'Family' helps St. Petersburg firefighter on long road to recovery

The call about the scooter crash that evening blared over the speakers at Station No. 4. • Six firefighters mobilized and bolted to the scene at Beach Drive NE and Seventh Avenue NE. • They found a badly injured man lying on the road, head lacerated, scalp peeled back. His face was starting to swell. • But it wasn't until they began to bandage his head that they made a startling realization: • They all knew this guy. • It was Chris Tidwell. One of their own. A Station No. 4 firefighter.

•••

Tidwell, 32, doesn't remember the crash or the moments leading up to it.

He was riding his scooter home from the Rays game, Game 2 of the 2010 American League Division Series. He knows the Rays lost (badly). He knows he decided to take Beach Drive NE instead of Fourth Street to avoid traffic.

Then nothing.

He patched the rest together from friends, family and official reports.

Shortly before 7:35 p.m. on Oct. 7, 2010, Tidwell was riding north on Beach Drive NE on his 2007 Taizhou scooter. As he got close to Seventh Avenue NE, a vehicle that had been stopped at the stop sign pulled into the intersection.

He tried braking but couldn't stop, sliding into the driver's side of the Honda. He wasn't wearing a helmet. He said that will never happen again.

The crash broke two of his vertebrae and snapped a nerve to his arm. His head was badly damaged.

He was rushed to Bayfront Medical Center.

His fiancee, Janis Zach, a firefighter on the same crew that rescued Tidwell, showed up soon after, followed by Tidwell's parents, who live in Zephyrhills.

Towels were wrapped around Tidwell's head. They stitched up the front of his head from ear to ear. The former Marine, among the first troops to ship out to Afghanistan in November 2001, looked "helpless," said his father, Ben Tidwell.

"Just the most horrible thing I had ever seen," he said.

Doctors warned the family that he might not survive. They told them that 96 percent of people don't survive this type of injury, said Zach, 29.

"They couldn't tell us if he was going to wake up," she said. "We were just waiting to see."

As he lay there, doctors asked his parents to talk to him. Maybe their voices would help wake him up.

"Chris, we're here," Tidwell's mother, Patty Tidwell, remembered telling him over and over throughout the night. "Mom's here. Dad's here. Please open your eyes."

• • •

Tidwell was in a coma for 21/2 weeks.

He awoke to total confusion. He didn't know what was wrong or how he got there.

"I had no idea," he said.

His right side, from the neck down, was paralyzed. His head was locked in place with a neck brace.

He slid in and out of consciousness for about a week.

One of the first things he remembers was taking a sip of a friend's smoothie.

"You're not supposed to drink that," he remembered someone telling him.

Oops.

"I had been eating through my nose for 21/2 weeks," he said. "I shouldn't have been drinking it."

It made him sick.

• • •

He had to relearn how to speak and walk. The severed nerve in his dominant right arm left it useless and forced him to learn how to use the other hand. Shaving, brushing, everything.

"It was like I was a child again," he said.

His speech came back first. As his brain healed from the head injury, he regained movement in his right leg.

Though he was in a wheelchair throughout his stay in the brain injury unit, he started relearning how to walk.

"Just walking around was a complete task," Tidwell said. "One foot in front of the other."

It got easier and easier.

About six weeks after the crash, he left the hospital under his own power.

"For him to walk out of the hospital," Zach said, "was one of the biggest highlights for the family."

His arm came back last.

In April 2011, he underwent a roughly eight-hour nerve transfer surgery in Jacksonville that gave him back most of the movement and feeling in his arm.

It got him back on the job.

• • •

Tidwell credits his family of firefighters with propelling him to full recovery.

They were there, about 60 strong, when he was taken to the hospital. About 10 showed up every day he was in the hospital, whether he was conscious or not. They helped raise money for his family.

"They were there for me from the moment it happened until the very end," Tidwell said.

On March 2, Tidwell rejoined them. After nearly 17 months, he stepped through the doors at Station No. 4 and took up his regular firefighter duties.

They greeted him with smiles and hugs, banners and decorations. And a healthy dose of silly string.

"It had been so long," he said. "Too long."

'Family' helps St. Petersburg firefighter on long road to recovery 03/08/12 [Last modified: Thursday, March 8, 2012 10:05pm]

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