Rider on the swarm, the extended version — it’s been six years since the beachfront bees tried to kill me

This is what I looked like once I left the hospital — and trust me, you don't want to see the other side.

This is what I looked like once I left the hospital — and trust me, you don’t want to see the other side.

A bee flew across my path as I was riding Wednesday afternoon.

Normally, I wouldn’t give it a second thought. But it was just feet from where I encountered an enormous swarm of bees along the beach, leading to the worst wipeout of my riding career.

And today is the sixth anniversary of that crash.

I’ve told the story before. But as I read it again, I realize I left out a lot of details.

So if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to set the news aside for a day to tell it once more, with feeling.

………

It was one of those perfect L.A. days. The kind people back east think we have everyday, and we hardly ever get in real life. I was just relaxing with an easy spin along the coast, when something zipped past my face. Then another…and another.

It didn’t take long to realize I’d run into a swarm of bees.

I was riding along the beach north of Santa Monica, on the beachfront bike path approaching Temescal Canyon.

By the time I realized what was happening, I was deep inside the biggest swarm of bees I’ve ever seen, or ever want to. A living, swirling mass at least 30 feet wide, filled with more bees than I could begin to estimate.

I had no way of knowing if they were angry or docile, and to be honest, I have no idea if I’m allergic to bees or not. But I figured this wasn’t the time to find out. So I just put my head down and pedaled as if my life depended on it. Because for all I knew, it did.

There had been several news stories in the weeks prior about Africanized bees attacking people, stinging them hundreds of times — sometimes fatally. For all I knew, that was what I’d encountered.

Thank God, it wasn’t.

As it turned out, they were docile. But I had no way of knowing that at the time.

I rode as hard as I could, finally emerging on the other side of the swarm after what must have been a few seconds, but seemed like an eternity as I watched bees bounce off my riding glasses.

Then just as fast, I came out on the other side, thinking that I’d made it out okay, when I looked down and saw that I was literally crawling with bees everywhere I could see. And I could only imagine what there was where I couldn’t see.

And then, nothing.

That’s not entirely true.

I remember looking down and seeing hundreds of bees on my arms, legs and chest. I could feel them crawling across my face, and recall reaching up to brush them off as one walked along the lens of my glasses.

What came next wasn’t the nothing I described, but the most profoundly spiritual experience of my life.

To be honest, I’m not ready to discuss just what I saw as I lay unconscious on the bike path. Chances are, I never will. It’s far too personal, and you probably wouldn’t believe me anyway.

But let’s just say there was a bright light, and someone there to meet me.

Yeah, I know. But still.

I came to with the most remarkable feeling of absolute peace. And confident in the knowledge that I was going to be okay.

Because that’s what I’d been told while I was out like a light.

The next thing I knew, a lifeguard was placing an oxygen mask over my face and asking if I knew where I was.

Fortunately, I’d picked a good place to land, just a few feet from the new county lifeguard headquarters next to Will Rogers State Beach, right where they used to film Baywatch. They’d found me unconscious, off my bike and laying flat on my face, and said I’d been out at least a couple minutes.

Just my luck.

After all those years of watching Baywatch in my youth, I found myself passed out on their former set. But instead of Pamela Anderson or Brooke Burns giving me mouth to mouth, I found a burley David Hasselhoff equivalent with an oxygen mask staring back down at me.

And remember watching him absentmindedly brush a bee off my chest.

The swarm was gone; in its place was a dozen or so spectators crowded around watching the lifeguards resuscitate me.

He said I’d been out for several minutes; maybe five, perhaps as long as 10.

When I tried to sit up, he gently pushed me back down. I argued that I was fine, and just wanted to get back on my bike and ride home. I could see my bike leaning against the door to the headquarters, though I couldn’t tell what kind of shape it was in.

Better than me, as it turned out.

Instead I was told that the paramedics were on their way, and I couldn’t leave until they checked me out. And the paramedics insisted I was going to the ER, whether I wanted to or not.

Which, in retrospect, probably saved my life.

It’s a unique feeling to ride in the back of an ambulance, strapped down to the gurney, watching the ceiling as they haul ass to the nearest hospital with sirens blaring.

And that’s when my wife called.

We have a long-standing habit, going back to when we first started dating, that she calls me every day on her lunch break. On the days she knows I’m riding, she’ll call my cell phone.

Except this time, the voice on the other end wasn’t mine.

One of the paramedics answered the phone. “Now don’t worry,” he said. “Your husband is going to be fine. But he’s been in an accident, and we’re talking him to the Emergency Room at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica.”

Needless to say, she worried.

I vaguely recall a flurry of activity when they rolled me into the ER. There was none of the usual waiting around for someone to see me; a doctor and a handful of nurses met the ambulance at the door and took me right into a room to check me out.

They started off checking cognitive function, looking for signs of brain damage. And probably thought they’d found it from the jokes that I kept cracking as they examined me.

But like I said, I knew I was going to be fine. So I was the only one in the room who wasn’t worried.

After a few minutes, my wife got there and they ushered her directly into the room.

And trust me, I don’t ever want to see that look on her face again.

Then it was off for the first of several CAT scans looking for brain damage, and MRIs looking for broken bones and internal injuries. Although, as it turned out, they missed one of those.

They found a bulging disk in my neck, and diagnosed a moderate traumatic brain injury, placed my left wrist and thumb in a splint, and finally, cleaned and bandaged my many cuts and scrapes.

It was about 7 pm, roughly 6-plus hours after my crash, when the ER doctor came into the room to discuss my injuries, and said they were going to send me home soon.

That’s when he saw it.

As I moved out from the blanket I’d been under for the past several hours, he happened to look down at my spandex riding shorts, and asked if I had something in my pocket. His smile went away completely when I told him bike shorts don’t have pockets.

What he’d found was a massive hematoma on my right hip, slowly filling with blood from a broken vein under the skin.

So much for going home.

Within hours, it had grown to the size of a football. And I went into shock twice from the loss of blood, my blood pressure crashing to as low as 56 over 38 while the ER staff scrambled to stabilize me.

So if I had gotten back on my bike to ride home, chances are, I might not have survived the night. Even if, by some miracle, I actually managed to get there. And if I hadn’t been wearing a helmet, I wouldn’t be writing this now.

The doctors explained I probably would have bled out if I’d tried riding home. Or died of a heart attack along the way.

And that’s if I didn’t pass out and fall off my bike, possibly causing further harm to my already damaged head or falling out into traffic.

Still, I was the only one in the room who wasn’t worried. Or in my wife’s case, scared shitless.

Then she was sent home, and I was off to the ICU.

Let me give you one word of advice.

If anyone even mentions the term urethral catheter in your presence, tell them you’d rather have them cut that part of your anatomy off, instead.

I’m serious.

A sleepless, and extremely unpleasant, night was followed by more CAT Scans, MRIs and repeated neurological exams the following day.

They sent me home with firm instructions not to leave the house for next two weeks, and no exercise — at all — for the remainder of the year.

The two weeks of home confinement was due to my brain injury, while the remainder was to give my body a chance to re-absorb the blood packed into my hip in order to avoid a transfusion.

Six years later, I still have scars on both knees, as well as one on my upper lip in the shape of a Hitler mustache when the light catches it right. And I have pain and swelling on my right hip, and probably always will, for reasons that have thus far defied the efforts of countless doctors and numerous medical exams to find an answer.

Let alone do something about it.

And I still have no idea what happened.

My injuries suggest that I must have fallen hard to one side, flipped or rolled over to hit the other side, and somehow ended up doing a face plant on the asphalt. But hey, your guess is as good as mine.

For all I know, Godzilla could have risen up out of the blue Pacific and slammed me down, before slinking off to ravage Tokyo once again. Though you’d think something like that would have made the local news, at least.

I’ve ridden past there hundreds of times. Each time trying to remember what happened after I tried to brush off those bees.

But there’s just nothing there.

Meanwhile, my extended recovery led to the realization that I’m closer to the end of my days than I am to the beginning. And that end could come at any time, in any way.

Which means that if I want to leave this world better than I found it, I have to do it now, in whatever time I have left.

Whether that’s another 30 days, or 30 years.

Oh, and the bees? Not one sting.

Go figure, huh?

………

I know I’ve said it before. But let me once again thank the LA County Lifeguards, the paramedics of LAFD Station 69 in Pacific Palisades, and the doctors and nurses of St. John’s Hospital, without whom this story could have had a much different ending.

And a special thanks to the folks at Beverly Hills Bike Shop — especially Chris K, now with the Santa Monica Helens — for fixing my bike following the crash. And at no charge, I might add.

I hope this attitude of gratitude never goes away.

12 comments

  1. mahythesis says:

    Wow. That’s sure a big bit of a story.
    Glad you’re still around to write and ride with us.

  2. fsethd says:

    The stuff that happens when you just go out for a pedal. That’s a horror story with a happy ending.

  3. JD says:

    Congrats on the anniversary of your “Damascus Road” experience.
    One very early morning around 04:30 many years ago, I had ridden halfway to work when I realized that I forgot to wear my helmet. I was past the point of no return so I continued pedaling on. Suddenly, a very large moth about the size of my palm hit me in the face from the left. Fortunately, when my front wheel hit the curb, I went over the handlebars and landed on the soft, wet grass of the parkway divider and didn’t get even a bruise. The only other insect danger I have encountered are swarms of gnats that burn when they get into your eyes. and the odd hitchhiking bee or Japanese beetle.

  4. taffy says:

    What a terrifying story. I’m glad you’re still around to tell it.

    The blank in memory seems to be normal after a traumatic accident – I have a friend who broke his collarbone and lost consciousness after a bike wreck and he’s never been able to remember the minute or so before the wreck, or why he wrecked.

  5. Thank you for this extended version. I am thankful for the reassurance given to you during the bright light experience and glad you made it through! I hope your wife has healed up from this traumatic event also!

  6. D. D. Syrdal says:

    Sweet fancy Jesus, what a horrible experience! And for what it’s worth, whatever you experienced when you were ‘in the beyond’ for lack of a better term, I don’t doubt you. So glad you lived to tell the tale.

  7. Margaret says:

    Ted,

    Just last month I read your original account of the ‘bee incident’. Thanks for providing the rest of the story.
    I am very grateful that it all had a positive ending.

  8. Lost Feliz says:

    Wow. What a story. It’s chilling to see the picture, especially because it brings up images of my first accident (a dooring in WeHo) five years ago.

    But we true our wheels and get back on!

  9. Mark says:

    “Heaven is for real” Burpo.

    Sounds like you’re not alone?

    TY

    mark

    Sent from my iPhone

  10. Opus the Poet says:

    I had a very different experience with my catheter, but then I was under anesthesia when I got mine. Getting it out I was completely awake and alert and only had mild discomfort. Getting the bandages changed twice a day on my skin graft? I grabbed one intern by the tie and said “That really. Freaking. Hurts. When you do that. Please be more careful”

    So we all have our different experiences from a wreck.

  11. Ralph says:

    The memory thing. Unlikely to return what you missed. I’ve snapped off 2 pedals, one at a time and don’t remember from just before to I not sure how long. Helmeted both times. Just what helmets are made for. Take care.

  12. Erik Knutzen says:

    Sorry to hear that you are still experiencing pain from this experience. As to the bees, as a beekeeper I’ve been around a lot of swarms (though never, thankfully, while riding my bike). Swarms are the way a colony reproduces. They make a new queen and the old queen (usually) takes off with around half of the workers. Swarms rarely sting since they have nothing to protect–no honey. Most often they will land on a branch while they look for a permanent home. You encountered a colony that was either looking for a temporary place to rest or moving into a new home. And the Africanized thing is a bit of a myth cooked up to sell pesticides. The local bees are pretty docile. There are exceptions, but again, when they are swarming they do not usually sting.

    That being said, a swarm is one of the more dramatic displays in nature. A colony could easily have 30,000 workers or more. Easy to see how the shock of it would have tossed you from your bike.

    As to your NDE–Rudolf Steiner, the early 20th century mystic, was obsessed with bees. He considered them a kind of gateway or doorway into the spirit world.

    Best wishes for a full recovery and hope to see you again soon. Thanks for all the work you do for those of us who ride bikes.

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