Kevin Hillery

Protection is a Helmet and Friends

Photo: Kevin with a Friend

In April 2011, a 20-year-old version of myself was racing downhill on a mountain bike. I was in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, slogging through heavy rain and strong winds, with limited visibility. My mental state was likely a bit foggy, as I was about 16 hours into a 24-hour adventure race.

You’ve just pulled up a story to read in connection with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) awareness month, so you know where this story is going. Don’t put yourself in similar circumstances, and you’ll surely avoid TBI/SCI. Lesson learned, and you can stop reading.

Actually, it was not my own mistake or any expected scenario that caused my injury. A massive tree, with a trunk wider than a human could effectively hug, blew over and landed directly on top of my head. I must have been moving about 20 miles per hour, looking down or ahead, not up. On many levels, I don’t recall seeing this coming.

In the moments I do not recall, the tree continued down, from its initial point of contact on my helmet to its next point of contact on my lower back. Finally, the tree crashed down onto to the back wheel of my bike, crushing it and stopping the bike—but not me—in its tracks. I later learned that I had a complete SCI near the T-9 vertebra.

Photo: Kevin riding a Handcycle

How lucky was I?

Very. I have no idea how heavy this tree was, but a standard $80 bike helmet did the trick. Not only did that helmet prevent my death, but it also prevented any type of TBI. Consider that during the next time you are doing anything on two wheels. That helmet is doing more than protecting you from all the anticipated injuries.

Additionally, I was not alone in the woods that day. I had three of my best friends in the world, all able-bodied and level-headed, who managed to quickly find help despite no cellular service and keep me safe and dry until I was airlifted away to surgery.

Photo: Kevin Surfing

I credit these two elements of good fortune – the helmet and the friends – as the reasons I was able to proceed with my life after that day. I finished my last year at the Naval Academy, went on to law school, met my wife, began serving my country in a new way, and moved to Hawaii. I joined the world of competitive road hand-cycling thanks to the Paralyzed Veterans of America racing team, and more recently discovered adaptive surfing thanks to AccesSurf Hawaii. I’m arguably in better shape than I was in April 2011. All the best times of my life have been after the SCI. But it would’ve been all over without the helmet and the companions.

So, ever since then, and in the spirit of TBI and SCI awareness month, I continue to advocate for common-sense risk management. You never need to get on two wheels without a helmet or go deep in the woods alone.

Photo: Kevin Hiking-Kevin Hillery