Community helps put Anchorage mountain biker on road to recovery

bbragg@adn.comJanuary 3, 2014 

Kris Simpson finds silver linings on the white letter board in her husband's hospital room. Luke Simpson can't hear and can't talk, but he can see, read and blink, and so in the weeks after his mountain bike accident at Kincaid Park he was able to deliver a message Kris continues to hold near and dear:

I OK.

He spelled out that simple sentence by blinking when the appropriate letter was pointed to on the letter board. Later came a message for 4-year-old daughter Kate:

I SORRY.

Later still came his Christmas shopping list for Kate and 7-year-old son Will:

SLED.

They are words of hope to Kris. Two months ago, on the single-track bike trails she and Luke helped build, Luke's life nearly ended. He was critically injured when he was thrown over the handlebars of his mountain bike and landed on the far side of a double jump. Artery damage led to a debilitating stroke.

This week, silver linings yielded what passes as sunny news for a family changed forever by a traumatic brain injury.

On Thursday, Kris wired $100,000 to Craig Hospital in Denver after learning that a bed is available there for Luke.

On Saturday, a record field of participants will compete in the 22-mile and 44-mile Frosty Bottom fat-tire bike race, a fundraiser for the Simpsons.

And as early as Monday, the family may be on its way to Colorado, a journey made manageable by the kindness of friends, colleagues and even strangers.

Nearly $200,000 has been raised for Simpson, 42, an active figure in Anchorage's bicycling and construction communities. He's an avid cyclist who, as owner of Finishing Edge Curb & Sidewalk, is the sponsor of a summertime hill climb series. His work in concrete construction takes him all over Alaska.

The goal is to raise another $100,000, said friend and neighbor Tim Alderson, who is helping coordinate fundraising efforts. Simpson's insurance will cover 30 days, or one-third, of the stay at Craig Hospital; $180,000 is needed to cover the rest, Kris said. Then there are the costs of continuing care, adaptive equipment and modifications to the family's Anchorage home.

"They don't expect him to walk when he comes home," Kris said this week. "They don't have a magic wand. But they will assess him and figure out what his potential is and try to help him come home. They have fancy communication devices he can use. I still think he might be able to talk again -- his vocal chords are fine. He can make noises. He's moving his mouth a little bit and can also move his left leg and foot and toe.

"... There's hope. There's hope for progress.''

HEAD OVER HANDLEBARS

On the first Monday in November, Simpson spent the afternoon mountain biking with a couple of friends on the new single-track bike trails at Kincaid Park. His friends were riding ahead on a trail called Candy Mountain when they heard the crash.

They found Simpson, who was wearing a helmet, on the downslope of the second jump of a double jump. Doctors think he landed on his head after being catapulted over his handlebars on the first jump.

His nose was broken and his face bleeding. He was non-responsive. Kincaid Park isn't the easiest place in town to get a cell signal, yet friends managed to call and get help quickly.

The damage was extensive. "He broke his C-1, C-7 and T-1," Kris said, referring to cervical and thoracic vertabrae. "He fractured the base of his skull, his sinuses and the bone behind the nose. He broke his wrist and he broke his ribs."

The skull fracture and damage to the C-1 damaged three of the four arteries that go to the head, causing a stroke that put Simpson into unconsciousness in the early days after the accident, Kris said. How much of Simpson's condition is a consequence of the stroke is unknown, but Kris suspects it played a significant role.

As serious as his condition remains, things looked grimmer at the beginning. Simpson never responded when people spoke to him, suggesting a possible loss of cognitive function. Then doctors realized he was deaf.

"They say that's very rare," Kris said. "They haven't figured out why or if it's permanent."

Simpson raises or lowers his eyes to answer yes or no to questions written on a board. For more complex questions, the letter board is used and he spells out responses one letter and one blink at a time.

"Sometimes in the morning he's doing pretty good and I do feel like he's having a conversation with me," Kris said. "Other times he seems more tired."

She chokes up when she tells the "I SORRY" story. In those two words, Kris said, Simpson was apologizing to daughter Kate "for getting hurt and not having the same life that we always had.

"I still almost cry when telling you that," she said.

BIGGER JUMPS AND BIGGER BERMS

Some 16 miles of single-track trails have been built in recent years at Kincaid, the effort of Singletrack Advocates, a group formed in 2004 to build and maintain such trails in Anchorage.

Luke and Kris Simpson have been among the volunteer laborers, working last summer on a new network of trails. Although they did not work on Candy Mountain, they know it well.

"I was on that exact same trail that morning," Kris said.

Single-track trails can be inherently dangerous -- carved out of the woods, they are narrow with multiple jumps and turns.

"I think for most of the people who ride out there, there's the realization that you hate to think about it but there's a potential danger of riding those kinds of trails," said Bill Fleming, co-owner of Chain Reaction and the director of Saturday's Frosty Bottom.

Fleming said the newer trails at Kincaid, a network of six to seven miles that opened last summer, are gnarlier than the older trails on the park's south side.

"The new trails have bigger jumps and bigger berms," he said. "You get a lot more air on the new trails than the old trails."

Fleming isn't aware of any accidents as severe as Simpson's on any of the city's 25 miles of single-track trails at Kincaid and Hillside. Nor has he heard any calls for changes to the trails in the aftermath of Simpson's accident.

"I haven't heard anybody say they should be modified or regulated in a different way, and I don't think Luke would want that to happen -- he was adventurous," Fleming said.

Kris Simpson wavered when asked if all of the features of the trails should stay the way they are.

"I don't know about that," she said.

AN OUTPOURING

Almost as soon as Simpson was hurt, fundraising began. Within 10 days, more than $100,000 had been raised.

"We put it out there and it kind of went viral," Alderson said. "We've gotten contributions from all over the country. His story's really touched a lot of people."

The Simpsons travel in many circles. Will attends O'Malley Elementary. Luke is a big part of the construction community. Kris was an engineer for BP before she became a stay-at-home mom. Together they are part of the bike community.

Donations have come from people in all of those circles and beyond.

"It's really overwhelming," Kris said. "It makes me cry when I think of it. It makes me feel like we are really a part of this community. There's been a lot of different people (offering help) -- people in the construction industry, friends, people I have no idea who they are."

At times Luke's hospital room has bustled like Grand Central Station, so many friends and family are there. Will and Kate celebrated Christmas at his bedside.

"They're very aware," Kris said. "They have a pretty good sense of what's going on."

The Simpsons are an active family -- Luke is also a skier and climber, Alderson said, although his passion in recent years has been cycling. But Kris said the accident has made her wary.

"Even when the kids are jumping on the bed," she said, "I say 'Please stop jumping on the bed; we can only have one person in the hospital.' "

Luke is from Washington, Kris is from Minnesota and both made their way to Alaska separately. They met through friends in 2001, married in 2004 and intend to return to Anchorage after Luke's stay at Craig Hospital ends.

"I don't think we could leave Anchorage after this," Kris said.


Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com or 257-4335.

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