Guest Commentary

Don't be selfish and stupid: If you must ride a motorcycle, wear a helmet

On Dec. 29, 2003, my husband of exactly nine months was riding his Ducati motorcycle west on Broadway Boulevard. He had the right of way, yet a white sedan, going east, turned in front of him, and Ken could not avoid it. Witnesses--more concerned about the man crumpled on the asphalt than the car that left the scene--didn't get a license number, and the driver still is unidentified. But that's not my reason for writing this.

That reason is: If you ride a motorcycle, wear a helmet! If you selfishly choose not to wear one, because it's too hot or it mashes your hair, consider how your family will feel when you die or are transformed into someone who can no longer work, talk or dress yourself, because you didn't protect your head.

A careful, experienced rider, Ken was wearing his helmet that day, as always. Even so, he received a traumatic brain injury (TBI). His head hit the car, causing his brain to slam against his skull, tearing blood vessels and killing brain tissue. His brain injuries were diagnosed as moderate, on a scale of mild to severe. He was hospitalized for 40 days, including several weeks in rehab. Many of his doctors and nurses told me they consider motorcycles to be "donorcycles."

Ken was lucky, as was I. Thanks to his full-face helmet, he is alive, and I am not a widow. Yet his accident wounded me, too--physically and emotionally. I remember first seeing my injured husband in the University Medical Center ICU, agitated and thrashing, his eyes swollen shut, forehead stitched together, an endotracheal tube down his throat. I remember how, for several days, the only noises he made were growls and groans. How, when he finally did speak, most of what he said was gibberish. (It's called fluent aphasia.) How, at HealthSouth, his wonderful speech therapist, Kim, hung signs in his room to remind him of what he could not remember: "I was in a motorcycle vs. car accident on December 29"; "My wife's name is Barbara." How he was so wobbly on his feet (and unable to comprehend how dangerous that was) that every night, he was zipped into his Vail bed--which resembled a mesh-sided playpen--so that he couldn't climb out, fall and hit his head again. How he could have died from the pulmonary embolism he developed after being in bed for a month. And how, two days before he came home, he was able to cook a perfect omelet as part of his occupational therapy, even though later he couldn't recall the word "omelet." Three months later, with ongoing rehab, he has returned to work part-time, and it appears that his recovery will be nearly complete.

Now, every time I see a motorcycle rider without a helmet--and that's every time I drive--I want to wave him (it's usually a him) over to the curb, hold his face in my hands, look into his eyes and say: Don't do this to your family.

You think it won't happen to you? You're riding in Tucson, for God's sake, with some of the world's most unconscious drivers. You think going without a helmet means you're tough? How manly will you feel when you can't go to the bathroom or eat without help, thanks to your damaged brain? And what if you never really recover, as is the case with many TBI survivors? What will that do to your family? TBI survivors have a divorce rate double the national average, and many eventually face impoverishment and bankruptcy. At the very least, your family will undergo horrible stress, face astronomical medical bills and struggle painfully to resume something resembling a normal life, often without success.

I remember an accident here several years ago in which a respected doctor--who had received a Harley for his birthday and chose to ride without a helmet--crashed and died from head injuries. The article quoted someone as saying the doctor didn't wear a helmet because he liked to feel the wind in his hair. Along with feeling a great sadness for his family, I thought: how selfish. How absolutely, unbelievably selfish to cause his family such heartbreak for such a stupid reason.

Riding a motorcycle is inherently dangerous, despite all the protective gear. You had the money to buy a bike; spend a few hundred more and get a good helmet, too. Give yourself--and your family--a better chance of survival.

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