It was a gray, drizzly fall day like any other for the ultra-active Ann Budge, as she cycled down the 15/16 Sideroad in Oro-Medonte Township.
As the then-78-year-old approached the wide-open intersection, she saw a big yellow school bus travelling down the Ninth Line toward the stop sign.
She did not have a stop sign, but she slowed to make sure the bus was going to stop. When she saw the bus slowing down, she sighed in relief, and dug in to her pedals to continue on her journey.
However, as she hit her stride, the bus, after stopping, continued down the road, somehow oblivious to Budge, wearing a bright yellow jacket, and her bike. The collision was catastrophic.
All Budge remembers is hitting her head twice on the pot-holed pavement and, in a fleeting moment of lucidity, being thankful she was wearing a helmet.
There is not much else she recalls from that crash on Sept. 18, 2015. She has pieced together the details with the help of others.
An adult coach who was traveling in the bus with a high-school football team, quickly responded to offer her assistance while waiting for the ambulance.
“I remember he said I had lost a lot of blood,” recalls Budge. “The ambulance driver said my (leg) muscle had been sliced off and was lying on the road … it was down bare to the bone.”
The crash kick-started three years of Hell for Budge and her family that included multiple, lengthy stays in various area hospitals, arduous rehab and a protracted legal battle. It was a painful journey she may not have survived had she not entered the battle in excellent physical condition.
“One doctor told me the only reason I was able to go home was because of who I was before,” said Budge, who is now 81. “I was strong, fit and healthy. You have to stay strong and fit into your older years somehow or other because you never know.
“If I wasn’t fit and healthy, they probably would have sent me to a long-term care place and I never would have made it back to my home.”
That’s the primary reason Budge wants to tell her story. She believes, in her heart, her physical fitness and good health saved her and she believes it can save others.
Budge and her husband bought their first mountain bikes in 1986; that’s when the sport started. The next year, at the age of 50, she began competitive cycling and went on to win provincial, Canadian and world masters titles.
But the McGill University grad and Quebec native had always been active and could be often found cross-country skiing, competing in orienteering races or kayaking. However, it was mountain biking that stole her heart.
As a senior, she completed 24-hour races, off-road duathlons and adventure races. One of the highlights came in 1992, when she was 55, and represented Canada at the world championships. In 1998, she was thrilled to compete in the world mountain biking championships in her hometown of Quebec City.
She marked her 70th birthday with a party following at Hardwood Hills, her home away from home. “My mountain bike has been very important in my life,” she said at that time.
And that’s why the crash in 2015 was so hard to swallow. That, and because it didn’t have to happen.
The bus driver was 82 at the time of the crash. While Budge didn’t know it then, the driver had had an eye test days before the crash that revealed glaucoma. That result required him to undergo a drive test by Oct. 28 that could have seen his licence downgraded. He eventually pleaded guilty to failing to take precaution before setting vehicle in motion.
“If he hadn’t hit me, I wonder, because his vision was a bit impaired, if he might have hit a car or truck and kids would have been hurt,” mused Budge. “A more serious accident may have happened.”
While Budge eventually won a lawsuit against the bus company – it took three, long years – she is lobbying Barrie, Springwater, Oro-Medonte MPP Doug Downey to champion improved regulations around bus drivers. She believes they need to be tested more frequently as they age.
Her journey through the medical system was also an eye-opener.
Immediately following the crash, she was taken to Orillia’s Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital (OSMH), where her smashed femur was repaired. A 30-centimetre-long plate and screws were inserted; they will be there forever.
She stayed at OSMH for six weeks and had to stave off a gangrene infection.
“After six weeks, I could sit in a wheelchair and move my feet a bit,” said Budge, who required a walker to get from her hospital bed to the wheelchair.
She was then moved to Georgian Bay Hospital in Midland. Once they discovered her strength and fitness level, and at her urging, they put her on an accelerated rehab regimen.
After six weeks, she was able to go home – with a wheelchair and a commode – to continue her rehab. Not long after, in the middle of the night, as she maneuvered her walker to get to the commode, the leg gave out on the walker.
“I tried to grab the dresser, but I went crashing to the floor,” said Budge. “Back in the ambulance I went. I broke my pelvis in two places but, fortunately, I didn’t harm my surgery.”
That meant a return trip to OSMH and three more weeks in the hospital. Slowly, over time, she regained her strength, she learned to walk on her own again, and worked hard on her gait and regaining her fitness.
But she will never be the uber active senior she once was. When she was 77, not long before the bike crash, she had her fitness assessed by a professional – a test that declared her ‘body age’ to be 61. That seems like a distant memory, she says.
“I’m coming along quite nicely with walking. But I once ran all over the county forest and now I fear even trying to do that ... I can’t cross-country ski either.”
She has an exercise bike trainer and she’s hoping to build up her courage to ride on the rail trail someday.
“I can’t see myself on a mountain bike,” she says, regret resonating in each word. “My life has totally changed. But it could have been a lot worse and I urge people – especially seniors – to be active and stay fit. It can save your life. I’m proof of that.”