ST. PETERSBURG — Leslie Curran has always been active and athletic, focused on physical fitness. So it was no surprise in 2006 when Curran, then a St. Petersburg City Council member, took up bike riding.
At her peak, she notched a few 20-mile daily rides a week, and up to 50-mile rides on weekends. She always wore a helmet and never rode with more than one or two friends.
"I didn't feel comfortable riding with a big peloton," said Curran, 58, of the large groups that regularly ride together in St. Petersburg. "I thought it was much safer to ride by ourselves."
For Curran, it was. Until one hot August morning in 2010 when Curran was riding with a friend who is an experienced cyclist. For reasons she still doesn't understand — though she disputes a police finding that her tire hit another cyclist's tire — Curran went over her handlebars and hit the pavement hard.
Had she not been wearing a helmet, there's no question about what would have happened. "It definitely saved her life," said Dr. Stephen Epstein, medical director of trauma services at Bayfront Health St. Petersburg, where Curran was taken by ambulance and treated for a severe head trauma and injuries to her face, legs, knees, shoulder and hip. When she arrived at the hospital, she was unconscious, unable to follow commands or answer questions.
"Without a helmet, that would have been a fatal accident," said Epstein, who was not on duty on the morning of the accident but was involved in her care.
Curran doesn't remember her short flight off the bike and onto the pavement, but she does know this:
"I'm very lucky, very fortunate to have had my helmet on," she said.
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Nearly four years later, Curran is back on her bike and running her Central Avenue gallery and custom frame shop, ARTicles. Surrounded by picture frame samples, artwork hung on exposed brick walls and display cabinets full of unique gift items, she sipped coffee and talked about the accident, her recovery, and the philosophy that has kept her going — literally.
"Move,'' she likes to say. "Get off the elevator and walk!"
And there's the larger lesson in all this, too.
"Appreciate every day. That time that I was in a coma, I lost all of it. So now I appreciate every day.''
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Curran spent eight weeks in the hospital, part of it in what was reported at the time as a medically induced coma.
But Epstein, who at Curran's request reviewed her medical records for this interview, said the coma actually resulted from the injury to her head and brain. Doctors administered sedating medication for several days to help reduce brain swelling and prevent permanent brain damage. Curran woke up 13 days after the accident.
"I didn't know what had happened and why I was there," she recalled.
As soon as she regained consciousness, Curran began physical and occupational therapy.
Unlike some patients with head injuries, she woke up still able to walk, eat and talk. But she had to work on regaining physical strength, balance, and higher brain functions like problem-solving, communicating effectively, reading and recalling information.
"You have no choice, which is the best thing because you just need to start the process,'' she said of the physical and mental exercises that she faced every day. "You have to get focused right away on moving forward."
But it was a slow, frustrating process. She was sent home from the hospital with a bench to use in the shower, an appliance that made her spirits plummet.
Soon she recognized that the hated bench actually made her more independent since she could safely bathe on her own.
"Oh! Okay. I get it now," she remembers thinking.
Soon, she no longer needed it.
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Curran returned to the City Council five months after the accident. It took longer to get back on two wheels.
One day in 2012 she hauled out her heavy, old Schwinn. A far cry from the sleek bike she used to ride, but she hopped on and wheeled around her neighborhood, happy to be outside on a real bike instead of a stationary model.
She remembers being afraid only of what her family might say if they knew she was riding again. She promised to stick to bike trails, avoid high-traffic streets and resumed her favorite form of exercise.
She still goes for 20-mile weekday and 40-mile weekend rides. And she mixes it up with walking around her neighborhood and swimming in the gulf. "I try to fit something in every day,'' she said.
Today, the only outward evidence of the accident are a few scars — on a shoulder, a knee, a hand where an IV was placed. Her voice gets raspy toward the end of the day, a side effect of the feeding tube she needed early in her hospitalization.
Last month, Curran headed out for an early-morning ride with Brian Wilder, the buddy who was with her on the day of the accident. Wilder suggested they finish the ride they'd been on when she crashed, from the southern tip of Pinellas County back to downtown St. Petersburg.
Riding her new bike, but at a slower, easier pace than in 2010, they did just that.
"I no longer feel I have to ride as fast or as far as I used to," she said. Police estimate she was going 19 miles an hour when she crashed.
After the June 5 outing, she posted a photo to all her friends on Facebook, with this message:
"Finally … 3 years, 10 months and 5 days after my near fatal accident I FINISHED my bike ride with friends Brian Wilder and Boston Bill. It feels great to be riding again … YIPPEE!!!!!"
Contact Irene Maher at [email protected]