Cycling accident strengthens Ohio couple's bond

Feb. 4, 2011 at 2:04 p.m.
Updated Feb. 3, 2011 at 8:04 p.m.

CINCINNATI (AP) - Tim Delgado looked at the patient's vital signs on the monitor. The heart rate dropped critically low.

Beep ... beep ... beep

A nurse squeezed an air bag, pumping 100 percent oxygen into a mask strapped over the woman's face.

Swish ... Swoosh

Delgado, a University Hospital emergency medicine resident, flew by Air Care helicopter to Mercy Anderson Hospital. A Jane Doe bicyclist in her 20s wearing a helmet suffered severe head injuries when hit broadside by a car.

The cyclist's chin smashed into the side mirror, breaking her neck in five places. She fractured her clavicle and sternum and flew over the car's roof, landing in an unconscious thud on the pavement. She lay choking on her blood.

Delgado, an avid biker, noticed the woman's Team Hungry uniform shorts and light blue shirt, the same uniform he wears when he rides. "There are only two females on our team," he thought, his gaze moving to the woman's bloody face, her eyes shut.

"That's my wife," said Delgado, 30. He did not yell or scream. It was a simple statement of fact: "That's my wife."

He walked out of the room, leaving the attending doctor, two emergency nurses and his flight nurse with his wife, Alison Delgado, 27.

A fellow 2009 University of Cincinnati medical school graduate and resident at Cincinnati Children's, she'd dropped off a burrito at the hospital for him earlier that Saturday afternoon, Oct. 16. She planned a long bike ride after working 13 days in a row.

Tim walked back into the hospital room and started to cry. His flight nurse spoke into her radio: "This is my doc's wife. Dispatch a second helicopter."

Tim opened his wife's eyes to check her pupils. They were slightly dilated, reactive and symmetrical. A good sign.

"I hated that because I was the doctor it delayed her transport," he said.

Tim sat in the passenger seat of the second helicopter on the return flight to University. He couldn't see his wife because of the aircraft's bulkheads.

For the rest of the flight, memories of their short time together flickered through his mind, like the blurred reds, yellows and greens of the fall landscape 700 feet below him.

They married May 14 in Covington's Devou Park. He'd gotten her into cycling. A hypercompetitive overachiever, she took to it naturally. He proposed after a 3-mile, 1,300-foot ride up Lookout Mountain in Golden, Colo. He'd become intrigued while reading an Enquirer profile about her. The former Alison Bedingfield won the 2005 Flying Pig, her first marathon. They would enter the same medical school class.

The helicopter pilot didn't circle the landing pad atop University Hospital to reduce speed. He went straight in. Tim bolted from the passenger seat. As a husband, he was blessed and cursed with a doctor's knowledge of his wife's condition - close to death.

He ran inside to call the elevator. "Time is critical," he recalled thinking. "I was going to do everything I could do to give her a fighting chance."

That fight for survival expanded and then contracted into a tightly focused approach to Alison's care over the next two months.

"Anything I could do for Alison to get her to the level she was before, I will do for her," he said.

In the heat of that moment, Tim knew their lives would never be the same, even if Alison cheated death.

What he didn't know was how the accident would change him.

Alison has no memory of the week before the accident or the two weeks following it.

She broke her jaw in two places. Doctors wired it shut.

She didn't wake up. One day passed. Then two. Finally, on the fifth day she opened her eyes.

An angiogram - a mapping of the brain's blood vessels - revealed an aneurysm in the left front region, the part that controls speech.

Doctors inserted a stent Oct. 25 to prevent that bulge in the blood vessel from rupturing. The sack broke during surgery, forcing doctors to operate again Nov. 2. That procedure, called coiling, is not as invasive as opening the skull and involves filling the aneurysm with steel wool-like thread to prevent blood flow.

Despite the setback, Alison improved. Halloween was a milestone. They'd planned to go to a party as the Mad Hatter and Alice in Wonderland. He showed up that afternoon in his costume at her bedside. She recognized him.

"You were hit on your bike by a car," he told her. "It wasn't your fault. You're going to be OK. We're going to get you back to work."

Her first thoughts: "The last thing I remembered was being at Children's. I knew I was sick and in the hospital and my body hurt."

They watched "Toy Story 3" and "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" on the iPad that Tim bought for her after doctors suggested he could use electronic flashcards to help her regain her speech and vocabulary. He read to her from the book "My Grandfather's Blessings."

"Do you like this book?" he asked her at one point.

She shook her head no.

"Would you like a different book?"

She nodded yes.

He replaced that with Lance Armstrong's "It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life."

"She liked that," Tim said.

On Nov. 2, the day of her second brain surgery, Alison was not allowed to eat.

"Ali can't eat," her husband told nurses and family, "I won't eat. We're a team."

The operation that day was successful. Doctors didn't have to cut open her skull. Two days later, they transferred her to Drake Center for rehabilitation. Tim didn't leave her side for the 13 days. He slept on a couch in her room.

Sometimes, she'd call him by name. Other times he was James, her brother's name.

She made a rapid recovery despite the stumbles.

The former Colerain High School cross-country star walked on a treadmill, tossed a rubber ball against a wall and - even with a neck harness fastened across her chest and back - went outside to shoot baskets.

Doctors released her Nov. 17, ordering angiograms at three, six and nine months. Tim grabbed a tracheostomy tube before they left.

"I'm not sure why, I just did," he said.

Alison looked ahead. "I wanted to go back to work in January," she said.

In the meantime, she walked with her mother and cuddled with the two cats that she calls "my boys," Kevin and Spoke. The couple planned to go to the Bengals' home game the next day against Buffalo. She cleaned the little bungalow-style house they bought in Hyde Park. Tim resumed work on the deck he'd started out back.

He no longer took intimacy for granted. He missed breathing in the scent of her subtle floral perfume.

"While she was in the hospital, all I wanted to do is lay next to my wife." At 9:47 p.m. on Nov. 20, he wrote on his Facebook page: "Nice little Saturday with my wife."

They went to bed. Tim turned off the light. He was awake when he heard her complain she was uncomfortably hot. "Oh, my head," she screamed. She vomited. She had seized up, her arms flexed and fists locked near her face.

Tim screamed. He knew the aneurysm had ruptured. Alison bled into her brain. He called 911. He cradled her in his arms to carry her downstairs. She continued to choke on her vomit. The doctor in him knew he had to do what the husband tried to resist - poke the tube he'd taken from Drake though the scar tissue on his wife's neck to allow her to breath.

Alison remembers scenes of that night: "I was on the floor. I felt like I was dying."

The first two tracheotomy attempts failed. He knew he was hurting her. She fought him. The third time the tube went in. She coughed it out. He'd need to secure it. He knelt on her left hand. He stabbed her a fourth time with the tube.

He rode in the back of the ambulance and stroked her dark hair. His mind raced with fear: "I might lose her, I really might lose her. She's been through all of this, and I might lose her."

Alison's second stay at University Hospital further tested her strength and Tim's will.

Doctors had prescribed a combination of aspirin and Plavix to prevent the repaired aneurysm from clotting and causing a stroke. They determined the coiling process was, at best, temporary. This time, surgeons would have to go through a hole in her skull to clip, or seal, the neck of the aneurysm to prevent it from filling with blood. Yet the clipping procedure would be especially risky to patients taking blood thinners because doctors would have a difficult time to stop bleeding that might occur in the brain.

That week, Alison developed vasospasms, a condition that prevents enough blood from getting to parts of the brain. Doctors walked a tightrope, treating her with medicine that increased her blood pressure to force blood through the brain but not too much so it would rupture her aneurysm again.

They needed to wait until the aspirin/Plavix treatment could be stopped so the blood could thicken enough to operate safely. That day didn't come until Dec. 11.

Pain gripped Alison, especially at night. Tim slept in her room and held her hand. Alison lost 20 pounds off her already small frame. Tim brought Alison her favorite food: French toast from First Watch, Skyline 3-Way and Graeters raspberry chip ice cream.

"Tim would be a rock in the room with Ali, but when he was with us, he'd cry and say, 'I just want my Ali back,'" said his sister Amanda Graves, 34, of Madeira. "He was so alone. Then, he'd say, 'She's going to be OK, right?'"

Amanda and Tim made a photo quilt for Alison.

Tim and Alison recited the "Prayer for Healing" each night. Sitting at home on their couch earlier this month, he read the prayer out loud to her for the first time since her second hospitalization. Tim cried hard. Alison looked into her husband's face and squeezed his arm.

O loving One, renew me this day in your love, grant me life.

While still in the hospital, Alison told Tim, "I just want a normal brain. I want to go back to work. I want to go home."

She later said, "I knew I could be paralyzed. I knew I could go blind. I knew I could end up a labor to Tim instead of a joy."

On Dec. 11 Tim rode the elevator with Alison and walked her to the operating room. He kissed her. "When you wake up, I will be right here."

Other residents in Tim's program visited with him. A dozen family members spent the day in a special room provided by University officials. The distractions, mixed with fatigue, dulled Tim's senses.

Dr. Mario Zuccarello, director of the neurovascular program for the UC Neuroscience Institute at University Hospital, performed the operation. "It went as well as could be expected," Zuccarello told Tim nine hours later.

"I knew what that meant," Tim said. "It was like seeing the pink in the sky after a storm."

His first words to his wife, "You're going to be OK."

Two days later, on Dec. 13, Alison went home.

She wants to return to work in April, but June is more realistic, Tim said. She wants to run her normal 6 to 8 miles a day and bike again, though she must finish rehabilitation first. Tim takes her to the gym every other day. They do weight training and ride elliptical machines for 20 minutes. She had gotten braces off her teeth two days before their wedding. Now, she'll need extensive work to replace missing and broken teeth. Her angiogram revealed an aneurysm on the right side of her brain, unrelated to the crash. Her surgery is scheduled for March.

"It's very fortunate they found it because at some point in her life, it could have ruptured," said Tim, who finds a reason for optimism. "As bad as things were, they could have been worse."

Alison has health insurance, yet some of her more than $800,000 in medical bills are not covered. Friends held a fundraiser Thursday night at a downtown bar.

Tim is always at Alison's side.

He takes her to speech therapy three times a week instead of the prescribed two. He drives her to Children's Hospital for noon forums with other doctors.

An overachiever, like his wife, he put his career on hold, taking off two months before returning to work eight shifts in January.

"The second time (she went in the hospital), I don't think he could have gone on without her," said Graves, who joked her younger brother once was happy sleeping beside his bike in a tent. "He used to intellectualize everything. He's not a cardboard box anymore. He used to bottle everything up emotionally. This incident changed him. He is very vulnerable now."

The Delgados, for their part, said the crash changed them both.

Now, she wants a child before she hits 30 or spots her first gray.

Alison is even more driven to succeed. "I'm meant to be here," she said. "I need to be successful because I would have died if I didn't have importance in this life. I need to be a good doctor. I need to be a good wife."

Tim said he will be a better husband and doctor. "I feel closer to Alison than I ever could have imagined. ... Whatever happens to her happens to me," he said.

"When I am stressed out or dealing with a hard patient, I know I can get through it now. I know I can reach deeper than I thought possible before this. I recognize now how much the sticks hurt, how embarrassing a pelvic exam can be. Now, my patients are people who happen to be sick as opposed to a sick person.

"Now, I realize that my patient is someone's Ali."

The image of his unconscious wife - her body bent, broken and bleeding - is not easy to erase.

"I felt like I was stabbed in the heart down to my gut. This can't be happening," Tim recalled thinking at the time of the crash. "We'd just begun our life together.

"I know now every moment is a gift."


Information from: The Cincinnati Enquirer,



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