Keagan Girdlestone: an inspiration
We’ve talk about sadness often in cycling. It has been a difficult time in recent weeks and it’s at times like this that we look for inspiration. In our current issue is a feature about Keagan Girdlestone. It is touching yet frightening, sad yet inspirational.
New Zealand Cyclist of the Year 2016: Keagan Girdlestone. Why? Because he’s a survivor and an inspiration. His story is a shocking one. It was so bad at one point that death seemed a better option than living through the hell he was enduring. His will to live was stronger than the pain and he tells his story with amazing grace…
“While I was lying in hospital I actually did watch the Tour de France. And I can say every time I saw a rider go into the convoy, I did get nervous.”
It makes sense that Keagan Girdlestone got anxious just looking at the actions of cyclists on the television. Until June 2016 he was ‘one of them’, the riders who risk life and limb all for the sake of riding from one line to the next.
The start. The finish. That’s what dictates the objectives of The Racing Cyclist. But there’s a lot more to life than race victories alone.
Girdlestone knows all about the impact that a split second can have on life. He has a remarkable story but only a weak voice with which to tell it. Still, his hope is to help inspire people to realise how lucky we are to be alive.
His tone is more like a whisper than an ordinary voice and there are reasons for that which many who follow cycling know about. In case you missed the story, however, get ready to be shocked. And yet he explains the moment of impact with surprisingly good humour and doesn’t mind talking about that instant which almost killed him.
“I remember I’d just gotten back on the bike after a crash,” he said of the Coppa della Pace on 5 June 2016. “There was something wrong with my front wheel and I had stopped to make sure everything was okay. Then all the cars came by and after that I just remember going full-gas.
“I’ve got the power data from when I crashed (top). I was doing 35km/h and I stopped. I went from 35 to zero in less than a second. So it was like going into a wall.
“My heart rate was 186 beats per minute so that explains why I lost my whole body’s supply of blood because it just started gushing out.
“I was doing 550 watts: right into the back of a car.”
He was 19. He should have died. The doctors said so. Even he convinced himself that his time had come. He even allowed himself the thought of embracing the inevitable. During the recuperation, the pain was so extreme that he closed his eyes one night and prepared to slip quietly away.
He didn’t die. He still wants to race his bike. But he’s a different man now to what he was when racing for the development team, Dimension Data for Qhubeka.
He doesn’t mind talking about the injuries but he lists them quietly and in random order, starting with the one that affects his ability to move normally. “I severed a bunch of nerves in my neck and shoulder. They can’t connect to the shoulder; it’s called the brachial plexus… that pretty much run the entire arm. I’ve severed a few of those as well as the nerves to my vocal chords.
“My right vocal chord is completely paralysed, there’s no movement whatsoever. That’s why I’ve got such a soft voice.
“With the nerve damage, I’ve got paralysis to my bicep and there are a few muscles near my scapula that are also paralysed so I can’t lift my arm up.”
He pauses and takes a breath, then continues…
“And that’s not even the extent of it.
“Because I was bleeding, I didn’t have blood to the brain for two hours so I suffered several strokes during that time and I lost 30 percent of the right side of my brain. That’s never going to come back. The left side of my body is affected by that, which is not the side that’s affected by the paralysis. So I’ve got one arm that doesn’t really work because of nerve damage and the other arm doesn’t really work but that’s because of brain damage.”
When we spoke in January, he had just returned from a ride. He was on holiday in Queensland with Tom Reynolds and his family. The manager of the Charter Mason team which Keagan raced with in 2014 remains a friend and the pair spent several weeks together this summer.
The very fact that Girdlestone is back on the bike is a miracle. Despite the horrific injuries explained above, the biggest issue related to blood flow to his brain.
He cut his jugular vein and his carotid artery.
“All the blood that goes pumping from my heart to my brain was not getting anywhere. It was just coming out of my body.”
* * * * *
From Girdlestone’s blog: keagangirdlestone.com
“Apparently it’s normal in ICU to have vastly ridiculous hallucinations, which comforts me in knowing I’m not insane (well, not completely insane anyway).
“That night I prayed, ‘I’ve tried to fight, I’ve fought for so many days now… I don’t think I can anymore! I’m grateful I got to see my parents and was able to let my last words to them be: I love you. But I’m ready, I accept death, I’m ready to join you now.’
“My eyes shut and it was just a dark abyss, for all I knew, I was dead. Fortunately not! I woke up the next morning.”
* * * * *
He had accepted his fate. Death, I’m ready. Girdlestone had surrendered to the pain. He believed his time was up. When reports on his accident began to filter in in via social media, many assumed the worst. It’s morbid to consider but he laughs about it now. “Apparently there was a whole heap of RIP messages on my Facebook page as well as Twitter,” he says of the days following the crash.
“It was actually quite funny… when I got back and I started using my phone again I had a message from someone who had written, ‘RIP Champion!’ And I thought it was quite funny when I responded, ‘I’m not dead yet.’”
This is one of the risks of instant news: even if the facts are wrong, they spread so rapidly that people believe it to be true. Thankfully, Keagan’s brother corrected the reports but not before their parents had received the worst possible news. “I wasn’t aware of it all,” he explains six months on from the accident, “not at the time, because I was sleeping.”
He was in a coma and, before using his phone again, he found out what had been written; his mother let it slip out. “Maybe a week or two later, my mum accidentally said, ‘Well, we thought you were dead.’ And I was like, ‘What!?’ And then she obviously told me what had happened.
“I never saw many of the RIP messages, they were removed pretty quickly after it was clear that I was alive. I think it was good for me not to see any of that…”
Through it all Girdlestone had one constant ambition: to ride his bike again. Amazingly, he’s doing that already but it’s no easy task given the restraints. “I can’t take my heart rate to over 145 beats per minute because there’s a high risk that the graft in my neck will just explode,” he says, then adds with a grin: “I’m trying to avoid that.”
The cut to his jugular vein and carotid artery required immediate attention. Doctors were able to respond quickly and this is one reason Keagan defied the odds. He considers the moment he first moved again and it’s another reminder of how fine the line is between suffering and inspiration. “I was in ICU and, when I left [the ward], they sat me up once for about five minutes. This was probably one of the worst experiences of my whole life. I went to the rehabilitation centre and they didn’t sit me up for a couple of days because I couldn’t physically hold myself up, I was so weak.
“I had such low blood pressure that the moment they sat me up, I almost passed out.”
The adjustments from being a rider many believed would develop into one of the finest from New Zealand to finding it awkward to sit up in bed are immense. Little conquests along the way helped him cope and accomplishing tasks as menial as going to the bathroom allowed him to realise that rehabilitation was going to be a step-by-step process.
“Initially I couldn’t stand up at all because I’d just feel nauseous. I’d get mad headaches. I can’t explain the pain. Once I did start standing, I couldn’t actually look down because the moment the blood started going to the head, I started getting dizzy… I had that for about three months. Even when I left hospital I couldn’t really do much properly.
“Now I can stand up properly. I can walk properly but the moment I look down I always get headaches.”
The surgery on his neck left a scar that’s impossible to ignore and the imagery of what it must have been like at the time of the accident is too immense to consider. And yet it’s at times like that which doctors must perform miracles that even the patient cannot understand. How did they stitch the arteries back together? I asked, how does that work?
“I have less than no idea,” he says. “They just did.” But, again, it’s far from normal and the procedure left him with one severe compromise. “There’s no blood flow through my right jugular vein. All of my blood is draining out my left jugular vein; the other one is blocked off completely.”
He is quick witted and prompt with his answers even if it sounds as though he’s deliberating, perhaps because getting the actual words out is difficult. There is brain damage but it doesn’t influence his thought process or daily function.
“The part of my brain that’s affected is motor skills, the left side of my body is terrible. I can’t type well with my left hand. Or I can’t control my toes or my feet, so that’s pretty much what the brain damage has done.”
The body is a remarkable thing and Girdlestone’s powers of recovery have offered inspiration to many. He was voted New Zealand Cyclist of the Year at the end of 2016 and yet he didn’t attend the awards ceremony; he didn’t expect to be in the running. “Actually, I wasn’t told: someone tagged me on Facebook saying, ‘Congratulations’. And I was like, ‘Oh… what?’ “I read the article and I was quite surprised to be honest. I was honoured, but surprised.
“I know Jack Bauer, George Bennett, Shane Archbold… all of those guys. I thought they had a pretty good season so I would have thought any one of them would have got it as opposed to me who was laying dead for half the year.”
That said, he also recognises that people appreciate what he has been through and the manner in which he presents himself. This is surely what the panel believed was better than just another performance on the bike. Keagan doesn’t want any sympathy votes but he appreciates the award. The circumstances of the accident are extreme but his survival gives people hope. And with that comes inspiration.
“Everyone goes through pain. They endure it and it hurts. But if someone else is going through it and they get to the other side, then people can learn from it.”
Six months on from the accident, he has other stories to tell but Girdlestone recognises that the incident in Italy has shaped him physically as well as mentally… and spiritually. He had faith beforehand and it remains strong even after all his suffering. “I was a Christian before. But I’ll admit that I wasn’t the most committed even though I did always pray.”
His religion has helped him through the toughest times and it’s almost logical that he would believe in the afterlife after such an experience. “I guess it gives me something to believe,” he says in response to a query about his faith. “In hard times, you know you’ve got someone to talk to when no one else will listen. I don’t know, it’s just that I believe in another life after this. I believe someone was looking after me that day because there is no reason I should be here.
“A doctor that sewed me back together said, ‘We did a good job but you shouldn’t be alive.’”
He believes his prayers were answered but, even with his explanation about a very serious topic, he eventually finds a reason to laugh. “I didn’t want to die but while in hospital, I didn’t mind if I did because everything was so painful. I tried to fight it as long as I could and it paid off I guess.
“There are a lot of theories going around, one being that the reason I survived is because my heart rate was so high, I had so much blood in my brain and it helped. I’d been told that I’ve got a big head, so it served me well that day.”
So many athletes prop themselves up in times of doubt with ego but Girdlestone, despite his “big head”, seems to do better with humility and even a little bit of humour. “It’s ironic,” he says of his faith in the lead-up to the crash, “because my dad and I both prayed the night before the day of my accident that I could get the opportunity to show the world what I’m made of. I guess I should have been more specific on what I meant.
“There’s no doubt that you have to appreciate life, that it’s so fragile: in an instant your life can change no matter where you are: on top of the world or not… It’s not about who it happens to or why it happens, it’s how you endure it that makes you who you are.”
– By Rob Arnold