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57-year old Tim Atkinson from Littleton was riding the Avon to Bergen Park route of the grueling 120-mile Triple Bypass bike event this past summer. He had just gone over Vail Pass and was riding through what he calls the “flatlands around Lake Dillon”. Not seeing them, he cut over some rumble strips where the bike lane rejoins the Dam road, lost his balance, and went down like a ton of bricks. It was his first major fall in 40 years of road biking.
“At first, the pain was not terrible, but when I tried to stand up to shake it off my right leg was paralyzed from the hip down. That’s when I knew it was serious,” recalls Tim. The pain got progressively worse while he was loaded onto the ambulance and sent to Summit Medical Center. At SMC, X-rays confirmed multiple fractures of his femur, one in the upper part of the femur’s vertical shaft and two others in the hip area.
“I was a little skeptical because I wasn’t familiar with the SMC or any of the practice groups there,” says Tim, who lost his left arm at the shoulder in a sailing accident in 1974. “As a long time arm amputee, the thought that I had done something that could permanently affect my mobility was my worst fear realized. No way was I going to take any chances. But after a five minute conversation with Dr. Joseph, the surgeon on call, I realized he knew his subject matter and knew what needed to happen. Both the way he presents himself and his talents are substantial. He described the procedure I needed to have and said, the sooner I got in, the sooner I could start healing.”
Tim thought that sounded like a great idea. “I trusted my gut on this one. The fact that Dr. Joseph gave me a reasonable expectation and very good potential for a positive outcome, even before surgery, was extremely helpful.”
During surgery, Dr. Joseph placed a titanium rod or nail vertically down the femur, almost to the kneecap, and stabilized it with several screws. He also stabilized the hip area with a longer lag screw attached to the top of the rod. Since then, Tim says that a number of friends in the medical community have been resoundingly positive about how well Dr. Joseph accomplished such a complicated surgery. Tim adds that with as much blood as he lost with a broken femur, “it was a huge advantage not to have to go back into an ambulance or helicopter and waste a huge part of the day trying to find help in Denver. 25 years ago, the thought of having surgery in a mountain town would have scared me to death. Now, if it happened to me all over again, I would drive back up to Summit County and see Dr. Joseph.”
When Tim lost his arm right after high school, he says the injury played a significant part in giving him purpose and focus. A Paralympic athlete in the 1980s, and a former staff instructor for the National Sports Center for the Disabled, Tim now spends his weekends during the winter coaching his daughter and other athletes on the Special Olympics Alpine Team and the summer coaching in the cycling program. “After losing my arm, reengaging in athletic activities was such an important part of healing for me. And being able to give back to the community by working with physically and cognitively different athletes has been more fulfilling than I could have imagined,” Tim says.
“Without my even saying it, Dr. Joseph understood how crucial it was for me, with this latest injury, to get back as close as possible to where I was before the accident. 57 year old patients may not be world class athletes, but being treated like someone who deserves a chance to maximize their athletic performance has contributed greatly to my recovery,” Tim says. “When I was first injured, I received a card from more than 20 of the athletes on my daughter’s Special Olympics cycling team. Showing up at the state meet a few weeks later, already walking with a crutch, went a long way in lending confidence to athletes who had to struggle for the balance to ride a bike at all, and who fear the consequences of a crash.”
Three weeks following the accident, Tim was able to start riding a stationary recumbent bike. At five and a half weeks, Dr. Joseph removed the weight bearing restrictions, and Tim put away his crutch. “The next night, I was dancing with my daughter at a Special Olympics party,” Tim says. Exactly two months after the fall, Tim and his wife, Colette, went for a 15 mile bike ride. The next day, it was 22 miles. The stationary bike is looking for a new home.
Tim is threatening to do the Triple Bypass both ways next year. He says he has a number of friends who’ve promised to ride it with him, at least one way. “They say they’re going to point out every pebble and pothole along the way! I’ve told them they better start training now.”