By Anna MacKinnon
On a late summer day in 2011 after six hours of riding my motorcycle, I arrived at the beautiful historic Benbow Inn in Garberville, California. I pulled into a shady parking spot on my R1200GS, fully loaded with 89 degree sun-baked heat bouncing off the pavement. I was so exhausted and ill that when I went to lean the bike over on the kickstand, it simply fell over because in this muddled state I had forgotten to kick it down. I just looked briefly at the toppled bike and continued on to the hotel to ask for help. I slowly climbed what seemed like a mountain of stairs, which was only two flights. I arrived at reception and had to hold myself up leaning on my arms on the check-in desk. A sense of denial can set in when frightening things are unfolding and I realize this is a primitive survival skill. Indeed, there is a fine line between courage and foolishness and this was the line I was crossing now. Only a week before I was relaxing in Nanaimo, British Columbia which marked the turnaround point of this 2,400- mile solo motorcycle journey. I had no sign of illness then although several months before the trip I was occasionally dealing with a not uncommon female mid-life heavier-than-usual menstruation issue (aka menorrhagia). I was told by my doctor “to keep an eye on it” as the months went by.
In Klamath the night before my arrival at the Benbow Inn, I had suffered a very long sleepless night of serious blood loss when the fibroid cyst in my uterus reminded me of my mortality. It did not help that the rustic hotel where I was staying was in a cell phone free area without a phone in my room. The morning makes everything less frightening, sunlight and birds soothed me and my problem from the night before seemed to have abated. I felt hopeful. I made a decision waking up on the 22nd of September that I would push south toward home and hope to put some miles behind me.
That afternoon I was in Fortuna, a friendly small town on the US 101 having decided to grab some liquids and lie down in a vacant baseball field/park to “meditate” and catch my breath. All I could think was “if I could only get home, I don’t want to have a surgery in Eureka.” I was prescient enough to know that once I did finish this trip that I was in need of serious medical attention.
In Garberville (back in the world of cell reception) I was doing some online research with my iPhone before bed. I read that increased heart rate was common with blood loss but that a steady intake of fluids, especially with electrolytes, was recommended and I managed this. I denied feeling dizzy or lightheaded just be sheer mental distraction. These were signs of a more serious anemia I wasn’t willing to admit to because the “what if” scenarios paralyzed me with no one to turn to but myself. The hours of the evening and early morning crawled by. At 3 a.m. I was in my room wide awake, terrified and my pulse was racing. I attempted to help myself with meditation and thoughts of being home but also admitted I had never experienced this kind of fear.
At 7am on my final day of the three week trip, I was on the road only 195 miles away from my home and I hoped to beat the heat which was supposed to be in the low 90’s in Willits and Ukiah. I didn’t anticipate the morning would be a chilly bone-numbing 51 degrees which it was for two whole hours. I remember some enthusiastic man at a gas station in Laytonville with a similar motorcycle make and model to mine, trying to make small talk as we both pumped gas. It was all I could do to be polite for those ten minutes and feign interest and enthusiasm. After our exchange and I filled my tank, I drove over to a curb near a parking area to sit down and pull myself together for the remaining 150 mile push home.
Arriving home around mid-day I made a silent prayer of thanks and then took only a few items off of the bike to head up the 59 stairs to where I lived. When confronting the final flight of stairs, I had to lie down on the landing for a break and my heart rate was so rapid I was lightheaded and close to passing out. Immediately inside my front door I phoned my gynecologist and through a moment of luck, she was there at her office and heading out the door for her weekend if I had waited five minutes longer.
What happened in the next several hours was a blur. I was asked by my doctor on the phone to arrange to have a friend take me to the hospital emergency room in San Francisco where they recorded my vital signs. The nurse had huge surprised eyes and nervous reactions once she took my information and ushered me quickly to a gurney to lie down. My doctor arrived moments later and then I was wheeled into a chilly operating room. I remember an O.R. nurse made an insane remark to me as she wheeled me down the hall about how I must have shaken loose my uterus on the motorcycle trip. Even though I was weak and felt like hell, I wanted to sit up and put duct tape over this nurse’s mouth.
I came out of surgery that evening and was informed a day later that I was extremely fortunate to be alive. During and after surgery I was transfused with a total of three units of blood. In reflection and when people ask me, I cannot for the life of me tell you why more common sense didn’t prevail when those final two nights on the road were so terrifying. There is a deep sense of “I have this under control” and just telling myself I will be fine, self-soothing and denial goes a long way. Lastly, I’ve learned to make friends with humility in asking for help along the way and ditch my stoicism when it matters.
A quote by Woody Allen completely resonates with me especially looking back on these events: “I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”