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Twenty minutes of Dr. Francis Rushton's life have vanished. One minute he was riding his bicycle down Meridian Road, and the next thing he remembered was waking up lying on a stretcher inside the back of an ambulance en route to Beaufort Memorial Hospital.
Rushton was out for a leisurely bike ride at around 6 p.m. June 8. He recalled that his bike shorts became twisted and he reached to fix them. That is the move, he assumes, that set his accident in motion. The handle and the wheel turned abruptly sideways, and he was likely thrown over the front of the bike, impacting the right side of his head and body. Rushton was unconscious for 20 minutes and transported to the hospital, where he remained overnight with a grade three concussion.
His prognosis could have been worse had he not been wearing a helmet.
Rushton, 55, a pediatrician at Beaufort Pediatrics, said he has been wearing a helmet for a long time. "As a pediatrician in a small town, it is my duty to set an example, not only for my own patients but also for the other children of the community," Rushton said. "How can we expect our youngsters to wear their helmets unless we adults do likewise?
"I have always considered myself a careful rider, but even though I felt secure in my bike-riding abilities, setting the right safety image of wearing a helmet is important to me."
That helmet may have saved his life that June evening or at least prevented him from serious head trauma. A case-control study found that helmet use reduces the risk of head injury by 85 percent, brain injury by 88 percent and severe brain injury by at least 75 percent.
According to Pediatrics in Review, a publication produced by the American Academy of Pediatrics, about 900 people die from injuries due to bicycle crashes each year in the U.S. And more than 500,000 people are treated in emergency departments for bicycle accidents. Head injuries pose the greatest risk, comprising one-third of emergency department visits, two-thirds of hospital admissions and three-fourths of deaths.
Rushton was surprised to wake up in the back of an ambulance the evening of June 8. He said the EMS technician was placing an IV in his arm, and he could see concern etched on her face.
The technician asked Rushton his age and who the president of the U.S. was. "I was shocked to realize that I didn't have a clue," Rushton said. "You are supposed to know how old you are and who the president is." After some intense concentration, he remembered that he was born in 1951, but he could not remember what year it was now. Eventually, he remembered that George Bush is the president. Remembering that fact made him feel better, but his brain still felt groggy.
Rushton described his next hour spent at the hospital as a blur. Emergency room doctors shone bright lights in his eyes. He recalled being pushed next to and inside various X-ray machines, drifting in and out of consciousness, having more needles poked into his arm, the beep of a nearby monitor and the sight of assorted family members and colleagues at his side.
Aside from a minor thumb injury, abrasions, bruises and a broken pair of glasses, Rushton was OK. He and staff at the hospital think his helmet saved his life. About an hour after arriving at the hospital, Rushton said his brain was aching but seemed to be functioning. "I could even remember who the vice president was, that it was June of 2007 and that I was supposed to be on call for work in a couple of hours," he said.
He was told that an unknown black man found him laying unconscious in the road and that he pulled him out of the traffic lanes and called 911. Rushton said the good Samaritan stayed with him until the ambulance arrived and then left. Rushton does not remember the man but said his wife was introduced to him, but she was a little flustered at the time. "I consider that man a hero and wish I knew who he was," he said. "I owe him a great debt of thanks."
A subsequent bystander recognized Rushton and notified his family of the accident.
Two and a half weeks later, he still had a headache and couldn't bend his thumb normally. Now, almost two months later, he still experiences some minimal dizziness when he first wakes up. "But I am basically back to being normal -- at least normal for me," he joked. He said it is typical for people to have symptoms of either headache or dizziness for months after a significant concussion.
Rushton is grateful that he was wearing a helmet at the time of his accident. He waited 10 days after being released from the hospital before getting back on his bike for a ride, wearing a brand new helmet.
Now he uses the old helmet, complete with a large dent on the right front area and a large chunk of foam missing underneath, in his office to show his patients and explain to them the importance of wearing a helmet. "I think having a personal story to share helps get the point across a little better," Rushton said.
John Feeser, owner of Lowcountry Bicycles, said the proper fit is the most important issue when choosing a bicycle helmet. The helmets are made of expanded polystyrene, which comes in different densities, but all helmets have to pass a federal safety standard issued by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
"Even though the helmet may not show any visible damage," Feeser said, "it is recommended to replace a helmet even after one crash." The helmets are designed to crush from the inside and lose their capacity to absorb shock after taking serious hits.
He said a good helmet can be purchased for about $40 up to about $225 for the top of the line helmets like those worn by professional bicyclists. "We help customers with fittings all the time and pretty much have it down," Feeser said.
Other safety tips for bike riders include wearing reflective clothing for nighttime or riding at times of reduced visibility, gloves to protect the skin on the palms of hands from falls on the pavement, having a light for nighttime riding and reflectors on the frame and wheels.
Choosing a bike that is the right size can also help ensure a child rider's safety. When standing straddling the top bar of the bike so both feet are on the ground, there should be 1 to 3 inches of space between the rider and the top bar. It is also important to keep up with the maintenance of a bike, checking and oiling the chain regularly and checking the brakes and the tire pressure.
"Perhaps my helmet wearing is more important here in the rural South, as helmets have not quite caught on with the younger set," said Rushton.