In D.C., everyone’s favorite nightmarish bike story is Rico, a former messenger. Nobody quite knows what happened to him. But if you ask most bikers in the D.C. area about the worst crash they’ve heard of, they’ll all tell you about the same guy.
Rico, whose family did not want his last name printed, says that in 2005, he was riding his bike on the passenger side of a vehicle when the passenger reached out the car window and hit him hard on the back of the head with a blunt object.
Actually, he said he was on the “messenger” side of the car, because words like “messenger” and “passenger” get confused in his mind now. He also doesn’t remember most of his old friends by name, and he gets lost when he leaves his house. And it’s taken him two years to get as lucid as he is now.
Rico says that the injury that caused him lasting brain damage didn’t even make him fall off his bike, and he even finished his workday, delivering packages. Later in the evening he got together with friends; they were going to go play pool, but his headache was getting worse and worse. Finally he went home and laid down. His mom still feels guilty that she gave him an aspirin for his headache—the worst thing you can do for bleeding.
But she didn’t know he was bleeding. No one realized anything was wrong until the next evening when Rico’s mom came home from her job at the Capitol Hilton and his bike was still there—he hadn’t gone to work. By then he’d been hemorrhaging internally for more than a day. Asking to go to the hospital is the last thing he remembers. He entered a coma and didn’t come out for a month.
Some of the bleeding may have been from old injuries, and this is where the story gets complicated. Did someone really smack Rico in the back of the head on his bike? Was it something else, like the rearview mirror of a passing truck, as one of his friends has guessed? Or was this some cumulative result of a lifetime of accidents?
Rico spent almost five months at Washington Hospital Center and about as long in a nursing home afterward. The nurses kept telling his mom he wasn’t going to make it. He didn’t recognize her when he woke up, which the doctors took as a bad sign. When his friend Lola visited him in the hospital he said, “I don’t know your name but I know your bike.” He told her it was a green track bike with yellow rims, and that it cost $600. He was right on all counts.
Bill Underwood, Rico’s dispatcher at Apple Courier, says he tries to “encourage my guys to make sure they have helmets.” He also thinks track bikes with no brakes “make no sense at all,” and lots of his couriers use those. “Any time we start enforcing any kind of rules, we’re negating the independent contractor clause,” Underwood says. “We can’t have it both ways.” He says the company could mandate safety standards only if they hired couriers as full employees and paid them an hourly wage.
Rico, who’s in his 40s, is still healing—and not just from this injury but from past accidents that have broken his bones, paralyzed his right arm (requiring surgery), left him limping, cost him three teeth, and seen him through more than his share of concussions. He still has trouble walking up stairs and hasn’t worked since the accident.
He was desperate to get back on his bike and even has a new one in his collection. It was a long time before he could even try. He stopped doing his physical therapy long ago because it was boring. His friends found him rollers so he could practice riding inside, but he loaned them to a neighbor and never got them back. His mom bought him a stationary bike to use while he watches TV but he never uses it. He gets tired when he walks more than a couple blocks and he falls down sometimes. He gets tired talking. He apologizes for talking slowly, for forgetting words, for getting tired and just stopping.
His family is very intentional about talking to him a lot. Every morning his mom reminds him about his old friends or the things they did the last time they went back to her native Nicaragua, gently jogging his memory if he can’t recall. Meanwhile, she’s looking to enroll him at a gym with a pool, wondering if he might take to swimming more than the other forms of exercise she’s tried to interest him in.
He finally did get back on his bike. One of his first times out, he fell when someone on the street called out to him. He wasn’t wearing a helmet.
“The problem with a head injury is that we can’t fix it,” says head injury specialist Mary Pat McKay. “If you come in here with a severe brain injury, you’ll never be the same again. You may not go back to the same job you had before. You may need round-the-clock care.”
McKay says the hardest thing about her job is giving families bad news. It hit close to home when her friend’s son crashed on his bike without a helmet. His head hit a pole. He was about to graduate from an Ivy League law school. Now he paints houses.