The Unforgiving Moment

Photo of Genuino Ferreira Madruga via JPP Photography

by Victor Davis Hanson // PJMedia

Life is turned upside down in a nanosecond.

This weekend I missed my first posting at PJ Media since beginning in 2006.

Why? Let me briefly explain the lapse — if I can be forgiven for comparing a bike accident with what I have seen on the farm the last 50 years (sliced off fingers, crushed legs, herbicide poisonings, manifold burns, etc.).

I was going on a usual morning bike ride — safe stuff with like-minded older folks. I’m 60; so is my biking partner and fellow Hoover Institution associate Bruce Thornton. We are hardly reckless. (Not like sulfuring at midnight recklessly in one’s 20s in the old days without goggles or mask.)

We usually go deliberately during off-traffic hours when cars are rare, on little-traveled roads and bike paths. We always follow the same direction over the same 32-mile route. After nine years we have memorized every bump, cracked bit of pavement, bad stop light, etc. We bike slowly, about 14-15 mph, always in single file.  We are, after all, 60 and hear daily horrific stories of injured and dead bikers.

In nearly ten years of rides, I have had some scrapes but only two bad spills (a homeless person once jumped out from the bushes on a Santa Rosa bike path; I swerved to miss him and ended up going over the handlebars: slight concussion; broken shoulder, three ribs, and collar bone. I was also attacked and knocked flat once by a pack of dogs with no licenses, shots, or English-speaking owners).  So we must be doing something carefully, for our sixtyish group of three or four to usually avoid problems.

I lead a yearly tour on May 17th, so usually quit riding one week ahead, just in case. Friday morning was to be last ride until I came back on May 30.

About four-fifths of the way home, suddenly the front wheel locked and I woke up about 15 seconds later with my face on the pavement. Four hours later at the emergency room I discovered that I had four ruined teeth (three shaved off, one split down the middle into the root), a concussion, a broken nose, 65 stitches for facial and gum lacerations, and a sliced-apart lower lip (with broken teeth shards sticking into my upper lip).

What happened? Apparently a hairline fissure around the carbon bike fork failed, and the fork bent and locked up the front wheel without warning. (Yes, I know I should inspect the bike thoroughly each time I get on, but the crack was invisible.)

Seven days after falling, I am leaving for Europe and the tour this week, a bit dizzy, fearful that my ogre-like appearance will turn off audiences. I’ve been getting out of bed to rush off to various doctors to extract a split abscessing tooth, do a bone graft, grind off jagged teeth points that have lacerated my tongue, have stitches removed, etc. — and feel both foolish and very lucky.  I had a jammed neck and was a bit disorientated, suggesting to the ER staff a fracture and perhaps serious neck problems. But the CT scan came back normal. After sitting under bags of ice and gobs of Neosporin ointment the last five days, I have reflected on the unforgiving moment that changes everything.

Again, I feel very fortunate. The ER personnel offered tales of lesser bike falls where the victims ended up paralyzed, or with cranial bleeding — or dead.

But when you are lying flat and cannot read or talk or eat, your mind wanders into retrospection and memoriae temporis acti — dreaming of the sort that one must be careful about, lest it devolves into the depression of should have, could have, would have done this or that.

I offer a general thought from the ER and subsequent last five days: we live in a weird postmodern/premodern world. Never have Americans been so blessed and never so ungracious.

The ER trauma center was postmodern: even a plastic surgeon was on duty, who did wonders with my hanging lip and crushed nose. The triage team was top-notch. The equipment, nursing staff, and regimen were stellar. Without them I would be infected, disfigured, and bedridden. (Though I may hold off entirely on that optimism until May 30th,  when I am back and the gambit of not canceling has been proven wise. How do you tell your guests that you were stupid enough to endanger their entire trip?)

For five hours, I watched the worst imaginable cases wheeled in — the wages of burns, wrecks, shootings, stabbings, falls, drug overdoses, heart attacks, shock, etc. — all met with an upbeat, can-do staff professionalism.

The clientele, however — metal detector required for entrance — was premodern. Many were foreign nationals. Some appeared to be gang-bangers. Police were ubiquitous (not all the injured were virtuous or harmed by accident). English was rarely spoken by the patients. It was a world away from the ER crowd of rural California circa 1960.

Gurneys were parked in hallways that were almost blocked with sick patients, most of them texting in boredom. Relatives were arguing with other outpatients’ relatives. It reminded me of the bottom floor of the Evangelismos Hospital at Athens about 1973, where I once had a sliced finger tendon; on another occasion a shock reaction to a bad Greek plague/ typhus/yellow fever/small pox/typhoid all in one vaccination. Or Luxor circa 1974 (a case of malaria) or Libya 2006 (ruptured appendix). What was different in the American hospital circa 2014 was not the chaos, or the swarms of violently injured, but the superb quality of the care.

In a word, some of the most violent gang-bangers on the planet are accorded some of the most sophisticated trauma care in the world, and for free. I say that not so that it should not be that way, but note it only in hopes that there is some gratitude offered to our health care providers. Do any of our leaders in their various grievances against the society ever express thanks that a man can cross the border, get into a knife fight, even while committing a crime, and in extremis receive free health care of the sort comparable to that accorded to our president?

Only in America? And as it should be.

Spending five hours with those who clean up the mess of one too many beers or a drug OD gave me a strange sense of tragedy. The more spectacular the efforts of 21st century America to ensure equality, the more the effort is expected and critiqued than appreciated as an object of wonder.

Other reflections from five days on my back: Almost half of the patients around me in the ER seemed to be suffering from moribund obesity. Diabetes is a California epidemic. Latest reports suggest that well over 40% of Hispanics, to take one especially at-risk group, admitted to the hospital for all causes are diagnosed with it,  higher than the general rate in other populations. Given huge influxes across a porous border, health care in California in the next 10 years will largely center on diabetes. It will have far more social effect than even the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. It will kill more people, more adversely tax the health care system and require a Marshall Plan-like effort to enlighten the population about diet and exercise.

More likely, however, the system will instead be seen as the culprit and be faulted for not offering enough medical services for diabetes patients that may well total a quarter of California’s population in the next decade. We will not hear that the individual has a responsibility not to drink sugar-filled Cokes each day. Too much of the wrong food, not existential hunger, is the epidemic of the poor.

Some readers will respond by asking, “If you are so smart about health decisions, why did you end up in the ER?” A fair question, given that road biking is not always safe and perhaps analogous to drinking sugared colas. I am trying, as I stare up at the ceiling, to weigh the odds of crashes versus the health benefits of riding, versus the enjoyment versus alternative workout regimens, versus just sticking to yard and farm work, versus trying everything from a fat-tire slow bike to stationary biking. Two bits of advice I hear from friends: “You have to get right back at it and conquer your anxieties.” Versus: “Wake up — is road biking necessary? Try walking more.”

A farmer 10 miles away, who was a father of four children, was shot and killed this week after investigating intruders on his farm. (The gang-banger suspects are now in custody.) He interrupted a stolen car being stripped, and “they” killed him for being so rude as to drive on his own land. I note that fact because a few weeks ago the dogs barked at 3 a.m. For once I decided to ignore them. And the next morning I found a stripped auto in my vineyard. I had gone back to sleep on the theory that in America today walking out to investigate would have been a politically incorrect sin.

Here is what I mean. America does not like the enforcement of property rights unless one is rich, hip and cool, like those who assume the sanctity of their Google or Apple parking lots. I would de facto have no right to have ordered people off my property.  And without arms, no means of enforcing any order I had issued. Instead, I assume California would argue that there must have been extenuating circumstances that forced the gang-bangers into a life of crime, from callous indifference about their impoverishment to illegal-alien bashing (to…, well, fill in the blanks).

For all practical purposes, one has no right to arm oneself to protect property. If I were unarmed and shot, I would be assumed to have been foolish by venturing out on my own property. If I were armed, and yet got shot confronting thieves, the media would say that I was more foolish and trigger-happy and prompted the violence. If I had shot them in self-defense, I would appear a paranoid old white male who privileged property over human life — and be sued by their families who had access to free legal help. If I were to call 9/11, I would expect that the response would be slow, given that in the hierarchy of a night’s epidemic of central California felonies, a stripped auto would rank low.

So I went back to sleep, and called the sheriff the next day when I discovered the stripped auto. Someone else who was more courageous was murdered this week. We lost a brave citizen, and now deal with his murderers, on behalf of whom the resources of a bankrupt society will be amply invested.

If only Nancy Pelosi or Jeb Bush would come down to a Central Valley ER in these parts, or try farming when a vineyard become a veritable chop shop, they would not so easily lecture others on their supposed illiberality. Otherwise, the liberal view is a make-believe land of elites who are exempt from the wages of their ideology, as others deemed less sophisticated and liberal bear their consequences.

Meanwhile, back to healing…

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