There was before and there was after.
Before, Buzz Ayola was enjoying a solo bike ride in Death Valley National Park on the first day of an annual winter vacation that would take him and a friend to Texas. An accomplished athlete and owner of a race-timing company, Ayola, 62, was happily cycling along Badwater Road.
After, Ayola awoke in a small hospital in Pahrump, Nevada. In pain and disoriented, Ayola could hear other patients speaking, but had no idea what had happened.
Before, Rebecca Hirsch, MD, a Kaiser Permanente psychiatrist, was on a jeep tour with her daughter and sister, enjoying the dramatic scenery of Death Valley.
After, she was running toward an unconscious, bleeding man who had been somehow thrown from his titanium bicycle now broken in half.
The 2 were fated to meet on the remote road in early January. Ayola’s bike had had a catastrophe mechanical failure that resulted in his fall and cracked skull, scrapes to his face and body, and litany of spinal cord injuries: C-1, C-2, T-8, T-9, and T-12.
While Dr. Hirsch’s specialty is healing the mind, “the old emergency training kicked in right away,” she said.
A cold wait
While he would not remember it later, Ayola did wake to tell Dr. Hirsch that he had a phone she could use to communicate with his friends and family — fortunate since he was not carrying any identification.
Only the tour guide’s satellite phone worked for calling the visitors center, though, which was asked to request an ambulance.
For 50 minutes, Dr. Hirsch held Ayola’s head in her hands to prevent him from moving.
Ayola remembers Dr. Hirsch’s long, dark hair curtaining his face.
Dr. Hirsch remembers the cold and her sister in the background, “blown away” as she watched for the first time Dr. Hirsch in physician mode.
She also remembers well-meaning but dangerously misinformed strangers stopped by to offer advice. Two young women who had taken a wilderness explorers class tried to persuade her to get Ayola up and walking around. A man came by to offer water.
Either remedy would have been devastating for Ayola. “Buzz would be quadriplegic if not dead if that had been allowed,” Dr. Hirsch said.
In the distance, Ayola’s traveling companion — who had been on a solo run — noticed his friend was late, saw an ambulance, and intuited the worst. Later, the park service would tell him where Ayola had been taken and bring him sobering mementoes of the day: a broken bike frame and cracked helmet.
Ayola and Dr. Hirsch learned as they waited that they shared a connection to the Kaiser Permanente Pleasanton Medical Offices, where he receives his routine care and she works.
They also discovered a similar sense of humor, with Dr. Hirsch joking there would be no co-pay for her roadside service and Ayola managing an appreciative chuckle.
Eventually, Ayola would be taken to the tiny Desert View Hospital followed the next day by the University Medical Center in Las Vegas, where he would spend 12 days before going to recuperate under the care of friends in Santa Cruz.
Today, Ayola said he has a small scar covered by his mustache. He is back to cycling — first carefully on his mountain bike. “My neck is what really hurts,” he said, adding that he looks forward to physical therapy.
“I have been a guy who believes in God, but I believe in him a whole lot more than I did before,” he said.
Recently he and Dr. Hirsch met for dinner. The 2 compared notes on the accident and even Facetimed with Dr. Hirsch’s sister.
“I have zero words of advice, except do what you love because the world is going to happen whether you do or not,” Ayola said. “And I want everyone to know that Dr. Hirsch is a wonderful doctor and woman. She saved my life, and I will never be able to thank her enough.”