Heads Up for Helmets

Your life can change in a flash, with a crash. Physical activity of all kinds is so good for you and so is being smart and safe.

I am a lucky woman. But I wasn’t that lucky 34 years ago. Here’s the story past and present and the reason I’m sharing it with you.

This past Saturday morning, after coming in from my morning hike around town, the phone rang, a nurse from Morristown Memorial Hospital telling me that my husband was brought in by ambulance.  He was in a bicycle accident. My breath stopped and my body froze, as I didn’t know what was to follow.  In a gentle and calming voice, she explained that he was “stable” and asked how soon I could be there. 

I woke up my son so we would be together and off we went. When we arrived, we were led to a waiting room, where we sat for about a ½ hour before we could see him. Pictures of a past experience flashed through my mind and my heart was pounding, not knowing what was happening. All I wanted to know was is he conscious? Is he awake? What is his condition?

They were doing all kinds of tests, full body scans, x-rays and who knows what else.  It felt like an eternity we were waiting but it was not. I was speechless and numb and talking myself down—saying this is not happening, Risa, chill, breathe and wait.

This was not the first time I got a call like this one….

August 4, 1977:  My sister called to tell me our father was in an accident in Connecticut and we needed to get there quickly, about a two-hour drive.  It was a moped (not a motorcycle) crash on a dirt road.  He was thrown from the moped going at a speed slower than many cyclists ride. It was a freak thing, no known reason, just an accident. We arrived at the hospital; my father was not conscious.

I live with the memory of my father’s face covered in dried blood, his head swollen, and his body not moving. He was breathing, but that was about it -- he was in a vegetative state.  If you think this is over the top and dramatic, it is not. This is a mild description of what my family lived through that one day. 

Diagnosis: basal skull fracture.

Prognosis:  wait and watch for signs. 

What could they do for him? Nothing.

I could not understand that, why nothing?

Back to Saturday at Morristown Memorial:  So, at this moment sitting in the waiting room of Morristown Memorial Hospital, all I wanted was to see my husband, hug him and know he was OK.

Back in 1977, I wasn’t so lucky. Looking at my father, I focused on what his life would be, how it would affect my mother, my sister and me. 

He died the next day, August 5, 1977. He was 50, my mother was 49, and I was 22. What would life have been like had he lived?   

When my husband’s tests were done, we got our hug and knew he was OK. He was in a lot of pain in the ER, but there were no tears – until he apologized for what he knew my son and I went through while waiting to see him.  

What was the difference between the two accidents?  

A helmet.

My father didn’t have one on and my husband did. 

Not only did he wear a helmet, but it was properly fitted, buckled snuggly under the chin and covering the forehead where the impact happened (pictured above). He broke his right collarbone and two ribs and dislocated his left thumb, and has some nasty cuts and bruises. But his head is intact and he is alive.  

I still have my husband, and my sons, 23 and 25, still have their father. 

I’m a thankful and lucky woman.

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Liz, excellent point made. If pain and fear of injury doesn't spook someone enough, perhaps the liability and expense of recovery or post trauma care will. Wearing seat belts are law for all, as should be helmets for all ages.
douglassgrad July 22, 2011 at 01:51 PM
Risa, Thank you for sharing your story. I have tears in my eyes! Can you explain why helmets should not be left in the garage -- our bikes are there, so that's where the helmets are. I'm guessing we should be storying them in the house. Also, is there a way I can reassure myself that my helmet, my husband's and my daughters, are still safe to wear?
Shari-Beth Susskind July 22, 2011 at 02:19 PM
Risa, I wish your husband a speedy recivery, I fell off my bike 6 years ago. I shattered my pinky... He will probably need PT on his hand. I recommend Accelerated Hand Thearpt in West Orange. All the best!
Jennifer Howald July 22, 2011 at 02:26 PM
Thank you for sharing your story. It is beyond my comprehension why people do not insist that their children wear helmets anytime they are on anything with wheels. That goes for adults as well.
Mitch Slater July 22, 2011 at 02:29 PM
Thank you Risa for telling this story. I would love to have you come to a future Board of Education Meeting and tell this story. Too many kids ride around town without helmets on their "beach like" bikes, texting or on the phone and its a tragedy waiting to happen. As a cycler I agree with your statement that only a person without a brain to protect would not wear a helmet. I hope your husband has a speedy recovery.
Kevin O'Connell July 22, 2011 at 02:34 PM
On July 29, next Friday, I'll celebrate the 11th anniversary of my own date with destiny. On a late afternoon mountain bike ride with my son in Stokes State Forest, I miscalculated a tank trap at the end of a fire road and landed on my helmeted head, changing my life. My hero, my son, then 10 years old, was able to find help nearby and get park personnel and an ambulance to me very quickly. I too, ended up at Morristown Memorial for surgery the next morning. I wear a scar on my neck and have a titanium "appliance" holding my cervical spine together. My story would certainly be far different had I not been wearing a helmet. I was an ardent fan of helmets before my accident, and continue to bike and wear a helmet. As to replacing helmets, one could adapt the rule of thumb for smoke detectors, and buy a helmet every 2 years at the beginning of the riding season. Most helmet labels show the date of manufacture, so it is easy to keep track. I wish Risa's husband a quick recovery and I urge anyone jumping on a bike for any kind of ride to wear a helmet!
Helmet questions? My husband said it is temperature changes, especially hot temps in a garage which can compromise the material (styrofoam) is is made of. He is happy to talk about it by email and or phone... in much greater detail. His email is markolinsky@gmail.com, please feel free to reach out and he will call you back... he will have a lot of free time in the next few weeks to talk. Also, if a helmut is older there may be signs of wear and tear that cannot be easily seen - he can explain it better than me. Helmets range in price starting at as little as $30 and up, so an investment in a new one should not break the bank and is well worth it if there is even the slightest question of the condition.
Jane Hoffman July 22, 2011 at 03:05 PM
I'm so glad this story has a happy ending. I can imagine the emotions you went through until you knew Mark was ok. I'm sorry to hear about your father. I had a friend back in the 80's who loved to ride his motorcycle. We met at a job and became friends for several years. Then at some point I didn't hear from him nor could I get in touch with him. Months later he called me. He had been in a motorcycle accident and had brain trauma (I don't remember the technical term). Although he was functioning, he was not the same after that. It was very sad to watch. If he had worn a helmet, he would have been fine.
I'm looking to highlight some links which may prove useful to help answer some questions coming in. I am learning more myself as I do this: http://www.bhsi.org/general.htm. As pointed out here, helmets are clearly made differently for different activities. I will continue to hunt and update you all as I find more good info.
Sandy Spekman July 22, 2011 at 04:25 PM
My husband, Hyman, and I were in Singapore and Thailand recently for two weeks and I was shocked how many people I saw on mopeds without helmets! I saw children riding and women sitting sideways behind drivers without helmets. So dangerous! I remember I bought a new bicycle helmet a few years back and on the day I bought it - smack - I fell on my head a few houses from mine in South Orange. My head hit the hard cement payment - but because of my helmet, I got right back up again. The helmet took the brunt of the impact. I also remember when I was a young child growing up in Oak Park, Michigan, a next door neighbor, Mark Perlman, was riding his bicycle and hit his head on the sidewalk. For the rest of his life he was cognitively impaired (at that time, we called him "mentally retarded").
Bamboozle July 22, 2011 at 05:36 PM
Risa So happy that your husband will be OK. Thank you for sharing your story.
Gary McCready July 22, 2011 at 06:10 PM
Yes - today I saw a helmetless younger mother with a toddler in the bike seat ride underneath the tracks on central and then attempt to cross South avenue (which is dicey for cars, let alone bikes). She cared enough to put a helmet on her kid, but did she even think who will take care of him when she was gone (or in a coma) due to a head injury? Maybe a step-mom who will wear a helmet? And I saw another rider who was carrying his helmet rather than wearing it - but kids will be kids right? I'm just wondering if there is ANY enforcement by the WPD on this?
Margie Freeman July 22, 2011 at 10:42 PM
Wow! Quite a story! So sorry to hear you lost your dad at such an early age and in such a traumatic way. I am happy and grateful to hear that the outcome with your husband was much different. Although he was hurt, he is still alive and will get well again. Your story about the helmet should be inspirational to many people. It is scary to think that when we were kids, we all biked without helmets. Of course, by the time we had our own children, standards had changed, and wearing helmets was the norm. Hallelujah! Wishing you, your husband, and your sons a long and healthy life, Margie
Mark Josephson July 22, 2011 at 11:21 PM
Thank you for sharing this story. Another great reminder of why we need to wear helmets.
Lisa Bleich July 23, 2011 at 02:21 PM
Risa, I'm so glad that your husband is okay. Thank you for sharing your story and helping make an impact on helmut use. It is a vital issue that your story brings home in a touching way.
sternie July 23, 2011 at 03:34 PM
Head injuries are a real nasty affair. Survivors can be impaired, their personalities changed, their lives ruined. I lost a friend in a moped accident too. He hit his unhelmeted head on the curb in the Bahamas. He was in his early twenties. Truly sad. My own experience with a helmet helping to save my own life was during a snowboarding run on some icy flat terrain. Cruising along I caught an edge and instantly went down on my back, my head whiplashed and hit directly onto the icey ground with a loud smack. I felt like I had been hit with a 2x4 and slowly realized that in fact that I had my helmet on....I smiled! I laughed to myself. Total relief!~
KWC July 23, 2011 at 08:22 PM
Yes, and closed head trauma can be devastating, even fatal. Sometimes I get the feeling people think they can get away with something dangerous if they are wearing safety gear. I don't presume to tell people how to live their lives, but if you wouldn't dream of doing a certain activity without a helmet, you probably shouldn't be doing it at all, if you value your health and your life.
Caleb Cohen July 24, 2011 at 04:31 AM
Actually, those bike trailers are awesome. I wrecked hard traveling about 20 MPH once, it remained upright, as advertised, and my kid perfectly safe. I'm lying on the ground and he shouts out, "Daddy, are you OK?" Had he been on a bike "seat" - that was attached to my bike with his head about my height, he would have been beaten up quite seriously. I'll take a trailer over a "seat" any day. That said, helmets, helmets, helmets. Glad your husband is fine Mrs. Olinsky!
Beverly Meaux July 24, 2011 at 10:44 PM
First of all, you and your family are in our prayers. To relive the story of your father I know was painful. Just know you've made me make a point to check helmets again before we go bike riding and, most importantly, for me to put mine on.
Beverly, reading your note about checking and PUTTING your helmet on means so much to me. Several others who have read this story or seen me around town have said this will make a difference and they will finally wear a helmet as well. I am really thankful for this feedback. Be well, Risa
wcmom July 25, 2011 at 10:22 PM
Glad to hear that everything went pretty well. My son rode his bike with helmet on yesterday, fell and broke his front permanent tooth. We are devastated today; we were standing so close and could not protect him.
wcmom -- so sorry to hear this news about your son and his tooth. I know the feeling quite well about wanting to protect the kids, I have two grown sons who were and still are incredibly active at 23 and 25. It is a blessing that the tooth can be fixed, capped, bonded or whatever it is they can do now -- but I'm also gald to hear that was all the damage done. He was lucky! Keep the helmet on and BTW -- please buy a new one now - if the helmet even hit the ground a little.... toss it and replace it.. just in case.
DDD July 28, 2011 at 06:47 PM
I always wear a helmet, dang peer pressure ;>). But the I think the "must wear a helmet" fervor is a little out of touch with the actual dangers of riding without a helmet. Other countries such as Holland or the Netherlands where more people use bicycles as a means of transportation don't have this infatuation with helmet wearing and it's not carnage in the streets. A cerain part of it is the change in attiude in the U.S in the past couple of decades. Where we expect things to be 100% safe other countries seem to have a more realistic sense of things. Also has a previous poster mentioned it's not a magical shield of invincibility. But some people will ride like it is. One time I was crusing along on my bike. It felt so good the sun was shining down, there was a slight breeze. It just felt so nice more than normal. Usually I'm having fun but it doesn't exaclty feel nice. Then I realized it was because I wasn't wearing a helmet left it at my friend's house when I left. My helmet's not cheap either it's a nice higher end model. But the memory of how nice that ride felt has stuck with me. The only time I haven't worn a helmet. Sometimes I feel like I wear helmet not because I'm safer I just don't want to be ridiculed if I get in an accident and not wearing one. Serious accident wearing a helmet you get all the sympathy in the world, not wearing a helmet shame shame even if the injuries were similar.
Bill B. July 28, 2011 at 08:02 PM
Risa, I, too, was in a bike accident nearly two years ago and if it were not for my helmet I doubt I'd be typing this comment today. It was a late afternoon fall ride and the shadows were not revealing all the dips and potholes on my route. I hit a pothole which sent me flying onto the nearby sidewalk smacking the back of my head and right side of my body on the concrete walkway. A broken helmet and some concrete rash I remounted and rode home. Nothing real serious, but to see the damage caused to my helmet only made me wonder what my skull would have looked like without the protection. I've always worn a helmet because I never knew when I might need it. 15 years of cycling and I needed it once. Decent odds, but certainly not worth the risk. If I'm riding I'm wearing.
Ed Colavito July 29, 2011 at 07:19 PM
Hi Risa, I'm Ed Colavito, a paralegal at Sills who works in the same wing of the 11th floor as Mark. I hope he's doing well! And tell him thanks again for the Bag Balm recommendation. He'll get a chuckle out of that. Oddly enough, in 1977, my Uncle Bob, a Union City fireman, fell off a 2 story building on a cold winter night, attempting to save another fireman who was slipping off the roof due to ice. Unfortunately, Bob's helmet strap was not secured under his chin when he fell, and he landed on his head and died immeidately. The "brother" he attempted to save lived, but broke many bones below his waist, and is lucky to be walking. I see little kids riding their bikes around all the time and don't have the chin straps secured. I'm tempted to stop them in their tracks next time. Be well.
Bob Sharpley July 30, 2011 at 08:48 PM
Back in the 80s before cell phones we were outside Denton on our way to Decatur. 30 miles away from anything. One of our ride companions was fartin' around doing bunny hops over roadkill (not wearing a helmet) and misjudged and banged his head pretty badly an obvious concussion due to the blood coming out of his ears. One of us had to haul butt to the closest place with a phone so we could get an ambulance out there. Not fun! Or funny! My helmet has saved me three times in the last thirty years. One of those times the helmet didn't even have a scratch on it but it was cracked. Once you bang it replace it. Parents the helmet should be parallel to the ground when it's on someone's head. If you wear it back like a ball cap it does not protect the front of your skull! Many in the cycling community recommend replacing it every year. BTW in the Netherlands cyclists have right of way, not cars or pedestrians. Be safe out there!
Alexandra Birnbaum August 02, 2011 at 03:17 AM
Thank you for a poignant reminder to those of us who do wear helmets, why we do, and for those who don't wear them, or sometimes "forget" - why it is important to never leave on your bike/moped/motorcycle without one. Also a very important part of your story, for all, wearing them correctly! I am so sorry for the loss of your father, and relieved that your husband is still here.
Patricia Brady-Danzig August 11, 2011 at 09:46 PM
Hi Risa; I just heard about it today from Bonnie. Thank goodness for Mark's helmet! PBD
Tara O'Leary November 01, 2011 at 04:35 PM
Risa, an amazing story, one we can all learn from... my heart goes out to you, and all you went through. Havng met you after the accident, Im so happy to have met both you and Mark recently, and to see the outcome for myself and the impoirtance of helmets.
Risa Olinsky June 11, 2012 at 01:40 PM
Some may wonder WHY I'm reviving this story almost a year later. This past Saturday, I did a marathon walk along the Hudson River on the NJ side up to the GW bridge, over and down on the NYC side. I watched as so many people on bicycles passed me NOT wearing helmets. People seem to think that because they are on a cycling/pedestrian path without any cars, they are safe -- this is so wrong - NOT SO. If this story is read by yet one more person and saves one more life-- it will have served a purpose - so I believe it is worth re-posting. If you know someone who rides, skates, or does anything that would be safer wearing a helmet - please share this story with them today. Risa


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