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Sunday, August 20, 2006, is a day I remember vividly. I was home sick with the stomach flu when my mom got the call; my dad had been in an egregious crash. He was racing in the Pigman Triathlon in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, preparing for the Wisconsin Ironman Triathlon which was just three weeks away.
I was only six years old and my brother, Luke, was seven when the accident happened. My mom, brother and I underestimated the severity of the accident until my dad came home and we saw what condition he was in. One of his teammates had visited him in the hospital and described to us that the road rash on his back looked like someone had rubbed a cheese grater all over it. This caused inexorable pain for my dad during his recovery.
As I talked to my dad about the accident, his eyes looked up as he recalled the tumult of that day. “I was going through a feed zone at mile ten, and I was going to reload my water. I had one hand on the handlebars and one hand out grabbing for a water bottle. I was cruising at about 25 miles per hour. A high school cross country runner was volunteering in the feed zone and went into the road to pick up a water bottle someone else had dropped. She didn’t see me, and as she turned to go back to the side of the road, she hit me causing my bike to jackknife. And that’s the last thing I remember until I woke up in the ambulance” (personal communication, January 1, 2017).
The EMT’s from the ambulance strapped my dad to a board, stabilized him with a neck collar, and rushed him to the St. Luke’s Hospital emergency room. The doctors reported to him that he was unconscious for at least two minutes. Soon after, the doctors took a CAT scan that showed blood around his brain. He remembers the doctors telling him there wasn’t a neurosurgeon on call at that hospital so they had to transport him to a bigger hospital in Iowa City. Because my dad grew up in Iowa, he knew that St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids was only about 30 minutes from the University of Iowa Hospital in Iowa City. He thought that would be a quick ride , but was surprised when the doctors told him he had to be taken by Flight For Life.
“That made me a little nervous because I started to wonder why they needed to get me there so fast.” He smiled and continued, “When I was flying I remember thinking, this is a crappy way to fly in a helicopter for the first time. I don’t even get to look outside” (personal communication, January 1, 2017).
As the helicopter approached the University of Iowa Hospital, the doctors told Dad they might hover for a little while because there was another helicopter coming in with a patient in worse condition. But about 15 seconds later, the doctors told him he was going in first. This scared him as he wondered if the doctors saw a sudden change in his condition that made him more emergent than the other patient. As soon as they landed, he was rushed to the trauma unit. Another CAT scan was taken, and he was relieved that nothing had changed since he was at St. Luke’s Hospital; however, after just 30 minutes in Iowa City my dad started seeing double. The doctors told him he had cranial six nerve palsy which would only be temporary, but they required him to stay in the hospital overnight for observation. No surgery or special treatments were needed; his brain had a bruise that essentially needed time to heal.
“Did surgery or death ever enter your thoughts in this experience?” I asked.
“At one point I was worried I would have to have holes drilled in my head to relieve pressure from the bleeding, but I never thought of death” (personal communication, January 1, 2017).
One of my dad’s first concerns when he was laying in his hospital bed was that he had to work on Monday, so he asked that the final CAT scan be taken and scrutinized at 4am Monday morning. The doctors agreed and my dad was out of the hospital and back at work in a matter of hours.
“I was on call that week, and I remember going to the hospital to do rounds. As I was walking in the hospital I suddenly felt excruciating pain in my head; it felt like somebody took a two-by-four and hit me as hard as they could in the back of my head” (personal communication, January 1, 2017). For three months my dad suffered from double vision and headaches; he finally got his vision back to normal during our Thanksgiving respite when he was able to rest his brain for the first time since the accident.
My dad knew he wouldn’t be able to race in the upcoming Ironman which devastated him because he had trained all year for it. With no other choice, he called to petition for a refund of his entry fee. He explained that he had been in a bad crash, but this was ineffectual. This sparked anger in my dad causing him to train harder than ever for the next year’s Ironman which he ended up finishing.
After the accident my family realized that nothing can be taken for granted because accidents happen and they are often out of control. Thankfully my dad was fortuitous and his injuries were only temporary. My dad taught me that instead of being brought down by an experience, use it as a reason to work harder and come back stronger than before. Another lesson I learned from him is that no matter what obstacles life throws, never give up as everything happens for a reason. Even though the recovery process ended up being two months longer than expected, my dad remained sanguine and learned to tolerate the difficulties he faced. He went on to finish that Ironman, but to me and many others he is an Ironman for more than just that race.