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Bicycle helmet saves her life, but not months in recovery

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.

• • •

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.''

• • •

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.

• • •

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 imaher@tampabay.com.

Safety tips

Florida has the highest rate of fatal bicycle accidents in the nation, according to federal data. But many accidents can be avoided. Lucas Cruse, an instructor for Cycling Savvy, a traffic cycling course offered by the Florida Bicycle Association, said it's all about learning the basics before you hit the road. He also is a researcher at the University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation Research specializing in bicycle and pedestrian planning and design safety — and rides a bike to work.

Find out more about classes at cyclingsavvy.org, and check out these tips:

Understand your brakes: "If you suddenly slam on the front brakes, you're going over the handlebars," Cruse said. It's best to be vigilant for problems so you don't need to make a quick stop, but sometimes it's unavoidable. Practice shifting your body back on your bike, rise up off the seat, and apply pressure to your rear brake first. Try it out at low speed in a vacant parking lot until it feels comfortable.

Know how to look over your shoulder so you can safely change lanes: It's natural to turn your body and your handlebars in the direction where you are looking — and that could make for an accident. "You have to resist that and learn how to turn your head while keeping the bike straight," Cruse said.

Choose the safest route: Cruse's route to USF is mostly through neighborhoods. When he must ride in traffic he observes all traffic lights and road signs, rides on the right, with traffic, wears a reflective vest and uses a bright light at night so he's hard to miss. And he anticipates one of the most common causes of crashes: cars turning in front of cyclists. His advice: "Always have an escape route in mind.''

About that helmet . . .

Bike helmets can save your head — if you wear them properly. Here are tips from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (nhtsa.gov).

Size

Try on several helmets until you find one that feels right. It should be comfortable, but not loose enough to move around on your head once the straps are adjusted and buckled.

Position

The helmet should sit level on your head, not perched back. You want it low on your forehead —- one or two finger-widths above your eyebrows.

Side straps

Adjust slider on both straps to form a "V'' under and slightly in front of your ears. Lock the slider.

Buckles

Center the left buckle under your chin. You may need to take the helmet off and pull straps from the back of the helmet to adjust.

Buckle the chin strap and tighten it so no more than one or two fingers fit under the strap.

Final fitting

• Open your mouth wide and yawn. The helmet should pull down on your head. If not, the chin strap is too loose.

• If the helmet rocks back or forward on your head, adjust the straps until it stays put.

Bicycle helmet saves her life, but not months in recovery 07/10/14 [Last modified: Saturday, July 12, 2014 11:32am]

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