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Learning to live again: Brooke Hopkins struggles through rehab after bicycling accident

Published September 4, 2009 3:30 pm

Retired U. English professor confronts days of pain and frustration, along with years of memories.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

At 5 a.m., Brooke Hopkins dreams he is swimming through a school of giant jellyfish, right up until the moment a nurse awakens him with a suppository. That's how Hopkins begins every day at the South Davis Rehabilitation Center, where he has been since March. The retired University of Utah English professor broke his neck in a Nov. 14 bike accident and is almost completely paralyzed.

He has some movement in his fingers and toes, but no control over bowels or bladder, chest, thighs, shoulders, ankles or knees. He must be rolled and hefted, swathed and catheterized, poked and pushed. He endures huge swings in his temperature and blood pressure.

Although he has little sensation in his limbs, they often are racked by spasms so wrenching it feels as if he's on fire, or crushed in a vise.

Hopkins can't cough or clear his throat. He can't feed himself, peck out an e-mail or grasp a phone. A ventilator breathes for him, a pacemaker keeps his heart on task and a head-activated wheelchair moves him from place to place.

To the 67-year-old dynamo, such helplessness and limits are excruciating.

A handsome, lanky, Charlton Heston look-alike, Hopkins was physically at ease in his body and always in motion -- striding in front of his British Romanticism classes, scrawling all over the blackboard, trekking in the Himalayas, whipping up a gourmet meal or rhythmically dancing in blues bars. An engaged and engaging conversationalist, Hopkins attracted a multitude of friends. Adored by his wife, the nationally renowned medical ethicist, Peggy Battin, he was a magnet to his stepchildren, sister, in-laws, and the kind of grandfather who got down on the ground to wrestle with his young grandchildren, who called him "Mountain Papa" (their other grandparents live near the beach).

Where is that person now? And where is this trajectory taking him?

One night a Tibetan Buddhist monk in maroon-and-saffron robes swept into Hopkins' Bountiful rehab room and delivered a piece of ancient wisdom.

"The body is nothing; it is ephemeral," the lama told him. "The mind is everything."

Hopkins remembered that sentiment when he saw, for the first time, his emaciated body in the mirror while being wheeled into the shower. He either could be depressed by the sight or celebrate his expanding mental powers and social skills, either indulge in self-pity or confront the challenges ahead with dignity and drive.

"The lama's words came back with their full force," he recalls, "and I understood them for the first time ... and my potential depression lifted."

This is what has sustained and inspired Hopkins all these months. He spends much of his day chatting with people around him. He jousts verbally with a friendly Basque physical therapist and clues into his caregivers' personal dramas. He impetuously offered to pay a month's rent for an aide who was fired. His heart aches for other patients with no insurance or support systems.

When a group of U. of U. colleagues arrives one morning to play the harmonica, standing bass and fiddle in his room, Hopkins grins and joins in. Fully aware of the irony, he belts out -- in his breathy baritone through the ventilator -- the Rolling Stones' classic, "You Can't Always Get What You Want."

It was clear: Brooke was himself, reborn.

Midmorning » Hopkins' 6-foot-5 frame is hoisted by an automated lift from his bed to a jury-rigged stationary bike, which Battin brought from their Salt Lake City home.

Dave Worthington, a physical therapist, places Hopkins' feet on the pedals and holds his knee so it doesn't fall to the side. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Hopkins' left foot inches forward. As it moves to the top of the rotation, Worthington pushes foot and pedal over the top. Hopkins does the same with the right foot, along with the same help from Worthington. Then they start again. It takes an hour for Hopkins to complete 80 revolutions -- a far cry from the furious pace he pedaled on that terrible November day.

For a long time, Hopkins didn't remember much about his accident. Little by little, snatches of memory have returned.

That morning, he had finished teaching a Mark Twain class and decided to unwind by cycling up City Creek Canyon. He made a giant pot of his famous chili verde for a shindig with his students that evening, strapped on his helmet and headed for the canyon. As he rode down and around a blind curve, another cyclist was riding up and they collided in the middle of the road. The other man's bike was wrecked, but he was not injured. Hopkins was thrown off his bike and landed facedown on the roadside.

He now recalls hearing a scream, "Watch out," and mouthing the words, "I can't breathe."

Within moments, James Richards, an LDS stake president biking uphill, was on the scene, followed almost immediately by Denise Ward, a LifeFlight nurse who works in the respiratory ICU at Intermountain Medical Center. While others were afraid to touch him, Ward rolled Hopkins on his back, began chest compressions and instructed another passer-by to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Seven minutes later, an ambulance rushed him to University Hospital.

Hopkins remains mystified that one of the people most qualified to help him was instantly on the scene. Was it divine intervention, karma or luck?

Questions of fate often were at play in the Romantic poetry Hopkins spent his career studying. Again, it was Salt Lake City's Lama Thupten Dorje Gyaltsen, originally named Jerry Gardner, who helped him put the matter to rest.

The Tibetan Buddhist advised him not to wonder why the accident had occurred nor why he was saved. Rather, he urged, just accept it and move into the present, however painful it might be.

"It is what it is, he told me," Hopkins recalls.

Besides, there were more pressing matters to address -- like how to breathe.

Afternoon » Hopkins tips back to a 45-degree angle in his automated wheelchair, listening to The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin on tape and trying not to die.

This is his daily "trach mask trial," during which he is unhooked from his respirator and breathes on his own. Normally, thousands of nerves and muscles move the diaphragm in breathing. For Hopkins, who has only about a hundred of those, it requires extraordinary physical and mental concentration to take a single breath.

When he arrived in the rehab center, Hopkins could stay off the ventilator only for about five minutes, every second filled with dread. It felt like drowning. Panic set in. Time slowed to such a standstill that he asked an aide to hang his Hawaiian shirt over the clock.

The only way for him to ease the anxiety: Take slow, deep breaths and try to empty his thoughts, using meditation techniques he learned in workshops years ago.

"Breathing in, I calm my body and mind," he chants from a tape he heard while driving to the Utah Shakespearean Festival in Cedar City. "Breathing out, I smile at the world."

Meditation training helped but is not analogous to his breathing trials, he says. "I'm here not for 10 days but 10 months. No words can capture how hard it is. It's so long, so incremental, so relentless."

On a good day, Hopkins now can breathe off the vent for about two hours at a time. Days of tearful outbursts often follow.

"You cry because you are relieving something that gets pent up inside you," he says. "But it's not depression."

Hopkins knows the difference.

He first experienced what can only be called clinical depression as an 11-year-old at a Canadian Scout camp. Overwhelmed by thoughts of an earlier childhood trauma, Hopkins spent his days sobbing alone in the woods while the other boys were fishing, canoeing and tying knots. He had no idea what was happening and no way to stop it. Eventually, he would learn that his emotional chaos had a name and spent 15 to 20 years with doctors and psychologists to transcend it.

"I didn't want to die not overcoming depression," he says. "I don't want to die having been defeated by this injury."

Dusk » Hopkins sits with Battin on the center's balcony, watching the sunset over Antelope Island. He delights in the way the sun lowers over the Great Salt Lake in a bright yellow-orange glow. He is warmed by the memory of the couple's many hikes on the island.

Nature long has seduced Hopkins, who spent many happy days and nights in its embrace -- biking, skiing, snowshoeing and trekking -- three weeks in Peru, two in Argentina, five days in Morocco. Never long enough.

"I'm something of a masochist," he says. "I like to stretch my body and psyche at the same time."

That's why Battin began months ago plotting a way to get Hopkins somehow back on the trail -- even if friends had to carry him. Thus was born the Apa Sherpa Himalayan Carry Chair or, for short, "the Sherp."

Battin enlisted the help of Terrell Pool, of Diamond Mold Inc., who mounted a mesh chair on steel girders long and light enough for Hopkins' friends to carry. Hopkins was tied to the chair with bungee cords so he wouldn't fall out.

On the day they tried it out in South Davis' commons room, the five engineers, one doctor and Apa Sherpa, who has summited Everest a record 19 times, felt like "the Wright brothers."

"Where's the champagne?" asked Dominic Echeverria, Hopkins' playful and creative occupational therapist.

Though the contraption needed refinement, Pool was pleased. And he wouldn't hear of taking money for his time or materials.

"We're honored to participate in Brooke's adventure," says Poole, once an English major at the U. "It's a great endeavor."

Later, Hopkins' doctor, Jeffrey Rosenbluth, arranged for his patient to join a group of disabled patients on an excursion to Snowbird.

Hopkins seemed delighted by the chance to experience the outdoors for the first time since November. But as the tram carried the wheelchairs to Hidden Peak, reality slapped him. He nodded toward all the peaks he had climbed and felt a pounding sorrow that he never would ascend any of them again.

"I looked at the trailhead, and I could look out over the mountains," he says. "It was very bittersweet."

With a catch in his throat, he says he hopes the gains of this new life one day will outweigh his losses.

Late night » Nearly every night Battin or friends bring Hopkins' favorite foods for dinner -- Thai egg rolls, chicken with lemon, olives and capers, red lentil soup, Squatters beer. They feed him, chat with him, discuss news, politics and the existential absurdities of American life.

Battin snuggles with him on his oversized bed, collaborating on a blog chronicling the experience.

"What replaces the physical intimacy we had is a kind of emotional intimacy that comes from trying to share honestly a deeply traumatic experience," Battin says. "It makes you reflect at a much deeper level about what's important in life."

Such reflections are Hopkins' true gift, his doctor says.

"I have never met anyone who can more clearly demonstrate and speak to what it's like to go through a spinal cord injury," Rosenbluth says. "He and Peggy provide an interesting, rich experience with new insights for everyone around them. It's as close as you can get to understanding it without being paralyzed."

On several occasions, Hopkins has found himself in conversations more vivid and real than he ever before experienced. The extended family has drawn close around him and one another during these nine months.

Sara Battin Pearson lives in Seattle with her husband, Greg, son, Max, 7, and daughter, Sydney, 5. Though they are sad about his limitations, visiting in his rehab room has become the new normal. When they enter the room, Hopkins raises his bushy eyebrows in a delighted welcome. He watches the children as they flit around the room, touching levers and drawing pictures for him.

"It's all about his eyes," Pearson says. "He has learned to relate on such a different mental level."

Pearson seeks for the few places on his body he still can feel, stroking his face or massaging his scalp. She visits as often as possible.

"This has been the defining moment in our family's life," Pearson says.

One night in the darkened room, Hopkins and his stepson, Michael Battin, opened up to each other in unexpected ways. Hopkins praised Michael's work with EMTs and paramedics as evidence of a nurturing spirit, a reflection of 42-year-old Battin's true self.

In response, Michael thanked Hopkins for guiding him into manhood by taking him on wilderness trips, camping, fishing and climbing. With unguarded emotion, they professed an abiding love for each other. The exchange meant the world to Hopkins.

"I see that moment as part of the Shakespearean romance part of this narrative," Hopkins says, "where suffering produces new sorts of insight, where families are reconstructed and reunited, where the roles of fathers and sons or fathers and daughters -- whether biological or new fathers, like me -- work on another plane."

If Hopkins had to choose between the ability to feed himself and roll over, and his newfound spiritual and psychological growth, "I'd give up physical autonomy," Hopkins says without hesitation. "I have learned the depth of compassion and friendship."

There is no telling how far Hopkins' physical therapy will take him. If he is able to breathe on his own, he can go home. Soon he will have enough finger dexterity to drive his wheelchair with a joystick. Of course, he hopes for much more.

Always a teacher, he sees himself back in the classroom, whether lecturing about literature or about his journey to a new life. He ponders writing a book as a guide for others facing such traumatic reversals. He wants to make his stepson proud.

At the end of the day, Hopkins drifts off to sleep, perchance to dream. In a few short hours, it all starts again.


From the couple's blog

» Aug. 4

It would be difficult to do any of this without Bach, whose music goes nowhere - simply plays with itself, simply enjoys its own endless play, endless variation, endless ingenious pleasure.

» May 19

We do realize how much suffering one overlooks -- we look away from it, we fail to see it, we shield ourselves from people who are wounded or maimed or diseased, or different in some way; we marginalize them or even worse, barely see them at all. This changes when you spend a lot of time in hospitals, and see both the suffering undergone by numerous patients, some of whom are much worse off than Brooke, and also the extraordinary love and care given by nurses and aides who work in the hospitals.

» April 12

Neither of us is particularly religious, but the sense of resurrection is uncannily real -- from a body that seemed so completely dead to any sensation or activity, so utterly motionless, so totally paralyzed, to one in which there are stirrings of life. ... We had a lovely dinner together last night, leftovers from a wonderful dinner with friends the night before -- Moroccan tagine, couscous, beet salad, a spectacular apple tart. We talked, talked. And kissed. And today, Easter, we're again eating leftovers, but even more fully imbued with this remarkable secular sense of resurrection.

Source: brookeandpeggy.blogspot.com






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