TAMPA — It's Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic weekend. Thousands will celebrate life. Everyone will have a story, a reason for starting, a reason for finishing. So it is with Colleen Kelly Alexander, 38, down from her Connecticut home to compete in four Gasparilla races. She won't win any.
“I can't physically be at the front,” Kelly Alexander said. “What matters to me is getting to that finish line.”
Kelly Alexander will speak tonight at 6 p.m. at the Tampa Convention Center, meeting room 24. Her story beats all.
The Woman Who Wouldn't Die.
“Actually, I did. Twice,” Kelly Alexander said.
But here she is.
“I lived for a reason,” she said. “Every single person is on Earth for a reason.”
On the morning of Oct. 8, 2011, Kelly Alexander was riding her bicycle on the shoulder of the Boston Post Road, part of her daily 10-mile commute from her job to her home in Clinton, Conn. A veteran triathlete, she'd just completed a six-day, 600-mile ride through New England and New York for PeaceJam, her employer at the time, a nonprofit that encourages teens to commit to change themselves and the world. She loved youth advocacy and being a human rights activist. She was a newlywed, wild in love with her husband, Sean Alexander. They went to high school together in Daytona Beach. They wanted to start a family. She was in the best shape of her life.
A white blur. A 30-ton freight truck, carrying medical supplies, ran a stop sign. It smashed Kelly Alexander's world. She was sucked under the front wheels, then the double wheels in back. It crushed her bicycle and her body. It split her pelvis in two and broke her legs. It ripped open her body — her stomach, intestines, hanging out. It shredded muscles. It tore the skin off her lower body — “degloving” is the term doctors use.
“Am I going to die?” she screamed as faces and voices arrived, never losing consciousness.
“Until I died,” she said.
Her heart stopped after she arrived at Yale-New Haven Hospital. It took 20 minutes for the trauma team to get her back; their chest compressions cracked her sternum and ribs. (She'd flat-line again, the next day, while in surgery.) Her mangled body lost nearly all its blood.
“She was just as dry as a stone,” said Dr. Lewis Kaplan, the trauma surgeon in charge that day. He could have called it, pronounced the patient dead. But underneath that carnage, he spotted a fighter.
“I've taken care of thousands of trauma patients, but Colleen is a standout,” Kaplan said. “She's one of about three patients I've had with devastating injuries who've bulled their way through surviving and have absolutely thrived. The fire in the belly is all hers.”
Kelly Alexander awoke from a medically induced coma five weeks after the accident.
“Sean standing over me, smiling, in mid-sentence,” she said. “As soon as I woke up. I needed to have my life back. I knew it would never be the same, but I was alive — alive. That was it.”
There is no soft way to describe her long road. Kelly Alexander has undergone 20 surgeries since the accident, to save her left leg, and reconstructive surgeries, all kinds, with more ahead, at least seven. She went through a tortuous rehabilitation. At first, she would pass out after taking a few steps. Her wounds leaked blood. How would she ever run or ride? She'd sob. She'd rage. Why me? She'd already battled back after brain surgery for a herniated cerebellum in 2006. Sean would cry while he tried to clean her wounds at home. He didn't want to hurt her. Colleen says sometimes she just wanted God to take her in the night.
But nine months after she died, twice, she entered a race, a half marathon in New Jersey. She used a walker and wore a colostomy bag. Bandages covered her lower body, but she finished. “I was in so much pain, but I was laughing and smiling,” Kelly Alexander said. She has raced nearly 40 times since the accident, various distances. Each time, she gives away her finisher's medal.
“I want to thank my heroes,” Kelly Alexander said. “So I give them my race medals. I'm doing four races in Tampa, so I can give away four medals.”
Dr. Kaplan, who has coordinated her surgeries and recovery, has received one. So has the EMS crew who transported her to the hospital and kept her alive. So has a nurse who performed CPR on her in the emergency room. And the folks at the rehab facility. And Sean. On the year anniversary of her accident, in 2012, they climbed a mountain in Vermont. Kelly Alexander wants to run a full marathon to mark the third anniversary next October.
“It just speaks to the power of the human spirit, the power of perseverance,” Sean said.
She will always have scars, some of them gruesome. “I have a truck tire tread across my stomach, you can see it, and it'll always be there,” Kelly Alexander said. She'll have chronic pain. She will deal with incontinence the rest of her days. The accident left her unable to have children. The couple will adopt. Sean was adopted at birth.
Colleen Kelly Alexander has a simple message she shares as a motivational speaker and in the work she does for the American Red Cross, or in the name of trauma medicine, rehab medicine, all of it, anywhere she can help. She brings a smile everywhere she goes. She insists she has no magic answer, no secret tools. She simply tells people that there is hope, there is life, and it's all inside them.
“She is an activist in the finest sense of the word, raising money, raising awareness, being entirely selfless, a spokesperson for all the different parts of a system that took her in when she was more dead than alive,” Dr. Kaplan said. “You can't help but be buoyed by Colleen. She's one of those chipper souls.”
“When my life ended, I didn't even know I was gone,” Kelly Alexander said. “But I was brought back. If we live every day as if our number is right around the corner, and we embrace the gift of life that we have, it's so much more meaningful.”
We're all born on the start line.
It's about finishing.