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Motorcycle accident changed everything for Glenwood man

Phillip Yates
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
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GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado ” One hundred and fourteen days ago, life changed for Keith Harrison.

Today, getting dressed is a struggle for the 20-year-old. He depends on other people more than he would like. He sees people ignore him when he approaches.

One hundred and fourteen days ago, Harrison had a well-paying job in the oil and gas industry. He could do tricks with his dirt bike that would stun his friends and his family.



Harrison was in a sweet spot of a young life.

That was 114 days ago.



Then he ran his dirt bike off a jump on a small track near Canyon Creek west of Glenwood Springs. It was something he’d done a hundred times before. But this time things went wrong and his life changed forever.

He may never walk again. But Harrison isn’t giving up.

“I want to tell people to try and get a plan B,” said Harrison, who grew up in the Roaring Fork Valley area. “I am still on my plan A, because I am not accepting what happened to me.”

When Harrison and his dirt bike hit the ground on April 2, he knew he wouldn’t walk away from the crash. He pulled off his helmet and used his cell phone to call 911.

“When I was talking to (emergency dispatchers), I told them I couldn’t feel my legs and my feet,” he said. “I couldn’t feel my stomach. I didn’t have any movement. I told them where I was, and it was getting hard to breathe.”

Then he waited. His future and what he could be doing then flashed before him.

“When I was waiting for the ambulance, I was thinking of other things that I could be doing, like riding downhill bikes and everything, because I knew I was paralyzed when I landed,” Harrison recalled.

Paramedics found Harrison, stabilized him at the scene and put him into an ambulance headed for Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs.

Wendy Harrison, Keith’s mother, was preparing to leave work when she got a call no mother wants.

“The phone call I got was, ‘Mrs. Harrison, this is Keith’s friend. Keith just left in an ambulance. He has a broken back. He can’t move his legs,” said Wendy Harrison, who was with her daughter ” Keith’s sister ” Kira Harrison. “I felt like my body drained.”

Wendy and Kira raced to the hospital and arrived right after the ambulance. Wendy charged into the emergency room to see her son.

A cell phone picture of Keith Harrison leaving in an ambulance that was sent among his circle of friends led many of them to head to the hospital.

“All of a sudden within a half hour of us being there, all these boys with their motocross gear on were there,” Wendy Harrison said. “They were all crying. They were scared, asking, ‘Is he going to be OK?’ Is he going to walk?'”

Harrison told them that she didn’t know.

“They are going to do surgery,” she recalled telling them. “It was a very bad break.”

Keith suffered severe spinal cord injuries to his thoracic vertebrae at a line in the middle of the chest. Among his other injuries were a broken sternum, four broken ribs, a dislocated rib off his backbone and bruised lungs.

While at Valley View Hospital, Dr. David Miller, a neurosurgeon, was his doctor.

“Without (Dr. Miller), I wouldn’t be here right now,” Keith said.

The trauma to Keith’s spinal cord are at the T4 and T5 locations. During the surgery, Miller put in 15-inch rods, six braces and about a dozen screws into his body to stabilize his spine, his family said.

Keith’s doctors couldn’t make promises about whether he will walk again. They said the surgery was successful and that his recovery was between “God and Keith,” Keith’s mother recalled.

When Keith awoke from surgery, it was like any other day in a hospital bed, he said. But it wasn’t until he saw X-rays of his spinal cord that he really realized the extent of what happened to him and what it meant for his future.

“It is like (my spinal cord) is all normal, but then T4 and T5 are just shattered,” he said.

Wendy also said seeing the X-rays gave her, her husband, Woody, and Kira, a better glimpse about how bad her son’s injuries were.

“It was tough for Keith, it was tough for all of us,” she said. “There were some pretty big breakdowns at that point.”

It was a difficult, emotional day for the family. Keith asked his sister Kira to lay next to him on his bed. The two then fell asleep next to each other.

There was tremendous heartache for Keith and his family while they were at the hospital. But the outpouring of support from friends helped. Literally hundreds of people came to visit Keith at Valley View. It was “good therapy” for her son, his mother said.

“People just came from everywhere,” said Wendy, adding many of Keith’s friends held vigils for him for several nights. “It was overwhelming, incredible support.”

Keith’s recovery from surgery hinged on insurance companies approving care at Craig Hospital in Englewood, which is one of the most recognized spinal cord injury rehabilitation centers in the United States. It came through.

“He had good insurance, thank God,” said Wendy, adding the bills for Keith’s surgeries and care is now in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

When Keith was ready to begin his rehabilitation at Craig, things were put on hold because he had to return to Glenwood for another surgery to realign some of the screws holding the rods in his back in place.

Keith was eager to get started. He was ready to get on with his future.

“I jumped right into wheelchair class, how to live in a wheelchair, how to get around, up and down and curbs, and how to do ‘wheelies’ because you use a ‘wheelie’ everyday,” he said.

It was a surreal experience for him, considering that before his injury, Keith and his friends would sometimes hop “into wheelchairs and see what we could do.”

“The first day I got into one (at Craig), it was like, ‘Wow, I have to use this to get around,'” he said.

While at Craig, Harrison also had to learn many other techniques and new daily habits that he would have to understand to take care of himself. For awhile, he didn’t want to learn those lessons.

“Finally, I just had to learn it,” he said.

Although Keith agonized over his injury, his time at Craig gave him considerable perspective, he said. Some people suffered injuries that caused them more physical hardships than he now endures.

“It gave me a different perspective on life, about how lucky I was to have full strength in my arms,” he said.

Craig offers counseling for its patients, but Keith shied away from that. He didn’t think it would help. If he wanted counseling, he sought it from people who have gone through what he now confronts.

“They knew what I was going to be going through,” he said. “It was easier talking to them.”

By the time his stay at Craig was ending, Keith was the person others could talk to. He was able to counsel and encourage others who arrived at Craig.

He was just as determined to help them as he was on his own rehabilitation.

“People I didn’t even know, I would be in their rooms telling them to get out of their beds,” he said. “One mom (of a patient) came up and thanked me. I was talking to her and pretty much giving her (grief), and telling her to get up and walk.”

During his stay at Craig, Keith had a “reality check” about how life was going to be when he left. That came during a visit to the bustling 16th Street Mall in Denver.

“If you don’t have somebody in your family who is disabled, you pretty much don’t exist in a public place like that,” he said. “Nobody really looks you in the eye. If you need to get someone’s attention, you pretty much have to hit them.”

Keith returned to Glenwood Springs on July 11, but his life is very different now. He’s visited friends. He said it takes a lot more time and planning to meet them now, because he can’t just “hop into a car and go somewhere.” Or to keep up with his friends if trouble comes along.

“It is not as easy to run away from a party,” he said with a wry grin. “I can’t run through a field anymore. If the cops come, I will have to sit there and say, ‘What’s up.’ Maybe that, or sit in a closet.”

As word of his injury has spread among the area, neighbors, friends and even a few people who didn’t even know Keith before have stepped forward to help him.

Hi Point Motorsports in Glenwood Springs has taken his broken bike and fixed it up for him so he can sell it. A youth group from Emmanuel Lutheran Church is going to hold a fundraiser for him Sunday to help defray the costs that his insurance is not covering.

“There has been an outpouring of love and support,” Wendy said.

Sitting in his wheelchair, less than a week after returning to Glenwood Springs from Craig Hospital, Keith said he knows his life has changed and there will always be a question about whether he walks again.

The overriding motivation for him now is to charge ahead with his life, wherever that may take him. He is considering becoming an architect.

For Keith, life changed dramatically for him 114 days ago. But whatever his future holds, Keith is prepared to be the one who makes the decision.

“I just got to move on,” Keith said. “When I start walking, I start walking. These were the cards I was dealt. If I have to make my own machine to walk, I’ll do it.”

Contact Phillip Yates: 384-9117

pyates@postindependent.com


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