The Art Of Getting Back Up
By Joe Kurmaskie
The world can feel unfathomably large, random and knock the life out of you for no apparent reason. That’s what happened to Doug Markgraf a few years back. What happened next is the important part, the meat of life and what keeps me humble, inspired and in the saddle. My role in this story has been to provide some guidance and gear as Doug took on the monster-sized task of piecing his life back together one mile at a time.
On a spring day in May 2006, Markgraf’s life changed forever. As a college sophomore and member of Drexel’s Cycling Team, he was training on Lancaster Avenue in Philadelphia when a pickup truck pulling an ATV plowed into him. The driver fled the scene and left him alone and seriously injured. He doesn’t know how long he was in the street before help came.
Someone called the ambulance. EMTs measured his level of consciousness at the scene using the Glasgow Coma Scale. Anything less than a three on the scale is considered a vegetative state.
Doug was a three. He also had a shattered arm, most likely from trying to shield himself from the oncoming truck. He remained in a coma for 14 days. Though he woke after two weeks, the doctors gave his parents what Doug refers to as the “doom and gloom” report.
“Initially doctors were unable to say much at all,” he said. “They told my parents that it’s unlikely I’ll ever do things like return to college or ride a bike again.”
After waking up from the coma, Doug suffered from post-traumatic amnesia and for weeks could not remember what anyone told him about the accident.
“I was so confused. All I wanted to do was sleep because I didn’t understand why I was in a hospital bed.”
Six weeks after the accident, Doug was allowed to live at home while undergoing outpatient occupational, physical and speech therapy. According to him, it was like he had gone back to being a child. He had someone helping him 24 hours a day.
“I just wanted to go back to normal life but I didn’t necessarily know what normal life was at that point,” he noted. “More than anything I just wanted to get back on a bike and I kept pushing my doctors and therapists to be able to do that. I wanted to prove to myself and to everyone else that I could do it.”
It was almost exactly one year after the accident that Doug defied the odds and got back on a real bike, on the open road. With his parents following closely behind in the car, video camera in hand, he rode his bicycle for 62 miles.
“I never had any fear about getting back on the bike, but my parents did,” he mentioned. “You might think it’s hard for the person who has the TBI [traumatic brain injury], but I think my family had it much worse. It was scary for them because they didn’t know what would happen to me. I always knew that I would keep pushing forward.”
As a result of his traumatic brain injury, reading for any sustained amount of time was difficult to impossible, and he continues to have trouble remembering things. Struggling with the injury’s damaging effects, Doug attempted to go back to his engineering studies at Drexel, but failed several classes.
“It was really, really hard and I felt like I was pushing myself back instead of forward,” he explained. “I started my second Co-op and realized that it was no longer what I was meant to do. I’d be forcing myself down a path that wasn’t right for me.”
He decided to change his major to education and graduated in 2010. He now teaches robotics to sixth, seventh and eighth graders at the Universal Institute Charter School in Philadelphia. Having summers off from teaching, Doug decided to do something that he has wanted to do for a long time — ride his bicycle across the United States.
“I told myself that if I ever got back on a bike, I would ride as far as I possibly could,” he said.
Doug made a journey from San Francisco, Calif., to Tom’s River, New Jersey. Carrying supplies with him and only sleeping in hotels when weather conditions threatened, he raised funds for the Raisin Hope Foundation, which was started by a friend, fellow bicyclist and TBI survivor, Saul Raisin.
What he considered one of the most important aspects of his journey was stopping at hospitals and rehabilitation centers along the way to speak to individuals with traumatic brain injuries. There are a lot of good charity rides that happen all over the country. But it’s rare and beautiful to see the victim of a terrible accident get up and raise money and awareness for something that nearly took him out of the game.
His blog called DougTrails! (www.dougtrails.wordpress.com) captured the adventure. A documentary of the successful cross-country tour, “This Beats a Coma!” premieres June 30, 2012, at The Ambler Theater in Ambler, Penn. To view the trailer, go to youtube.com/watch?v=dNbUgdj_558. Where the trailer leaves off, the full-length documentary continues, highlighting common causes of confusion, lack of motivation, and other challenges that may occur during brain injury rehabilitation and recovery, and the story of Doug’s 3,000-mile journey from San Francisco, to the
A Guide To Falling Down In Public: Stories of Finding Balance On A Bicycle by Joe “Metal Cowboy” Kurmaskie will be available this summer (2012). Until then, you can see him at a King County Library show this spring and pedaling the roads between Seattle and Portland, covering a lot less than 100 miles in three hours.