This is the true story of Michael Bardellini, a remarkable young man who has been recovering from severe brain trauma since 2010. He has asked me to write this book in hopes that it will help people understand the strengths and struggles of the thousands of people who live with brain injury.
While riding his bike in 2010, Mikey B was left for dead by a hit and run driver. He suffered severe brain injury, including paralysis. His story is one of struggling to survive and then learning to thrive. He founded B Fit Forever as a way of spreading his messaged of fitness as preparation for life's unexpected challenges.
Michael and I will be donating some of the profits of this book to Boston Acquired Brain Injury Support Group (BABIS) and other organizations supporting people with brain injuries.
Here is the first chapter of Mike's story.
Left for Dead
Friday, June 25, 2010
It was a typical summer afternoon in Las Vegas - 110 degrees, sunny, and lots of traffic. Mary Bardellini and her nine-year-old granddaughter Hailey were driving down Eastern Ave after a shopping trip to find Hailey a special pair of sneakers that she had been wanting. Looking back, Mary would see this shopping trip as the second instance of divine intervention. The first instance, still unknown to Mary as she drove down Eastern Avenue, was that Jackie and Mel Combs had been driving on the same road just a short time earlier.
Jackie and Mel, transplants from Long Island, NY, were making the final arrangements to move Jackie's mother from New York to live with them. They were leaving to get her the next day, but they decided on a whim to buy a television for her room before they left. As they came down the hill on Eastern Avenue, they spotted a bike in the middle of the four lane highway. It was closer to the middle island than to the sidewalk. A moment later they noticed something in the road next to the sidewalk.
"It looks like there's a backpack on the side of the road over there," said Mel as they drove by.
"Wait, I think it's a body!" said Jackie.
They pulled over to get a better look. What they saw shocked them. Jackie later described it as "a crumpled body with the head twisted away at a strange angle." She jumped out of her car and knelt beside the body. She was acutely aware that the street had no shoulder and that this person was lying in the path of oncoming traffic. Mel backed up his car to make a protective barrier and then ran down the street waving his arms to warn drivers who were cresting the hill and could not see what was going on in the street ahead of them.
Jackie thought the muscular young man lying shirtless on the street was dead, or dying. Her instinct was to protect him. As she moved his head to cradle it, she saw that it was bleeding profusely. By now a few other people had stopped. One called 911. When the young man began to make a gurgling noise, the 911 operator told Jackie she had to turn him over. Jackie didn't think she could, but a man helped her move him onto his back. When his bare skin touched the hot pavement, he sat up abruptly, reacting reflexively to the pavement's 140 degree temperature.
Jackie could tell that his body was reacting, but that his mind had no awareness of what was happening. She recognized the look on his face. It was a specific look that she had grown familiar with because she had seen it on her own son's face 23 years earlier after surgery for a brain tumor. Her mother's instinct took over and she stroked the young man's arm firmly to let him know that someone was there with him. Even if he could not hear her telling him he was going to be okay, she was pretty sure that some part of him could feel the pressure on his arm. Although he appeared to be totally out of it, Jackie continued to reassure him that she would stay with him until help came.
The police arrived before the ambulance. As the officer pulled on blue plastic rubber gloves, he told Jackie that she should leave now. But she was determined to stay with this vulnerable young man until the ambulance came. She wanted to comfort him and she wanted to know if he was going to make it.
The officer had other ideas. He told Mel and Jackie that they had to leave. When she asked what hospital he would go to, the officer answered that he wasn't allowed to tell her. He urged Mel to get in the car and get out of the way. He sounded irritated, but she continued to hold on until the EMTs got out of the ambulance. At that point the officer ordered them away.
As the EMTs started working on him, Jackie could see the young man begin to fight them off. She had seen this behavior before and recognized it as a symptom of severe brain trauma. She knew that he had no idea what he was doing and felt he needed to be handled more gently. "Please take it easy with him," she said, climbing reluctantly into their car. As they drove away, she vowed to find out what hospital he was in.
The police officer had not been able to find any ID on the accident victim. But after he was placed on the stretcher, the officer spotted his cell phone. He could see that a call had just come in. The caller's ID was Mom.
A few minutes earlier, Mary and Hailey had been driving up the opposite side of Eastern Avenue when Hailey saw a bike in the road.
"That looks like Uncle Mike's bike over there in the street," she said.
At first, Mary thought she was joking. But the look on Hailey's face told her that she was serious. Mary's mind flashed back to her last conversation with her son. He told her he was going to ride his bike to his nearby physical therapy appointment. He had a knee injury and riding was good exercise for the knee. Mary had suggested he drive because there is so much traffic on the route. He laughed off the suggestion, placating her by saying he would stay on the sidewalk.
Mary felt a little nervous, the way a mother feels, when she thinks something might be wrong. She reached for her cell phone to call Mike. No answer. A moment later the phone rang and Mike's caller ID flashed on. She was relieved until she heard an unfamiliar voice when she answered the phone. It was the officer at the scene of the accident. He explained that he saw MOM on the caller ID and called back. He told her that her son had been in a serious accident on Eastern Avenue and was about to be transported to the hospital. She said she was close by and would be there immediately.
The EMTs were just shutting the door when Mary arrived.
"Wait," she pleaded frantically. "I have to see him. Please!"
The officer told her that they had to leave immediately to get him to a hospital that had a trauma unit available. As he pulled away, the ambulance driver shouted out the window that the patient was being taken to Sunrise Hospital as a John Doe. Hoping against hope that Mike would be alive when they got there, Mary and Hailey headed directly to the hospital.
If Hailey had not noticed Mike's bike, they would not have known about the accident until hours later, when he failed to come home. Not having any idea what happened, Mary would have had to call over 20 area hospitals with emergency rooms. It would not have occurred to her that he would be listed as John Doe.
And thus, the shopping trip search for Hailey's special new sneakers ended up leading Mary to her son's side exactly when he needed her more than he ever had before.