January 20, 2007, is a day that will live in infamy. Why, do you ask? Well, because that is the day that I decided it would be a great idea to ride my brand new Harley-Davidson Sportster 883L down to Murfreesboro to 1) see some good friends of mine that I hadn’t seen since graduation the year before and 2) to show said motorcycle off.
First things first. I was unemployed at the time I made this decision. I had purchased the bike when I was still gainfully employed as a temp worker for DirectBuy, which was one of the many very foolish choices I made as a younger person, but by the time this story starts, I had been laid off (they eliminated my position, and on my birthday, no less) and was struggling to find new work.
Anyway, it was a little cold that day, but it wasn’t so bad that I felt uncomfortable riding. My cold weather riding gear kept me nice and toasty, and it wouldn’t get to below-freezing temperatures until later on that night. But then, my dumbass decides that, sure, I can have a few more drinks with my friends, enough that I can’t legally drive until around 11:45P, and guess what: it’s now 29 degrees. I really should have just spent the night at a friend’s house, but …
For those of you not familiar with Middle Tennessee, Murfreesboro is about 30 – 45 minutes away from Nashville, depending on where you’re going and which route you take. I could have taken I-24, but I would have been traveling 70mph in 29 degree weather; so I opted for what I thought would be a saner route: Hwy 96. I’d be going about 55mph, and while I might have to drive a bit longer, at least the chill wouldn’t be as brutal.
On my way to 96, I see this big pickup truck out of the corner of my eye and start to feel frustrated. They’re matching my speed and are trying to get my attention by revving their engine, so I turn my head a bit and catch a glimpse of the guy pointing down. Well, as it turns out, my right leg is on fire.
“I should probably pull over.”
That is literally what my inner monologue said, with an eerie calmness that I’ll never forget.
I pull the bike over, prop it up on the kickstand, and jump into the grass next to the road, doing that stop, drop, and roll bit you learn in first grade but never think you’ll use in your life (it works, btw). I sit there for a few minutes, trying to mentally grasp what just occurred, and think, “It’s probably just a first-degree burn. Nothing a little Advil can’t fix.” I’m purposefully ignoring that the multiple layers of pants that I’m wearing appear to be fused to my leg.
I had to lie to myself. At the time, I only had COBRA health insurance. Which … okay, fuck COBRA. And had I told myself the truth – that this injury was much worse, and I knew it was – I might not have had the fortitude to continue. Like when my jaw popped out of socket and I was freaking out about possibly having to go to the emergency room without any healthcare coverage. Had I not been stressing over the cost of treatment, I would have calmed down much more quickly, enabling me to loosen my jaw enough to snap it back into place. Instead, it took nearly an hour.
I hop back on the bike and continue down Hwy 96, which in some parts is little more than a two-lane country back road, and I start to feel a wee bit woozy. It’s a strange sensation: I am aware of the loopiness but also super focused on the yellow lines in the center of the road, but my grip on that focus is slowly dissipating. Luckily, I reach the intersection with I-65 and catch sight of a little Mapco Express – my salvation. Coffee and Advil at the ready. I go instead and the guy behind the counter looks at me strangely, as if it’s strange to see a woman wearing a pair of pants that has one leg partially burned off, but he doesn’t say anything as I pay for some crappy gas station coffee and generic ibuprofen in a packet.
My leg starts to feel even more off than it was before, and the logic side of my brain starts being much louder than I had allowed it to be before: this injury may be more serious than I realize. I ask the clerk where the nearest hospital is, fully expecting to have to drive the rest of the way to Nashville, but he graciously points me in the direction of Williamson County Medical Center, literally a grand 20 second-drive away.
When I walk into the emergency room lobby, the nurse at the entrance has the same flabbergasted look that the gas station clerk did. So I point to my leg and say one of the most pointless sentences I have ever uttered.
“I got burned.”
She rushes me into a room with a pink curtain, giving me a brief introduction – I think her name was Kelly – and draping a hospital gown on the edge of the bed with instructions to remove my pants so the doctor can get a good look at my burn. Really, it should have been easy, but when I get to the injured leg, I can’t force myself to remove the pants. I just stare at them, this overwhelming fear setting in.
And then it hits me: the shock. About five to ten minutes have passed since I’d come to the ER, and my body has finally thawed out from 29 degree temperatures. It really is one of the strangest sensations I’ve ever experienced: my body is shaking uncontrollably and my eyes are pouring tears, but I feel absolutely no pain. This, of course, freaks me out, because I have no idea what’s going on, and from outside the door, I hear the nurses whispering, “Oh, she’s crying. We need to help her.”
Um, yeah. I’m convulsing and bawling and yet somehow completely detached from it all, so help would be nice.
One nurse shuffles in and notices with a slightly furrowed brow that my pants are halfway off, but she quickly dismisses it and asks me to lay back on the examination table. I am now introduced to the wonderful thing that is intravenous morphine. Within a few seconds, I was fiiiiiiiine, which was when the other nurse took off the other pants leg.
It’s a bizarre thing, starting at your leg and watching several layers of your own skin peeling off with your pants, which have been fused with your leggings and tights you were wearing for warmth. It’s even more bizarre to not feeling anything when this happens, and even more so when you notice that, hey, your skin has turned an eerie neon green. I am fascinated and also very, very high. Thanks, morphine!
I do not really remember much from the rest of that evening, on account of the morphine, but my boyfriend at the time arrives as the ER doctor is saying something about third degree burns and something else about referring me to the burn unit at Vanderbilt on Monday, where I learn I will have to go under the knife twice to repair the damage. Two surgeries, four months of round-the-clock narcotics, and plenty of physical rehab later, I am $60k in medical debt and LOLOLOL still unemployed. I spend almost a damned year trying to work with the hospital on payment. Well, actually, it’s with a debt collections company, but whatever.
Nearly one year exactly later – January 18, 2008 – I get a letter from Harley-Davidson: it’s a recall notice for my particular model. Apparently, the heat shield for the exhaust was not designed long enough, which “could cause the pant leg to char or burn … [and] could lead to the possibility of injury to the rider.”
Why, yes. Yes, it totally could.
I’m not going to bad mouth Harley here. I called up the lawyer on the notice the following Monday and explained what had happened. My injuries were heavily documented since one of the surgeries I had was newly FDA-approved; I have before and after pictures, and I have every single bill I owed. Harley paid my medical bills (which is all I really wanted), fixed the bike as they promised, and then also paid me for the bike (which I turned around and sold because yeah, no, not riding anymore thanks). I mean, I know they didn’t necessarily do this out of the goodness of their hearts’, but hey, I don’t have any medical debt and I got a pretty kickass story out of the whole thing. And you can’t even really see my burns now unless you’re looking for them.
Ultimately, this is a win for me.