“Don’t look in the mirror,” my dentist warned me.
The team of dentists surrounding me were performing the first of many unpleasant procedures I’ve endured since that night when a fast-moving Jeep crashed into my head and smashed my face.
I hadn’t known what the dentists were going to do that morning when I walked into their office a few weeks later, and my brain was too frazzled from my traumatic brain injury to understand anything they told me.
Why did it sound like the dentists were using an angle grinder inside my head? Were they carving three of my top remaining front teeth into pointy vampire teeth?
I’d had what felt like 793 shots of novocaine so I couldn’t feel what they were doing, but I could hear it and watch them working.
“Don’t look in the mirror.” I whisper-chanted the advice from the dentist to myself as I hobbled down the hall for a bathroom break, supported by my shiny turquoise cane. I covered my mouth with my left hand, just in case my eyes disobeyed me and strayed to the mirror.
I’d obviously already seen my face post-crash, but I knew I couldn’t handle having the image of what I looked like mid-power-tool-session seared into my now-fragile brain.
I thought about my life on the afternoon of Sept. 1, 2020. Back then, living through the pandemic was the most stressful part.
I had started as director of the city-led Move PGH collaborative on April Fools Day, weeks after the country shut down because of COVID-19. My job was ambitious and exciting, and I was ecstatic to spend my days on a program to make it easier for everyone to live well without owning a car.
Because of COVID, I never had a chance to bond or giggle or brainstorm or commiserate around the water cooler with my colleagues and collaborators — I was just a disembodied head on Zoom calls.
Then one day, on my way back to Oakland, I grabbed a Healthy Ride bicycle from its stall. I was pedaling down Ellsworth Avenue in Shadyside.
When I woke to bright lights the next morning, I had no idea where I was. After my eyes adjusted, I could tell I was in a hospital, but why? I had no memory of the crash. My face felt wrong so I grasped for my phone to check the camera.
My face was swollen and misshapen. My nose was crooked, I had a purple eye, there was a bloody mess under my bottom lip and one of my eyebrows seemed to be missing, replaced with scabs and more blood. I was startled to see a gaping hole where, just the day before, there had been a tooth. It was hard to believe it was the same face I’d had my whole life.
I stayed in the hospital for two days, as a rotating team of nurses patiently and kindly tried to explain the extent of my injuries, and to help me regain the ability to walk on my own. I had only been injured from the neck up, but balancing on my own was nearly impossible thanks to what the medical professionals called a “traumatic subarachnoid hemorrhage.”
I didn’t know that meant my brain was bleeding until a check-up one month after the crash when one of my doctors congratulated me: “Ooh, your brain has stopped bleeding, that’s great!”
At work, I was still a disembodied head — but one with a broken brain and face, thanks to our unsafe streets that make car-on-bike collisions both predictable and preventable.
I stopped driving when I finished college, more than 20 years ago, because it wasn’t for me. I didn’t want to think about car repair or looking for parking or paying parking tickets. So I moved to Chicago and then to Washington, D.C., where I discovered the joy of riding bicycles for transportation.
The first time I rode my bike to work was thrilling. I couldn’t believe I could set my own schedule! I could get around for free basically. I just had to pay for food and then my legs would take me where I needed to go. Plus my transportation was also exercise? Yes, please!
I needed everyone to know. And, as happens with many people once they discover how liberating riding a bicycle can be, I became pretty annoying about it.
Soon, I started re-thinking and re-imagining street design and cities and dreaming how much more efficient and fun and affordable life could be if everyone had the option to safely choose bicycles.
Fast forward 15 years: I stared at myself in the mirror in the bathroom of my dentist’s office, reeling from how quickly a life can be transformed. Making it possible for everyone to live well without owning a car has been one of the central preoccupations of my life. But how could I confidently talk to people about bikes when my own face was a billboard screaming “DANGER!”?
By then, my injuries had matured and I had two black eyes, a bloody, scabby eyebrow, my nose was broken in two places, and my lower lip was swollen to three times the normal size. Though I’d already lost one front tooth, I was about to have three more yanked out of my broken jaw.
A week after I joined the ranks of the 4.8 million people who every year need medical care for injuries from vehicles, the Pittsburgh City Paper covered my accident with an article scrutinizing Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure for ignoring the pleas of residents and neighbors to improve the Ellsworth corridor.
Residents had been clamoring for safer streets for years, but those calls were ignored by the city, which decided to preserve a lane of free parking instead of adding a bike lane and making that critical connection safe for all users.
It’s not hard, expensive or challenging to develop streets that prioritize safety for all people. We need the political will to ignore some of the loudest residents to protect those who are (currently) the most vulnerable.
I was “lucky to be alive,” as I’ve heard from many medical professionals and most individuals who have interacted with me.
And while I am happy to be alive, my life has been forever altered. My confidence in my profession was shattered. I was robbed of access to my main form of transformation. I was unable to eat normally for over two years, compelled to cut everything into tiny pieces because the temporary teeth the dentist installed were decorative. They were there to hide the horror of healing between surgeries while my lost teeth were replaced with functional implants.
Every time I’ve glanced in the mirror, I’m reminded how close I came to becoming one of the 43,000 people killed by vehicles each year.
Six months after the crash, an old friend told me I’d received a piece of mail that looked important. We hadn’t lived together in nearly a decade, so I wasn’t sure why any important mail would be sent there.
I was shocked to discover that the city had decided that the crash was my fault and that I’d run a red light.
But how? The police weren’t there to see the crash, and there were no other witnesses nor cameras. It seemed strange that the police just took the word of the one man left standing.
I was unconscious in the middle of Ellsworth while the person who hit me apparently told the cops that I had run the red light.
They didn’t know that I was almost obnoxiously obsessed with not running red lights. Or that I had spent the past decade engaging hundreds of bicyclists and drivers around the country about the importance of using our shared space predictably.
Believing the ticket was issued too late to be valid, I ignored it.
Transportation is an essential part of life for every single person, and we must account for people of all ages and abilities when we design and develop our streets and cities.
Though my life will never return to what it was before, I hope that we can acknowledge as a city and a country that mobility is a human right and immediately begin to design streets that are safe and accessible for everyone.
I don’t have to hold my hand in front of my face or avoid looking in the mirror anymore. After two years of surgeries featuring bone grafts, numerous teeth extractions, implants and dozens of other dental procedures, I was finally able to eat a burger last week for the first time since the crash.
But Ellsworth hasn’t changed. It is still unbelievably dangerous for everyone who walks, bikes, scoots, takes transit and even drives. And until we make — and honor — some serious commitments to enhancing our streets for all, every person is at risk.
Laura “Lolly” Walsh is a mobility consultant at Carfree Academy and works with institutions and individuals to reduce their car dependency. She can be reached at @carfreeacademy and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Do you feel more informed?
Help us inform people in the Pittsburgh region with more stories like this — support our nonprofit newsroom with a donation.