This is a story about a brutal bicycle crash. You’ll soon encounter a crushed chest, a 27-day coma, a hideous therapeutic body cage and other horrible things. You’ll meet a woman who pushed the limits of medical technology to survive.
Oh, and just so there’s no surprises, you’ll also run smack-dab into a love story.
On the afternoon of March 21, Penny Parker was closely following her good friend Lori Peterson north on La Posta Road (County Road 213). On a downhill steep enough to surpass 30 mph with a few pedal strokes, Parker thought she heard a car coming and glanced back.
To make room for the vehicle Parker veered to her right. Suddenly, she was speeding through deep pea gravel, fighting to stay vertical.
“Lori!” she screamed as the gravel grabbed her tire and jerked it toward the guardrail. She raised her arms in front of her head to prepare for impact, then slammed into the metal rail at a point that connected with a wooden post.
When Parker’s body rolled to a stop in the northbound lane about 20 feet from the impact, her helmet was shattered, and she was bleeding heavily.
The bicycle, meanwhile, had catapulted over the guardrail and lay 40 feet from the impact. The left handlebar was bent back 90 degrees. A brake lever, as well as large pieces of her neon green cycling jacket, had lodged into the guardrail.
Peterson heard the scream and the impact. She jammed on the brakes and jumped off the bike.
“I ran to her expecting her to have a broken arm,” Peterson says.
Instead, Parker had two skull fractures, five cracked vertebrae, a crushed right hand, severe laceration on her left arm, torn meniscus in her right knee, collapsed lung and, what would most delay her recovery, 19 busted ribs and what’s called a “flail” chest, which we’ll get to later.
Warren Smith, kitchen manager at Manna Soup Kitchen, who also works as a custodian at Red Cedar Gathering, was driving home along County Road 213 when he came upon Parker lying in the road.
“She was bleeding pretty bad,” said Smith, who determined quickly that his first aid and CPR training were wholly inadequate. Blood came from her nose, ears, mouth and the laceration. And she was gasping for air.
Peterson called 911. Smith wrapped Parker in jackets collected from a gathering crowd and held her carefully, trying to calm the panicked woman and help her concentrate on breathing.
As they waited for Durango Fire & Rescue, Parker’s blood loss ebbed and she went into shock.
“That was a long 15 minutes,” Smith said, “I’ve gotta tell you.”
Five years ago, Hans Herber walked into a Kansas City bar at 7 p.m. to meet his date. In the blink of an eye it was 1 a.m., and Herber had been so engrossed he didn’t notice that the bar was empty and closing.
“Was it love at first sight? Absolutely!” he wrote in an online diary that traces the daily tribulations of Parker’s recovery. “But it was more than that – it was love at first everything. And it has continued to be ever since.”
Hans and Penny moved into a riverside townhome in Durango in February 2008 and were married that May.
Herber was in Denver, where he often works several days a week as an executive for IBM, when he got news of the crash. He began making plans to rush home, but instead Parker came to him via emergency flight, arriving at St. Anthony Hospital in Lakewood at 1:30 a.m.
Although Parker’s condition seemed stable, effects of the crushed chest began to take their toll. A “flail chest” means part of the thoracic cage is separated from the chest wall; the lack of structure keeps the lungs from expanding. She needed a ventilator.
Within a few days, she developed pneumonia, which led to acute respiratory distress syndrome, or ARDS, which means the body is not circulating adequate oxygen. About one-third of those who develop ARDS do not survive.
In a week, she was in critical condition, her vital signs fluctuating wildly, body temperature up to 104.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Doctors placed her in a drug-induced coma. Quickly it became obvious the hospital stay would not be short.
Two weeks after the accident, Penny’s breathing ability became so weak that a nurse began manually forcing air into her lungs in an emergency procedure. Her body’s oxygen count was critically low.
“I thought she was dying in front of me,” Herber says.
What else can be done, Herber asked, continuing to fight for his wife’s life. That’s when he first heard the term “RotoProne,” uttered by a respiratory therapist.
“Whatever it is, let’s get one,” Herber said.
Suffice to say, the RotoProne is not a pretty machine. You’d feel good about putting Hannibal Lecter (“Silence of the Lambs”) in it, but not your wife. It’s a ribbed metal cage that encases patients and holds them face-down to help breathing.
Peterson was alarmed that her friend appeared blue and bloated in the RotoProne. Tubes exited her mouth and back. “It was extremely disturbing,” she recalls. But those conditions, in this case, were normal.
Peterson was in the room 10 minutes and couldn’t take it. “It was emotionally exhausting,” she said. “I don’t know how Hans did it.”
For two months, Herber left the hospital only to sleep, which came fitfully. He kept a vigil on Penny, researched every medical procedure done or even suggested, and updated the online journal daily. He talked to her and stroked her hand, usually having no real proof that she could hear him.
During the worst stretch, he checked himself into the emergency room with severe tightness in his chest. Although his blood pressure was alarmingly high, tests showed no heart problems.
Parker improved during her first few hours in the RotoProne, but her oxygen count then decreased again. Herber kept pushing: What else can we do? At that point, a trusted male nurse gave him a dose of reality:
“You need to start thinking not in terms of ‘when’ she will recover,” the nurse told Herber, “but ‘if’ she will recover.”
Hearing this was sobering, but Herber kept believing in his wife’s ability to battle. She’s a feisty jokester who, when alert, is the focus of everyone in the room. She couldn’t die.
In their riverside townhome 3½ months later, his wife at his side, Herber explains how the next day, April 6, he wrote in the journal, “My wife Penny is fearless, relentless, and she WILL ride again! ... (The recovery) begins today!”
He turned to Parker on the chair next to him, choking up, and said, “You did.”
By early May, progress came more rapidly. In quick succession, she shrugged off the ventilator and tracheostomy tube, feeding tube and catheter.
The hospital discharged her May 22, just in time for her 51st birthday the next day and her fourth wedding anniversary the day after that.
“Penny, your jacket’s still in here,” Peterson said, pointing to a swatch of material lodged into the guardrail where Parker made impact. It’s July 21, exactly four months since the crash, and it’s the first time Parker has returned to the scene.
“That’s your bottle,” Peterson says, pointing at a Gatorade container on the other side of the guardrail. Parker takes the bottle and places the jacket bit inside.
“I love to ride this road,” Parker said. “They need to maintain it better.”
She was trying to be safe when she steered away from the car she thought she heard that day.
Peterson said there was no car.
The gravel began just on the other side of the white line, leaving a bicyclist no shoulder. She hopes the county is more prompt about sweeping the gravel off such roads, frequented in the spring by cyclists training for the Iron Horse and Quarter Horse, as the two women were.
Jim Davis, La Plata County’s director of public works, said when anyone has a specific complaint on excess gravel, “We try to be pretty responsive.” The county has more than 200 miles of roads and one sweeper.
Parker also points out that she wouldn’t be alive without her helmet, which was demolished by the impact. She had the helmet displayed in her hospital room until she realized others found it gruesome.
It’s hard to count, but the best estimate is, Parker suffered 32 broken bones in all. She’s still breathing with supplemental oxygen, walking with a limp and talking in a hoarse whisper. And she’s still stunned that a bike wreck put her in ICU for 40 days. But she’s grateful that she’s walking, talking and breathing at all.
From the first day in the hospital, she’s vowed to get back on a moving bicycle.
“I just want to go down the road, feel that wind,” she said. “I just want to fly.”
For now, she cherishes simple pleasures – seeing the green leaves outside the townhome window, a hummingbird in flight, a flower on the roadside. She and Hans choked up as she said this. She’s amazed at Hans’ dedication; he’s amazed at Penny’s grit.
“I believe I’m here because I love my husband so much, and my husband loves me so much,” she said.
You were warned. It was a love story all along.
firstname.lastname@example.org. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest story.