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Bet on Byron

Devon O'Neil
summit daily news
Devon O'Neil
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Byron Swezy describes it as the “quintessential polarity of emotions.”

It was eight months ago, the day his first child would be arriving home from the hospital. The proud new papa was happier than he had ever been.

Perhaps in anticipation of the sleepless nights and demanding days to come, Swezy went for a mountain bike ride at the Frisco peninsula. He rode with a friend, Chad Bratton. The trail was one Swezy had ridden hundreds of times; he knew it as well as any.

“I was riding the paternal high, thinking nothing can go wrong,” he says now.

Yet while going around a switchback at about 20 mph, tragedy struck. Swezy’s front wheel went out, sending him head-first over his handlebars. The new clipless pedals he was using failed to release, and he crashed into a rock. His head broke the fall, shattering his helmet in almost a dozen places as the rest of his body crumpled to the earth.

Swezy’s mountain biking career, which has been marked for the past decade by his ownership of the world-renowned Montezuma’s Revenge 24-hour race, includes plenty of grisly crashes. He has broken both sides of his collarbone, fractured ribs, a leg and an ankle. But this crash was different.

He couldn’t move.

As Bratton called 911, Swezy lay on his stomach. He was paralyzed from the neck down. And he was scared.

Because of misinterpreted directions at the dispatch center, it took a second phone call and 45 minutes for paramedics and Summit County Rescue Group members to find the crippled Swezy.

When they did, they stabilized him and evacuated him via Flight For Life to St. Anthony’s Central Hospital in Denver ” a trip he jokingly calls the “Tour de Fentanyl,” because of the pain-killing, mind-altering drug one receives en route.

There, doctors fed him steroids and alleviated the compression on his spinal cord. Soon after, an emergency room doctor gave him some good news: his spinal cord had not been severed.

Instead, his fourth vertebrae had simply cut off all spinal fluid to his body’s lower half, which caused the three-hour paralysis. Swezy keeps an MRI of the situation in his home. You can see where the fluid is cut off; it looks like a kinked garden hose.

It took seven days before Swezy could get out of bed, 10 days before he could walk, and 19 before he could go home. He is the first one to call himself lucky.

In the days after the accident, more than 100 well-wishers visited him in his hospital room. He received calls and e-mails from hordes more, some of whom he did not know. A Frisco man he calls an acquaintance paid his $700 sanitation bill out of the blue.

Thursday, a winter and a spring since the accident, Swezy talked about the roller-coaster thoughts he has dealt with ” none greater than the day it happened, which began and ended on opposite ends of the emotional spectrum.

“The best time of my life and the worst time of my life all met at that moment,” he said.

Swezy points out a pair of startling medical statistics as he tells his story: First, doctors told him that after an hour of paralysis, the chances of regaining full mobility are one in a million. Second, 99.9 percent of people sustaining his exact injury end up paralyzed for life.

In other words, bet on Byron.

Both Swezy and his doctors believe the flawless evacuation methods used to bridge the gap between the crash and his arrival at the hospital made the difference. Wes Hyde led the paramedics’ effort, while Joe Slivka captained the rescue group’s side.

“I essentially owe them my life,” Swezy says.

Swezy has almost fully returned to his pre-crash form. The doctors replaced his fourth vertebrae with a titanium structure called a “spinal cage corpectium.” He has an x-ray of the image on his computer. It is labeled, “byron’s new neck.jpg.”

He has recently returned to riding his bike ” though for now, it is only on the paved bike path, not on the trails. Doctors, in fact, have told him he will never again be able to take the risk that comes with riding on off-road terrain.

Swezy, ever the adventurous type, says he plans on balancing his body’s signals with the advice he has received from the doctors, whom he affectionately calls “mad scientists.” His wife, Tracy, has a different message.

“If anyone sees him on a mountain bike path,” she says smiling, “we have a toll-free number they can call.”

Swezy is 37 years old, a young 37 at that. His infant daughter Koyana smiles at him now, unaware of her daddy’s journey.

And Byron reaches out to his child. With his heart his hands.

Devon O’Neil can be contacted at (970) 668-3998, ext. 231, or at doneil@summitdaily.com.


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