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My Motorcycle Put Me in a Wheelchair

TomWheelchair September 17th, Saturday— An overcast, but warm, late summers day. The last day of my life as I knew it. I had turned 21 the month before and was looking forward to my trip to California. Where I would attend the Musicians Institute for Guitar. All the arrangements had been made. I had already been playing guitar for 16 years and had dreams of becoming "A Rock Guitar legend."

I had been told by many that I had great musical talent. Unfortunately, I also possessed a propensity for speed.

Ever since I was a child I loved to go fast. For instance, when I skied, I would travel as quickly as possible from top to bottom. I loved that sensation! The adrenaline coursed through my veins and I became addicted to that rush. Like so many thousands of others, I am now living with the ramifications of that addiction and will suffer with them until I die. Whenever i was about to go somewhere on my turbo-charged motorcycle and my father was close by, he would say to me, "Tom, think of the consequences." He knew. I think he also knew that I would not listen. I was always so stubborn like that. As it turned out, my parent's concern was justified.

 

On that mid-September Saturday afternoon after working five overtime hours on just four hours sleep, I ended up at my friend John's house. He was the drummer for the band I was in. He and I had taken many hell rides on my motorcycle before, and he was familiar with it's and my capabilities.

Tom on bikeI was just finishing my first beer when two of his friends/co-workers showed up. They both had brand new matching Suzuki 750's. We all had hung out for awhile shooting the bull about cycles, etc. Then I went back in the house to finish my beer, but I never got to because as they were about to leave, my friend John comes in and says to me, "Tom, go out for a ride with these guys!" I knew that what he really meant was go race with them.

I said, "Nah I'm beat". I was tired from lack of sleep and too much work. That in combination with the small amount of alcohol I had consumed were all working to slow down my reflexes. But then he said to me, "C'mon man, show em what your bike can do!" Well that was enough of a dare for me! I was never one to turn down what I considered to be a challenge. (Testosterone issues, I guess) So I just had to "show em". What I really ended up showing was that reckless abandonment can ruin your life permanently. (Peer pressure can be a dangerous thing.)

So the three of us took off from John's like bats out of hell. I had raced these same back roads a thousand times before– on four wheels and on two. I knew every curve, dip, and bump in them. We were only out for a short time when it started to rain lightly, so we turned into an intersection and prepared to head back to John's. We had to wait for a car to pass by us that was heading in the same direction. As fate would have it, I knew both of the people in that car. It was my friend Tim, and his girlfriend Judy.

When the vehicle had gotten sufficiently far enough ahead of us, we started from the intersection one bike at a time. I was the second bike to go. The road was getting slick, but it wasn't soaked yet. We got up to about 90 miles per hour when Tim and Judy went past us. Tim told Judy,"Keep an eye on these guys, they are going to race." So Judy turned around in her seat to watch. He said, "Watch that guy on the silver bike. That's Tom – that guy can ride!"

We approached a section of the road that first elevated and then dropped into a fairly sharp left hand turn. Now at the 35 MPH speed limit, it's not such a difficult corner, but at 90 MPH plus, when slick, it became pretty treacherous. I was not concerned though, because I had frequently taken the corner at 110 MPH! This time though, my bike was too close to the center of the lane. Big mistake! This is where oil builds up on the road to create a slick area, especially when it gets wet. Just as I crested the rise and started to lean into the left hand corner, my rear tire slid out to the right. I tried to correct for the skid, but at 130 feet per second, there's not a whole lot you can do!

Tim's girlfriend Judy, who had been watching us, saw me going out of control and screamed,"he's (meaning me) going to fall"! I knew by then that I was definitely going to go off the road, so I just dumped the bike on it's left side. The left handle bar bent straight up with my hand still on it, crushing my left hand and forearm. People have asked me why I didn't get off the bike right away. Now, in the ideal situation, that is what you would like to do. But you would have to have room to slide for awhile to let the bike separate from you. Unfortunately, as soon as I dumped the bike, my rear tire was already off the edge of the road where it struck the first boulder in a rock wall that the property owners had constructed.

 

"The impact with the boulder caused the bike (with me attached) to start flipping over"

 

I guess my first instinct was to grip the handle bars as tightly as I could, due to the severity of the impact. As for the boulder, which weighed about a ton, the collision dislodged it from the ground and it rolled about a dozen feet into the front yard of the property. The homeowner's had to hire a backhoe to re-move it. The impact with the boulder caused the bike (with me attached) to start flipping over, "high-siding" me and smashing me into the ground two or three times. Believe me, a 550 pound object smashing into you at what was then probably 50-70 MPH can do alot of damage. The gas tank was crushed to the top of the carburetors by my chest as the bike rolled on me.

After 2 or 3 flips I finally let go and was thrown ten or twelve feet into the air. I crashed into the ground and the bike continued about another 20 to 30 feet. The accident turned out to be 307 feet long. What some people may have a difficult time comprehending is that this all happened in about two or three seconds. It's not like the movies where you see an accident from different angles in slow motion. in real life, it doesn't take much time to screw up your future.

As the accident was taking place, my friend John (whose house we had left from) and his girlfriend were both inside their home. Their house was located about 1 mile from the crash site, with a wooded area in between. Even with that much distance, they still both clearly heard the impact. Linda later told me that somehow she just knew that I was the one who had crashed. After that, it was chaos.

The mother of the family, whose property I now lay dying on, ran out of her house fearing that it was her husband and child that had crashed, since they were also out for a motorcycleTom's crashed bike ride at that moment. Upon seeing the carnage, she immediately ran back into her home and called for an ambulance. Tim and Judy had turned around and they parked their car across the street from me. Tim ran over to me while Judy remained in the vehicle. One of the guys I had been racing with went to John's house and told him what had happened. John told his girlfriend Linda, call my parents. (How would you like to make that phone call?) While the biker and John returned to the accident scene, Linda called and talked to my mom. She told them I had been in an accident and that they had to get to the hospital right away. My mom asked,"Linnie, is it bad?", Linnie replied gravely, "Yeah its real bad." If you were a loving parent of a child for 21 years, how would you feel if someone gave you that news? Think about it !

Before the ambulance arrived, a crowd of people including the two bikers, John, Tim, and the property owners had gathered helplessly around me. I had not yet lost consciousness even though I had sustained multiple serious head injuries. I also do not have any recollection of these moments. Had I not been wearing a Simpson professional racing helmet, my head would have exploded like a Halloween night pumpkin. Even so, my helmet had been split wide open from the top all the way to the bottom in the back. There was blood pouring out of the crack and blood pouring out of the visor hinges. I was choking on the blood that was filling my punctured and collapsed lungs, and I started to go into convulsions. John said, "We have to get his helmet off." I guess he thought it might make it easier for me to breath. When they removed the helmet, from what I hear it was a pretty gruesome site. Blood was pouring out of my nose, mouth, and the back of my skull. Plus the right side of my face was smashed beyond recognition.

At that moment, Judy got out of the car where she had been waiting. As she started to walk across the street towards me, her boyfriend Tim ran over to her, pushed her back into the car and said, "Your not going over there!!" She asked him, "Why not?" and he told her, "Because he is going to die." Even one of the police officers at the scene said, "This guy's not going to make it."

StretcherThe ambulance arrived and brought me to the nearest hospital. I thank God that they had a trauma unit which was already in motion awaiting my arrival. First they shoved a tube down my throat into my lungs. It took 3 people to hold me down as they did this, because I was freaking out so bad from the discomfort, and shock was setting in. They could give me no anesthesia because, with the head injuries I had, it could have killed me. I just remember the doctors shouting things like, "Tom, can you hear my voice?" And asking me to nod if I could. They put chest (drainage) tubes into each lung, they cut open my lower abdomen to locate the sources of my internal bleeding. I had four doctors all working on me at the same time. I had liver and kidney damage and my bladder had exploded. Easy to understand considering how you sit on a motorcycle. All of these internal organs had to be sewn up. But the real focus of concern was my punctured and collapsed lungs. If they could not staunch the bleeding, and re-inflate them, I would die.

My mother and father got to the hospital (before I even arrived). I can't even begin to imagine what they were thinking as they listened to the alarm that activated the trauma unit. And then spending second by second, minute by minute, hour after hour, in unimaginable anguish and helplessness. Nurses would come to them periodically to update them, but I'm not sure that did anything to ease their concern.

Trauma Units have been called, "The Golden Hour of Life." That day, I spent six and one half "Golden Hours", in there. After all the x-rays and CT scans and surgeries, the neurosurgeon, Dr. Gillespie, walked out of the emergency room to speak with my parents. My father rose up anxiously to hear the news of my condition. The doctor said to my father, "Mr. Masgay, your son's had a devastating blow to his spine and he'll be paralyzed." I had exploded the right side of thoracic vertebra seven and eight into bone fragments and pushed my whole spinal column 70 degrees left. My father asked him if I would ever walk again? Dr. Gillespie, in an almost apologetic voice answered, "I can't tell you that, maybe someday with braces." Then my father asked "He is going to live, isn't he?" The Doctor only, replied, "I'm sorry Mr. Masgay, I can't tell you that either", and then returned to the R.R. I will never forgive myself for the depths of despair that I caused my mother and father to suffer. I have since asked their forgiveness. They reply, "Hey, we're just glad you lived."

I was brought up to the intensive care unit. After a short while I fell into a deep coma. Once that happened the doctors told my parents to prepare for the worst. A short time after that my parents heard the loudspeaker blaring, "Code blue, intensive care". A "code blue", signals cardiac arrest. It was for me. I had no real brain activity and my heart had stopped. I was dead.

 

"I came out of my coma, straight into hell."

 

My parents rushed in as they brought the crash cart over. A priest was giving me last rights while the doctors worked frantically to shock me back to life. One surgeon told my mother that if my heart was not so strong, I never would have made it. Then six hours or so later, it happened again. code blue, crash cart and the last rights. I can't even begin to imagine what it is like to see your son lying on a hospital gurney. Can you? No one on the medical staff gave me a shot in hell of living at that point. But I did live. I was in the coma for nine days: nine days in which my mom and dad lived in the intensive care unit waiting room. They were barely able to sleep or eat; every moment fearing that they may have to be there if I suddenly expired.

I came out of my coma, straight into hell. They had cut a tracheotomy into my throat so that I could be hooked up to a respirator. But that meant I could no longer speak. Even with the morphine that was dripping directly into me through an arterial line in my wrist, every sigh of the respirator consumed my chest with the most excruciating pain. But I could not even cry out. The effects of the morphine made every second feel like the only second. Every breath made me feel like I was going to die from the pain– over and over and over again. I did not know where I was or why I was there and I could not speak. I literally thought that I was in hell. That is, when I could formulate a coherent thought. Everything in my sight and mind was just a blur, except for the pain.

After three and one half weeks in intensive care, I was moved to a normal hospital room. Since I still had the trachea tube in, I mouthed the question, "Why can't I move or feel anything from my chest down?" They told me I had broken my back but they were going to stabilize it somewhere down the road. Being totally ignorant of anything to do with paralysis, I thought that they meant my function would be returned. They only meant that they were going to fix the bones, not the nerves. I was still in really bad shape, so I guess that no one really wanted to tell me that I was going to be paralyzed for life just then.

After exactly one month in the Acute Care Hospital, October 17th, I went to the physical rehabilitation hospital. All the while I was thinking, "This is ok, I can put up with this until I walk again." I was 6'0" tall, weighed 119 pounds and couldn't say two words without running out of breath. My vision was was sideways in my left eye from the head injury, but after a couple of months of therapy I was feeling pretty good and still looking forward to the day they were going to fix my back. Then I would walk again.

I had an operation the day before Thanksgiving 1983 to insert a filter that would break up blood clots that were getting in my lungs and which could clog up my heart. Then I actually got to go home for a few hours to spend the holiday with my parents. The operation didn't go as planned and I could not hold my head up, but that's another story. It took three and one half months for me to get well enough, internally, to sustain my spinal reconstruction. This was the day I had been waiting and praying for: January 4th, 1984. But about a week before that, the physiatrist (a doctor of physical medicine) came in to talk to me. There was about six or seven other young men with a spinal cord injuries in the rehab unit at that time. They had all been told, as as soon as they were injured, that they were paralyzed for life. I felt so bad for them because I knew I was going to walk again. Although, I never mentioned that because I didn't want them to feel bad.

Anyhow, one night when the Physiatrist, Dr. Herman, came in to talk to me, he asked my three paralyzed roommates to give us some privacy. So they left the room. I figured he asked them to leave because he was about to tell me when the surgery ,that would restore me was scheduled for, and he didn't want to sadden the other young men. He closed the door, pulled the curtain around my bed, then sat down on the foot of my mattress.

 

"Then he looked solemnly up at me from the end of the bed and spoke the words that cut my soul out."

 

I will never forget these moments as long as I live. There was a small florescent light on the wall behind the head of my bed. I was nearly ecstatic over the news I thought I was about to hear. He took out a small pin and touched different parts of my legs. With each contact he would ask, "Can you feel that?", my reply was always, "No". I kept wondering why he was wasting all that time, why doesn't he just give me the good news and go? Then he explained paralysis to me. All the neurological stuff and the ramifications of such an injury. I guess I was still in a state of denial because half of what he was saying was not being internalized by my brain.

spine x-rayThen he looked solemnly up at me from the end of the bed and spoke the words that cut my soul out. He said, "Tom, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but this is permanent". You won't be walking anymore. "No moment in my life has ever been so starkly real. In that instant I turned as cold as ice. At that time I was taking 36 pills per day. I still couldn't see straight, I didn't even remember I had ever played the guitar for the past 16 years until my father reminded me. I weighed 125 pounds, I was just starting to be able to get out a whole sentence in one breath and I could only pull up about 5 pounds on the pulley machine. When he told me that this was going to be my life from now until forever I was absolutely crushed, to say the least. Especially after spending so many weeks thinking that I was going to be okay again.

I looked at Dr. Herman and blankly said, "Well, thank you for being honest". He got up to leave and told me that if I needed to talk, he'd be in his office. When he left I buzzed for a nurse to come help me into my wheelchair. As I rolled toward the empty gym part of the rehab, no one said a word to me because they all knew what I had just been told. I guess the other paraplegic patients had been clued in earlier.

I went into the gym. I was all alone and I cried for four hours. I looked out a window up into the night sky and kept asking God, "Why couldn't you have just killed me? Why? Why did you make make me live this way?" I was really bummed out for about a week. Then I came to the conclusion that I had two options: Either suck it up and work as hard as I could to be as productive and successful as I could be or kill myself. The second option was ridiculous, so I went with option one.

After my spine stabilizing surgery and another few months of rehab, I started my new life as a paraplegic. All the dreams and desires that I had as a youth were now gone. Blown away in an instant by one careless decision. The decision to drive fast. A decision that took away everything I had ever wanted. I could write volumes on the horrors of living as a paralyzed person. I know: I've lived this way for over 21 years. My main incentive for writing this piece is to try to convey to all people, young and old, that we all need to drive carefully. Drive like your life depends on it… because it does!

—Tom M