The wild journey of John Carson

Late last summer John Carson was out for a training ride when he got hit by a SUV from behind. His world got changed when he was told he would most likely be wheelchair bound for the rest of his life. But John Carson had another idea about that.

Slowtwitch: Thanks for taking time to talk to us.

John: It is my pleasure. I have been following slowtwitch for some time now and never thought I would be featured on here. I mean I was a force to be reckoned with at the local sprint triathlon races where I live, but winning KONA was not in my future.

ST: John, did you really think slowtwitch only gives love to Kona winners?

John: Of course I know you give love to others than KONA winners, my name is Johnny Carson after all. ☺ You guys have done some great articles most recently the one about Laurel Wassner. In fact I was very hesitant about telling my story at all. I did not want people to think I was looking to get a pat on the back or something. It wasn’t till I decided to fundraise for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation that I decided to let people inside.

ST: Well Johnny Carson, you don't live in California?

John: My wife Tara and I live in Long Beach, NY. It’s a suburb in a small beach community just about 25 miles from NYC on the south shore of Long Island.

ST: Can you tell us about that accident?

John: My training had taken a back seat prior to the accident. I was newly married and we had bought a house that needed a lot of work. I had spent the last 6 months working on it nightly after working a full day for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. I would squeeze in an hour run here and an hour ride there. 5 days prior to the accident we had just moved in. The day of my accident I had taken the day off from work to get some things done around the house. I had a swim with members of my tri team that night at the local pool but wanted to get a max effort ride in. I got all my gear together and headed out on a local road that I have easily logged over 5000 miles in the last 7 or 8 years and it is a fast and flat out and back. So on July 16th, 2009 I headed out around 1 pm. Traffic was very light and the sun was high in the sky. I was moving along with the wind at my back at about 27 mph. I was on the right shoulder and only about a mile from my house when I was struck. The SUV that hit had come up from behind. The vehicle got along side me and made a right turn into me. The last thing I remember seeing was the vehicles headlight hitting my leg and hip. Witnesses to the accident said that I had landed head first. My helmet truly saved my life. I was thrown a good distance from the site of the accident so much so that I would later learn that the first cop on scene thought I was walking as my bike was nowhere in sight. When I came to rest on the pavement I must have come to and instinct took over and my first thought was to get up. I tried as hard as I could to get up but I couldn’t move. As I faded in and out of conciseness the fear of not being able to move became overwhelming. I never really thought about how I could barely breath I was just fixated on not being able to move.

My last lucid memory was the sound of the helicopter landing in the road and the thought of my wife at work being told I was hit by a car and died riding my bike. The next 1hr of care as I would learn later was crucial to my survival. The doctors were able to stabilize me and slow the swelling to my spinal cord by inducing a near hypothermic state in my body. This prevented the cord from swelling across which would have left my body without the ability to breath on its own and ultimately without any chance of recovery. When I finally came to, my wife asked me if I needed anything. I don’t recall saying it but she swears that I said, “ I think I need a new bike”. The visitors that had come to see me were asked to leave the room except for my wife and mother and that’s when the doctors told me what had a happened. I had suffered a Spinal Cord Injury at C5-C6 and was very fortunate to be able to breath on my own.

ST: The doctors were apparently not very hopeful about your recovery. What did they tell you?

John: Well, the hospital that I was airlifted to was only really a level 1 trauma center. They got me stable and that was their only concern. They really did not tell me much other then that I had suffered an injury to my spinal cord and needed to be transferred to a place that specialized in this type of care. Once I was stable I was transferred to Mt. Sinai Hospital and admitted to the Spinal Cord Injury Program. The doctors there ordered more tests to include multiple x-rays MRIs and CT scans of my cervical spine. I was fortunate to have not broken my neck and it was determined I had suffered a flexion injury of the cervical spine. The doctors told me I was lucky to have use of my hands and arms due to the location of my injury at c5-c6 of my spine. They explained that my injury not completely severed the spinal cord, but that I would most likely be wheelchair bound for the rest of my life. I had to keep a brave face on for my family and my wife but when the doctor gave me the news I felt for the first time the enormity of the situation I found myself in. That first night in Mt. Sinai I found myself alone for the first time since the accident and I cried myself to sleep. When I woke up the nurses put me in a wheel chair and wheeled me into the showers. They wanted to wash me and I refused to let them do it. I asked for the wash cloth and although I struggled through it I did it on my own. It was at that point that I decided that I would make the most of what I had and that I would do what it takes to get better. My physical activity from this point forward no longer centered around my next swim, bike or run but rather on learning how to live with my new situation and trying to regain the strength and muscle tone to give myself the best chance at walking. The doctors told me that less then 1% of people who suffer traumatic spinal cord injuries recover a 100%. They also told me that the first 6 months would be crucial in my recovery as the greatest gains are usually seen in this period. I worked tirelessly in that rehab gym in my time at Mt. Sinai. I brought my work ethic from all the years of cycling and triathlon training to my therapy. I was the first person in the rehab gym and the last person out 6 days a week.

ST: But you did start to walk unassisted without a walker or crutches about 2 months ago. Were the docs and your family surprised?

John: The Doctors and therapists were shocked. Since I started walking more and more, I was always trying to ditch the wheel chair and then the walker and crutches. If they asked me in therapy to walk 10 feet I would walk 20. No matter how hard or how much task or exercise hurt I never showed it. It was the competitor inside me that refused to show my competition how much I was hurting. I was probably ready sooner but the doctors and therapists were worried about me falling, or someone knocking me over. We would spend entire sessions in therapy focusing on just taking one single step. Trying to train my body and brain how to move with what I have left. The medical team was very clear that participating in any of the activities I used to before the accident including triathlon would now be with a greater risk. My doctor told me that I shouldn’t live life in a cotton room but that I would need to evaluate each activity and decide if it is worth the risk. What might have been a simple slip and fall in the past could undo everything I have worked so hard to regain.

ST: What were you training for at the time of your accident?

John: I was in training for the Nautica NYC triathlon and had the Montauk Half Iron distance race on my schedule for that September.

ST: Word is that you are getting ready for another race.

John: I am currently training for Ironman Lake Placid. It will take place a little over one year from the date of my accident. While most people started training over 6 months ago I was still in the wheelchair trying to get strong enough to walk more then a couple of steps. I have been swimming since January and riding the indoor bike as well. I have been only been able to walk unassisted without any walker or crutch for the past 2 months. The loss of sensation and motor function makes my walking very tough. I have to literally remind myself to move each foot in front of the other so I have my work cut out for me. When I initially decided to do this race I thought it would be in a hand cycle and wheelchair but as things progressed I decided that I would do it on my own 2 feet. Everyone in my inner circle thinks I am crazy but I need this race. I am not so concerned with the outcome that day but just getting to the start line is a victory for me. As to finishing I guess we will see what happens. My therapist is confident that if I have a great swim and hammer the bike that I should be able to leave myself enough time to make the cutoff. Most people would probably bet against me but so did the doctors when it came to my recovery and I proved them wrong every day.

ST: How did you get involved with the Christopher Reeve Foundation?

John: The Christopher and Danna Reeve foundation had been a tremendous help to my family. They advised them from the very beginning as to which hospitals would provide me with the greatest care and treatments giving me the best shot of recovery. The foundation spoke at length with my wife and family and provided them with information and books to help educate us on this injury. The people there truly were amazing in a very difficult time in our lives. When I decided to do Lake Placid it would have to be for a reason. I wanted to show others affected by paralysis that there is hope. I also wanted to raise awareness for a terrific foundation that has continued on after the loss of their founder and biggest advocate Mr. Christopher Reeve. I new that I had to do what I could to help raise money that will one day lead to finding a cure.

ST: What would you consider your toughest challenge you have to deal with on a daily basis?

John: Each day has its challenges. Some days my body cooperates with my brain and others it’s like it has its own agenda. My injury to my spinal cord reduced the amount of neuron pathways down the spine. Some days the traffic flows ok through the construction zone, and some days there is a car accident at that site and only certain vehicles get through. Getting out of bed in the morning can be rough and the added steps to get ready get tedious. My movements are based of what I can see. One of the things that really has not returned is my Proprioception (from Latin proprius, meaning "one's own" and perception) which is ones ability to know where there body is in relation to itself. Close your eyes and lift your foot off the ground. You know where it is because you feel it. Now put it back down and hold your hand out. You know where it is whether its up or facing down cause you feel it. Due to the lack of sensation I have I really struggle with my body’s awareness in space. I rely heavily on what I see. If I close my eyes even for a short period of time I am going down. In therapy I learned how to use what I can feel to get the results I did before. I had to rethink and essentially retrain my brain to stop looking for a response from something that’s not there and make it rely on what is. My flexibility has suffered as the extreme tightness has helped in allowing me to feel in certain areas aiding me in walking. On the downside it has caused orthopedic problems in my hips. I make the most of what each day gives me. I am alive and I have my wits.

ST: Thanks again.

John: You are welcome.

(ed) To get involved with the Christopher Reeve Foundation and support John Carlson quest check out