Wallingford – Expert care and the latest technology are helping Brad Kerr walk again.
But the courage and optimism of Groton’s mountain biker were at least as important in his promising recovery from an April accident that injured his spinal cord, leaving him partially paralyzed, his prognosis uncertain.
Will he walk again? And the bicycle?
“I don’t see why I can’t,” Kerr, sitting in a wheelchair, said in a recent interview here at Gaylord Hospital, a medical rehabilitation center specializing in treating patients with brain damage. and spinal cord, stroke and other serious conditions.
Kerr, 61, arrived in Gaylord on April 23, after undergoing spinal cord surgery at Hartford Hospital. Nine days earlier, he had been flown to Hartford by a Life Star helicopter after crashing head-on into a tree while training for a Father’s Day race in western Massachusetts. About a month ago, Kerr began his rehabilitation with a hanging strap system that supports his body weight, allowing him to walk 50 feet at a time.
“What he has going for him is his outlook,” said Dr David Rosenblum, physiatrist, director of Gaylord’s spinal cord injury program and medical director of the hospital’s Milne Institute for Healthcare Innovation.
Kerr’s courage was evident in his second session on Wednesday with another piece of equipment known as the robotic exoskeleton. Attached to his back, the equipment allowed Kerr, under the influence of physiotherapist Tim Kilbride, to get up from his wheelchair and practice his gait.
âHe had a lot of muscle contraction and worked hard to relax,â Kilbride said.
Kerr felt dizzy when he first straightened his slender 6ft 2in figure, but after a few deep breaths and a glass of water he tried again. Eventually, he will cross the hall of a hospital several times, completing 260 steps, almost twice as many as in his first exoskeleton session.
Biker against tree
Kerr, a carpenter by trade, started mountain biking in 1989 while living in Aspen, Colo., Where “everyone rode their bikes,” he said, due to lack of parking spaces in the city center for cars. He returned to Groton the same year and started competing. By the mid-1990s, he was among the best in his age group in statewide and New England competitions.
Active all his life, he has also been hiking, skiing and surfing. As a teenager, he broke his collarbone in three places in a skateboarding accident.
Kerr also straddles safety in general and helmet use in particular, which probably saved his life. He described his accident on April 14 thus:
He was planning to join his son, Will, in the upcoming Father’s Day race, and was training alone in the Merritt Family Forest in Groton, “trying to get my best time,” he said. He had reached the top of a hill and was beginning to descend. Going through a series of curves, he made a left turn around one tree and turned right around another tree when his handlebars cut the tree, knocking the handlebars off his hands.
âI flew straight into a big oak tree. Head first to the right in the tree, âKerr said. âI just fell to the ground. My glasses landed next to my face.
His racing helmet, which he has with him at Gaylord, absorbed a beating. It’s cracked in front, the visor torn off, the camera mount, which was not equipped with a camera at the time, completely crushed.
He never lost consciousness.
Lying there, he tried to grab his phone, but couldn’t move his arms. He hadn’t seen anyone else on the trail and, his voice “gone”, couldn’t cry out for help. He decided to take a nap.
Forty-five minutes later, Kerr woke up to a man watching him. The man and his wife, who had been hiking together, had come across the injured biker. Kerr gave the woman her phone, which she called her son, who often monitored his father’s workouts through Strava, an online app popular with cyclists and other athletes.
âI was at work (at the Wayfarer Bicycle store in New London),â Will said in an interview. “I saw (on Strava) that he had started his journey, but after driving a few miles, I stopped looking at him.”
The woman told Will that they had found his father and he couldn’t move. She said they called 911.
âDad called and said he wanted me to come pick up his bike, which I thought was a good sign,â Will said. âHe said, ‘I messed up, Will.’ … I could tell he was sane.
Will then contacted the hikers, who visited him at the bike shop to inquire about his father. They demanded that Will not identify them in any discussion of his father’s accident.
By the time Will arrived at the scene, not far from Groton Town Police Station, first responders were pulling his father out of the woods on a stretcher.
When Will sought to cancel his father’s registration for the Father’s Day event, the race organizers mistakenly canceled Will instead. Will therefore raced under his father’s name and won in his own age group. He presented the first place medal to his father at Gaylord.
âHe’s always been a strong-minded person,â Will said. “But given the first two months of recovery, it is mind-boggling to be doing what he’s doing now.”
“Impossible to predict”
When he got to Gaylord, Kerr couldn’t move his legs at all and his arms were weak.
“But some signals were going through,” said Rosenblum, Gaylord’s physiatrist. “People who have sensation have a better prognosis than others who cannot feel or move below the site of an injury.”
Kerr’s recent neurological improvements and growing strength bode well for him.
âIn most cases people get better in the first year after an injury, but over time the improvement is less robust, until there is a plateau,â Rosenblum said. . âFor (Kerr), it’s too early to say where that plateau will be. I could not have predicted that it would work as it is today. It is impossible to predict what he will do in the next four to five months.
Kerr’s injury is one of more than 18,000 spinal cord injuries that occur each year in the United States, 78% of which are in men, according to statistics cited by Rosenblum. The average age at the time of injury has dropped from 29 in the 1970s to 43 since 2015.
Motor vehicle crashes account for the most injuries, followed by falls, violence and sporting activities, including bicycle accidents, of which Gaylord sees “a good number,” Rosenblum said.
According to the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration, 849 cyclists were killed in crashes in 2019. And, according to the ThinkFirst National Injury Prevention Foundation, about 20% of children do not wear helmets when riding a bicycle. About 60% of adults do not wear helmets.
Kerr’s plea for the helmet makes him a candidate for a ThinkFirst PSA, said Megan Palmer, a Gaylord occupational therapist.
âHe’s motivated, motivated,â she said of Kerr.