.
“Down, girl,” Hilda stroked her cheeks gently. “Take it easy. We have to patch you up first, then you can fix the rest yourself. I’ll check in on you.”
Emily tried to smile but could only croak “Thanks” as she fell asleep…
More voices. Her mother, her stepfather, a man, two women. Slowly, she opened her eyes. The overhead light blinded her, and she squeezed them shut again.
“She’s awake!” her mother shouted. Emily heard the commotion, but kept her eyes shut. She turned her head and opened her eyes again. She knew she was in bad shape from their worried expressions, but she felt no pain. Just a floating sort of well-being.
“Hi, Mom” she croaked.
A nurse on one side and a doctor on the other (she guessed, one with a lab coat, the other not) began fussing about: adjusting IV drips, checking the sensors attached to her.
Her mother took her hand. Emily squeezed it and smiled.
“She’s heavily sedated,” said the doctor. “Please keep it short and simple. Details later.” He looked at Emily and smiled. “You’re going to be OK, Emily.”
“Thanks.” Emily smiled back and drifted into a blissful, dreamless sleep.
The surgeons at the University of Virginia Medical Center managed to set all the broken bones (three ribs, a clavicle, and a humerus). The punctured lung and the concussion worried them more, along with the dislocation in her back, which could have left her paralyzed, had the extraction team from the Pegasus helicopter not been as skilled as they were. The inflammation from the dislocated vertebrae healed first, the lung next, the bones last.
Hilda visited every day after Emily began staying awake. She could not stay with Emily any more than any other visitor, but the younger woman looked forward to those visits like nothing she had ever experienced. Every other day Hilda would show up in the afternoon wearing scrubs.
“You were the first person I saw after my crash,” she said one day. “Where was that?”
“In the ER. They had just flown you in on the Pegasus helicopter.”
“Oh. You work in ER?”
Hilda nodded and smiled. Emily took her hand and squeezed it.
“I’m glad you were there. I never expected to see you again.”
“Small world, isn’t it?”
“Was that you who fingered the terrorists in Chicago? I thought I recognized you from a news photo.”
Hilda nodded again. “I hardly fingered anyone. I just answered some questions for the agents and they figured out the rest.”
“Anyway, I thought it was cool. I wasn’t sure it was you.”
“My time’s up, Em. I’ll see you tomorrow.” She squeezed Emily’s hand rose to walk to the door.
Hilda stopped and turned around. “Yes?”
“Thanks. I’m glad you’re around when I get in a jam.”
“I’m glad, too, Em.”
By mid-April, Emily was able to return to their new home on Brandywine Drive.
“With her youth and all her exercise, she is bound to recover quickly,” the head surgeon had told her parents. “Get things to normal as quickly as she can take it.”
Emily spent her days exercising and studying. She knew that she could pass with the grades she had before Spring Break, but she hoped to be able to graduate on time and with her usual grade point average. She was in the rehabilitation wing for only a week, then her parents took turns driving her to day-long rehab on their way to and from work. Get to normal as quickly as she can take it: Emily had insisted on her parents returning to work as soon as possible.
Hilda came by rehab on her days off. The exercises in rehab were as tough as anything Emily remembered on the bicycle, because they were working muscles that she had taken for granted: arms, shoulders, back, etc. Hilda knew the team in rehab, who let her monitor Emily’s workouts. After rehab, Hilda would wait with Emily in the lobby for her mother to collect her. Once in a while, Hilda would ride to Brandywine Drive to have dinner with the Dempsey’s.
At last, the therapists agreed that she could go home and come back two or three times a week for just an hour.
“When can I ride?” she asked on the last day.
“Whenever you feel ready,” Dr. Morgan, her attending physician said. “Just have someone nearby when you first set out, in case we were wrong about something.”
Emily rode to school the first day, with her mother trailing in the Mercedes. Her classmates made a very brief show of welcoming her back as they gathered their things in their lockers.
A couple of weeks before final exams, Emily walked into the nurse’s office. It had been all she could do to finish the essay in Advanced English Composition, and she had bolted from the classroom, leaving her backpack at her desk.
“What’s the problem, Emily? I’m not surprised to see you after what you have been through.” Josepha Gladdins had raced bicycles before college, marriage and two children had taken her away. She had returned to her hometown only last year – minus the husband.
“It all hurts, Ms. Gladdins. I’ve got a pounding headache and pain all over.”
“Didn’t they give you painkillers when you left the hospital?”
“Yes. But I took the last one two days ago.”
“Do you remember what it was?”
“What was the dosage?”
“Up to three times a day as needed.”
“And I take it you ‘needed’.”
Emily nodded. Josepha looked at her for a long time, then took a pencil flashlight to her eyes, mouth and ears, and squeezed different parts, especially the arm that had been broken and her shoulders.
“Does the pain change?”
“No, but the headache is worse. Do I need to go to the doctor?”
“Yes, you do, but let me warn you about Percocet.”
“It’s an opiate, right? We learned about them in Physical Education.”
“It is, and a powerful one. I am concerned that the pain is not where you were injured. It may be a sign of withdrawal.”
“You mean I’m an addict.”
“I did not say that. But you need to be careful. The doctor may give you more painkillers, because they often do for people recovering from severe trauma, like you. But you need to pay attention to the pain, not just dull it or go for the high.”
“But – “ Emily’s eyes got wide with alarm.
“Easy, Emily. I have an idea, but you, your parents and your doctor need to buy into it, or I would be out of line. You know about the ‘endorphin high’, don’t you?”
“Of course, I get mine about 30 km out.”
“I guessed as much, watching you on TV.” Emily blushed, as the nurse continued. “It’s not a high as much as the endorphins acting as super painkillers, allowing you not to feel the stress you are putting on your body.”
“Still feels good.”
“Yes, but what is feeling good is the dopamine that the body releases into the brain as you exercise. Here’s the catch: the opiate painkillers not only dull pain, but they dull the body’s ability to create the dopamine high by deadening the brain’s receptors. That way, you get all this pain after the opiate wears off.”
“What can I do? This pain is killing me.”
“What would you do if you had a choice between an endorphin high and taking a pill?”
“Get on my bike!” Emily almost shouted. It made her head pound. “But I only started riding two weeks ago. Mom trails me on my ride to school. Pretty lame.”
“I thought so. That is why you have to be careful. The painkillers will deaden your receptors if you stay on them, so it will be harder to get the dopamine high to kick in. But endorphins will always do some good. How much pain did you have in rehab?”
“None, but I had the painkillers then.”
“Good point. You probably should have supervision, or at least keep your doctor and parents informed, but I say get back on that bike and get in racing form as soon as you can. You may find that the headache goes away while you are exercising, even if it comes back until you get over the withdrawal.”
“I can handle that – I think.”
“Good. I have some acetaminophen I can give you, just to get home, but don’t take more than six of these a day. Bad for the liver.” She put some Tylenol in a small pouch and gave it to Emily.
“Thanks, Ms. Gladdins.”
“I hope that I will be on the sidelines watching you again soon.”
“I hope so, too, maybe after this summer.”
Emily trotted back to her home room. It made her head hurt at first, but she pushed that down, determined to get her heart rate up.
“Emily! Over here!” Her mother waved from the parking lot. Emily wheeled her Bianchi Volpe out to the asphalt and mounted.
“Come on, Mom. Race you home!”
“Emily – !”
Katherine jumped into her Mercedes and followed her young speed demon across the parking lot. Emily’s head stopped hurting by the time she crossed Grove Road and hit the hill on Concord Drive. She was going to be OK. She knew it.
Until next time,
Smooth roads and tailwinds,