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Recovering from spinal cord injury, Groton mountain biker has hill to climb

Wallingford — Expert care and the latest technology are helping Brad Kerr walk again.

But the Groton mountain biker’s grit and optimism have been at least as important in his promising recovery from an April crash that injured his spinal cord, leaving him partially paralyzed, his prognosis uncertain.

Will he walk again? How about bike?

“I don’t see why I can’t,” Kerr, seated in a wheelchair, said during a recent interview here at Gaylord Hospital, a medical rehabilitation center that specializes in the treatment of patients with brain and spinal cord injuries, strokes and other serious conditions.

Kerr, 61, arrived April 23 at Gaylord, having undergone spinal cord surgery at Hartford Hospital. Nine days earlier, he’d been flown to Hartford by Life Star helicopter after crashing head-on into a tree while training for a Father’s Day race in western Massachusetts. About a month ago, Kerr started rehabilitation with an overhead sling system that supports his body weight, enabling him to walk, 50 feet at a time.

“What he has going for him is his outlook,” said Dr. David Rosenblum, a physiatrist, director of Gaylord’s spinal cord injury program and medical director of the hospital’s Milne Institute for Healthcare Innovation.

Kerr’s pluck was evident Wednesday during his second session with another piece of equipment known as a robotic exoskeleton. Strapped to his back, the gear enabled Kerr, in the grasp of physical therapist Tim Kilbride, to stand up from his wheelchair and practice his gait.

“He’s had a lot of muscle-tightening and has been working hard to loosen up,” Kilbride said.

Kerr experienced dizziness when he first straightened his slender, 6-foot-2 frame, but after some deep breaths and a drink of water, he tried again. Eventually, he would traverse a hospital lobby several times, completing 260 steps — nearly twice as many as during his first exoskeleton session.

Biker vs. tree  

Kerr, a carpenter by trade, took up mountain biking in 1989 while living in Aspen, Colo., where “everyone biked,” he said, because of the lack of downtown parking for cars. He moved back to Groton that same year and started riding competitively. By the mid-1990s, he was among the top finishers in his age category in statewide and New England competitions.

Active all his life, he’s also hiked, skied and surfed. As a teenager, he broke his collarbone in three places in a skateboarding mishap.

Kerr’s also a stickler for safety in general and helmet-wearing in particular, which probably saved his life. He described his April 14 accident this way:

He was planning to join his son, Will, in the upcoming Father’s Day race, and was training by himself in the Merritt Family Forest in Groton, “trying to get my best time,” he said. He’d reached the top of a hill and was starting to head down. Navigating a series of curves, he made a left-hand turn around a tree and was turning right around another tree when his handlebars clipped the tree, knocking the handlebars out of his hands.

“I flew straight into a big oak tree. Head-first right into the tree,” Kerr said. “I just dropped to the ground. My glasses landed next to my face.”

His racing helmet, which he has with him at Gaylord, absorbed a beating. It’s cracked in front, the visor knocked off, the camera mount, which wasn’t equipped with a camera at the time of the crash, completely crushed.

He never lost consciousness.

Lying there, he tried to reach for his phone, but couldn’t move his arms. He hadn’t seen anyone else on the trail and, his voice “gone,” couldn’t yell for help. He decided to nap.

Forty-five minutes later, Kerr awakened to a man looking down at him. The man and his wife, who had been hiking together, had come upon the injured biker. Kerr gave the woman his phone, which she used to call his son, who often monitored his father’s workouts via Strava, an online app popular with bicyclists and other athletes.

“I was at work (at the Wayfarer Bicycle shop in New London),” Will said in an interview. “I saw (on Strava) he started his ride, but after he was a couple of miles in, I stopped looking at it.”

The woman told Will they’d found his father and that he couldn’t move. She said they called 911.

“Dad got on the phone and said he wanted me to come get his bike, which I thought was a good sign,” Will said. “He said, ‘I messed up, Will.’ ... I could tell he was of sound mind.”

Will later communicated with the hikers, who visited him at the bike shop to inquire about his father. They asked that Will not identify them in any discussion of his father’s accident.

By the time Will got to the scene, not far from the Groton Town police station, first responders were removing his father from the woods on a stretcher.

When Will sought to cancel his father’s registration in the Father’s Day event, race organizers mistakenly canceled Will’s instead. So Will raced under his father’s name and won in his own age category. He presented the first-place medal to his father at Gaylord.

“He’s always been a strong-minded person,” Will said. “But given the first couple of months of recovery, for him to be doing what he’s doing now is mind-blowing.”

'Impossible to predict'

When he arrived at Gaylord, Kerr couldn’t move his legs at all and his arms were weak.

“But some signals were getting through,” Rosenblum, the Gaylord physiatrist, said. “People who have some sensation have a better prognosis than others who can’t feel or move below the site of an injury.”

Kerr’s recent neurological improvements and growing strength bode well for him.

“In most cases, people do improve over the first year after an injury, but over time the improvement is less robust, until there’s a plateau,” Rosenblum said. “For (Kerr), it’s too soon to tell where that plateau will be. I could not have predicted his functioning would be what it is today. It’s impossible to predict what he will do over the next four to five months.”

Kerr’s injury is among some 18,000 spinal cord injuries that occur annually in the United States, 78% of which involve males, according to statistics Rosenblum cited. The average age at injury has increased from 29 years during the 1970s to 43 since 2015.

Motor vehicle crashes account for most of the injuries, followed by falls, acts of violence and sports activities, including biking accidents, of which Gaylord sees “a fair number,” Rosenblum said.

According to the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration, 849 bicyclists were killed in crashes in 2019. And, the ThinkFirst National Injury Prevention Foundation reports, about 20% of children do not wear a helmet when riding bikes. About 60% of adults don’t wear a helmet.

Kerr’s advocacy for helmet-wearing makes him a candidate to deliver a ThinkFirst public service announcement, Megan Palmer, a Gaylord occupational therapist, said.

“He’s motivated, driven,” she said of Kerr.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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