One Second: A True Story about the Thin Time between Life and Death

Last weekend I attended the 4th Annual Sierra Writers Conference at Sierra College in Grass Valley, California. It was educational and inspiring! At the end of the day, I participated in a small critique group led by author and teacher Sands Hall. Listening to others’ work and hearing feedback on mine is quite gratifying.

Today I am sharing with you One Second, the story I brought to the conference for critique (edited after conference and memoir class).

The following is the true story of the accident that caused my first round of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This story is part of my memoir Flight of a Change Agent – Memoir of a Social Worker:  Finding, losing, and regaining self-identity through grief and trauma.  (tentative title)

ONE SECOND

Let go in 3 seconds – become a statistic or, let go in 2 seconds – become a statistic, but maybe not a dead one.

The day I became a statistic was a bit like a rodeo: horses, cowboys, cowgirls, a horse bucking and running. Missing was the beer, trophies, and an announcer whipping up the audience’s enthusiasm. My audience was a club of riders aghast that one of their own had just met the curb, head first.


Party over; there’d be no Christmas caroling on horseback through the streets of Lincoln, California that year.

“Kitt” had spooked before anyone could belt out “Deck the Halls.” An American Quarter Pony with the spirit of a naughty sprite, reddish-brown body, black legs, and flowing black-flaxen mane and tail, he was the perfect size for my vertical limitations. That day he was particularly hot, “souped-up” on grain, like a dragster revving up and ready to go the mile.

A rusty orange Vega parked in a most inopportune place, behind us. Hoof through a headlight, a race to escape the devil. I let go. Gravity did its thing, insisting on cooperation.

Every moment branded on my bruised brain.

I knew every bump of the highway to the hospital; time slowed like the flow of clotted blood.

The ER doc and staff greeted me.  Nearly five years as a hospital phlebotomist, co-workers tend to recognize you, even horizontal without your lab coat. I wondered if my face was as red as the flashing ambulance lights, or my sticky left hand.

Trauma doctor and part-time local vintner: “Bonnie, next time wear a helmet.” Yes, okay, I got it. Cool. But, wait, a helmet? Not in the crowd I ride with. Not cool. Rationale?  I flashed back to the Un-helmeted Cowboy at a horse training one year: “Remember Christopher Reeves? If he wasn’t wearing a helmet, his neck would not have taken the force of the fall. The energy would have gone somewhere else.”  Hmm, lemme see, a crushed skull is better?

“Shoot him,” I commanded to my friend’s husband as my gurney rolled down the hall to the CT scan room. I was mad at myself for getting on him when my gut said Don’t less than an hour before the devil possessed an old Vega. While Kitt was still tied to the trailer, I had barely managed to get his attention long enough to get him saddled up. I was mad I had made another riding mistake. I had been living with the frequent sharp jab in my thoracic rib area from another day I’d met the plowed ground ungracefully. I was mad at Kitt. For being a spaz when I needed to trust him. Thankfully my friends recognized a Gorked Bonnie when they saw one, and so, the rascal lived to graze another day.

Trauma doctor: “Raccoon eye indicates a basilar skull fracture, even though we can’t see it in the scan.” Unseen also was the process of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder hijacking my brain. A mild traumatic brain injury setting in for the long haul.

World spinning but alert, into a regular room I went, across the hall from the ICU Waiting Room. 24-hour Observation.

Fractured skull, hair bloodied and matted around the stitches on the back of my head, unable to sleep, my hearing was acute. Hospital staff: “He’s bleeding internally, we have to stop the bleeding,” to the trailing family as they whooshed the gurney past the open door of my room. I felt the shock along with the family, whoever they were, and knew there was little time to adjust to the news. The surgical doors were not far.

Shortly thereafter, at 2:05 am, I heard, “he didn’t make it.”

“WHY? GOD, WHY?” could be heard in the foothills 16 miles away. The woman ran wailing out the front doors of the hospital. I saw her through my window, my room being between the front doors and the ICU waiting room. Room 100.

One second. It could have been my mother wailing at God’s cruelty.  

One more second and I would have slid between the front legs of my horse who was running from the devil. Trampled. Dead in the street. End of story. How a person can think this scenario through in a matter of a second or two is beyond my scope of understanding. But, I did. I knew.

When he kicked the headlight, the buck threw me out of the saddle. I let go while hanging upside down, left foot up over his thick neck, my head hanging down like a toddler’s ragdoll dragged about by the feet.

PTSD would play a role in my life for years to come but, it was nearly a year before I told my story and symptoms to a teacher. I was a senior in the social work program at California State University, Sacramento by then and I had gone to her office to talk about a paper I’d written. I had been having trouble remembering things I heard in class and people’s names, still feeling dizzy sometimes, and constantly worrying someone was going to bang the back of my head. I was highly emotional when I shared certain aspects of my life, particularly my drug addict husband, which no doubt put people off. I told her about how just thinking about riding made me tremble, sweat, and cry. My heart would pound all the way up into my ears. And of course, telling her what I was going through brought it all on. I told my teacher I could have died. She told me I had PTSD.

I never climbed back on that particular spirited wind-chaser named Kitt. Six weeks after the accident, traumatic brain injury still healing, the world spun as I tried to lead him out of his corral into the care of the Un-helmeted Cowboy.  

When I rode again, 4 or 5 months later, it was on a veteran “bombproof” Appaloosa named Apache.  He was a gentle, white and black splotched gelding with black mane and tail. He took good care of me but, my heart never stopped racing. The joy of riding left on that bloodied curb in December 1995. I was 30 years old.

Sixteen-and-a-half years later, on Father’s Day, the skull of a toddler crushed in the same town where I’d bled. As the ER social worker, I stood at the head of his gurney; scalp tightening around my scar reminding me of the thin time between 2 and 3 seconds.

What I didn’t know at the time of my accident was that six and a half years later, at the age of 30, my younger brother, Wes, would be given a terminal diagnosis. There’d be no split-second decision that would make a difference. He was going to die, whether he chose the clinical trial or not. There had been a lump in his armpit so, he went in for surgery. While he was in recovery, the surgeon announced the verdict to our parents, “His lymph nodes are full of melanoma. Get this boy to an oncologist right away.” My mother’s knees would give way as my father held her hand. Wes would die 13 weeks later, having celebrated turning 31 years old two weeks before his death.

If you enjoyed my writing, you might like:

The blog post photo was taken a few weeks before the accident. Our club won First Place for horse division beating the Sheriff’s group for the first time in years, apparently! Kitt was pretty hopped up that day, too, as you can see from the sweat. He was dancin’ around and everyone thought I was doing it on purpose. I was just trying to survive the parade with a marching band behind us.

Months after the accident we went horse camping. I “got back on the horse”, though never again on Kitt. Apache belonged to the veterinarian race-horse breeder I worked for as a caretaker at the time. Thank you, Hank & Apache!

As always, thank you for visiting! Don’t be shy. I love comments.

Namaste

Bonnie A. McKeegan 3.3-02.1.jpeg
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10 Replies to “One Second: A True Story about the Thin Time between Life and Death”

  1. Hello Bonnie. Loved your story, not the injury. I too am wanting more of this story., which is a compliment. I “road” with you all the way through.I was there. Wonderful writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Richard! I very much appreciate your feedback. That accident was definitely was a game changer and played a part in my life for years. Still does 23 years later… and so, I write… thanks again for the compliment!

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    1. Thank you Brigid! It surely can, and sometimes that turn ends up being connected to later life in unexpected and deeply profound ways.
      I am reading your book and currently at Raworth College. Appreciating your blend of experiences and the information you were learning along the way. Namaste

      Liked by 1 person

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