The Bicycle Accident of Yichao Wang at Stanford, California on February 3, 2010

Picture of Yichao Wang, as published in the Palo Alto Daily (no photo credit)(This essay was written by Kimi, and I’m posting it here on her behalf. There is news coverage of the accident from the unofficial Stanford blog, the San Jose Mercury News, Stanford University News, The Stanford Daily, and The Palo Alto Daily News. To donate to Yichao Wang’s family, please see the Chinese Mutual Aid International Network site.

My friend X and I were leaving a night class at Stanford University. We had been learning about “how to raise balanced children in a fast-paced world.” We were discussing some of these ideas as we left class. I had parked off campus because we had carpooled to class. As we turned out of the parking lot and drove down Palm Drive toward El Camino, her Audi’s headlights swung out onto a body lying in the road. The body’s arms and legs were splayed out in a terrible, unnatural pose. At that moment, every cell in my body was perked. I tried to attach thoughts to my observations. “This can’t be real,” my mind told me.

My friend slowed her car down, and I tried to get out. She said sternly, “Wait!” and then “OK, now you can get out.” She parked her car and turned on the hazard lights. She started to wave the cars behind her away from the scene.

I leaped out of the car and could not believe what I saw and heard. I walked past an SUV parked on the side of the road and noticed another car parked in front of it. I think it was a white BMW. I never saw the driver inside. After I noted the body’s odd position again, I saw a man in blue scrubs. He had dark brown hair and wore glasses. He was on his cell phone, intensely describing the body to someone, “Male, about 30 years old…yes, I think he is seizing.” The top of the man’s head was facing me. As I walked around to face him, the breath was knocked out of me. His head was swollen to 2-3 times its normal size. His eyes were swollen shut. The top-right corner of his forehead near the temple was a matted clump of blood-soaked hair. There was a huge dent in the forehead, where his skull was smashed. “A person’s brain should not be outside of their head,” I told myself. His arm was turned away from him, and he did seem to be having some kind of seizure. He was moaning, gasping mightily, and sputtering with each breath; his chest rose and fell heavily, and eruptions of blood and phlegm shot straight up like a geyser.

I wanted so badly to clear his mouth and turn his head to the side. I reached my arms out toward him. “Don’t touch him! He might have a spinal injury!” the man barked.

I mumbled something about his ability to breathe.

“See those bubbles? That means he’s breathing,” he snapped.

“Mean,” I thought. I forgave him instantly.

He explained to the 911 dispatcher, “I am a fourth-year medical student.” He shot a glance at me, as if to see that I heard.

I grabbed the man’s left hand instead. He had thick fingers, and his skin was rough. “It’s going to be all right,” I said soothingly. I glanced at the dark, wet hole in his head and pushed my doubt aside. “Help is on the way.”

Then something clicked. I let go of the man’s hand for a few moments, and I picked up his bicycle from the opposite lane. The thick metal handlebars were crumpled, and I couldn’t wheel it. I had to pick it up. I noticed that it was black and did not have lights on it. I dumped it on the side of the road. Then I saw his backpack. It was heavy, black, and quite far from where the bike and body were. In fact, all three items made a large triangle. I understood why his head was so damaged. The car must have hit the front of the bike and sent the man and his backpack flying. He landed on his head where a helmet should have been; he should have had a cracked helmet and not a cracked skull. I tried to ignore these disturbing thoughts as I moved intently. I had to shoo away another intrusive thought: “This is Stanford! This shouldn’t be happening at Stanford!” I flung the backpack near the mangled bike.

Then the medical student had orders. “There should be a box of rubber gloves in the back seat of my car. Get them.”

“Lucky, someone who carries around medical gloves in his car,” I thought. I retrieved the purple gloves and concentrated on the task. There was only room for one thought in my head at a time. “Get the gloves,” I recited to myself as a mantra. I returned to the scene with the box in hand. We both put them on.

A blond woman yelled to us, “Do you need help? Should I call 911?”

“Someone already called 911,” I yelled back.

“Should I help direct traffic?” I finally noticed the cacophony of honks and yelling from the cars stopped behind us.

“Yes!” I responded, and then I turned back to the body on the ground. I spoke to him once more, “The ambulance is coming. Everything is going to be all right. They are going to help you. Don’t worry.”

At that point, the medical student thrust his cell phone at me. “Here, take this!” he said. I held the man’s hand in mine as I spoke to a dispatcher on the phone.

“Where are you?” she asked.

I said, “About halfway between the Oval and El Camino.”

“Is anyone there yet?” she asked.

I told her that no one was on the scene yet except for us. She told me help would be there soon. Moments passed like hours, and then I heard the sweetest sound in the world: sirens. I told her, and she said, “OK, hang up and flag them down. They are not exactly sure of your location. Good luck.”

I hung up the phone and looked for the flashing lights. “Do you hear those sirens?” I told the man. “The ambulance is coming, and they will help you! Hold on!” Then I stood up and waved my arms at the sound and flurry emanating from police cars in different directions. The police immediately blocked traffic from both ways with their cars, and they were filled with questions. The medical student answered them curtly. I was holding the man’s hand tightly. He was struggling harder than ever to breathe.

Moments later, we heard the ambulance pull up. “The ambulance is here!” I screamed at the man. You could almost see the relief wash over the small group then, as if we were done with our leg of the race and were passing the baton to a teammate. But this relief affected the man on the ground differently. At the exact moment that I announced the ambulance’s arrival, the man stopped breathing.

The medical student and a policeman reached out for his wrists. “Does he have a pulse?” someone asked. Instinctively, I started screaming a stream of questions at the man’s face, “HEY! What is your NAME? How OLD are you? WHAT IS YOUR NAME? HEY!!! WHAT IS YOUR NAME?!!!”

The man suddenly took in a huge breath and exhaled with a giant splutter. We all sighed with relief. Then the paramedics approached with their equipment. We all took a step back to give them room. The paramedics moved with a kind of relaxed calm. They put a cervical collar on him, turned his head to the side, and put a suction tube in his mouth. It was attached to a little vacuum. Someone put a long board next to him, a sort of gurney. Then, inexplicably, they started cutting off his clothes with a large pair of scissors. He lay in his underwear, but his limbs weren’t strangely positioned anymore.

I became aware of the medical student’s cell phone in my hand. I forced myself to walk to his SUV and place his cell phone in the cup holder. “I put your phone in your car,” I told him. He looked in my eyes and thanked me. We really saw each other for the first time.

As I wandered to the side of the road, I noticed a thick puddle of blood from the man’s head that stretched several feet beside him. I placed the man’s black backpack near the paramedics and told them it was his. They accepted it. Then, my friend X was standing next to me. We both stared at the blood. Then, a policeman asked if we saw what happened. The medical student said, “I saw it happen. I am a witness.”

Then the cop turned to us and said, “You can go now.”

I was completely torn. On one hand, the man was a vision of horror — human roadkill twitching on the asphalt. On the other hand, he was a human being: a son, a student, and maybe a husband or father. I wanted to be sure he would survive, but I couldn’t bear to ask if he would be OK. In fact, because of the smooth calm of the paramedics, I was worried that there wasn’t much they could do and that they knew something I didn’t about the possibility of his survival. So my friend and I walked back to her car, and she drove us away in the opposite direction of the man. I had to let go of my concern as abruptly as I had been moved by it. I felt shock, sadness, and anger. I was angry that the driver of the car hadn’t even stepped out to see if the man was OK. My friend explained to me that the driver was probably in shock and facing the prospect of being responsible for someone’s death. The anger subsided. Then, I noticed his blood on my hands. I started to panic. My friend gave me some baby wipes, and I cleaned off the blood. I was left with a queasy feeling in my stomach, which lasted for a week, and a wish for hope and strength among all the strangers.

Afterward, my friend and I searched the web for weeks. We even sent a detailed e-mail to the campus police. We never got a response. I searched for information about the survival rate of bicyclists who do not wear helmets, the chances of recovering from brain injury, and news stories of accidents. At first, I thought no news was good news because the newspapers would be all over a story that involved death. But then I talked to several people, and a friend whose opinion I respect simply shook his head and hugged me when I told him about the experience. I knew he didn’t think the man had survived. So I started to think about the possibility that the man did not survive. Then, two weeks later, my friend X e-mailed a news link to me. The Stanford web site had a story about a visiting researcher from China who had been hit by a car while bicycling. X’s e-mail was titled, “This is our guy!” And it was him! His name was Yichao Wang. I thought he was half black and half white, but he was Chinese! He came from the same town that my friend X’s mom was from. The story had a link to a photo of him in a coma and a request for donations to cover his medical care. I was excited to discover that he had survived the accident. I donated to his recovery fund through the Chinese Mutual Aid Society. However, the day that I donated, he died.

Now, I think about his wife and parents who must miss him terribly. They are probably in shock. He was 25 years old, married for three years, and on a promising path as a research scientist. Now, he is gone.

I feel sad, but I also feel angry. Stanford Hospital has charged one million dollars for the brain surgery that kept him alive but in a coma from which he never woke. It seems like it was an unnecessary surgery. Certainly, asking two retired Chinese parents who just lost their son to pay one million dollars seems ridiculous and cruel.

I wish that Yichao wore a helmet that day, had blinking head and tail lights on his bike, wore bright clothes with reflective stripes, or left his lab during daylight hours. I wish the driver had been more aware and careful. You have to be a defensive driver at all times in this area. I wish Stanford had a no-car zone around the campus and shuttled people in. I wish that this man was living, loving, and discovering. I wish he died after his parents and not before. But, again, he is gone.

He will not have died in vain if we learn this lesson: YOUR HELMET IS PART OF YOUR BIKE. IF YOU RIDE A BIKE, ALWAYS WEAR YOUR HELMET.

10 Responses to “The Bicycle Accident of Yichao Wang at Stanford, California on February 3, 2010”

  1. Brian Johns Says:

    In addition to wearing a helmet, the choice of bicycle light is important. There are many lights which may qualify as a bike light under the law but aren’t very useful in reality.

    More light is better, and your life may depend on it. Good lights are expensive but keep in mind that you need to be visible by drivers of cars.

  2. Stephen Says:

    Excellent point, Brian. What lights do you recommend?

  3. Dario Says:

    All I can say is that sucks. It may not be much or eloquent but I can’t think of anything better to say about this incident and the trauma for all involved.

  4. August Says:

    Sad, I wish I can help his parents.

  5. sonofabike Says:

    “Then something clicked. I let go of the man’s hand for a few moments, and I picked up his bicycle from the opposite lane. The thick metal handlebars were crumpled, and I couldn’t wheel it. I had to pick it up. … I dumped it on the side of the road. Then I saw his backpack. It was heavy, black, and quite far from where the bike and body were. … I flung the backpack near the mangled bike.”

    Kim, thanks for your personal account of this very tragic incident. Encounters like yours can be traumatic incidents in themselves, at very least a brutal reminder of how vulnerable all of us are in the face of a collision with a car – cyclist or pedestrian. At the scene of such an incident, it must feel desperately difficult to feel helpful, but you clearly did your best.

    The part that troubles me is the manner in which you liberally decided to move the victim’s bicycle and bag. From your description, I can only assume that you did this before the police and emergency responders arrived. Why did you feel this was necessary and helpful?

    Hit and run incidents are difficult enough to investigate to yield the apprehension of the suspect that flees the scene. Your action altered the scene of the incident before the police arrived may have significantly eliminated what little information police COULD have collected from the scene to help them in an investigation.

  6. Stephen Says:

    sonofabike, thanks for the concern and it’s a good point. I’m sure the main reason my wife moved the items is because they were on the road, it was dark, and they were a hazard to the cars coming to the scene. It’s one thing for you and I who were not there to second guess someone’s actions, and another thing if you’re a witness to the entire situation. (By the way, this was not a hit and run, and the driver and a witness were there. The police did NOT need the items in the original location to investigate.)

  7. Jolene Says:

    Hi Kimi, thanks for your experience. whatever happens, i believe GOD has a reason for it…maybe it is time for him to have helped all that you can already…yichao will understand and appreciate it..hope you are feeling better..

  8. V4L Says:

    Helmets are prudent, but the poor behavior of drivers is the real problem.

    Suppose a man is walking down the street and is shot in the chest and dies. Should he have been wearing a bulletproof vest? Certainly, it might have saved his life. The same is true of a cyclist who might have been saved by a helmet when he was being struck by a car.

    I argue, however, that these risks are intolerable. People should be able to walk down the street without being shot, and people should be able to cycle without being hit by cars. The fact that many people say “cyclists should always wear helmets” and few people say “pedestrians should always wear bulletproof vests” simply reflects the fact that society is quite accepting of cyclists being in mortal danger.

  9. Stephen Says:

    V4L, I disagree. Bicycle accidents are frequent even when other drivers are not involved — you can hit a rock, or a signpost, or any of a dozen other accidents, without involving any other person other than yourself. So one should wear a helmet for that reason alone.

    In addition, however, accidents involving others are frequent too, whereas getting shot is relatively infrequent. If one cycles at night with no helmet and no light, and gets struck by a car, there is certainly blame to go around. The cyclist should have had a light. The driver should have been more careful. And if the cyclist had worn a helmet, the cyclist might be more likely to be alive instead of dead.

    We don’t tolerate the risk, as you imply. The driver is being prosecuted, as I understand it. And this story got media coverage because of the shock and outrage of a fatal accident on the Stanford campus.

    It’s very difficult to make drivers more careful and more observant. It’s very easy to wear a helmet. If it’s my own life in my own hands, I’m not going to trust any drivers to keep me safe. Instead I’ll proactively make myself more safe.

    If armed men were as commonly found on the street shooting pedestrians as careless drivers were found on the street, I’d deplore both situations but you can bet I’d go out not at all or only wearing a bulletproof vest.

  10. Andi Smidth Says:

    My condolences to his family. May his soul rest in peace. I thought I’d also share to his family as it might help to know there are people who are going through the same thing.

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