Near Death on Two Wheels
Last week I experienced my first ride inside the back of an ambulance rushing to a hospital emergency room. The sirens wailed while paramedics monitored my vital signs and called out important-sounding numbers. I looked up from the gurney I was attached to, noting the oxygen valve on the ceiling, the lights, the latched compartments containing the tools of triage, and since I get motion sickness when traveling backwards I concentrated on breathing steadily and not vomiting. I heard the beeping of an EKG monitor and the crackling of a two-way radio and felt the pressure of a plastic mask over my mouth and on the bridge of my nose.
This is what many people see before they die, I realized: the inside of a speeding ambulance filled with mustachioed firemen-paramedics.
Although I felt terrible, I was almost certain I wasn’t dying. I had passed out – fainted? – while at a jazz show, where my blood pressure and heart rate had plunged. When my terrified wife, a trained medical professional, put me in shock position on the floor and determined I didn’t need CPR, I felt better, less seasick. But when I sat up, I felt vertiginous and sleepy. From my prone position on the floor, I heard the band stop playing and a call going out for a doctor. A few minutes later I was in the ambulance.
Turns out I was severely dehydrated and having a bad reaction to some cheese I had eaten. Nothing cardiac related. Nothing serious. After a salutary regurgitation episode and four hours of hospital fluids and various ministrations, including a rectal exam – checking for blood, apparently? – I was allowed to go home.
During that ambulance ride, for a few seconds of uncertainty and fear, I felt that maybe I was close to death, perhaps on the distant outskirts of a dark and lonely place. Ah, so this is what it’s like.
In retrospect, now that I’m all better, I realize that for the past few years, on an almost daily basis, I’ve been inches away from the back of an ambulance, and probably much closer to my end, this one bloody and mangled, than when I failed to ingest enough water.
Since I unburdened myself of an automobile and began to travel around my city on bicycle, I’ve nearly been killed by cars dozens of times. No exaggeration. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been seconds and inches away from a fatal collision. I take precautions: a big, unfashionable helmet; reflectors; a horn; hands hovering over the brake levers; and acute, hyper-aware concentration of my surroundings. Anything less than constant vigilance would put me in the back of an ambulance.
It needn’t be this way, of course. If car users in Los Angeles were more conscious of pedestrians and cyclists, more prepared for their presence, more accustomed to sharing the road, we who travel on two wheels wouldn’t be in constant danger of getting hit by an oblivious driver.
This is a car town, infamously so. The roads – and, crucially, the intersections – are filled with distracted, rushed, angry people behind the wheels of half-ton killing machines. We on flimsy Treks and Schwinns can only practice assiduous avoidance; we have no defense.
Bike lanes are cool. (A new one on Spring Street downtown recently opened to some media fanfare.) But the key to keeping cyclists on their bikes and out of ambulances is for motorists to pay attention. Look both ways before entering an intersection. Look to the right and in the crosswalk before turning right. Look to the left and in the crosswalk before turning left. Come to full stops at signals and signs. Yield when the sign says “Yield.”
I’m hopeful that my next ambulance ride will be many years in the future. How disheartening to realize that the otherwise healthy, liberating, altogether good experience of riding a bicycle in Los Angeles puts me and my fellow cyclists in life-threatening danger on a daily basis. Please, car drivers, don’t kill us.