After the Crash: The Blurry Relationship Between Consciousness and Memory

“Hmm, that doesn’t look good,” I thought to myself as I examined my face in the bathroom mirror. A dark red scrape oozed blood above my right eye, just below the visor of my helmet. My head throbbed a little, but the scrape seemed most important. I prodded it with my finger. It was definitely fresh, and quickly swelling into an intimidating stripe. The rest of my right eye felt a little sore too, but it visibly looked OK.

* * *

I held the tattered piece of damp computer paper in my hands that dictated my life for the week. As I closely examined the schedule, a small twinge of panic started to settle into my chest. I quickly pushed it as far down as I could; freaking out would do no good.

“What day of the week is it?” I thought long and hard but I couldn’t remember what day it was. In fact, I couldn’t remember much of anything. All I knew was that I was at the bike shop, and that I had helped Abbie set up low rappel earlier that morning… and that it was sometime after lunch.

I was working at a Christian camp in Colorado for the summer. As a member of the “Adventure Staff” for Narrow Way Expeditions, and our main job was to counsel and guide groups of kids on weeklong trips into the wilds of Colorado. On weeks when we weren’t out on an expedition, we would stay on camp and facilitate different activities for the “residential” campers. Our activities included rock climbing, rappelling, bouldering, high and low ropes courses, hiking and backpacking, slacklining, sea kayaking, mountain biking and more. At this moment in time, I was standing in our on-camp bike shop.

Despite the throbbing in my head, I was able to figure out the day of the week by process of elimination: Monday. Short thoughts pulsed through my head in sync with the pain. “Where is Summer? I need to find Summer. Something is not right… something is just not right. Summer will know what to do.” I knew that something was wrong and that I needed help, and the only person I wanted to find was this girl named Summer. We had already guided two trips together that year, and had worked on-camp together as well. Less than a week ago, I had asked her out on our first date. I instinctively knew that I could trust her to decide what to do, so I used the schedule and my newly acquired knowledge of the day of the week to figure out what activity she was running. According to the limp paper, she should be over at the high ropes course. That was perfect; it was just up the hill.

* * *

I was halfway up the gravel road, staggering towards the ropes course under the dripping gray sky, clutching at my helmet-less head with my right hand. I didn’t remember leaving the bike shop or walking the first half of the road. In fact, I didn’t remember much of anything. It was finally catching up with me, and my skull was pounding with pain. I finally reached the high ropes course, and Summer was intently belaying a small middle school girl as she attempted to cross a high cable with the aid of a series of hanging rope “vines.” “Hey Summer,” I groaned.

“Hey Greg, how’re you doing?” she responded, still looking up at the girl on the wire. At that point, the bulldozer of understanding plowed me over and I started to lose it. The disorientation, confusion, and pain were just too much, and a little stream of salty water began to mingle with the blood on my face.

“Summer, I think I have a concussion! I can’t remember what I ate for lunch!” Most of my memories from that day were eluding me, but the fact that I couldn’t remember what I had eaten was intensely upsetting. “The last thing I remember is setting up low ropes with Abbie this morning. I think I have a concussion!” She glanced down long enough to see me standing there in full mountain biking gear with dirt coating the front of my jersey and a bloody cut above my swiftly swelling eye. Finally, I had her attention!

My brain was so addled from the crash, or at least what I assumed was a crash, that I knew I needed someone else to figure out what to do. She told me to lie down on the ground, and I was more than happy to get off of my feet. My head was still throbbing incessantly, and just maintaining my balance had been a true accomplishment. Suddenly, everyone else snapped into action, just as we had been trained to do. Summer lowered her camper off of the ropes course while Madison, one of our fellow staff members, ran over to stabilize my head. In my condition, I hadn’t been able to work past my headache and partial amnesia to consider the fact that I might have a neck injury. A minute later, Summer ran over and relieved Madison, holding my head firmly between her knees. I grabbed her hand and pressed it tightly to my grungy cheek, holding on as if it was my sole anchor to the conscious world.

Over the next few minutes, someone had the presence of mind to call 9-1-1. The ambulance drove all the way up the rutted dirt road to where I lay in front of the high ropes course. The paramedics jumped out immediately, working quickly and professionally to lift me onto a backboard and secure my neck with a c-collar. It felt just like a scene out of our Wilderness First Aid training, only I never imagined I’d be the person receiving the aid.

Later, I was told that sometime between hitting the ground and making my way up to the ropes course that I had unlocked the bike shop, carefully hung my mountain bike up on one of the racks, and had neatly lined up my hydration pack, gloves, helmet, and glasses on the work bench. I didn’t remember any of those things. My brain must have gone on autopilot and taken over without me knowing it. Or was I conscious, but I just can’t remember those events? Whatever the case, I find it fascinating that it seemed important to neatly arrange my gear and make sure that everything was in its proper place.

Eventually, I did remember that I had been waiting around to take a group of kids for a ride around camp. The counselor must have decided against bringing them up because of the light drizzle, since no one showed. To pass the time, I was jumping my mountain bike off of an embankment next to the bike shop. I had jumped off of this same embankment before, and I remember making several successful runs before everything went dark. I still don’t remember hitting the ground, which is frustrating, as now I will never be able to learn from my mistake.

But as I lay there on the backboard with my head immobilized by the c-collar, I didn’t remember much, but I did know one thing: I was conscious.

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