A decision he will have to live with

Published May 28, 2007

The moment that changed everything happened on a day a lot like this one: sun shining, people enjoying a day off, the world moving a little easier.

John Dunn, the gravel-voiced spokesman for Tampa General Hospital, spent his weekdays getting reporters together with doctors for interviews and being quoted on the condition of notable patients.

But this was Sunday afternoon and he was on his bike, a 2000 Harley, blue and silver. My therapist, he called the bike, because riding with the wind in his face wiped away all thought of work or bills or assorted worries.

When he left the house that day, his girlfriend had pointed at his bare head. What about your helmet? In fact, he had three in the garage. But no, not today.

Later, there would be some irony in the fact that he had just left a meeting of fellow riders devoted to keeping bikers safe on the road. He was headed north on U.S. 301 in Hillsborough County.

He'll never know if the van stopped at the stop sign first or just rolled on through. But it came right at him, T-boning the side of his bike. When he was hit, he had time to think one thing: No helmet. (Actually, there was time for a descriptive expletive, too.)

If something can be the worst luck and also the best, here it was: No cars were coming when he was thrown across the oncoming traffic lane to land 70 feet away. The van missed hitting his front wheel, which he later figured would have sent his helmetless self pitching forward instead of sideways.

In surgery at the hospital - the same one where he worked - they thought he might lose his leg. He was lucky again.

Eight days in the hospital, months on his back and in a wheelchair, and then on crutches. Physical therapy, endless appointments. Once, a guy sitting next to him in a waiting room told him, "The good news is, I'm on the right side of the grass." Dunn liked that. These days he uses the line himself.

Finally, a few weeks ago, he ditched his cane.

He knows he is lucky in this, too: The list of friends who came - who drove him or sat with him or made him laugh - is long. Many of them also gave him a hard time about being sans helmet that day, among them his previous boss, former Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman.

Dunn has always believed bikers should make that decision for themselves. And what about other drivers? From his pickup truck on I-275 the other day, unbelievably, he could see a woman behind the wheel with her cell phone scrunched between ear and shoulder.

Why couldn't she use her hands? Because she was knitting.

Of course what happened changed him. "The things you used to think were such a big deal, when you start to compare it to your new list of priorities, don't seem like such a big deal, " he says. "It does knock some perspective into you."

A year has passed and he has not climbed back on a motorcycle. He's not sure he will. But when one roars past, you see him stop and listen, like a dog sensing something familiar and tantalizing in the air.

If he did, would he wear a helmet?

Dunn remains an adamant believer in, as the bumper sticker says, letting those who ride decide. But, he says, "I will wear one."