A man takes a photo of himself every day. A selfie project. It's not that strange. It's been done. But in this case, the man had just fallen off his bike, and smashed his face beyond recognition. It would never be the same again, and now he has the picture-diary to prove it. This is the story of recovery, becoming bionic and learning to heal, one day at a time.
Galbraith Mountain is the city of Bellingham's gem—a 3000 acre tract of privately owned, North Shore-like forest, riding distance from downtown, riddled with 50 miles of singletrack trails maintained by the not-for-profit Whatcom Mountain Bike Coalition. Friday, late June, 2014, Ryan Proctor logged off early from his duties as the Digital Community Manager at Arc'teryx and drove to Bellingham to pick up a new mountain bike. The plan was to join a friend and test out the new ride. He barely completed 40 pedal strokes.
"Then I woke up in the hospital."
Josh Poulsen is the bike mechanic who built up Proctor's bike. "We stopped at the top of the trail to make some adjustments – rebound, shock pressure, fork pressure. And then we started down a trail called Pump Track." Poulsen, a member of the Trail Coalition, led the way. Their posse swelled with addition of Oso Ghoffrani, a textile designer who can roll onto the trails from her back door. Out riding with friends, she fell in behind Proctor to ride sweep. "I didn't even know his name," she says, but she was right behind him when Proctor cased an unmarked gap jump. "He must have braked at the last minute and he nose-dived."
Slumped on the ground, bike to the side, Proctor fell about eight feet, his face taking the brunt of the impact. Ghoffrani dumped her bike and jumped across the gap.
"His jaw was dislocated, he couldn't speak and his nose was over under one eye. I screamed as loud as I ever have to the guys at the bottom of the trail." When she remembered she had her phone in her pocket, she called Josh Poulsen, trying to communicate the urgency of the situation without freaking Proctor out.
Meanwhile Proctor, unable to see the damage, had snapped back to consciousness and was reassuring her and himself: "I'm fine, I'm fine." He appeared coherent, his eyes were tracking, but he was asking the same questions, over and over. "Where are my teeth? Do I have my teeth? Am I bleeding?"
At the bottom of the trail, Poulsen, a volunteer EMT firefighter knew something was wrong; Ghoffrani was uncharacteristically terse on the phone. "We need you up top."
It took fifteen minutes for the group to make it back up the trail. Poulsen began a trauma assessment: "His face looked like someone swung a flat head shovel right at his nose. And as I'm doing my thing, he starts to become non-responsive, grunting, blinking really slowly. He was going into shock. We needed to get him down the mountain – now."
I'm not dead. I'm still walking around. I definitely feel like I dodged a bullet. But I'm not out of the woods, yet.
Poulsen ripped down an access trail to his van and raced back up. In the van, Proctor flipped the visor down. "Whoa," he said, when he first saw the damage to his face. "Looking good, Proctor."
"He looked in the mirror three or four times in ten minutes," says Poulsen. "His face was starting to swell so he couldn't really breathe. I was worried about frontal lobe damage. He kept putting his bloody hands all over the van, flipping down the visor to look in the rear vision mirror. And he was joking the whole time."
"I walked his bike down while we waited," says Ghoffrani. She pauses. "It was like an archaeological dig, picking his teeth out of the ground."
Proctor's memories start with him getting his lip stitched up at St Joseph's Hospital. Kate MacLennan, who has known him for 20 years and was deep into Friday night drinks, says she received a text from her friend—a selfie, captioned 'lost a few teeth'. "He looked terrible. But he was texting me." She agreed to come and collect him in Washington the next morning. "It wasn't until I picked him up that it became really clear to me how serious this was."
That was Saturday, 3pm. By Monday, at 8am, after a visit to the Whistler clinic and being transferred to Vancouver General Hospital's ER, Proctor had been diagnosed with a broken neck and was being wheeled into a four hour surgery to reconstruct his face.
It was a dizzying about-face. 48 hours earlier, he'd been walking around, drinking a Booster Juice and sending selfie announcements to his boss: 'not going to be at work for a while.' ("Better than a long rambling text, right?") Suddenly, he was in a neck brace, being wheeled into an operating theatre full of whiteboards diagrammed with what was planned, under a bright white light, signing a waiver that gave hospital staff the permission to peel off his face.
Proctor admits, "It got a bit overwhelming at that point. I had a bit of a teary moment, but I just swallowed it down. Like: not now." Then the anesthetic was swirled around his mouth, toothpaste-like goop on the end of a popsicle stick. And he was out.
Turned out he had a concussion, 10 facial fractures, a dislocated jaw and a right occipital condyle fracture. 5 bottom teeth were missing. He woke up with a new nose, ear to ear staples across the top of his head and a neck brace that was to stay on 24/7 for the next three months.
His instinctive response on regaining consciousness? Take a selfie.
"It happened fast." Longtime friend and neighbor Kim Brennan picked him up after surgery. "He had the thought that he was just getting checked out." She had to sit on the edge of his bed when she first saw him. "I thought I was going to pass out. He didn't look like Proctor. He seemed so fragile."
The doctor told Ryan that his face had acted like a shock absorber. "I think your face collapsed so much that it saved your brain. If you'd worn a full face helmet, the front piece would have broken your neck."
LUCKY | UNLUCKY
You're lucky, people said.
Mike Shaw, freestyle skier, coach and friend, dislocated his neck 6 months earlier. He visited Ryan in the recovery room. They wryly compared injuries. Shaw's neck is pinned solid with rods, he has no mobility, can't move his head; but you can't tell that from looking at him. Proctor could move, but his face was a mangled mess.
Brennan: "'It could have been worse.' People kept telling him that. 'You could have never walked again, or not made it out of surgery.' ...His injuries were still pretty severe."
"50% lucky, 50% unlucky," says Ryan.
As his face reconfigured itself, Proctor snapped self-portraits. Every day, for 50 days, as if he could reconstruct a new relationship with himself... one that was more honest than the street reaction where his injuries were ignored, or sugar-coated.
"That sentence: 'Oh, you look pretty good for what happened;' it frustrates me. I know they're not saying it to offend me, and yes, I do look okay for what happened. But in my head, daily, I'm like, I look different."
"It wasn't that I thought of myself as super good looking," says Proctor. "I thought I was an average normal looking dude and I was totally okay with that. But my face was my identity. People knew me."
Other survivors sought Ryan out, the grapevine lighting up, his neck brace like a beacon announcing: shoal of stories right here! Strangers on the bus, bartenders, old guys in the street, all would approach and ask: "What happened?" And inevitably, they'd have their war story, too. "I wrecked my face; I've got chicken wire eye-sockets." "I fell off a swing in Spain. There's titanium plates in my forehead."
It was a weird, but instant bond. "It's funny how many people have been mangled at some point. People who have been hurt will come and start talking about it straight away. But those who haven't might not even mention it." He didn't mind. "I liked it.
Yes, I do look okay for what happened. But in my head, daily, I'm thinking, I look different.
I was happy to tell the story. Maybe it's the entertainer in me. It does help to talk about it." Brennan was at his house every day during the sweltering summer months, making dinner, ("we had a lot of mac'n'cheese, and he got addicted to those disgusting elderly people drinks, Ensure"), watching Netflix in the dark. "I'm sure he got sick of me at times, but I didn't want him to be lonely and go into a vortex. I remember him riding his bike to the brewery, riding around in a neck brace and this busload of people went past. I was laughing so hard, imagining what they were thinking. When his neck brace came off, it was a big deal. When he had it on, people knew he'd hurt himself and he had a story. When it came off, I think he was afraid people wouldn't care anymore."
That was the day that Proctor ended his Facebook and Instagram radio silence. He posted an unflinchingly honest selfie of his new face—no funny expressions, no filters, no props, just a man looking into the camera—and announced:
"I haven't posted in a while. Here is why...
Three months ago I took spill on/off of my mountain bike in Bellingham which ended up doing just a little bit of damage to my neck and face. I have zero memory of what happened and was helped out of the bushes and taken to the local hospital by some good friends and a few new ones. After a visit to the Bellingham hospital, an overnighter at the Econolodge and a shuttle across the border up to Whistler, I finally ended up at VGH.
The damage was large, I was concussed and had crushed my face, crushed my nose, ripped out 5 bottom teeth, cracked my jaw and sustained an occipital condyle fracture. It took 4 hours of surgery to fix the damage to my face. After four days of rest I walked out with 4 titanium plates and screws holding my face together, a brand new nose, a chewed up tongue, stitches under my nose, staples from ear to ear across the top of my head and a neck brace that was to stay on 24/7 for three months.
The rebuild is almost complete and today my neck brace came off for good!! F'n Eh Rights!
I have had the support of great friends and family over the past few months. From dropping off lattes and food, to dragging my broken ass out of the bushes, driving me across the border, hanging by my side in the hospital while the doctors did their work, shaving my stapled head and everything else I needed to get by along the way.
It is humbling to need help and have people who drop everything and show up, no questions asked. Kim (who could now be considered a registered nurse I'm sure) Jeff, Kate, my big brother (the OG Proctor), Matt W, Sakeus B, Josh P, Levitt and Sarah and more. You have all helped me along the way. I have a lot of thanks and love for you all. Arc'teryx, thanks for the Vitamix! And, the doc who put me back together – good work!
From now on every time I look in the mirror at my semi-bionic face, I will remember the pain, the support, the resilience of our bodies and that who we are comes from the inside, not the outside. Even if some of the inside stuff is now titanium.
Next up – physio for my neck and to start the dental process to get my smile back to normal/huge.
I took a selfie everyday for the first two months which are not too great for an FB post. Happy to share if anyone wants to see. The body is a crazy machine."
A month before the accident, Proctor's dad died suddenly, a heart arrhythmia. On his way to the memorial with his brother, driving the 401 freeway in Ontario, the hood of the car popped up and shattered the windscreen, triggering a three car pile-up in their wake. "Then I got back from Mexico for my best friends' wedding and moved some dirt around with my face. High and lows, right? It keeps you in check. It can't always be good."
Proctor got back on his bike in October. "I biked a ton after my neck brace came off. I want to bike more. I want some vindication. But I am pretty tentative now."
Proctor still has several painful dental surgeries ahead – gum grafts, teeth implants. He has ongoing numbness, discomfort, the micro-expressions in his face, dimples, wrinkles – all gone. "My face feels like one big muscle." Its new metallic skeleton gets cold when he skis, feels sharp and pointy and foreign beneath your fingers. "I'm not dead. I'm still walking around. I definitely feel like I dodged a bullet. But I'm not out of the woods, yet."
Says MacLennan, "I don't think he ever put on a brave face. It was just pure stoicism. And now, I think he's thinking about things, his perspective is evolving."
His older brother Kent checks in every week. "I never really thought about his face, to be honest. I think he's trying to figure out how to live the way he wants to, as opposed to just kind of doing things. He still has the lighter side, for sure. But he's a bit more serious, now."
"I look at the world differently, now," says Proctor. "I don't quite know that what means yet."
Ryan is honest. "I've never taken the time to look at myself and figure out who I am as a person, and I think that will linger longer than my injuries will. I find I'm more worried about people, worried about the goodness of what goes on in life. I still make cynical jokes, things that are probably offside, but I feel more a gutcheck every time I say that kind of stuff. The real difference between me now and me then? Probably a secret compassion."
The last Oso Ghoffrani saw of Ryan Proctor was when he was bundled into the van and driven to the hospital in Bellingham. "I think about that day all the time," she says. "It had a huge impact on my decisions to go out into the wilderness, to have a partner and a plan. I carry a few more things in my backpack, too."
Poulsen, who also has 2 titanium plates in his face from a high school injury, now carries more first aid supplies with him when he rides, too. And he went back up to the feature with the trailbuilder and filled it in. "It's marked now. I want him to come back and go riding with me. Give him a redemption lap. Show him the scene of the crime, if he's interested. Show him, we put this in here because of you. I'm sorry it wasn't there when it happened. But thank goodness he's there to walk up the trail and ride down again, rather than having to see a picture from his wheelchair."
As for Proctor, he's going through a phase of buying lottery tickets. Not because he believes in luck. Just, well, because.
UPDATE FROM RYAN
"It's been 15 months since my accident and the interviews for this story. Time flies by. Most of the physical stuff has either healed, or whatever felt weird/funky is now beginning to feel normal. I am about to get my new teeth and am curious if that will change my mental state, as it is the last physical piece of the puzzle.
I think less about the actual accident and more about what moving on means; if I was being too superficial about appearance, or too casual about my injuries because it was shitty for a while. But, I was able to get back to life as usual quite quickly and I am amazed when I see people endure much more than I, and am curious if I could handle it. When something like this happens to you it is hard, or least takes a long time to step back and think honestly about how it has affected you mentally. Maybe I am not 100% there yet.
I do know my time is worth more than I used to think and doing what I want every day is becoming more my focus.
I still don't have much to say about lucky vs. unlucky, although I do buy lottery tickets. I'm just glad I can go outside, stand in the sun and the rain, ride bikes, ski, spend time with family and friends, and time alone. I think is important to understand what makes you, you.
When you pull yourself away from something, or are forced to, you begin to understand what really matters to you.
The people around you, good or bad, help shape who you are. I am thankful that I have been allowed to continue on 99.9% intact, and for the good people around me."