Since that day in June, Chester Wheeler and his wife, Mimi, have been contemplating this question: Is it mere coincidence or something bigger that brings a person into your life, someone you’ve never met, at the very moment you need them?
For Chester, recalling the moment brings tears. He chokes up when he thinks of that Saturday – and the stranger who came to his aid in North Cheyenne Canon as he lay unconscious on the pavement after a bicycle accident.
In his delirium, Chester somehow knew what to do.
“Call Mimi,’’ Chester said.
The stranger found her number in the phone and called. When Mimi didn’t answer, he left a message.
Inspired by extraordinary kindness
On Saturday mornings in the spring and summer, Mimi likes to enjoy her garden, listen to the birds, and relax but on this morning, something nudged her to check her phone. She’d missed a call from a number she didn’t recognize.
“Hello. I am Shaye Moskowitz,’’ the caller said. “I found your husband. He is going to be OK, but he is on his way to the emergency room at Memorial Hospital Central.’’
The stranger tended to Chester, whose helmet had been cracked by the blunt force. Chester’s clothes were bloody though a bracelet he wore bearing the name “Connor’’ was unscathed. Once the paramedics from Colorado Springs Fire Station No. 13 arrived, the stranger went on his way. He’d planned to hike with his wife, who had been directing traffic.
He was on a trail when Mimi called. He relayed the news. Mimi and her daughter, Courtney, raced to Memorial, a Level I Trauma Center. Chester’s collarbone protruded through his skin and gravel from the road was embedded in his shoulder. As a precaution, Chester was placed in traction until doctors could determine whether he had injuries to his spine. X-rays showed he had broken ribs one through five; all four quadrants of his pelvis had been shattered. Doctors conducted neurological checks because Chester had no memory.
In sickness and in health
“In 27 years of marriage,’’ Mimi recalled, “this was the first ‘in sickness’ card that he had ever pulled. So we had no idea what to expect. We had never been hospitalized for anything like that. We had such a big learning curve.’’
Chester and Mimi Wheeler have lived in Colorado Springs for 21 years. Chester works for the U.S. Olympic Committee and Mimi works in marketing. Over the years, it’s hard to say how many times they’d driven by Memorial Hospital on Boulder Street, never giving it a second thought.
Now, on a Saturday in June, Mimi stood in her muddy yard clothes as Chester received blood transfusions in the emergency room. His clothes had been cut from his body and his belongings had been placed in a plastic bag. Mimi was far from the serenity of her garden.
In Colorado Springs, a friendly town, Mimi felt comfort when the orthopedic surgeon who came to check on Chester was a family friend, Dr. Matt Javernick. He scheduled surgery for the next day to clean Chester’s shoulder wound and set his collar bone. Javernick introduced Dr. Peter Fredericks, an orthopedic trauma surgeon, who specializes in stabilizing the most complex orthopedic injuries. Dr. Andrew Berson, a veteran trauma surgeon, examined Chester’s organs and evaluated his cognitive function.
“Chester had multiple injuries,’’ Javernick said. “His shoulder had very bad pre-existing arthritis with a rotator cuff. When he fell, he sustained a very atypical complex open distal clavicle fraction. The goal in his treatment was to first prevent infection and then second, rebuild his foundation to allow Chester to address his chronic shoulder issues in the future.’’
Meeting the angels
Chester, still confused, talked about how he needed to be at an important meeting Monday morning. Brittany, his nurse, reassured him that his only job now was to get better.
“Our angel, Brittany! We were there her whole shift – 12 hours in the Emergency Department. She was amazing. We had never been hospitalized or anything like that before and she was so kind, she brought us along,’’ Mimi said.
Fortunately, Chester got some good news early. He had no brain or spinal injuries. After hours in the Emergency Department, he went to a hospital room on the trauma unit.
“This bright young man walks in, and he puts his hand out and he says, ‘Hi, I’m Connor. I’ll be your nurse,’’ Mimi recalled.
That moment, the Wheelers began to wonder if someone wasn’t watching out for them. Connor is the name of their 21-year-old nephew who had died a couple of years prior in a car accident. Unfortunately, in the chaos of the emergency room, the bracelet bearing his name had been lost.
“Connor, he was our next angel,’’ Mimi said. “He never missed a beat. He was so professional and so thoughtful and so caring. It started with Brittany and the doctors in the ED and when we got upstairs, it was like Chester was theirs from the get-go,’’ Mimi said.
An emotional time
In the quiet of their room on that Sunday, less than 24 hours after the accident, Chester and Mimi cried together. They had come as close as they ever had to living without each other and it shook them. They wondered what their world would look like in the future. Would Chester, a college track and tennis star, be able to ride his bike again, like he had done almost every day of his life, covering 60 miles or so in a day?
In the quiet of their hospital room, they were grateful for the stranger. How would they ever find him? How could they ever say thanks to him for coming to Chester at the very moment when he needed him the most?
“We’ll find him,’’ Mimi reassured Chester. “We’ll find him.’’
With tears running down her cheeks, Mimi had gotten up from the chair beside Chester’s bed and was walking over to grab a tissue when she heard a gentle knock at the door. A man in blue jeans and a sport coat came in.
“Are you the famous Mimi?’’ he asked.
Mimi walked toward the tall man to shake his hand, unsure of who he was.
“I’m Shaye Moskowitz,’’ the man said.
Mimi and Chester, overwhelmed, cried again. The stranger who had helped out in Cheyenne Canon was standing in front of them.
“I’m just here on a social visit,’’ Moskowitz said.
Then, Mimi noticed that Moskowitz was wearing an employee badge.
“Do you work here?’’ Mimi asked.
Dr. Moskowitz told her he works at the hospital and that he is a neurosurgeon.
“What are the chances of that?’’ Mimi asked later. “What are the chances that the guy who helped Chester was a doctor – a neurosurgeon. It was really as if someone was watching.’’
Moskowitz explained that he and his wife had planned to go for a hike when they came across Chester.
“He barely knew his name. He didn’t have a good handle on anything,’’ Moskowitz explained. “Some people who had stopped said he was completely unconscious when they found him but by the time a few minutes had gone by, he was starting to talk.’’
Moskowitz spent about 15 minutes with the Wheelers. He wished them well, then returned to his job. When he left, Chester and Mimi were flabbergasted by their encounter with good fortune.
The nurse named Connor
In the coming days, Connor cared for Chester and other patients, bouncing from room to room in the hospital, but Chester said he always felt when Connor came into the room, Chester was his only focus.
“I didn’t see what he did for other patients,’’ Chester said. “But I never felt like I was not his single focus. The whole staff, they inspire to heal. They wanted to make sure everything was moving forward on my timeline. As many times as I need to get up and go to the bathroom, and I needed a hand, they never faltered.’’
Each day, physical therapists from Memorial’s inpatient rehabilitation unit came to assess Chester who, like many trauma patients, had the blues. He had no strength. The man who made a living supporting Olympic athletes, marveling at their athletic prowess, couldn’t get to the bathroom by himself. He could not bear weight. At times, the pain made him nauseous.
Physical therapists, who visited Chester every day, told him that he would soon be moving to the inpatient rehabilitation unit and that he would spend three hours a day working to get back on his feet.
“Are you out of your mind?’’ Chester thought.
“We thought they were crazy,’’ Mimi recalled.
On the fifth day on the trauma unit, a tech from the emergency department showed up in Chester’s room.
“I think this is yours,’’ he said, handing Chester the bracelet with the name “Connor’’ that had been lost earlier.
That day, Chester took a short elevator ride to the Rehabilitation Unit, on the 7th floor. At Memorial, it’s known as the place where miracles sometime happen. And now, it would be Chester’s turn. He would have physical and occupational therapy for a few hours every day.
On one of the first days, a therapist named Caroline wheeled Chester into a gymnasium and got him out of his wheelchair to the parallel bars.
“Hop,’’ she said.
Again, Chester had doubts. “Hop? I have a broken pelvis. I can’t hop.’’
By the time Saturday came – a week after the accident in Cheyenne Canon – Chester had terrible vertigo.
“It was just a mess,’’ Mimi said. “He kept vomiting. It wouldn’t stop, and I screamed for help and Stephanie, one of the nurses on the rehab unit, she came running, and the techs came running and it wouldn’t stop. Without flinching, they were there and helped clean up the bed.’’
A student studying to be a physical therapist mentioned that in her class, vertigo had been a recent topic. She knew that crystals can move inside the inner ear canal, and send incorrect information to the brain about a person’s position. Greg, one of the managers on the rehabilitation unit, performed the Epley maneuver, designed to remove the crystals from the inner ear.
“He was not going to let me go home without getting that out of my head,’’ Chester said. “He would twist me, but in his soothing manner, he said, ‘we’ll get it out of there.’ That is, again, part of the amazement of what they can do. They promoted healing and it made me get better,’’ Chester said.
Once the crystals came out, Chester turned the corner. He did exercises with an elastic band to learn to move his leg again. He needed to gain strength. In time, he could move his legs, one at a time, one in front of the other.
During the 16 days on the rehabilitation unit, therapists took time to place him in a wheelchair and take him outside to look at Pikes Peak and breathe fresh, summer air. It was therapy all its own.
“They pushed me to want to heal, but it wasn’t ever more than I could handle,’’ Chester said. “They inspired me to heal.’’
Being in great physical shape before the accident worked in Chester’s favor.
“You can tell when someone is an avid cyclist because they have all the right stuff,’’ Dr. Moskowitz said. “He had a little seat saddle pack with tubes and a pump, and this and that. He had the right shirt with the phone in the right spot. And you could tell he was not a cyclist who rides once in a blue moon. Everything is dusty, so you know that he is using it.’’
Though Chester had worked with college coaches and seen Olympic athletes soar to greatness, the experience of working with physical therapists, he found, was an endeavor in friendship and understanding.
“There’s an intimacy that comes with working with someone in rehab,’’ Chester said. “You don’t know that beforehand, but they were able to assess what I was capable of.’’
After a few days in rehabilitation, therapists provided Chester with a stationary bike that allowed him to work his arms and legs, strengthening them but also giving him something to do besides lie in bed and watch television.
“Without the care that Mimi gave me, and without the motivation from the therapists of ‘what’s next?’ I would have gone crazy. I’m not one to sit still very long,’’ he said.
The ups and downs
Healing after a traumatic injury, the Wheelers now know, is not a linear path. There are fits and starts, steps forward and backward. The day of the vertigo was a big step backward.
“When you are just about to give up, they are there and they say, ‘no, you can do this,’” Chester said.
Greg let Chester know that he would emerge after all the injuries in better shape than he was before the accident.
“Instead of the glass being half empty or half full, they were promising a full glass. They assured him, ‘you’re going to be in better shape than you were before because we are going to get you there,’’’ Mimi said.
After a couple of weeks in rehabilitation, Chester, who could not move his legs when he arrived, was using his feet to propel his wheelchair around the rehab unit. When staff saw Chester doing laps, passing his room and the nursing station, they’d high-five him along the way and say, ‘Atta boy. Way to go.’’’
The staff on the unit told Chester they thought he would still be in a wheelchair on Labor Day, but Chester beat their expectations.
By mid-August, Chester was back at work at the Olympic Committee. That month, Chester and Mimi took time to return to Memorial Hospital to say thanks to the people who had watched over them, from Cheyenne Canon, to the Emergency Department, to the trauma unit and to rehab.
The best part of the visit is that Chester walked in to see his caregivers. He was out of the wheelchair – a feat that brought much joy to all. Chester and Mimi had hugs for everyone, all those people who came to help them when they needed it most.