Dan McFarland, 40, had been riding motorcycles since he was 19. He loved his black 2015 Harley Sportster.
On a nice June evening, McFarland headed over to the home of John Lawley to tinker on motorcycles in the garage. Dan had just dropped off his 10-year-old child, Jasper, at a movie theater to see Jurassic World with John’s wife and child.
The two dads worked in the garage on John’s 1995 Honda Shadow, a bike that Dan had sold to John, his friend for more than 20 years, a few years prior.
Late that night, while the kids and John’s wife were still at the movies, Dan and John decided to take a short ride to test the repairs they had made. A few minutes before 10 p.m., they headed down County Road 1 in Longmont — a nice open road — when an SUV took an illegal left turn. John hit the SUV first, then Dan’s bike collided.
Down the road at UCHealth Longs Peak Hospital
A half-mile down the road at UCHealth Longs Peak Hospital, operating room nurses and technicians had conducted regular practice drills since opening in November 2017, so they’d be ready for any trauma. As a Level III trauma center, LPH isn’t required to have a neurosurgeon on call 24/7, but hospital leaders decided a few months earlier that such a service was vital in caring for their community.
That night, Longmont EMS rushed Dan to the hospital, where Dr. Derek Leopold was the trauma surgeon on call. Leopold quickly placed a call for Dr. Tripp Nanney, the on-call neurosurgeon, to come to the hospital. If Dan had any chance, Dr. Nanney would be instrumental.
Upon arrival, Dan was comatose and demonstrating signs of brainstem herniation, which occurs when brain tissue moves inside the skull, in this case, pushed by an expanding brain clot and swelling, Nanney explained. The injury is very serious because it affects the part of the brain that controls breathing and heartbeat. If that area of the brain is compressed, it can be deadly.
“It’s an absolute emergency once that is happening, and we have to operate as soon as possible,” he said. “We made an incision on one side of the head and took off the side of his skull to allow the brain to have room to swell. It relieves that pressure in the head, and then we are also able to wash out that clot at the same time, which was the cause of all of this.”
After the motorcycle crash
Melanie McFarland got the call about the crash just before 11 p.m. She arrived at the hospital within minutes. Dan was in surgery and would be for hours, into the early morning. When Dan’s mom arrived, Melanie left the hospital to go pick up Jasper at John’s home. Melanie was still unsure what had happened to Dan’s friend, but she arrived at their home at the same time as a police officer, who came with sad news. John had died in the crash.
Melanie and Jasper headed back to LPH to find out that her husband was still alive.
“We saved his life,” Nanney said. “This was a team effort and a new hospital that rose to the occasion.”
Dan, a self-taught information technology guru, made it through the first surgery, but he would need more surgery to stay alive. He was transported by UCHealth Lifeline helicopter to UCHealth Medical Center of the Rockies, a Level II trauma center in Loveland.
Somehow, in her shock and grief for John, Melanie managed to begin writing Dan a letter.
Melanie and Dan
She was inspired by “50 First Dates,” a movie in which Adam Sandler’s character creates a video to help his girlfriend, played by Drew Barrymore, remember what’s happened in her life after she suffered a traumatic brain injury. Every day, Melanie chronicled their journey, writing about Dan’s condition, his visitors and her own thoughts. In time, the letters, photos and other memorabilia, were placed in a book that she hoped she would share one day with Dan.
Melanie had worked with TBI patients before in social services roles — a career path she believes was preparing her for the rollercoaster ahead.
“I’d seen a lot of brain injuries, and I always thought if that ever happened to me, I’d want them to let me die – but it was different when it was Dan,” she said. “I wanted and needed him to fight.”
Melanie and Dan married more than 11 years ago and had a child, Jasper. But five years into the marriage, they divorced. They recently rekindled their romance, and Melanie had moved back in with Dan.
The book and Facebook page
Melanie created a Facebook support group called United We Stand for Lawley and McFarland, which she used to update friends and family on Dan’s condition and to rally the community to attend memorial rides and fundraisers to support the two families.
Five days after the accident, Melanie wrote that Dan opened his eyes for the first time. She also shared a photo of him.
Two days later, she wrote more on Facebook, a thank you note to the amazing staff at MCR. “The nurses are so amazing; I just can’t say that enough. We have a very long road ahead of us and we appreciate all your continued support, love, prayers and thoughts.’’
The support from nurses, friends and family helped her and her family, including Dan’s 21-year-old daughter, through the first few days, and weeks that followed.
“I wouldn’t have been any amount of sane without the incredible ICU nurses,” she said. “The nursing staff made the difference for me as a caregiver. I always knew what was going on.
“I remember when Dan’s vitals were all over the place,” she continued. “I watched his nurse doing everything and thought, ‘We are definitely in the right place.’ ”
Each day, Melanie wrote letters or posted on Facebook. On June 30 — 10 days after the crash — a memorial service was held for John.
She tucked John’s funeral service program and newspaper clippings about the accident into her book. Sharing the news with Dan would have to wait.
“I couldn’t lose my cool,” she said. “I had to keep positive. And I was very cautious about the energy in his room and what we talked about.”
Four weeks after arriving at the hospital, Dan was finally in “stable” condition. A few days later, hundreds of people gathered at a memorial motorcycle event held to benefit the families.
With Dan’s physical body healing the way it should, the McFarlands needed to address the damage caused by his TBI. Dan was transferred to Craig Hospital in Denver. It was then, more than six weeks after the crash, that Melanie decided to share the book.
Dan’s first reaction was to comfort Melanie. He had finally seen all that she’d been through during the days at his side. But as the days passed, and Dan continued to look at the book, the emotional reality of losing his friend set in. In his grief, Melanie saw strength.
The next day, Melanie saw Dan’s personality return, marking a turning point in his recovery. She started to again see that “stubborn but silly, goofy dork that I loved so much.”
At Craig Hospital
Dan still had a lot of recovering to do. He could dress himself, but because the injury affected the right side of his brain, he’d do things differently, such as brushing only the teeth on his left side.
The whiteboard in his hospital room reminded him every day where he was. And just like in the Sandler movie, Melanie would have the same conversations with him almost daily. He also had a limited concept of time, she said, chuckling, “One day he called me 72 times.”
On Sept. 7, 2018, Dan was well enough to go home. About a month later, he was cleared to go back to work part time while he continued therapy and was also cleared to drive.
Dan’s recovery is nothing if not miraculous, considering that at one point, he couldn’t breathe on his own. He battled for five weeks at MCR, six weeks at Craig Hospital and returned to MCR for 20 days of outpatient speech, physical and occupational therapies.
When he arrived at MCR rehabilitation, he was in a wheelchair, and then progressed to a walker, a quad cane and a cane. When he hadn’t yet been cleared to return to one of his passions, kung fu, he started tai chi to improve his balance – physically and mentally.
During Dan’s last therapy appointment, Melanie asked, almost in disbelief: “Can you believe he’s teaching himself to play the piano and has started tai chi?”
Long road home
Dan still gets tired easily but he feels fortunate that most of his challenges are physical in nature.
“I still have a long way to go,” Dan said.
He’s always been a “big-picture” thinker, an information technology expert who monitors government-run systems. Now, he’s back to work, back with his family and back with his wife. They plan to get remarried this summer.
Dan is still coping with the loss of his friend, John, and that will certainly require more healing time.
For every day, though, he is grateful.
“Everything that happened to me was so miraculous that I’m like, ‘OK, what am I going to do with this?’”