I was 15 when I started running on my high school track team, and I’ve been a competitive athlete ever since. I’ve run countless road races, half a dozen marathons, with a personal best time of 2 hours, 47 minutes. In 1973, at age 23, I rode my bicycle across the U.S. just for the adventure. But in 1985 I gave in to the punishment of the marathon and started competing in triathlons, often with my twin brother, Steve, and sometimes with my wife, Deborah, after their marathon days were also behind them.
On October 14, 2007—just two weeks after I had completed a triathlon—I headed out for a leisurely mountain bike ride in Rutland State Park, not far from my home in Holden, in central Massachusetts. It was a beautiful fall afternoon, and I spent most of the ride on the miles of trails and service roads within the park. At one point, though, I had to venture onto Route 122, a two-lane highway that runs outside the park, to get to another section of the trail. My plan was to ride just a couple of miles on 122 and then head back into the park.
What happened next I don’t remember. According to an eyewitness, a woman driving at about 50 miles per hour wandered into the breakdown lane, where I was riding, slamming into me from behind. The witness said I was thrown onto the car’s windshield, then high into the air before crashing to the pavement. My bike was thrown across the guardrail into the woods and was destroyed. My bike helmet broke in half. In an out of consciousness, I’m told I repeatedly tried to stand but kept collapsing. I often wonder whether I sensed the impact as it was happening.
According to the police report, the driver seemed in shock herself and couldn’t or wouldn’t acknowledge her involvement in the incident. She was found at fault, resulting in the loss of her license for one year and 100 hours of community service. So much for the status of cyclists.
My bleak condition dictated that I reach a trauma center quickly, so I was air-lifted the 25 miles to the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, in Worcester. I’d been gravely injured – severe pelvic injuries, multiple cracked vertebrae and broken ribs, massive internal bleeding, a renal artery aneurysm, a collapsed lung, and a fractured skull and traumatic brain injury (TBI).
Deborah later told me the doctors took her and our son, Cody, aside in those dark first hours to tell them my chances of surviving that first night were just 25%. Initial surgery included installation of an external fixator to keep me from bleeding to death.
For several weeks I required the help of a ventilator to breathe. On top of everything else, I developed a serious lung infection. If my other injuries couldn’t kill me, the infection nearly did. For the next three weeks, I was kept in a medically induced coma to manage pain and keep me still until I stabilized sufficiently for the necessary surgery on my pelvis. Since I had not yet regained consciousness, I wasn’t yet aware of the severity of my injuries, and to this day I have no recollection of that time.
Deborah diligently kept our family and friends around the country updated on my condition. Coincidentally, and pivotally, Dr. Sandra Proctor, a close friend and orthopedic surgeon, was scheduled to arrive in Boston from California the next day to attend a medical conference. When she landed, she came immediately to the hospital. After looking at my x-rays and realizing the severity of my pelvic injuries, it was immediately clear that I would need extensive and risky surgery to reconstruct the pelvis.
She consulted with a colleague, Dr. Paul Tornetta, a highly regarded pelvic trauma specialist at Boston Medical Center (BMC). He concurred with Sandy’s assessment and agreed to perform the surgery if I could be transferred to BMC. Deborah faced the agonizing decision whether to keep me at UMass or move me to BMC for the surgery, a procedure that would determine whether I might ever walk again, let alone get back on a bike.
I was still on life support, making a transfer of this nature exceedingly risky. Ultimately, though, once my condition had improved sufficiently, Deborah’s instincts and her respect for Sandy’s guidance and Dr. Tornetta’s reputation clarified the choice. I was transported into Boston by ambulance, with an ICU nurse by my side, manually “bagging” the portable ventilator to keep me breathing.
Ah, yes, my pelvis. My right SI joint was fractured and dislocated. In addition, the pubis symphysis, normally joined by a half-inch of cartilage, had also been torn apart by the impact, resulting in a two-inch separation.
At BMC, before the surgery could begin, Dr. Tornetta removed the fixator and put my right leg in traction to aid the pelvic alignment. But he discovered that one of the fixator points had become infected, requiring a pump to handle the discharge from the wound. More delay. The infection addressed, finally I was ready for surgery. I still hadn’t regained consciousness.
To repair the pubis symphysis, Dr. Tornetta made a horizontal eight-inch incision a few inches below my navel, retracted my bladder, and then set the bones. To keep things in place, he inserted a titanium plate held by six screws into the bones.
Then, during the same surgery, he essentially screwed the SI joint back together with two eight-inch screws to re-attach the pelvis to the sacrum. This procedure was particularly risky due to the critical bundles of nerves in that area, whose proper function is necessary for walking, penile erection and continence. Fortunately, today all is well down there. And because the surgery came three weeks following the accident, the procedure was particularly difficult and time consuming – six hours in all.
I have no recollection of anything that happened during that time. Finally and gradually I emerged from the five-week drug cocktail confused, disoriented, frightened. For the two weeks I was at Fairlawn Rehab, in Worcester, though little physical therapy could take place because I was non weight-bearing on my right, damaged side. I was discharged on November 21, the day before Thanksgiving, giving that Thursday special meaning. I spent the next three months at home in a wheelchair, eventually graduating to crutches, then a cane and finally unaided back on two feet.
I have been incredibly fortunate to have a caring, supportive network of family, friends, colleagues and especially Dr. Tornetta. To this day – seven years later – people still ask me how I’m doing. I always respond, “ancient history.”
My treatment and recovery
I diligently followed Dr. Tornetta’s orders to stay off my right side. I’m confident my good behavior – and extraordinary medical care from day one – played a key role in enabling me to stand and walk the day my schedule said I could try. Dr. Tornetta later told me some patients require months of painful rehab before they can even stand unaided. I was back in the pool swimming laps (cautiously, mind you) two weeks later.
Seven years after my accident, thanks to my team of medical miracle workers, I can honestly say I have no long-term or noticeable physical disabilities. I’ve been able to regain almost 100% of my pre-accident strength and endurance, and I’ve competed in six triathlons, including the grueling Escape from Alcatraz race. The Escape is a 1.5-mile swim in the 52-degee waters of San Francisco Bay from Alcatraz Island, a hilly 18-mile bike ride, and an all-out eight-mile run.
I hope it doesn’t come across as boastful, but I definitely believe the physical and emotional strength that I developed through all those years of consistent, diligent training carried me from the deathbed to the Escape finish line. I’d “escaped Alcatraz,” and I’d also escaped death.
Though I’ve recovered well physically, the traumatic brain injury has been a tougher slog. The impact had caused bleeding in my brain in multiple locations. I hit the pavement on the left front of my forehead, the area of the prefrontal cortex, where executive functions reside, like organization, judgment and impulse control. For several years after, I was dissatisfied with my equilibrium, such as when I turned my head suddenly, but physical therapy has helped. Impulse control was troublesome for a year; I cried often and intensely, and I was unusually short-fused. Thankfully much of this has abated.
I continue to struggle with short-term memory issues, typical for my type of TBI. And while my long-term memory is pretty much in tact, I often find myself not trusting this memory, making daily life frustrating. Through intensive cognitive therapy at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, in Boston, I learned how to anticipate my anger and anxiety, and stay organized. The “blues,” another symptom of TBI, come and go, but I’ve become familiar with their onset and can usually deal with the downs.
Somehow, I’ve never looked at my recovery from the accident as a “battle,” though clearly I look on this from the perspective of successfully getting back to “normal.” I came close to death. I’m fortunate to be walking—much less going for a swim, bike ride or run.
TipFollow your doctor's guidance to the letter.
Be patient with your body's ability to heal.