Monday, February 17, 2014

Never Stop Dancing

Mary Flynn with my wife, Dr. Ingrid Bermudez
The first time Mary Flynn rode a motorcycle was thirty-five years ago. She was hooked by the feeling of freedom. The cool wind through her hair. The tug of acceleration. If she had a bad day she’d just get on her bike and ride, shaking the cobwebs from her head. Right from the start, Mary was a biker chick. Even today, after everything that’s happened, she thinks of herself as one.
The last time Mary Flynn rode a motorcycle was August 10, 2013. It was a pleasant Saturday afternoon under blue skies. Warm wind washing her face, Mary, 61, roared down the road on her black 2012 Harley Davidson Sportster 1200, headed to her sister’s house in Halfmoon. She was in a good mood, having just painted the trim on a room in her house where her grandkids slept when visiting. Mary looked forward to lounging by her sister’s pool and catching up with a friend visiting from Florida.
About 100 feet from her sister’s driveway, Mary slowed—the speedometer read 28 mph, she later recalled. A gray pickup truck moved up a side road toward her, but she wasn’t too concerned. “I said to myself, ‘that’s alright, he has a stop sign.’”
But the truck didn’t stop. Her Harley plowed into it. Mary flew into the air across two lanes of road and landed on the pavement on other side, rolling into a culvert. Her leg was just about severed. She’d broken her shoulder, all her ribs, chipped her hip bone, tore her spleen. She had tendon sticking out of her fingers.
She was bleeding heavily as “severely ungodly pain” ripped through her.

It had been a tough few years for Mary. In 2010, she lost her husband to esophageal cancer. They’d married when she was fifteen years old and he was 19, and of course they both rode bikes. His last few years of life she’d taken care of him and watched him die.
After her accident, a cruel irony welled up in Mary. She lost her husband on August 13, 2010. She lost her leg on August 10, 2013.
The dates helped her understand some deeper purpose at work.
“I figured if I could make it through my husband’s death and take care of him for so many years,” she says, “I could handle this.”
The road that gave Mary her freedom had taken it away. And she knew she had to claw her way back to regain it.
Mary lay in the culvert, drifting in and out of consciousness. At one point she looked up from her broken body and saw the driver of the pickup truck, an elderly man, staring at her. She begged him to call 911 but he just stood there. Was he in shock? Somehow, she managed to throw her motorcycle helmet up in the road, hoping someone would see her.
helmet1A woman heard her screaming and a man who’d been driving the opposite way came back. There was a younger boy with a belt, and the man and woman cinched Mary’s leg with it, both pulling tightly to stop the bleeding.
As they waited for an ambulance, the woman talked with Mary, trying to comfort her. But Mary felt herself drift. She felt herself floating above her body, looking down.
Don’t let go. Stay awake, she told herself.
Lying there in pieces, she thought of her grandsons, 12-year-old Josh and nine-year-old Michael. How she wanted to be there for them. Play ball with them again.
The ambulance driver and police officer couldn’t believe she was still coherent. But she was determined not to let go, even through the unbearable pain.
When I interviewed Mary last week, six months after her accident, the first thing I noticed is how cheerful she was. A patient of my wife’s, Mary rolled up to me in her wheelchair after her medical appointment, smiling. A pretty woman with short blond hair and stylish glasses, she was neatly dressed in a sweater. Her earrings were silver crosses. The stump of her right leg is covered with a silicon cap to protect the skin.
“I wanted to walk in here for Doctor Bermudez,” she said of my wife, apologetically, as I jotted notes in a small pad. “But I’ve been using the prosthesis so much, I rubbed my skin raw. I was way too excited. I had my hallway worn out.”

Mary had hoped they could save her knee. After passing out in the emergency room at Albany Medical Center, she woke up many hours later and saw her daughter, Michaele Ann, and her sister. Mary looked down and saw half her leg was gone. But the knee was still there. Through the fog of painkillers, she felt hopeful.
After two surgeries and six pints of blood, however, too much tissue had died to save the knee. Doctors removed the knee in a third operation. At Sunnyview Rehabilitation in Schenectady, she learned how to get around in a wheelchair, in and out of bed. Because of her fast progress, they kept her only a few days. “I was bound and determined to do everything I could myself. I didn’t want to be an invalid.”
Mary lived with her daughter, Michaele Anne, for two-and-a-half months. She sold her 2011 pickup truck because she couldn’t drive and couldn’t afford the $600 monthly payments.
The thing that got to her was her loss of independence. “I felt like I was never going to play ball with my grandsons again. I used to ride dirt bikes with them.”
One day her grandsons asked to see her stump. She was nervous about it, but when they peeked under the sheet they reacted OK. They wanted to help her. “Do you need more bandages?” they’d say, offering to grab them off the shelf or table. “I felt relieved,” Mary said. “They took it a lot better than I thought.”
Last October, her friends and family held a fundraiser, to help Mary pay the medical bills, at the American Legion hall in Mechanicville. Some four hundred people showed up, just about all of them bikers. Her daughter, Michaele Ann, who sings in a rock band, serenaded her mother. Her mother was in a wheelchair as Michaele Ann danced around her, singing lyrics.
On Facebook, where they posted a video of the pair dancing, a friend left the comment: “Nothing holds Mary Flynn down. NOTHING.” “Three months after the accident, and look at her!”
“Never stop dancing,” a third wrote.
Screen shot 2014-02-17 at 9.52.55 AMShe was fitted with a prosthesis and taught by the therapists to walk with it. It was a complicated leg with a computer chip in it. It cost $70,000, and Mary had to pay $11,600 of it.
She’s hoping to be proficient by spring. Day doesn’t go by now that Mary doesn’t think about the extra Harley Davidson still sitting in her garage. It’s a 2006, a big bike, and she used to take her two grandsons on it. She biding her time. A little more practice on her new leg, she’s gonna give it an whirl.
Because even after everything she’s been through, Mary is still a biker chick. She getting back her independence. She still has her own home, and though she can’t ride right now, she knows she will soon.
She’s prepared for anything. One worry is that the big bike might fall on her $70,000 leg, damaging it. Her Plan B is to ride a “trike”—a three-wheeled motorcycle.
“I will be riding a Harley Davidson again,” she says, with a hopeful smile. “I just don’t know if it’s the one I have at my house.”
David Kalish is the author of the novel, The Opposite of Everythingwhich will be published in March. His author events this spring are in Saratoga, Brooklyn, and Long Island. Click here for more information.

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