Life on Two Wheels: How a Flight For Life landing on Dam Road saved a cyclist’s life (video)
July 28, 2017
In the moments after his accident Lee Oesterle's mind was racing a million miles a minute, but he kept coming back to one thought: I can't feel my feet.
"The last thing I really remember was looking down, trying to get my hand on the brake, and then I don't remember anything until I woke back up," said Oesterle, a Colorado Springs resident who lives part-time in Wildernest and runs a foster care nonprofit, Kids Crossing. "My first thought was, 'I'm glad I'm alive,' and then I thought, 'I'm glad I do what I do for a living,' because I can do it in a wheelchair."
On a bustling Friday afternoon this summer, I met with Oesterle in downtown Breckenridge to relive his accident from that fateful Memorial Day weekend in 2013. He walked into the coffee shop with a slight shuffle, his shoulders hunched just barely forward like someone who's been used to walking with a cane for months, even years. He had no cane that day, nor did he need a wheelchair, and instead mounted the outside staircase under his own power. He sat down with a sigh and started talking about the Flight For Life pin on his baseball cap.
"You only get the pin if you've flown in the helicopter," Oesterle told me with a grin and a laugh. "I don't know if that's true, but that's my story and I'm sticking to it."
Oesterle's one and only ride in the Flight For Life craft started as just another ride from Dillon Marina to Frisco. Shortly after moving into their Wildernest condo, Oesterle and his wife bought road bikes to take advantage of the sprawling Summit County Recreational Path system. He left the marina that morning on the recpath that runs parallel to Dam Road — a wildly popular route with bikers, walkers, joggers and meanderers of all types — and soon rolled into the first corner with more speed than expected.
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That's when things get fuzzy. Oesterle is pretty sure his front wheel dipped off the path or caught some other bump along the way, tossing him directly onto his shoulder and head at speeds over 20 miles per hour. He was wearing a helmet, he said, but that didn't protect against the jarring, shuddering effects of impact.
As Oesterle lay unresponsive on the ground, a passerby who saw the incident, then-15-year-old Carver Patterson, rushed to his side. Soon after someone called 911, and within 30 minutes EMTs with Summit County Ambulance Service and Lake Dillon Fire Rescue had arrived on scene and closed Dam Road. It wasn't their first call to that particular corner, and it wasn't their last.
"To be honest, that area is pretty well known to us," said Bill Clark, one of two ambulance first responders with paramedic Chris Myers. "It doesn't have a ton of bike wrecks, but it's one of those places that must have a deceptive curve or something."
Clark and Myers immediately recognized a potential spinal injury and soon moved Oesterle to a hard, plastic backboard. They then started a secondary assessment and made the snap decision to call Flight For Life immediately, when the usual protocol is to transport via ambulance to the nearest hospital, where ER staff can stabilize a patient before the helicopter ride.
But time was running out.
"That was quite a ride," Oesterle said of the Flight For Life transport that earned him the pin. "I remember that well. I couldn't turn my head, but I could see the mountains going by. The flight nurse was incredible. He kept me calm, kept me laughing."
When Oesterle reached the ICU at St. Anthony's in Lakewood, the diagnosis was grim: damage to the C3/C4 vertebrae causing incomplete quadriplegia. He could feel his extremities, but it would be a long, hard road until he was walking again, let along biking.
"That was huge," Oesterle said of the snap decision to place him on a backboard and fly direct from Dam Road. "It turned out a couple weeks later that they had to fuse my spine. If they had moved me, it would have been bad, I think. Really bad."
With that, Oesterle laughed again. Good humor is a defense mechanism, he said, and he used it often during three weeks in the ICU and another four months learning to walk again at Denver's Craig Hospital. Along with physical rehab, he also battled bouts of mental fatigue, dubbed "ICU psychosis."
"I never knew what that was," Oesterle recalled. "I was completely delusional, thinking that the ICU staff was out to kill me when I was completely vulnerable."
Through it all, Oesterle kept thinking back to the first responders on the scene — the people who were kind, confident and compassionate when he was at his most vulnerable.
"A lot of times when we get in these situations, your training kicks in and we forget that we're dealing with a person, that we need to reassure them and keep them comfortable," Clark said. "When Lee talks about the incredible help he got, I'm sure he's talking about the help Chris gave him by being by his side, talking him through things, helping him know what was going on."
In those four long months of functional rehab, Oesterle used small goals to drive recovery — a few steps one day, a few more steps the next day — but the biggest inspiration was his daughter, Liz, and her upcoming wedding.
"I would come up with motivations, like wanting to walk my daughter down the aisle," Oesterle said. "That was part of my motivation, one of the milestones."
In May 2015, nearly two years exactly after his crash, Oesterle did just that when Liz was married in Longmont. It was the first major milestone in a slew of them, from returning to the slopes on a ski bike to riding the same Dillon-to-Frisco route that nearly killed him, this time on a recumbent bike.
"In the overall picture of the things, I think about all the people who were there, supporting me, from the people in the first few hours to the people at Craig to my family and friends," Oesterle said with a final laugh and grin. "It was very humbling."