BROOKSVILLE — Feeling energetic, Ed Allison surged ahead of his wife as the couple pedaled their mountain bikes beneath a green canopy of oaks and pines. The couple had biked this trail in the Withlacoochee State Forest hundreds of times.
But this time, Patty rounded a corner and found her husband sprawled on his side. His face was contorted, his lips turning blue.
Ten days later, paralyzed below the neck and kept alive by a ventilator, Ed, 56, mouthed a message:
"I can't live like this. No fun.''
People have managed to find meaning and purpose in the face of such a life-shattering tragedy. But for Ed Allison, who felt most alive when bicycling, kayaking or horseback riding through nature, this was a death sentence.
"I know, honey,'' Patty replied. "When do you want to do this?'
• • •
They met in their 30s at Brooksville Regional Hospital. He was a former auto mechanic starting a second career as a registered nurse. She was a charge nurse.
Both were headed for divorce and neither was looking for a relationship, but they shared a passion for an active lifestyle.
Married in 1996, they settled into a ranch home on five acres at the edge of the Withlacoochee forest, along with Patty's two young children, Jennie and Danny.
Ed became night supervisor at Brooksville Regional, and Patty worked the same shift.
When they weren't working together, they rode horses, kayaked, mountain-biked and competed in adventure races.
"Anything that looked fun, we got involved in," said Patty, 55. "That was what it was all about."
A friend, Mark Laird, who owns Crank Works Bicycles in Brooksville, called them the happiest couple he had ever met.
"They did everything together, and there was never any tension."
• • •
Patty marveled at Ed's alertness when she arrived at Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point in Hudson on June 28, 10 days after the accident.
They kissed and then Ed mouthed some words: "We have some decisions to make."
The force of the bike crash severed his spinal cord just below the base of the skull. Patients with that injury are usually brain-dead by the time they get to the hospital, doctors said.
But Patty's quick response, blowing air into Ed's lungs for 40 minutes until paramedics arrived, probably kept her husband alive and lucid, they said. At the hospital, Ed agreed to a tracheotomy and a feeding tube, but doctors said his paralysis was permanent and he would never be free of the ventilator.
"He was in a fog, but I think he wanted to live and had some kind of hope that maybe things would get better," Patty said.
Patty asked that Ed's sedatives be reduced so he could think clearly and convey his wishes. Florida law allows patients to refuse life-prolonging treatment, so the decision was his to make.
• • •
Like many couples, the Allisons had discussed such a moment in a hypothetical, almost offhand way. What would we want if the unthinkable happened?
"We'd always talked about how we would never want to be kept alive," Patty said.
But to make that decision is another story, said Dr. Scott Norwood, a trauma surgeon who treated Ed.
"When the time comes, I've seen a lot of people who can't do it,'' he said. "It's just too hard."
The average life-span of a quadriplegic on a ventilator is about two years, Norwood said. Some patients are able to leave the house in an electric wheelchair with a portable ventilator, but that's difficult and expensive.
Patty was willing to try.
"I would have brought him home in any way, shape or form," she said, "but in my heart I knew he would make this decision."
The couple talked briefly. Then Norwood asked Ed to confirm that he wanted to be taken off the ventilator. Did he know what would happen?
Ed nodded and mouthed "yes."
Norwood said okay, then briefly left the room in tears.
"I've been doing this for 30 years and there's not much that bothers me, but that was very emotional to see how determined he was," Norwood said. "I'm sure he knew how hard it would be on his family to take care of him. I just hope to God if I ever got into that situation I'd have the strength to do what he did."
In those final moments, Ed asked Patty to tell the kids goodbye. Seeing them would be too hard. He asked her to take care of his new blue tractor, his pride and joy.
He closed his eyes and they kissed.
A nurse increased the sedatives and Ed fell asleep. Jennie and Danny, now 27 and 26, arrived and kissed him goodbye. Then everyone left but Patty, Norwood and two staffers. They switched off the ventilator and removed the tube from Ed's neck.
Patty rubbed his auburn hair and whispered in his ear.
"It's okay to go," she told him, tears streaming down her cheeks. "We're all going to be fine."
Five minutes later, he was gone.
• • •
Ed didn't want a funeral, but Patty is planning a party to celebrate her husband.
"He would want everyone to remember him as he was — very happy with life and no regrets," she said.
She also has a memorial in mind. A large stone, maybe granite, placed at a trail junction where they often stopped to rest. She will spread some of his ashes there and some under some oak trees on their property.
Patty keeps busy with the couple's five dogs, four horses, and two birds. But the place is still too quiet.
She got back on the bike for the first time last week, rolling through the forest in a light rain. She has set a goal to compete in the Leadville 100, a grueling mountain bike race in the Colorado Rockies.
"It's going to be a different life for me with him gone," she said, "but he would want me to keep having fun."
Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431. Follow him on Twitter @tmarrerotimes.