For every one of the approximately 2,800 motorcyclists who died in crashes in 2000, at least another 20 bikers sustained nonfatal injuries. For some it was just a broken arm or leg. The less fortunate survivors ended up with damage to the brain, the most vital organ in the body.
Motorcyclists who sustain catastrophic brain injuries may never recover. If they do, it's a slow and unpredictable recovery, with outcomes ranging from temporary loss of consciousness to any number of disabilities that can leave a person dependent on others for a lifetime. Even in the best case, an injured person's behavior and personality may change so much that he or she seems like a completely different person.
Behind every brain injury statistic, there's a personal story of unimaginable loss, frustration, and sadness. The tragedy is compounded when the survivors and their loved ones know it might have been prevented by something as simple as strapping on a helmet.
At 26, Jeff Popovich of McHenry, Illinois, had his life cut out for him. He had a successful career as a professional in graphic arts, his own condominium, and a steady girlfriend. But one night in October 1986, he made a decision that effectively ended it all. He left his helmet hanging in the garage and went out for a motorcycle ride. Later when he was found on the road, he was alive but unconscious.
Jeff's father, Bob, explains that the bike probably flipped over when Jeff tried to avoid a deer. The bike most likely landed on Jeff's head, causing a massive brain injury. He then spent two and a half years in hospitals and treatment facilities until the bills hit his $1 million insurance cap. Not wanting Jeff to become a ward of the state, his parents took him home to live with them. For the next nine years, it was all they could do to take care of him.
"He had serious cognitive difficulties and his speech was affected, so all he could say were obscenities, which is typical of brain injuries," Bob says. "His memory was severely impaired, he had behavioral outbursts, and he would be abusive toward himself and verbally abusive toward others."
After reaching the point of exhaustion, Jeff's parents reluctantly placed him in a long-term care facility in Nebraska, the nearest place they could find. That was five and a half years ago.
"Jeff has been there ever since, and he will be in such a place for the rest of his life," his father says. "He will never do the things one normally could. He's still incontinent at night. His daily activities include someone helping him take a shower and shave, someone laying out his clothes, and someone preparing breakfast for him. The rest of the day is spent pretty much wandering around the facility doing whatever he chooses to do, which is not very much."
Bob says the best way to describe his son's mental state is that of a frustrated, retarded five-year-old child. "Unfortunately, he can remember his past. He can pick himself out of family pictures as a child. And I say unfortunately because it would be better for him if he didn't remember who he was and what he could do. There was a time when he could drive a car, he could own a home, he could make love. He will never do those things again, and he knows it."
Bob believes his son is in the best possible place, given the circumstances, but his hopes for Jeff's future are painfully bleak. "I pray every night that God would take him, simply because I know how frustrated he is with his present life."
There are some things a parent never does get over. "We still cry every night," Bob says.
As advocacy chairman of the Illinois Brain Injury Association, Bob Popovich tried in the early 1990s to get a helmet law passed. His efforts couldn't match those of the anti-helmet lobby. Illinois remains one of just three states with no helmet law.