LESLIE RENKEN/ JOURNAL STAR
By STEVE DRISCOLL
Posted Nov 21, 2009 @ 11:13 PM
Last update Nov 22, 2009 @ 02:51 AM
Editor’s note: Steve Driscoll, a 39-year-old cyclist from East Peoria, gives his first-person account of his accident and recovery.
August 29, 2004.
Yesterday, I was racing in the Sherman Park Criterium. This was a 33-mile race on a closed loop of Chicago streets, my 38th or so race of the season but my very first race in Category 2. A month before, I’d been ranked nationally in the top 10 in Category 3. But now I was ranked semi-professional and desperate to win.
I was doing well and found myself with two others leading the field and pulling away. Finally, after all those years of training, I was within sight of the goal. Despite the tough competition, I won. By racing standards, this was a small race. For me, it was huge. It felt good.
This morning, Sunday, I slept in and then prepared for a three-hour ride to clean out the legs. I took off toward the Illinois River and Peoria to the northwest, heading straight into the wind. I’d cover maybe 55 miles.
At 12:15 p.m., I had almost 50 miles behind me and was winding my way back toward home five miles away. Tailwind now at my back, I was cruising south on Prospect Road in Peoria Heights. At Sciota, I heard a squeal of tires. And then euphoria. I was suspended in mid-air, looking at the roof of an auto parts store, and thinking that this is not right.
It’s amazing, when you have been struck and thrown like that, time stops, just like in the movies. You have no pain, no worries, just time to think. I thought of so many things. Did I kiss my wife, Gina, goodbye and tell her I love her as I always do before we leave each other? Why am I here? Where is the white light and tunnel? Am I dead? Will I fall to the pavement, only to be struck by another car? Or will I actually land on a moving car? Will I have time to say goodbye before I die? All that in a split second. My last thought was, oh well, I have to land, and it’s going to hurt bad.
Here comes the pain
I landed on my right side in almost a fetal position. Eyes open, breathing, alive, and looking at a stream of blood spurting from my legs and far onto the road.
The lady who hit me was backing up her car right at me! She stopped, got out with cell phone in hand, and came over. “Are you OK?” she asked. I said, “No you (expletive), dial 911.” (Looking back, I realize that those are the only words we have ever exchanged.) She was too frazzled to dial.
By now, other people were huddling around. I looked over at my left leg, and saw 5 or 6 inches of tibia and fibula sticking out of my shin, skin ripped open by the bones tearing through. I was in a pool of blood still spurting from the open wound. I said to myself that I had the same two choices that Lance Armstrong writes about in his book, “It’s Not about the Bike” – give up or fight like hell.
I reached into my back pocket for my cell phone and handed it to a middle-aged man. I said, “Dial 911, and call my wife, her name is Gina, under HOME on the contact/address book. Tell Gina that I love her, always have, and always will.”
Then the pain came on like Hurricane Katrina, all at once throughout my entire body below the neck. I was screaming in pain with no way to control it, grabbing my left leg above the knee, trying to stop the bleeding, and dying of thirst.
A young lady named Shelbie Meister was in the car behind me at the time of the collision. A third-year nursing student at Olivet Nazarene University, she witnessed the accident, pulled off and took control. She told me to breathe, breathe deeply, don’t scream and, despite my pleas for a drink of water, take no fluids from anyone. She held me in place like a baby.
I could see the left leg was in big trouble, but I didn’t yet realize that my right femur had multiple breaks as well. I was turning blue from mid-stomach down. The EMTs arrived and began by cutting my clothes off with huge scissors.
I said “Whoa! Stop! This is my Team Mack kit,” my official racing team uniform. They then carefully cut off my shorts, jersey, shoes and socks, all neatly up and down the seams, as if I was going to sew it all back together after I got better.
There I was, on the street covered only by a foil blanket. The neck brace was installed, and all of the questions: “Where does it hurt? Can you move your fingers, toes, etc.?” Well, my left leg hurt and I can speak, so my head is intact. I can move my fingers, so I am not paralyzed. I had to be stabilized, and placed on a backboard. A second emergency vehicle arrived with an inflatable splint to stabilize my left leg, still bent and now about 5 inches shorter.
They tried to “flip” me onto a backboard, and I screamed. After me chickening out of getting on the board again and again, the head EMT looked me in the eye and said: “If we do not get you on this board, in the ambulance, and to the hospital, you will bleed to death right here, take your pick.” Between screaming, moaning and spouting every cuss word in my personal dictionary, I agreed to get on the board at the count of 3. They put a rigid piece of plastic in my mouth for me to bite on. Then came the count: 1, 2, flip.
I screamed so loud that I think a blood vessel broke in my head.
Hospital, here I come
Still screaming from the pain, I was strapped on the board by the EMTs, placed on a gurney, and lifted into the ambulance. Inside, I begged for pain medication but was denied because I was headed for surgery.
Then a Catholic priest hopped into the ambulance, and asked if I wanted to pray. I asked him, “Father, am I going to die?” He said that I would, just not anytime soon. We prayed, and he held my hand all the way to the hospital.
I was freezing at this point, screaming in pain and trying to breathe at the same time. I asked if anyone had talked to my wife Gina, and they said she was on her way to the hospital.
Still screaming, we arrived at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center ER unit where a team of professionals was waiting. All I heard from the head ER nurse was breathe, breathe and breathe. Then the round of questions, again: What hurts? Can you move your fingers? Do you have a headache? Does it hurt?
I am on the table, covered in blood, screaming in pain, bones sticking out of my leg, surrounded by what seemed like 100 people. They asked who was the physician assistant on duty? Kelly Sparks was the answer.
I screamed, “Kelly?” I know Kelly! He’s my racing buddy. Not two minutes later, here comes Kelly taking charge. He calmly asked, “Steve, what happened?” as he was holding my hand, like a child. I said, “Kelly, I got hit on a ride. You have to get me the best doctors, period, who will get me racing again.”
I begged him for pain killers. Not yet, was his response. He then went to the foot of the table, and said, “Steve, this is going to hurt.” He grabbed my left foot/ankle, and pulled the leg toward him to get the broken bones straightened and back inside the leg. I screamed so loud that the nun who was with Gina in the waiting area actually got up and left.
A second later, Kelly yelled to administer morphine. The pain drugs reacted within a second, and I was back in euphoria. I was transferred to another room, with Gina by my side.
Surgery after surgery
They told me that I had shattered the right leg, as well as had a double compound fracture to the left. No further information at this point. I spoke with my parents on the phone, and waited for surgery.
Several hours later, between nodding off and waking up, I met the anesthesiologist who was to put me to sleep for the operation. I only asked that he made sure I wake up when it’s all over. He said he would.
Down a cold hallway to the operating room, I was cracking jokes with the nurses and attendants. I was so high from the pain drugs, I had no clue what I was doing. I looked up from the gurney, and here was Kevin Neblock, my old cycling coach and friend.
I really thought I was dead, as all I could see was the ceiling, and bright lights. Into the operating room, pre-sleep meds go through the IV, and they said to count to 100. I made it to 2, and woke up Tuesday in the Intensive Care Unit after two emergency surgeries.
My road back had begun. Surely, I thought, the stitches would heal, the bones would mend, and I would be back on my bike in no time. My bike? My custom-made, 16-pound racing bike was a twisted heap. Its computer survived and showed I was doing 26 miles per hour when the woman’s car hit me. If she were going the speed limit of 30, it means my bike and I were hurled at about 55 mph into a solid wall, legs first.
I could replace the bike with one even better. But my body, which I had been tuning for years, would it recover? My left shinbone, the tibia, was mush. And my goal was not just to be sewn back together, not just to heal, not just to walk, but to race again.
While I was in emergency surgery, staff assured Gina that the medical team was planning treatment as if I were a professional athlete. We both felt confident that I’d be back on the bike, doing what I love. Since then, we’ve learned that you can’t go back to the way things were. Not that we didn’t try.
I was released from OSF after nine days. Then I was home in a wheelchair for months of grueling physical therapy, sometimes twice a day. Initially, my appointments were at 7 a.m. but, when I learned the therapist actually arrived at 6:30, I started arriving then for longer sessions. I was pushing it hard, just like I did when racing.
After six months it was obvious that the left tibia was not healing, and I would have to see a specialist in St. Louis for a bone graft.
Dr. J. Tracy Watson at St. Louis University Hospital took marrow from my hip bone to mix with synthetic DNA and create the bone graft “paste.” He removed the screws and steel plate from my tibia, inserted a new titanium rod and screws and applied the graft to promote bone growth and healing. Finally, I had hope.
After monthly trips to see Dr. Watson, no bone growth was evident. The graft had not taken. We gave it more time and still no bone growth. So we agreed to a second bone graft, this time using bovine DNA. This was my fifth surgery, the fourth on this leg alone.
Beyond the bike
When will this end? I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. I couldn’t imagine that, three-and-a-half years into this, I would again be on crutches and a cane and pain management therapy. Surgery was a partial success. The bone did grow back on the rear side of the tibia but the fibula was in pieces and was left floating there inside the flesh of the leg. Still, I could bear weight on the leg. I was cycling again, which is more about muscle groups than bones. But it wasn’t the same.
While all this was going on, I had a lot of time to reflect. During the initial ordeal, for instance, I realized how strong my friendships were. I had the greatest of people helping me, especially my wife Gina and her mom Vicki, my family, and a huge network of racing teammates, co-workers, friends and neighbors. No one abandoned me, and, in fact, the support network actually grew. How could I repay them?
I also thought of the mentors I had, mentors I had never fully appreciated before. A key one is Dr. Mike Ozment, an oral surgeon. We met in 1988 while I was attending Illinois state University. He took me under his wing, provided rides to races and versed me on life. He once gave me a set of cycling parts, an upgrade to what I had, that came with two conditions: I would not sell them. And I would pay it forward to someone else in need.
Pay it forward. That became a recurring thought. Previously, I hadn’t realized I had anything to give. Now, through this adversity, I thought differently. I realized that I have more supporters than any person deserves. I learned that when someone offers you their help, you need to take it. I learned that you must get back up after being knocked down, as many times as it takes.
I learned that you must be a positive leader and friend to those who are going through a similar situation, whether you know them or not. It is not your choice; it is your responsibility.
I spent a year thinking about these things. And I committed myself to paying it forward.
I became a Big Brother with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Illinois. If I could help a young man with his life, and provide a positive outlook, maybe I could make a difference. I was matched with a young man from East Peoria. It is going on three years, and we have grown together, struggled together, and touched each other’s lives, as well as the lives of our families.
Fifteen months ago, another opportunity presented itself in the form of Barry Connor from Scotland. Like me, Barry had an accident, his involved a ladder. Like me, the left tibia was shattered and not growing back together, which doctors call a “non-union tibia.” He Googled that phrase on the Internet and found the blog where I’d been sharing my story. He wrote. I wrote back.
He’s been through what I’ve been through. The pain, depression, hurt, frustration, doctors, more doctors. He shared that with me, the one person he’d found who knew exactly what he was feeling.
Then, this June, Barry’s lower left leg was amputated, and I knew I had to do more than simply swap e-mails. In September, I flew 3,800 miles across the Atlantic to East Kilbride, Scotland, to help a person I’d never seen or even spoken with, a fellow human being in need.
Barry and I are “lifers” in a club we never wanted to join. We spent a week together, sharing our jobs and families, our fears and hopes. Before leaving, I shared what I’d learned from my mentor so many years before: You have to pay it forward. It is not your choice; it is your responsibility.
My own leg, I now know, will never get any better. Despite my denial, despite my hoping otherwise, I think I knew in the back of my mind that things would never be the same. I have good days, and better days, as I like to tell people. The good days can be rough, struggling with pain, and knowing all the things that I can no longer do, like walk for more than a couple of blocks, hike on a trail, run, workout at the gym like I used to.
People ask me if I am bitter or hateful that this happened. No, not really. When you ride a bike more than 6,000 miles per year, training, racing and competing, it’s not a matter of if it will happen, but a matter of when. And when it happens, how bad is it going to be?
Mine was bad. But I am back on the bike racing. I haven’t the strength, the stamina, the speed, the potential I had before. I will never compete at the same level I once did. I appreciate my friendships more. And I appreciate that I have so much to give. It is my responsibility. And it’s yours.