WALLINGFORD — As a minivan pulled into Gaylord Hospital, Colleen Kelly Alexander cycled toward the Brooker Conference Room. When she made it to the walkway, she unclipped her shoes, took in a deep breath, exhaled and smiled.
Alexander, 37, biked with about 15 other cyclists from Simsbury to Wallingford on Tuesday. It was the second stop she was making on an event organized by Alexander and the hospital. After making a stop in town, she and the group would bike to their final destination, Madison. With each stop having a blood drive organized, the event’s purpose was to raise awareness about the need to donate blood. At the end of the day, Alexander biked a total of 78 miles.
It’s a significant number for Alexander. Her life changed on Oct. 8, 2011, when she was cycling home from work. She was hit and run over by a freight truck in Madison. As her bike was trapped under the front of the truck, the parts on the bottom of the truck tore her body apart, ripping through her stomach. Parts of her body were “de-gloved,” where the skin was literally torn from the body, according to Tara Knapp, vice president of public affairs and communications. She suffered an open book fracture on her pelvis, which means the pelvic bone was splayed open, Knapp said. She needed a total of 78 units of blood to be revived, and ultimately, survive. Alexander was put into a medically induced coma for a month.
“Donations are generally down in the summer,” Knapp said. “The event is to raise awareness that blood is needed all year round, especially in the summer.”
To date, Alexander has gone through 16 surgeries and still needs to go through six more.
“She’s just an amazing person. A lot of people let things get in the way,” Knapp said. “She’s making herself go out there because when she gets out there, she’s an athlete again.”
As Alexander stood behind the Brooker Conference Room smiling with the rest of the group, it was clear she wasn’t going to let her accident define her. She worked with the Red Cross to organize blood drives at each stop of her bike ride. She’s “riding because of blood donors and because of the Red Cross,” she said. And if it weren’t for Gaylord Hospital and the rehabilitation she received, Alexander wouldn’t be running or riding a bike.
“I needed a facility like this to learn to walk again,” she said as she wiped tears away from her eyes. “... This place is a place of miracles.”
The accident caused damage to over 50 percent of her body, Alexander said. For the first couple of weeks at Gaylord, she went through wound care, where the nurses came in and cleaned and dressed her wounds. She eventually worked with physical therapists, who would help her learn to walk again.
Doctors believed she would be able to walk after her accident, but her days of riding and running may have been over. But Alexander was determined to get back out the door again. In March 2012, she finished a 2 mile race. In May 2012, she finished a 5K and half marathon, and it was also the first time she was on a bike again through the Gaylord Cycle Clinic. In August 2012, she completed the 10-mile walk/run for the Red Cross. And in September, she completed the New Haven Road Race — a significant feat because it was the first race she did without the assistance of a walker.
“When I went across the finish line of that 5K,” Alexander said, “I saw one of (my doctors). He told me I’m the first person he’s seen that had an open book pelvic break that’s been able to run. And when I heard that, that’s all that I needed.”
She has no plans to stop either. She ran the last half of the Vermont City Marathon with her husband, Sean, who ran the entire race in May. She also is signed up for the Timberman Ironman in August in New Hampshire.
“I’m just thankful to be able to do it,” Alexander said. “It’s a different way of being an athlete and that’s okay.”
As Alexander and Knapp talked, Knapp recounted how the first time Alexander came to the hospital was by ambulance. Seeing her bike into the hospital “was pretty emotional,” Knapp said.
“To ride in is pretty freaking awesome,” Alexander said as she smiled.