It's still hard for Colleen Kelly Alexander to stand for extended periods of time, even while using her walker. Her legs ache constantly. It can be even harder for her to sit. She was only recently cleared to sit following catastrophic injuries she sustained, mostly to her lower body, after she was run over by a 30-ton truck while riding her bike.
For those who know Colleen, it can be hard to watch her struggle to stand and sit. This is a woman who, prior to her accident on Oct. 8, 2011, was an elite athlete who spent as much time on her bike as most people do in their car. A week and a half before the accident she had just finished a 600-mile bike ride for charity.
Surgeons are piecing her body back together in a series of painful and complicated operations. But, even as she fights to recover--and maintain her emotional equilibrium in the face of massive personal loss, including a job she loved and her strong, healthy body--Colleen has a goal and a message.
Her message is bike safety
Her goal is to put on a fundraiser/cycling tour for Gaylord Hospital in October to thank the people there for their role in her recovery and to help raise money for their disabled athletes program. And her message is bike safety.
First, she says, "just wear your helmet."
"As someone who was recently struck by a very large truck, had I not had my helmet on, I'd have severe brain damage, if not be dead. Helmets do save lives," she said, while serving as a volunteer as a bike festival in her hometown of Clinton, CT this past weekend.
It's tempting to not wear a helmet
She knows it's tempting to not wear a helmet.
"Summer's coming. It's going to be hot. And the biggest thing we hear all the time is that 'I don't want to wear my helmet. My head's sweating. I feel uncomfortable. I feel stupid. It's going to ruin my hair.' But you only have one brain," she says.
She's also an advocate of Connecticut's three-foot rule, which requires motorists to allow at least three feet of separation when overtaking and passing cyclists, pedestrians, equestrians, and tractors. And she counsels bike riders to wear highly visible clothing, follow rules of the road, and to be alert, which means getting off cell phones and iPods while riding.
"Together we can all ride"
Her overall message is that cyclists and car drivers can co-exist. "Together we can all ride," she says. "We can all share the road safely."
In addition to volunteering at the bike festival Saturday, Colleen is planning the benefit for Gaylord on Oct. 20, 2012. It will start at the Farmington Canal Trail and offer 10-mile, 20-mile, and 40-mile supported rides with free food along the way, and "fun shwag" for raising funds, Colleen says.
She's working on getting sponsorships now and is also looking for a bagpiper to play at the event.
Still a long way to go
Talking with Colleen, who is both confident and charming, it can be easy to forget how far she has come in such a short period of time and long she has to go before she has fully recovered.
She has had enormous support from friends and family, including her husband Sean Alexander, a mail carrier who has been tending to her during every step of her recovery. Still, there are times she is sad and frustrated. It will be at least nine months before she can even think about starting cycle training.
She said she is sometimes mortified and freaked out the extent of her injuries. "This is my new body," she said at the bike fest the other day, taking a break from giving out information and talking with participants. "It's forever changed."
"I'm in training mode"
And she says she'll make the best of it.
"It took me two hours to go on a four-and-a-half mile walk yesterday," she said. At first she was frustrated by what she saw as her slow pace. She longed for the days when she could fly down the road on her bike. "And then I had an epiphany ... I am in training. Instead of training for a road race, I am training mode for my next surgery, to get my body as strong as possible to go under anesthesia again. I'm OK. I'm strong. I'm here."
She said she is looking forward to planning the benefit for Gaylord.
"I am so thankful that Yale sent me there for recovery. I had wound changes several times daily which were painful and each time they were patient. I was treated with dignity, and respect, with professionalism and like family. I wasn't expected to live, let alone walk again," she said.
"Thanks to Gaylord, I was taking my first steps within two months of being crushed by a freight liner. My hope is that by organizing this cycling tour, it will be an annual event that will benefit the adaptive sports program, so that people of all walks and disabilities will be able to benefit from the physical and emotional benefits of therapeutic exercise."
To find out more about the benefit Colleen is planning, you can contact her at colleenkalexander (at) gmail.com. To find out about the organization it will benefit, the Sports Association of Gaylord Hospital, please see this website. For more information about the Clinton Pedestrian & Bike Alliance, which sponsored the event Saturday, please see their website.