Road to Recovery
Story by Tuli Alexander // Photos by Kathryn Bachen
Friends Seth Keeghan and Kevin Candela were nearly finished with the 30-mile loop they had ridden around Lake Padden. They were on their way back into town, riding downhill on Connelly Avenue, which becomes Old Fairhaven Parkway after the I-5 overpass.
They never made it onto the parkway.
Riding their road bikes at 25 mph, the two friends zoomed down a hill they had ridden down hundreds of times before. It was 2:30 p.m. and traffic was heavy. Hands on their brakes, they studied the traffic, relying on their brightly colored clothes and bikes to keep them visible to motorists. Suddenly, a forest green Range Rover turned left to go onto northbound I-5, five feet in front of Keeghan. He had no time to react. Candela, who was riding 50 yards behind, says the sound of Keeghan's body hitting the sport utility vehicle was as loud as two cars colliding.
"It was this incredible, 'Pow!' sound," Candela says. "The first thing that went through my mind was, 'Fuck, he's dead. I just saw my best friend get killed.'"
Keeghan hit the SUV, leaving a massive dent in the front panel. He and his bike flipped into the air and landed on the windshield, smashing it. He bounced off the hood and hit the pavement facedown. Candela watched his friend contort in pain, and then become rigid. Keeghan's eyes were open unnaturally wide, and his arm was bent and folded beneath him. He was unresponsive and not breathing.
Candela and the man who was driving the SUV tried to turn Keeghan over to administer CPR, but when they grabbed his shoulder, Keeghan regained consciousness and emitted a sound of pure agony.
"It was a combination of a scream and a moan that was blood curdling," Candela says. "He barely gasped and then started again."
The men rolled a writhing Keeghan over onto his back and tried to hold him still until the ambulance got there.
"It seemed like forever," Candela says.
In the hospital, Keeghan's body swelled twice its normal size. He had a collapsed lung and internal bleeding, and the doctors said he was possibly not going to make it.
Keeghan did not lose his life, but he lost almost complete mobility of his left arm.
After five days in the hospital and two months of lying around and popping a lot of Vicodin, Keeghan was ready to get the movement back in his left arm. He did not know it yet, but the real pain was about to begin.
According to the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, about 540,000 bicyclists visit emergency rooms with injuries each year. Luckily, Keeghan was wearing a helmet. Like many accident survivors, Keeghan would rely on physical therapy to regain the motor skills he lost on that fateful summer day. Physical therapy does not always guarantee patients will fully recover. A person's attitude and goals for recovery play a big part in how effective the therapy is, says Lori deKubber, an athletic trainer at Western who practices injury rehabilitation and has a master's degree in sports psychology. She says looking ahead to a new beginning, rather than letting the trauma of an accident take over, is essential to recovery.
DeKubber is not alone in her thinking. In three separate surveys, 90 percent of trainers agree that it is important or very important to treat the psychological aspects of injuries, according to the book "Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology" by Robert Stephen Weinberg and Daniel Gould.
It is crucial to find out what motivates patients to get better so they will continue to do the same boring and monotonous exercises every day, says Margaret MacLean, an assistant physical therapist at Bellingham Physical Therapy who worked with Keeghan.
With Keeghan, she says, it was getting him back to the point where he could enjoy his biking again.
But, he had a long way to go before that could happen.
Keeghan's "laundry list" of injuries, as he calls it, includes a broken right hand, a compression fracture that smashed and cracked the base of his index finger, two broken ribs on either side of his sternum and a left forearm broken in three places. The top of his left humerus bone was also broken, with a chip off the ball joint of his shoulder.
He was only out of the hospital for a week and a half when his left shoulder fell out of its socket. Because he just had surgery on his forearm, his friends and family were wary to push it back in for him, so he went back to the hospital. When the doctor pushed Keegahn's arm back into the socket, he felt instant relief. Then he started crying.
"I was so fed up with the pain," he says. "I'd just gotten out of the hospital and I was already back in there."
Keeghan has gone through many ups and downs, but in the beginning of his recovery it was mostly downs.
During his second stay in the hospital, he was walking through the halls in his robe, looking out the windows.
"It was such a beautiful day," Keeghan says. "I stood there at the window and I just broke down. It wasn't even the fact that it happened to me, but the stuff that I'd have to go through and the mystery of how I was gonna turn out."
Both MacLean and deKubber say it is important to build relationships with patients because it helps them stay motivated through the challenges and setbacks of injury rehabilitation.
"The key is that they know you really care about them as a person-not just their injury, but how they're doing in school, at work, in their relationship," deKubber says. "You need to be concerned about the whole person and you're gonna have a better response."
Keeghan began half-hour sessions twice a week at Bellingham Physical Therapy. After a few weeks, he moved up to three times a week. Although he alternated between three different therapists, MacLean was his favorite because she was tough. She brought the pain threshold on, but studied his facial expressions and knew what he was capable of handling.
"I like her better than any other just because she pushed me so hard," Keeghan says. "The more you can handle, the more quickly you can recover."
MacLean says Keeghan's diagnosis was special, and that because of his "frozen shoulder," it was important to push him hard to break through the scar tissue.
One of the exercises he performed included him lying on his back while a therapist raised his arm over his head. The horrible one, Keeghan says, was when he would lie on his back and rotate his arm out with his elbow still touching his side.
Keeghan also had a pulley system over his bathroom door at home. With his good arm he would pull one handle down while hanging onto the other handle with his bad arm to gain a better range of motion upwards.
When he started physical therapy, Keeghan's arm only had 11 degrees of mobility instead of 180 degrees. The latest measurement was 135 degrees of mobility.
In May 2009, he went in for surgery to scrape away scar tissue from around his shoulder. Then it was back to more physical therapy.
"I just want to get my whole self back," Keeghan says. "Anything other than normal is not good enough."
Generally, people who have sustained injuries feel more gratitude about what they are able to do after recovery, whereas before the accident they may have taken their abilities for granted, deKubber says.
DeKubber says she believes every event can be transformative, and that a person can benefit from even traumatic events in a positive way. The key, she says, is the emotional component.
"If you have an opportunity for personal growth and will grab at every opportunity through that process, you will be transformed in a positive way," she says.
Keeghan's accident pushed him to try not to worry about things so much, and instead has made him more happy-go-lucky.
"I've learned to never take things for granted," he says. "I know it sounds cliche, but you never know when your time's gonna be up."