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A pedaler's mettle

After a devastating crash that crushed muscle and bone, an avid bicyclist had a choice: Accept defeat or keep moving.

By LISA GREENE
Published December 14, 2003

photo
[Times photos: Lara Cerri]
Kip Vosburgh heads to a friend’s home in September along Coffee Pot Bayou in St. Petersburg after visiting with friends downtown and swimming at North Shore Pool. Vosburgh traveled by wheelchair for exercise as many as 35 miles per week during his recovery.

photo
[Times photo: James Borchuck]
St. Petersburg police examine the scene at 30th Avenue N where a driver plowed his Lincoln Continental into a pack of bicyclists July 6.
Joseph Pastore pleaded no contest to careless driving. His driver’s license was suspended for life.   photo

photoDr. Brad Fishalow, right, pieced together Vosburgh’s hip and leg after the crash in July. Vosburgh came to this exam in mid September in a wheelchair but was allowed to leave on crutches.
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Vosburgh chats with a fellow cyclist at Gold Coffee Shop in early September.   photo

photo   Vosburgh glides through North Shore Pool in St. Petersburg as part of his therapy after traveling several miles in his wheelchair in early September. “That’s the best part of the day,” he said.

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Carol Jean Vosburgh snaps a photo of her husband after his Sept. 16 doctor appointment in which he was told he could leave his wheelchair behind and move on to crutches.
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Janell Cory, left, hugs Kip Vosburgh on Oct. 4 after his first ride with the group since the accident in July.

Kip Vosburgh lay in the road for a long time before his wife got there.

He was on a stretcher, surrounded by mayhem, the battered bikes and broken bodies of 13 other bicyclists mowed down by the same car. But he couldn't see them because he couldn't move.

Wiggle your toes, his wife told him. Most days, Carol Jean was sunny, but now she was steely, professional like the nurse she is.

Kip tried. It felt like his toes were moving. But he couldn't see. Kip thought of his father, how his right foot used to itch - even though it had been shot off, along with half his leg, in World War II.

So he asked Carol Jean.

Yes, she told him. You're wiggling.

He felt better. Until he heard about the helicopter. He tried to protest, but they insisted. We're taking you in the helicopter. To a trauma center. That's bad, he thought. I must be really hurt.

* * *

It was the big story on July 6: 14 cyclists injured when a driver, disoriented or unconscious, crossed the center line and careened through a pack of St. Petersburg's best athletes.

The accident was so horrific that it sparked debates about dangerous drivers, then an angry backlash at "arrogant" bicyclists hogging the road, even though this crash was not the cyclists' fault.

Inside the emergency room, what happened was more than an abstract debate. Kip's bones were shattered, his muscles crushed. In the coming weeks, after the attention faded, he and the other cyclists would have to confront sudden helplessness, the abrupt failing of bodies previously fit. There would be daily rounds of doctors' visits, therapy exercises and more surgeries. Months later, they would still be struggling to resume the lives that one man tore apart.

Some never would.

* * *

He came so close.

Kip, 56, had discovered bicycling just three months before he retired from his marketing job at IBM on Dec. 31, 1999. It quickly became a passion.

He and Carol Jean, a triathlete, had met while running and married 14 years ago. Now they raced, went on bicycling tours and met friends to ride. Last summer, they rode nearly 500 miles across Iowa with thousands of other cyclists.

Kip didn't usually go on the group ride Sunday mornings. But July 6, it fit with his schedule, and he decided at the last minute to go. Carol Jean was out running and didn't know he had left their Treasure Island condo.

He was just a few blocks from where he would turn, leaving the pack to head for home, when he heard crashes and shouts. He slowed, but the noise seemed far ahead.

Then he saw the car.

Kip jerked his bike left. Front wheel safe. Three more feet.

Not fast enough.

He flew onto the hood of the car as his bike crumpled beneath it.

He closed his eyes in the air - it felt peaceful, almost, after hitting the car - and landed in the gutter with a harsh, cruel thump.

Other cyclists sprawled up and down the street. Tony Forte, who was riding beside Kip, was down with a broken leg, jaw and wrist. Wendy Tocha had cuts so deep in her neck and shoulder that her nerves were severed. Robin Perkins' arm was broken, and the top of her thumb sheared off.

Up ahead, David Arnold had flown over the car, his upper left leg broken and his lower left leg nearly severed. Maria Riquet, just behind David, went flying through the air and landed hard - so hard that a friend who saw her crash told somebody that she must be dead.

Carol Jean, 57, called to the scene by a friend, lingered after Kip's helicopter left.

She found his front wheel, pieces of his bike. Then part of husband's racing shoe, a huge slice torn across the top that had let his foot go free. What remained was still clipped tight to the pedal.

Pedal and shoe lay behind the wheel of the car.

* * *

Pain. Kip was put under so doctors could try to put his dislocated left elbow back in place.

It didn't work. More pain.

He wondered if he would lose his leg. Maybe it's some cruel joke, he thought. I'll finally be like my father.

Orthopedic surgeon Brad Fishalow had already treated two bicyclists at Bayfront Medical Center when he saw Kip.

"He was just sitting there calmly, and he was really hurt," Fishalow said later.

Even so, Kip wouldn't remember that meeting.

His elbow was still dislocated. So was one finger. His left ankle, broken in two places. His right hip, broken. His right thigh bone, the biggest bone in the body, looked to Fishalow as if it had exploded.

The injury wasn't just to bone. Kip's leg muscles were crushed and starting to swell.

The right leg would need surgery. Fishalow planned to put a titanium rod through Kip's knee and up the center of his thigh, to hold the pieces of bone together while they healed.

It would be Thanksgiving, most likely, before Kip could walk. Next year - if ever - before he could bike at the same speed.

As he treated the cyclists, Fishalow, a triathlete himself, thought of the long road ahead.

In some ways, athletes are a doctor's dream when it comes to recovering from trauma. They're in better condition to start. They're disciplined, motivated, tough. Kip, he knew, was no exception.

But athletes also expect more. Fishalow had seen their frustration when their bodies no longer responded the way they used to. Some became scared, some depressed, some dependent on medication. The group of cyclists he treated that day, he knew, he would be seeing for months. Maybe years.

"They're going to have pain, forever," he said. "They will remember this for the rest of their lives."

Kip knew this. But he thought about something else in the emergency room as well. From time to time, he used to lead Sunday school classes.

You have a choice, he would tell his class. You can't choose what happens. But you can choose how to react. It became "Kip's first law." You can choose anger. Or joy. Accept defeat. Or fight.

Now he faced a test of his own words.

* * *

The day after the crash, Kip got chills. He shook so hard, he couldn't find the button to call a nurse. John Walters, the cyclist in the next bed, did it for him.

Then his fever rose past 103. First blankets, then ice. Then three units of blood.

After that, things got better. Deep inside Kip's bones, special bone cells called osteoclasts began to gather. They are the bones' cleanup crew. They would mass around the breaks and start reabsorbing injured cells.

Other bone cells, called osteoblasts, would have a different job. They would start building new bone.

As the cells went to work, Kip became friends with John. Kip and Maria Riquet raced wheelchairs in the hospital halls. Friends brought meals, came to visit, sent cards.

And he watched the Tour de France. Bicycling's premier race started the day before the crash.

Cycling glorifies pain. A sport whose symbol, the most famous cyclist, is famous not just because he is the best or because he has beaten cancer and come back. Cyclists revere Lance Armstrong for his ability to endure the hurt, to grit his teeth and keep going.

In his newest book, Armstrong describes the Tour as "a daily festival of human suffering." A few Armstrong words of wisdom: "Pain is temporary. Quitting lasts forever."

There was another American on the tour, Tyler Hamilton. Hamilton fell during the first stage and broke his collarbone. He kept riding anyway.

Watching from his hospital bed, Kip decided that Hamilton was his new hero.

* * *

The key, Carol Jean told Kip, was for only one of them to cry about it at a time.

Really, Kip told Carol Jean, the only thing beyond repair was his bike.

Before the crash, the couple had their bags packed for a 10-week vacation. They planned to bike across Iowa with their club again, then through Canada. To visit Carol Jean's 90-year-old mother and her daughter, who was about to have a baby.

All those plans were gone. Now they couldn't even return to their own home, with its two flights of stairs and white carpet too thick for a wheelchair.

A friend, out of town for the summer, came to the rescue. The St. Petersburg house was perfect - one story, wheelchair-friendly hardwood floors, few twists and turns. Carol Jean's son built a 16-foot ramp over the back steps.

Still, the house reminded Kip of his limits. In his 16 days in the hospital, he could travel the wide halls, visit others among the injured. Now he was isolated.

A hospital bed dominated the living room. Kip got a plastic sliding board to help him move from bed to wheelchair, wheelchair to toilet. A plastic long-handled gripper helped him put on his socks.

Meanwhile, police said they would not file criminal charges against the driver who had put Kip in this bed, this wheelchair, this temporary home. Blood tests showed that Joseph Pastore wasn't drinking or taking certain impairing drugs, so instead police cited him for careless driving. Many cyclists felt the charge was too light. They were angry.

But Kip decided he would focus on recovery. Not on the driver, not on the crash, not on looking back. And Thanksgiving was too far away. He wanted to be out of the chair by Halloween.

Kip began a daily ritual: wheeling down the block to the sidewalk along Coffee Pot Bayou. He would count off docks as he passed by. Each day, he would try to pull himself past a few more.

And on each trip, he pulled on his new baseball cap, the one he had planned to wear with his Iowa "Whiners" bike club. Its slogan: "No whining."

* * *

Two places worried Fishalow, his orthopedic surgeon, most: Kip's ankle and his hip. Ankles are tricky. The bones had to be screwed together and set perfectly, Fishalow knew, or the ankle could bother Kip forever.

And the break across the hip was at the worst possible place. Such breaks risk cutting off the blood supply to the top of the bone, so that it deteriorates and dies. If that happened to Kip, he would have to have his hip replaced. And that operation would be further complicated by the rod in his leg.

Kip also knew that it could have been worse. Most of the cyclists' injuries were less severe than his, but David Arnold and Maria Riquet were still at Bayfront. Both faced repeated surgeries. David was receiving skin and muscle grafts to rebuild what remained of his lower leg. Thirteen of Maria's bones were broken, and she had been fitted with a back brace until her vertebrae healed.

* * *

It was almost noon, and Kip had just finished his swim at North Shore Pool. He was wheeling back home on the sidewalk that runs along Coffee Pot Bayou, wearing his "No Whining" hat and a determined look. On the back of his wheelchair, he had slapped a bumper sticker: START SEEING BICYCLES.

Every now and then, he suddenly swung his wheelchair in reverse and started pushing backward with his feet. Forward again. Spin. Back. Cyclists and joggers twisted their heads to look as they went by, but Kip seemed oblivious.

If he went backward, Kip thought, maybe different muscles would get some work. After all, he would need those once he started to walk.

The next day, he would see Fishalow, and he hoped the doctor would let him out of the wheelchair. He wanted to be ready. He had pursued recovery like a man driven: wheeling miles along Coffee Pot, swimming most mornings, lifting weights.

Kip kept pushing hard, but Fishalow was the one person he would listen to. The doctor warned him: Get up too soon, and the bones could break again.

"I think he knows he has to throttle me back a little," Kip said. But he still thought he could have walked three weeks ago.

* * *

Fishalow brought Kip's new X-rays into the tiny room. Examined Kip's leg. Studied the X-rays. It was two months and three days after the accident.

Then he pointed to the wheelchair, very casual.

"So," he said, "You going to give that back?"

Kip grinned. "I'm ready to," he answered.

Fishalow rattled off rules: No running. No weight training. And, for now, no biking.

Fishalow walked out of the room, and Carol Jean ran to the car for the crutches she had brought, just in case. Stay put, she ordered Kip.

But the moment she was gone, he stood up.

"I've got to practice," he announced.

He stretched his hand to the wall. Then, cautiously, one step. Two, three, four.

"Well. It works."

Carol Jean came back, scolded. "You don't want to blow it now," she told him.

But she was happy, too. As Kip used the crutches and made his way to the car, Carol Jean snapped photos of every step.

* * *

Two weeks later, Kip and Carol Jean met a group of cyclists for breakfast at a downtown St. Petersburg coffee shop. Carol Jean rode there with the pack. Kip drove.

After breakfast, Kip stayed at the table. It's hard right now, he said. He thought he would be able to walk 2 or 3 miles by now. He kept seeing what he couldn't do. His knee kept giving out, buckling without warning.

Why is my leg still swollen? he wondered. Why is my knee still sore?

He was concentrating on walking slowly, correctly, so he wouldn't develop a limp.

He kept telling himself that he should expect this. Determination alone couldn't make his body heal faster. Some things just took time.

"You can't put nine women in a room and get a baby in one month," he joked.

Kip found himself thinking about his dad, who died two years before, every day. He missed him as never before.

His father, a family doctor in small-town North Carolina, had told Kip over and over: It was only because his leg was amputated, because of the military benefits he received, that he was able to go to medical school. Tragedy wasn't an obstacle, but an opportunity.

Kip couldn't remember him ever complaining. Not once.

But Kip missed him as more than a role model. His father, as a doctor and a patient, was the one person who could tell him everything would be all right.

Now he had only memories and willpower to follow.

"He never let his prosthesis rule him," Kip said. "It never set the agenda of what his day would be like."

Focus on what you can do, Dad would tell him now. Not on what you can't.

And with that, Kip paid his bill and walked down the street.

Despite his best efforts, he limped with every step.

* * *

The morning of Oct. 4 was soft and clear, and the cyclists were gathering outside North Shore Pool for a ride to celebrate the 90th birthday of John Sinibaldi, the St. Petersburg cyclist who had biked in two Olympics.

Kip brought his old bike, and he wore sneakers, just to be safe. He didn't want to wear racing shoes yet and risk his ankle by getting stuck in the pedal.

He would stay at the back, he told Carol Jean.

Other riders, Kip knew, could not be there. David Arnold hoped just to walk again, probably with a cane. Maria Riquet was saying that once she recovered, she would find a safer sport.

But for now, Kip was there, and it was the day he had waited for.

Everywhere, friends came to greet him.

"The Lord does heal, he really does," one man told Kip.

Sinibaldi's son, John Jr., greeted all the riders. Follow the rules of the road, he reminded them. No crowding up. Don't give people any room for accusations about arrogant cyclists.

He had a happier message as well: "At least three of the guys from the big accident are out here," Sinibaldi said. "I want to welcome you all back!"

The applause was thunderous. Carol Jean cheered. Kip ducked his head.

He pushed down on his pedals, and he was off.

Mile after mile, and it felt wonderful. He felt strong and was surprised to see himself keeping up. He saw friends register surprise as they realized who was cycling along with them.

A homecoming, he thought.

Then, all too soon, the 18 miles were over. Kip pulled up outside the coffee shop - not at the front, but not with the stragglers, either.

Kip couldn't even make it inside the restaurant. Hugs and high-fives enveloped him on the sidewalk.

* * *

On Halloween, the cyclists gathered at traffic court for a hearing in the case of Joseph Pastore, the driver who had wreaked so much damage.

The cyclists and their family members filled several benches on one side of the courtroom. David Arnold was there, in a wheelchair, his left leg still bandaged and braced. Maria Riquet wore her back brace over an elegant black dress. Wendy Tocha's arm was still in a sling. She said that one day, when she had babies, she probably wouldn't be able to lift them.

The other side was nearly empty. Pastore's lawyer was there. He was not.

Kip and Carol Jean were among the last to arrive. Kip walked in with a slight roll to every step. He still couldn't balance well, and his knee grated with every stair he climbed.

Basically, Kip could bike better than he could walk.

But he smiled at the other cyclists, wearing an easy confidence like a man unscarred. The day before, he had visited a physical therapist. A top triathlete herself, Beth Shaw had told Kip that his "power muscles," those he biked with, were recovering well.

The problem was the muscles beneath, the ones that stabilize and control his hip. They were Jell-O. Shaw had run Kip through a demanding set of exercises that made his right leg shake with effort.

Kip greeted the news with relief. It was bad, he said. But at least it was a problem he could work to solve.

And if he didn't improve, that would be okay, too. He and Carol Jean felt blessed.

At first, Kip hadn't wanted to come to court. But now, he and Carol Jean took seats in the front row, beside Maria.

The hearing was brief. The judge explained that Pastore had agreed to plead no contest. Pastore's lawyer surrendered his client's driver's license. The judge said Pastore could never drive again. It was over.

As the door closed behind the judge, the cyclists looked at each other, surprised. Then Carol Jean began to clap and others followed suit. The courtroom filled with hugs, greetings, questions.

"This is like a little family reunion," Kip said, surveying the crowd. He turned and said hello to Tony Forte.

"I'll see you on the ride," Tony told him.

The lights blinked. Time to go. Everyone crowded toward the door.

"Now we can move forward," Carol Jean said.

And she and Kip walked out of the courthouse and into the bright afternoon sun.

[Last modified December 11, 2003, 12:21:05]


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