The crash was unavoidable. But experienced motorcyclist Howard Spencer, 64, had time to make one critical decision. He could risk his life to save his grandson, who was riding on the back of his cycle.
Howard, of American Canyon, remembers the Aug. 22 accident as if it were yesterday. He and his grandson, Aaron Mitchell, 12, were returning from a ride to the foothills. As they approached Rio Vista, the driver of a pickup truck towing a trailer made an illegal U-Turn directly in front of Howard’s oncoming motorcycle.
“I had no way to avoid it,” he recalls. “I knew we were going to crash.”
Howard ran through his options.
“I felt like I had a half an hour to think about it,” he says, trying to explain how a split second seemed to last for minutes.
The way he saw it, he had few options. He could try hitting the brakes hard but that would send them both flying. He could try to lay the bike down, and if he was alone he says he might have done that. But he had Aaron on the bike, so that wasn’t an option because when you slide under a vehicle, you may avoid the impact, but you run the risk of getting run over.
“I decided that I would stand up so that Aaron would hit me and not the truck,” says Howard. “So he would bounce off my back.”
That’s exactly what happened.
As NorthBay Medical Center Trauma Surgeon Peter Zopfi puts it, “by standing up, his body acted like an airbag” for Aaron, who walked away from the crash with a small cut and a bruise and nothing more.
Howard and the bike, on the other hand, took the full brunt of the impact. He arrived at the Trauma Center at NorthBay Medical Center in Fairfield with a broken neck, three broken ribs, a broken femur, a broken nose and a severe gash across his forehead, from which he had lost a considerable amount of blood. Doctors weren’t sure he would live.
Howard’s wife Claire was surprised when her cell phone rang that afternoon, indicating it was a call from Howard.
“I answered and said, ‘Wow, you’re back already?’ and a woman’s voice comes on and says, ‘No, he’s been in a pretty serious accident’ and she said he was hurt and bleeding from the head and I thought, ‘Oh God, no,’” she recalls.
Aaron had found his grandfather’s cellphone and was trying to call his mom. The woman who called Claire had stopped for the accident and was helping him try to reach family.
Aaron says he didn’t see the crash coming, his view from the back of the bike blocked by his grandfather up front.
“We were just riding and I was relaxing and the next thing I woke up on the ground,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Papa!’ but he didn’t respond.”
Howard did regain consciousness at the crash site and his first question was about Aaron.
“He said, ‘Where’s my grandson’ and everyone just kept telling him not to move, so I told him ‘stay there,’” Aaron recalls.
Aaron’s mom, Howard’s youngest daughter, Chantelle Mitchell, was finally reached by phone, and told Aaron to ride to the hospital with his grandfather.
“It was a terrifying call. The kind you never want to hear,” Chantelle says. “But Aaron was so calm and just told me ‘I’m fine, mom, but Papa’s hurt’ and I was really proud of how he was holding himself together.”
At the Trauma Center, Dr. Zopfi was coordinating the trauma team’s treatment of Howard’s injuries. He says the case struck a chord with him right from the start.
“I walk in and here is the grandfather in bed one and the grandson in bed two,” he recalls. “The grandfather is asking if the grandson is OK and the grandson is asking if grandpa is OK. I’m a grandfather, so that really hit home for me.”
Grandpa wasn’t OK.
“But he was neurologically intact,” explains Dr. Zopfi. “He could move his hands and feet, though he was reluctant to do so due to all of the other pain.”
Fortunately, X-rays and CT scans showed no other internal injuries.
“He had a bad concussion,” notes Dr. Zopfi. “But his most serious injury was multiple fractures to the C1 and C2 vertebrae. These (vertebrae) are at the base of the skull and are the most critical.”
Claire recalls the doctor’s description. “He said they call it the ‘hangman’s break,’” she says.
Several specialists were ready to tackle Howard’s case.
Dr. Tyler Nelson, an oral maxillofacial surgeon, was brought in to repair the laceration to Howard’s head.
His neck injury was next and neurosurgeon Jeffrey Dembner, M.D., performed surgery the next day, putting posts in to fuse the vertebrae and prevent any spinal cord injury.
On Aug. 25, orthopedic surgeon Cornelis Elmes, M.D., set to work repairing Howard’s femur.
While each of the doctors performed critical individual surgeries, Dr. Zopfi is quick to point out that they were part of a bigger team.
“Emergency physician Benjamin Williams worked with me on the initial intake and Dr. Krishnamurthy Umapathy was the initial intensivist. And we had a neurologic consult a few days later with neurologist Dr. Shahid Rehman,” he explains. “No single member of the team is more important than another. The team functions as a whole. I was the initial trauma surgeon, but I’m just one part of that team.”
After the surgeries, Howard went to the ICU where another team cared for him … helping with his breathing and giving blood transfusions Finally he went on to acute rehab and physical therapy.
“It was a tremendous success,” says Dr. Zopfi. “He can walk and he’s alive.”
The importance of getting a patient to the closest appropriate hospital trauma unit is clear in this case, explains Dr. Zopfi.
“I came to NorthBay in 1991 as a general and acute care surgeon and I always felt like we needed a trauma unit and for the county and for the hospital system to recognize that, is really a good thing.”
Road to recovery
Howard and Claire couldn’t agree more.
“Howard was in the ICU for two weeks and everyone was so wonderful to us. We are so thankful,” says Claire.
On Sept. 4, Howard was discharged from NorthBay and began his acute rehab through Queen of the Valley in Napa. He couldn’t walk yet, had some cognitive and speech issues and couldn’t swallow, due to swelling from the surgery on his neck. By Thanksgiving, though, he was celebrating and eating the holiday meal, walking, talking and enjoying his time with family and friends.
And the retired refinery engineer is even talking with his former employer about continuing work on safety manuals he was doing prior to the crash.
Claire marvels at how her husband wanted to be up and around so fast. “The more we kept him down the more unhappy he was,” she says with a laugh. “So he’s up and he walks every day. He still has more physical therapy ahead but he’s doing great.”
“I can’t count money,” Howard laments. “And sometimes I still get words mixed up. But it will come with time.”
One thing that won’t be coming back to his life, however, is motorcycles – and not just because the rods in his neck make it impossible for him to turn his head.
“I rode motorcycles for 50 years and I always thought we were safe riders,” Howard says. “We always wore helmets and leathers and both Aaron and I had them on the day of the accident. But this was different. My grandson was on the bike this time,” he says. “This is why I’m giving up bikes. This is it. No more.”
He pauses and adds more solemnly, “He’s just 12 and he’s a twin. He’s my baby’s baby.”
Parting with “Big Red,” the nickname of the 2005 Harley Firefighter edition he was riding when the crash occurred, was made a bit easier, thanks to a creative mechanic friend of the family.
The friend managed to snag the front of the bike and transform it into a night light adorned with the words “In Memory of Big Red.”
It hangs in Howard’s garage as a reminder that a very different kind of memorial could have punctuated this tale.
“We are just so happy to have Howard with us,” says Claire. “Nothing else matters.”