Amanda Hansmeyer was putting her children to bed at her parents’ home in Dallas, Texas, on the evening of Aug. 10 when her phone rang, indicating the call was from 911.
She might not have answered it, Amanda said this week, except that she knew her husband, Brok Hansmeyer, was mountain biking back home in Duluth.
It was the call no one wants to get about his or her spouse.
Brok had been in an accident, the dispatcher told her. Help was on its way.
She asked about his condition.
“They wouldn’t really tell me,” recalled Amanda, a former News Tribune photographer. “They told me he was conscious.”
She asked if she needed to get on a plane and come home.
“The dispatcher said … ‘If I were you, I would.’ ”
At that moment, Brok was lying on his back on Flyover Country, which is a loop that’s part of the Mission Creek Trails in far western Duluth. He had tried to take off his helmet but couldn’t manipulate the buckle.
He had no feeling in his legs.
“I just basically hit my legs, my thighs, and it was like hitting a 100-pound bag of cement,” Brok recalled this week. “There was nothing there.”
The 38-year-old real estate agent already had had a close call that day. In the morning, he had taken Amanda, 40, and their boys Roman, 4, and Noble, 1, to the Minneapolis airport so they could catch the flight to Dallas. Brok had an out-of-town conference scheduled the following week, and Amanda was using it as an opportunity for her parents to see their grandchildren.
On the drive home, Brok came upon an accident on Interstate 35E. Brok made a split-second decision, swerving to just miss becoming part of the crash.
Much later, he took advantage of a free evening to go mountain biking. It had been his main form of recreation for the past four years or so, he said. He took the Mission Creek Trails, which he had been on before. But to extend the ride and see terrain he hadn’t seen before, he added Flyover Country, which he hadn’t previously ridden.
“I came up on a spot, and I had that ‘oh-no moment,’ ” Brok related. “There’s about a 15-second gap in my memory of what happened, but it was a drop-off. And I went over the handlebars and landed directly on my head.”
Brok was unconscious for about 15 seconds, he thinks. When he came to, he saw his hands and fingers moving above his head, as if looking for the handlebars.
“I couldn’t have landed more perfectly,” Brok said. “I (ended up) on my back, and my backpack was shifting to my left. So after a little while, I shifted my shoulders a little bit, (and) was able to get my phone out of the backpack and then called 911.”
Shortly after emergency vehicles arrived at the trailhead, another biker planning a Saturday evening ride showed up. Upon learning the situation, Troy Taubman offered to ride ahead, find out exactly where Brok was and stay with him.
Brok had been told to stay on the line with the dispatcher, but when Taubman arrived he was able to call Amanda on Taubman’s phone and give her a better idea of the extent of his injuries.
Amanda, accompanied by her mother and her children, would take the first available flight to Duluth.
Meanwhile, yet another biker arrived, encountered the emergency vehicles and asked if help was needed.
Waylon Munch is the steward of the Mission Creek Trail for COGGS — Cyclists of Gitchee Gumee Shores. That means he coordinates volunteer work on the trail, and he had been there with a crew earlier in the day, he said in an interview this week.
It’s an area he knows well, said Munch, 30, spending several hours a week working on it and/or riding it in the summer.
“The trails out there in Mission Creek are by far the most remote trails that we have in Duluth,” he said. “The terrain is really steep. There's a lot of deep valleys and dense woods.”
Munch had returned to pick up some equipment, he said, but he also had his mountain bike with him so he could get a ride in while he was there.
When he learned the GPS coordinates of where Brok had fallen, Munch knew how best to get to him. An old roadbed, not shown on any maps, would lead to the spot.
He guided the rescue crews up Minnesota Highway 210 to the entry point for that road. The EMTs, on a tracked utility vehicle, followed Munch on his bike about a half-mile to the accident site.
“That old logging road, I’m not joking, it literally dead ends right where Brok had his crash,” Munch said.
Brok only had to be carried about 20 feet to the utility vehicle, he added.
By the time the group arrived, an EMT who had hiked in also was with Brok, Munch said. But getting a crew in and Brok out via the hilly, twisting bike trail would have been a much more difficult rescue.
Brok isn’t certain of the timetable, but thinks it was 45 minutes to an hour before the EMTs were able to reach him. The trip over the handlebars occurred about 6:30 p.m. on that summer evening. By the time the ambulance got him to Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center, he said, it was getting dark.
He underwent surgery that night and again on Sunday night for the separate vertebrae that had broken — C1 and C7. If C1 had pushed against his spinal cord, he was told, he wouldn’t have been able to reach or operate his cellphone on the trail.
“There’s a good chance I would have died on the trail,” Brok said. “Because you have a hard time breathing. And I was on a very remote trail. I don’t know if I would have seen anyone until the next day.”
On Tuesday morning, Brok experienced what he calls his third scary moment, starting with the near car accident and then the bike accident itself. With his father in the room, he was in a seated position when his blood pressure dropped precipitously.
“Then all of a sudden, it flatlined for about 30 to 40 seconds when I stopped breathing and my heart stopped,” he said. “So they came in the room and they chest-compressed me. They didn’t have to use the paddles, but they were getting those out.”
The immediate emergencies past, the Hansmeyers started to consider the next phase of treatment. A friend and a family member recommended Craig Hospital. The not-for-profit hospital in the Denver area specializes in treating people with spinal cord and brain injuries. The average patient is a 40-year-old male, they learned.
Craig Hospital sent a representative to Duluth to offer a presentation. Brok invited a couple of friends from the medical field to sit in on it. He made up his mind well before the presentation was over.
“If you come out to Craig, the No. 1 thing that everybody always says is, ‘Man, this is such a positive place,’” Brok related. “And it is a very positive place.”
When the Hansmeyer family arrived in Denver on Aug. 27, Brok was in bed, tethered to PICC lines. He advanced to a power wheelchair, and then to a manual wheelchair. A milestone occurred on Sept. 12, when there was some movement in his right knee and big toe.
“That was the first super-exciting sign that there was some connection between the brain and the legs,” he said.
In Denver, though, he had his fourth scary moment, when he choked on some food. The work on his vertebrae left his esophagus out of place, he said, and made swallowing unnatural.
Again, he survived.
About three weeks ago, another milestone occurred. The medical professionals had been noncommittal about Brok’s prognosis, not wanting to give false hope, he said. But on that day, a veteran doctor looked at some video of the movement in Brok’s legs.
“And he just was silent,” Brok related. “And then he just looks at me and he goes, ‘You’ll get back on your feet.’ … That was a huge boost of confidence.”
Indeed, Brok has begun making his first tentative steps. On Saturday, he walked 137 feet with the aid of a walker, with minimal help.
Allie Hamilton, a Craig Hospital physical therapist who has worked with Brok since he became an outpatient on Nov. 6, was noncommittal about Brok's future but positive about his progress during a phone interview on Wednesday.
"Brok's case has been one that has been fun to be a part of," Hamilton said. "Brok has been doing really well and has been able to see a lot of progress."
While Brok continues as an outpatient, the Hansmeyer family has been living in an apartment on the Craig Hospital campus. They were there on Monday morning, during a short interval ahead of his next appointment, when Brok and Amanda were asked over the phone what they were thankful for on this Thanksgiving.
Brok’s answer included long pauses, as he seemed to be struggling with his emotions.
“I’ve come a long way from lying on my back … wondering if I’m going to die … and now I’m walking with the walker a little bit,” he said.
He’s thankful, he said, for the care at Craig Hospital and the deep friendships he has made with men going through the same thing he’s experiencing. He’s thankful to God, he said, who has given him hope, peace and “a lot of patience,” through the journey.
He’s thankful for the army of support that quickly came to the family’s aid, Brok said. A Facebook post on the Monday after the accident resulted in 500-plus shares, 1,300 comments and 1,300 “like hearts.” They’ve received hundreds of cards. Friends and family have changed plans to be with them, first in Duluth and then in Denver.
“It feels like everyone I’ve ever known in my whole life knows about this, cares about us, loves us, is praying for us,” he said.
Amanda echoed what her husband said about the love and support they’ve received. But something came first on her thanksgiving list.
“I’m just so thankful to have my husband,” she said. “We didn’t really understand till we got here the full extent of how serious this really could have been for him if the bones had just broken a different way.”
In fact, Brok said, his neurosurgeon told him he had been within millimeters of becoming a full quadriplegic.
Medically speaking, Brok is a quadriplegic, Amanda said, but he has enough arm and hand movement that people aren’t necessarily aware of that. And there are ways to compensate. They purchased a $5 gizmo that enables Brok to open pop bottles, for instance.
The family plans to return to Duluth around Dec. 11, but not for long. They intend to spend the winter with Amanda’s parents in Dallas, in a climate more conducive to Brok’s continued rehabilitation.
When they return to Duluth in May, they expect to be a family of five, not four.
Their third child, a girl, is due in March.
A CaringBridge page and a GoFundMe page have been set up for Brok Hansmeyer.