Editor’s note: This is a personal story shared by Kelly Richards, a Life Time team member since 2006 who is based in Minnesota. Two years ago, she was in a serious bike accident — and wasn’t wearing a helmet.
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the United States has seen a surge in bicycle use — perhaps some see it as a safe alternative to crammed public transportation, while others view it as an outlet for safe outdoor activity. According to the NPD Group, a market research company, bicycles and equipment sales and repair services nearly doubled as compared to last year.
One survey reported that 9 percent of Americans rode a bike for the first time in a year as a direct result of the pandemic, while other data showed a 21 percent increase in urban-area ridership.
Whether new to bicycling or a long-time rider, Richards hopes her story will make even one person stop and reconsider riding a bike without a helmet the next time they head out for a spin on two wheels.
On the evening of August 12, 2018, I hopped on a bike with my friend Rachel. We had been at a block party in downtown Minneapolis and were heading home to where I live in St. Louis Park, Minn., via a bike trail that connects the two cities.
I’ve made that trail ride to my house by bike many times and knew the route well; it would take us about 20 minutes to get there. But we never arrived.
Approximately halfway down the trail — which is divided like a highway — another biker came down the path riding in the opposite direction of us. He should have been on the other side of the trail. It was dark, I didn’t see him, and we collided — hard.
I don’t remember anything that happened immediately after, but I’ve been able to piece it together based on Rachel’s recollection and the magnitude of what happened to me.
After we collided, the biker and I both fell onto the pavement. My head took the majority of the impact: I was unconscious and breathing shallowly. Rachel immediately called 911 and the paramedics came, but it took about 30 minutes for them to locate us because we were on a dark trail and not a main road.
I was rushed to the Level 1 Trauma Center at Hennepin County Medical Center, which is one of the best — and also one of the busiest — hospitals in Minneapolis. I had bleeding and swelling in my brain and underwent emergency brain surgery that night; I ended up with a pump coming out of my head to drain fluid due to the swelling.
For five weeks, I was in a coma and hooked up to a ventilator, unable to breathe on my own. My family and friends were there the whole time — believing in me and advocating for me — despite the diagnosis that I would be a “vegetable,” living in a nursing home by age 40.
The night of the accident, I was not wearing a helmet. Never before had I considered how my life could be altered by that choice. I hadn’t thought about how much my brain does for me — it’s way more than the home of intelligence. It’s the source for emotions, speech, movement, long- and short-term memory, and so much more. Not once did I think that I would ever have to contemplate losing these abilities.
But I was lucky: Somehow, I’m alive and able to do many things both medically and neurologically that I wasn’t supposed to be able to do again.
Now, my passion is to raise awareness around the critical importance of wearing a helmet anytime you’re on two wheels, and hopefully help prevent others from facing an injury like mine. Or worse.
I woke up from the coma, looked in the mirror and knew it was me, but I was still so injured it was hard to recognize myself — my head was shaved and there were stitches all over my scalp. The neurosurgeons told me that the positive state of my health and fitness, as well as the vast support system I had, all contributed to my recovery. I’ve completed six marathons and four triathlons; my family and friends said they knew if anyone could recover from this that it’d be me.
Personally, I didn’t view recovery as being limited to just waking up — I was determined to live similarly to how I had prior to the accident. Given that I had to relearn to walk, talk, and even do small things like put on deodorant and brush my teeth, the recuperation I’ve been able to achieve has been described time and again as miraculous.
Since my accident, I’ve learned that it takes up to five times more energy for a person with a traumatic brain injury (TBI) like mine to complete simple tasks than it does for someone without a brain injury. This fact rings true for me, as even the smallest movements are different and more challenging because my right side (arm and leg) is compromised.
Yet I’ve been able to return to so many of the activities I love; I know my body better than anyone and am able to make adjustments to my actions or endeavors as needed. I swim and run, and importantly, I bike. Since April 1 of this year, I’ve biked 800 miles. And I’ve worn a helmet for every one of them.
The Lessons Learned
We often take for granted how valuable that three-pound organ in our skull is and the vital role it plays in most everything we do. My mission is to reach just one person at a time with that message. Most will not have the same perspective as me, but I hope my story can illustrate why wearing a helmet is a non-negotiable.
While I won’t ever know if my life would have been altered to a lesser degree if I had been wearing a helmet, I do know taking the precaution to protect your brain is a no-brainer.
Through this process (and tons of rehab and speech therapy), I’ve also learned that everyone — whether facing a TBI or not — can benefit from remembering what they can do in the face of adversity. There’s power and resilience in all of us, and if you can harness that, you can get through anything.
Most importantly: Any time you’re partaking in a moving activity outside of your car, whether that be biking, skiing, snowboarding, skateboarding, rollerblading, or something else, wear a helmet. Love your brain enough to protect it.