Zen And The Art Of Repairing Motorcyclists
- Volume 15 - Issue 12 - December 2002
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I have a love-hate relationship with motorcycles. I was called to the emergency room last week to treat a man who was hit by a car while riding his touring bike. I examined him and reviewed his X-rays. He had displaced fractures of three metatarsals and the cuboid of his right foot.
We talked about motorcycles for a few minutes and then I explained the nature of his foot injuries and what had to be done to repair the fractures. My interest in motorcycles gave me credibility even in his Fentanyl-induced haze.
I developed a passion for motorcycles as a young boy. I hung around a Harley-Davidson shop every spare moment watching a guy named Woody repair the beautiful beasts. The rumble and roar of a Harley engine was like a symphony to me. Woody lived in the back of the shop and had a perpetual patina of black grease on every exposed inch of his body. He was quiet, philosophical and loved the machines he worked on, although he didn’t like Japanese motorcycles.
One day when I was about 13, I confided in Woody that I wanted to be just like him and repair motorcycles when I grew up. He got angry and lectured me on the importance of an education. Then he told me I wasn’t welcome in his shop anymore. This hurt me and to get even with him, I bought a Honda when I turned 15 (the legal driving age in Montana).
Woody slammed his Harley into the rear of a stalled cattle truck one night in 1962. His lecture on education haunted me after his death. I ended up a foot surgeon repairing motorcyclists rather than their machines.
The hate part of my relationship with motorcycles started in 1969. I was in a traffic jam on my way to an outdoor rock concert. A guy on a motorcycle was passing the line of cars and trucks on the right just as a pickup pulled off the road. Like a slow motion movie, the bike fell over and the wheel of the truck crushed the biker’s head. I was less than 50 feet away.
In his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig wrote, “On the cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. The concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on.”
There is the essence of the problem. Motorcycles give you a tremendous sense of freedom but when things go wrong, terrible violence can occur. When I was a teenager, I rode motorcycles and thought myself to be immortal. I seldom wore a helmet.
I took the motorcyclist to surgery the next morning to reduce and pin the fractured bones. Traumatized tissue is different and more difficult to operate on than uninjured flesh. As I struggled to realign and fixate the displaced bones, I wished for a moment I had not listened to Woody. I’d rather have been fixing the motorcycle that day. The damaged motorcycle would not be suffering nor would it need to be maintained at level 2 on a morphine PCA pump. Broken machines are easier to care for than broken people.
The cyclist was discharged after three days and will be in a wheelchair for at least a month. I hope he gives up motorcycles since this was his second major accident. I didn’t lecture him on the topic. His pain and disability will be lesson enough.
Motorcycle trauma seems to be a ubiquitous part of foot and ankle surgery. In a few weeks, I will do some repair work on a man my age who sustained a degloving, fracture injury to his foot in 1968. He spent a year on crutches with multiple bone and skin graft procedures.
Many orthopedic and plastic surgeons have cared for this man. He is comfortable in my care because we talk about motorcycles and philosophy. My time spent in Woody’s Cycle Service as a kid has paid off many times in patient care situations. Some of us simply love the machines in spite of their potential for harm.
My experience repairing motorcyclists hasn’t dampened my passion for bikes. The sound of a Harley-Davidson stirs my soul. The rugged beauty of a BMW or vintage Triumph overwhelms my senses. The speed of a Ninja gives me chills. I keep a Honda 110 Trail bike at my cabin. It is geared low and only goes about 25 mph. If I could have a next life, I’d drive and repair Harleys.
Dr. McCord (pictured) is a Diplomate wtih the American Board of Podiatric Surgery. He practices at the Centralia Medical Center in Centralia, Wash.