Race of his life

  • By Mike Allende / Herald Writer
  • Saturday, July 22, 2006 9:00pm
  • Sports

MARYSVILLE – Holland Byrd has no memory of the few moments that changed his and his family’s life. And maybe that’s a good thing. Who wants to remember a time when they almost died?

At this point, Holland Byrd is all about looking forward anyway.

It was a year ago today that Byrd, just two months into his professional motocross career, suffered an accident while competing at the California X-treme Summercross Nationals in Red Bluff, Calif. The accident left Byrd, a 24-year-old from Marysville, a quadriplegic. But it hasn’t left him helpless. The first doctors who examined Byrd asked if he wanted them to try to save him. After all, he’d been clinically dead, in a coma for close to 12 hours, and faced a life of struggle, pain and uncertainty. Byrd says there was no question that he wanted to live, and though it hasn’t been easy, that’s exactly what he’s done.

“I just consider this the biggest race of my life,” Byrd said. “And I’ve never been one to turn down a good challenge.”

Disaster strikes

It’s still not clear to Byrd and his family what exactly happened with his accident. They’ve heard varying stories, but nothing concrete. The only thing that’s certain is that one minute Byrd was doing what he loved most, and the next thing he remembers, emergency staff were trying to keep him alive.

“I don’t remember much other than when I was in the ambulance I could hear the EMT’s trying to revive me,” Byrd said. “I was actually dead, I remember that.”

After Byrd was stabilized, he went through surgery that placed two screws in his vertebrae. He had a tube put in his lungs, was placed on a respirator and had a tracheotomy. When he did awaken, he was unable to speak. The injury was the same suffered by the late actor Christopher Reeve.

Byrd’s mom Jodie Crawford had been sitting in her hot tub at home in Marysville when she began to sob uncontrollably for no reason. At that point, another son ran out to tell her that Holland had been in an accident.

The next several hours were a blur as the family raced to California. It took Byrd a couple days to realize the severity of the situation, and he says his biggest fear was not being able to ride again.

“I’ve had friends die, friends get hurt really bad,” said Byrd, who has regained the ability to speak. “But it’s not something you dwell on or think about if you want to be good at the sport.”

Byrd was eventually transferred to the University of Washington Medical Center where he underwent several more surgeries and began the slow road to recovery. In early September, he wiggled toes on his left foot, an action that was caught on tape and was assessed by doctors as a voluntary movement. In October, he left the hospital for the first time to attend the wedding of longtime friend Brandi Redando.

“That was a really good experience after being stuck in the hospital for so long,” Byrd said. “It was nice to be there for her on that day.”

“It was really emotional for everyone to have him there,” said Redondo, who travels from Mount Vernon to Marysville to visit Byrd every weekend.

Byrd started eating regularly in early November and at that point, he was able to finally go home.

A whole new world

The world Byrd returned to was a different one than he had left four months before. He is confined to a wheelchair and on a respirator. He needs help with the smallest of tasks.

But he’s home.

“Even though I’m in this situation now, I still very much enjoy being here,” Byrd said.

It’s that attitude that has been most amazing to those around him. He doesn’t complain, has no self pity, no regrets and tries to be nothing but positive.

“Every day he amazes me,” Crawford said. “His attitude is up all the time. Last Friday a Vietnam vet, a total stranger, came up to him and said, ‘You have more sparkle in your eye than anyone I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen everything.’ “

“He has the same attitude and same personality he always had, which amazes me,” Renando said. “He’s so outgoing and he looks to the brighter side of everything. He doesn’t want people to feel sorry for him.”

Byrd is polite almost to a fault. When he first returned home, he asked his mom if she wanted him to live in a care facility so that he was not a burden. In a recent physical therapy session – which he does five times a week – Byrd sat for several minutes in an uncomfortable position without speaking up until Colin Fox, one of his physical therapists, asked if he was uncomfortable and moved him.

“His attitude is better than anybody I’ve ever met,” Fox said. “He’s a very unique person. He just draws you in with how positive he is. He’s great to work with.”

Much of that attitude has to do with Byrd not wanting to be treated differently, and not wanting people to go out of their way to take care of him.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m being a burden,” Byrd said. “I think this whole experience has been tougher on other people than it has on me.”

“He doesn’t like to inconvenience anybody,” Crawford said. “He says, ‘I don’t like to bother you.’ He’s very concerned about that, but that’s what we’re here for. He hates that people have to help him out and if he’s not feeling well, he doesn’t complain. I tell him that those are things we need to know.”

Getting stronger

Byrd has a strong support group around him. He lives with his mother and stepfather, and a good friend moved in to help out. He has nurse care from 9-to-5, and he does his physical therapy.

Byrd said he has not made nearly the progress that he would like, but he says he tries to focus on the little things.

“Sometimes I get frustrated but for the most part, I’ve got to look at the fact that I have made a lot of improvement,” Byrd said. “I just keep my head up and work as hard as I can every day.”

That much is evident in watching Byrd go through the neck-strengthening exercise with Fox, who works for an organization called Rehab Without Walls. Byrd has gained some strength in his shoulders, allowing him with great concentration and strain to slightly move his head forward and to the side.

“The first thing we did was show his family how to move him around better, position him right, get him from place-to-place,” Fox said. “We showed them how to make him safe and get him where he needs to be.”

Now Byrd is working on strengthening his good muscles and those that are close to being good. The goal is to get his neck strong enough that Byrd can support it by himself, which Fox said will open up a lot of other potential treatments.

“When he starts to control his head better, it will help him control a lot of other things,” Fox said. “He’s come a long way and we still have a lot to do. But he is always so willing to do whatever needs to be done, that I have no doubt that he will continue to show improvement. The stuff we do is not real exciting, but he is completely into it.”

Nothing’s cheap

Of course, the accident has been a huge financial burden on the family, and Crawford said the state has not been particularly generous in helping cover the costs.

Much of Byrd’s care – from therapy to equipment to medication – has been paid for out of pocket.

“There are things that he just needs, like voice activation, that the state does not help with,” Crawford said. “It’s been a big frustration. Voice activation costs $15,000. That seems to be the number for everything. And being his mom, I want him to have the best of everything.”

The family holds fundraisers and sells Holland Byrd merchandise, but none of it comes close to covering the costs.

Currently, the family is adding on to its house to add a room with a shower that will be easier for Byrd to use, but can’t afford to pay for a contractor, meaning nearly all of it is being done by Marty Crawford, Jodie’s husband.

“It’s a huge expense, and it would be great if the state was able to help out more,” Crawford said. “It just amazes me the things they are unwilling to cover. They’d rather not provide things that can help him and then pay even more when he has to go back to the hospital because he didn’t get the help. It’s unfortunate, but we will find ways to pay for everything. What else can we do? He’s our son and we want him to get better.”

Beyond the work

It isn’t all hard work for Byrd. He still goes out to bars with friends. He recently got a van that allows him to more easily get around. He is an Internet junkie, in part because it is a lot easier for him to communicate that way than on the phone (he uses a joystick he controls with his mouth). He’s been to Everett Hawks games, went to the Supercross event earlier this year at Qwest Field. He is far from home-bound. He hopes that a newer, lighter-weight wheelchair he got last week will make it easier for him to move around.

“It took me a little while to realize that I wouldn’t be confined to a room,” Byrd said. “Once I did, it made things so much better. I like doing anything that doesn’t make me feel like a patient, where I have to be locked inside all the time.”

The first time Byrd went out with friends, Crawford received a rude awakening.

“I was shocked that I wasn’t going,” she said. “I assumed I was, and he was like, ‘You’re not going.’ There are things that still have to be done when he’s out, but his friends know how to do it. I was scared at first but now I know he’s fine. I’m just glad he can have some of his lifestyle back.”

Of course, some of his lifestyle is gone. He says he misses being active like he once was, running, cycling, rock climbing. And he misses little things that most take for granted: Getting a drink, changing the channel, simply turning your head to look around.

Long-distance travel will also be tough. Byrd had planned to return to the scene of the accident this weekend to be honored at the event, which will hold a fundraiser for Byrd. But the heat in California made it too dangerous, so instead Crawford and a friend will travel in Byrd’s place.

“I was disappointed, I would have liked to see the people,” Byrd said.

“I really didn’t want to go, but I’m going for him,” Crawford said. “It was important to him that he be represented.”

That, though, is one of the few times that Byrd expressed regret over anything. Friends, family and even he himself say he has changed little because of the accident.

“We don’t treat him any different because he’s really the same person,” Renando said. “He’s very caring, very outgoing and loving. He gets frustrated because he wants to make more progress but he has come a long way. You never hear him complain.”

“I think the only difference is I’m emotionally stronger,” Byrd said. “I try not to let the small stuff get me down. I’m just more positive. There were a lot of things that I used to take for granted that I don’t anymore.”

Still a love of racing

Despite the accident, Byrd said he still loves motocross, and watches it on television all the time. He has no regrets about racing, no hard feelings toward the sport.

He says he doesn’t have a hard time seeing pictures of himself when he was a racer.

“It’s still my favorite sport,” Byrd said. “Sometimes it bothers me that I can’t race right now. But I’m just happy that I am able to watch it, you know?”

Crawford, on the other hand, does have some hard feelings toward the sport, and believes that some events push the competitors to do more than is safe to do. Byrd agrees that some tracks are longer and more dangerous than they should be, but he doesn’t blame the sport for putting him in this spot.

On the contrary, he uses the sport as inspiration every day to continue to get better.

“I think about riding all the time,” Byrd said. “All of my best memories are from racing. When I think about it, I get happy and that pushes me to keep working. Because I still believe at some point in my life, no matter how long it takes, I will ride again.”

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