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Getting by, with a lot of help from his friends

After a devastating dirtbike accident, community rallies around Tom Bolewski and his family

Posted: June 8, 2008 2:51 a.m.
Updated: August 9, 2008 5:02 a.m.
 

Saugus resident Tom Bolewski speaks of his hope to one day ride his bicycle again. The 6-foot-1, 48-year-old former competitive cyclist and motorcycle rider also talks about what he'll eat as soon as he recovers - a Carl's Jr. Six-dollar Burger.

Although he is limited to his wheelchair and can only eat soft foods like scrambled eggs and banana bread for now, Bolewski, who became a quadriplegic after a dirt bike accident earlier this year, remains optimistic. As a longtime member of a bicycling group called the Santa Clarita Velo and a lover of other sports from dirt bike riding to snow and water skiing, Bolewski sees his recovery as just another finish line.

"I'm just going to put as much effort as I can into rehabilitating and just hoping for the best," he said.

He is not yet back on his bike or eating his favorite fast food, but he has come a long way in the past four and a half months, mostly of which has been spent at various hospitals. Just a couple of months ago Bolewski relied on a ventilator to breathe and was fed through a tube.

Since January the Bolewski family has been on a roller coaster ride of emotions, hearing different things from various doctors about Bolewski's future.

"They told me he'd be in a wheelchair, drinking with a straw," said Bolewski's wife, Kim. "They told me he'd be on a ventilator forever. They told me he'd have brain damage...

"We've had doctors saying that there is a possibility that Tom can walk someday... It depends on the doctor you talk to. So, we decide to listen to the people who think positively."

Bolewski is now off of the ventilator. He has slight movement in his hands and arms and can use them to maneuver his wheelchair and use a computer mouse. On his second day home from the hospital in late May, he moved the big toe on his left foot and then the other toes, even though he had not shown movement in that foot while at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Downey. He already had some movement in his right foot.

"What we have come to find is it seems that it depends not only on the injury and on your body, but mostly on your drive and your... motivation," Kim Bolewski said.

A former electrician and a Santa Clarita business owner, Bolewski said one of his major motivations comes from the support of the community, which banded together after his accident in a way he and his family had never expected. Since his injury friends, neighbors and strangers have raised thousands of dollars for him.

It all started after Jan. 20, when Bolewski's life changed in a split-second.

The accident
While in the middle of a yoga class in Glendale in January, Kim Bolewski received a message on her cell phone from her sister, Carrie Porter, informing her that Tom was badly injured.

Bolewski and two of his sons, Danny, 18, and Alex, 16, had joined family members and friends to ride dirt bikes at a camp site in California City in Kern County. His son Christopher, 20, was not with them.

Kim Bolewski remembers her sister saying that he was still breathing and was being transported to a hospital. Kim could tell it was serious.

"I knew it. I folded like a wet paper towel," she said. "I folded right down to the floor. I just knew it."

Bolewski had hit a rock while riding his Honda CRF450R motocross dirt bike, which sent him flying over his handlebars. He landed about 10 feet away in a small embankment. The 210-pound man with an athletic build hit the ground head-first.

Bolewski, now 180 pounds, remembers what crossed his mind after the accident.

"My first thought: I screwed up - big time," he said. "I started thinking about my family and survival. I wanted to make sure that I made it through because I knew it was bad. When I was laying there, I couldn't move."

Carrie Porter's husband and Bolewski's brother-in-law, Todd Porter, reached Bolewski just after the crash. Porter, a Los Angeles city fire captain and paramedic supervisor, delegated jobs to Bolewski's two sons and his own 16-year-old son and immediately started applying aid to Bolewski. About 45 minutes later, Bolewski was airlifted to the Kern Medical Center trauma unit in Bakersfield.

Bolewski had suffered a fracture to the fourth cervical vertebra, which paralyzed him from the chest down to an unknown level. The impact of the crash also cracked his helmet, crushing his nose, cheekbones and sinus cavities and fracturing his skull, according to one of his doctors and his family members. He underwent facial reconstructive surgery while at Kern Medical Center, during which time he suffered a collapsed lung and 106-degree fever. He later contracted pneumonia.

"He kept coming back," his wife said. "How many times I was at that bedside and they were telling me it doesn't look good... His heart was not going to stop."

Dr. Min-Ning Huang, a spinal chord injury specialist at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center, said Bolewski also suffered paralysis to his vocal chords. Huang said that weakened his speaking abilities and required him to get a tracheotomy, a surgery that creates an opening in the windpipe.

Bolewski spent about a month at Kern Medical Center. He then spent a few days at Valley Presbyterian Hospital in Van Nuys, where Kim Bolewski works as a surgical technician. Bolewski was then transferred to Barlow Respiratory Hospital, also located on the Valley Presbyterian Hospital grounds.

At Barlow Respiratory Hospital, Bolewski was able to breathe without a ventilator. He later moved to the Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Downey for about six weeks. There he worked on speech, occupational and physical therapy, regaining some movement and his ability to swallow soft foods.
Kim Bolewski took time off of work and stayed by her husband's side for much of his four months in the hospital.

She said he never gave up. Instead, she stayed positive, making jokes and working hard at his physical therapy. His key phrases became "Game on" and "It is what it is."

"He was a hard worker before all this, so he was going to fight it out no matter what here, whatever we asked him to do," said Kristin McNealus, Bolewski's physical therapist at the Rancho Los Amigos facility. She added that, as a former athlete, Bolewski looked forward to doing his arm weight training. "He was always going to give his all at every session... He worked until he was completely tired."

Meanwhile, as Bolewski slowly started his recovery process in the hospital, hundreds of people were supporting him at home.

The support
Bolewski's injuries forced him to retire early and shut down his business, Current Electrical Services. The accident left his family in a flux, particularly his wife, who worried about how to pay for medical expenses and future physical therapy treatment, since her husband had limited health insurance.

"You have to keep doing physical therapy, otherwise your muscles will regress quickly, so he has to keep it up," she said, adding that the fundraisers will go toward those ongoing expenses. "I'm sure it'll take forever to figure out and to find out how much we're going to have to pay. I just know that Tom deserves to be at home and not [to] be in a nursing home."

It was then that the family decided they needed to raise funds for Bolewski. They called together a meeting of family members, friends and neighbors and brainstormed about what they could do. About 25 people showed up, and together they thought of ideas - a poker night, a garage sale, a community barbecue and concert in the park. Porter took charge of the support group and helped organize the ideas, since her sister was constantly with Bolewski.

"There's just a lot of people that wanted to do something," Porter said. "We just felt we needed to get all those people together quickly so we didn't lose the momentum."

Little did Porter and the Bolewskis realize just how much support they would receive over the next few months. Neighbors cooked meals for the family and gave the boys rides. The fundraising events started falling into place, and Porter received calls from strangers who heard about Tom and wanted to help.
"It's kind of amazing how far this thing has really spread. So, now we're not stopping. The ball's still rolling," Porter said.

Besides updating friends and family through CarePages.com, a Web site that allows people to post updates about sick or injured loved ones, the family also created a separate Web site dedicated to event announcements at Tomsrecovery.com.

One of the first major fundraisers was a garage sale in April, organized by a neighbor, Irma Tamayo advertised in local media for community members to donate items. Tamayo said so many people contributed that she had enough items to cover the driveways of eight houses.

"I way underestimated just how much stuff we would get," Tamayo said.

"And just start to finish, I had people coming that I never met before, people coming just to give cash, people offering to help."

The garage sale raised about $9,000 for Bolewski.

A Texas Hold'em poker tournament in April organized by Steve McAfee, Bolewski's friend and the owner of Line Drive Baseball Academy, raised another $21,000. A barbecue and park concert held in May and organized by Bolewski's next-door neighbor, Carlos Calvillo, attracted an estimated 800 to 1,000 people, who purchased about 1,300 chili dogs.

Joni Stiman, another one of Bolewski's neighbors, said her students at Valencia High School also got involved. Her peer counseling class decided to support Bolewski by selling rubber bracelets that read "Tom's Current Race." Students were soon wearing them all over campus, according to Stiman.

"Tom just became a celebrity. [The students] never met him. They had never seen him, most of them, but they became concerned about somebody in their community," Stiman said. "Once I started to explain the story or tell the story and once they got involved with it, they would just randomly ask me, 'How's Tom doing?'"

Stiman would read the students updates from the Bolewskis' Web sites.

While many students did not know Bolewski, Stiman said others recognized him from his involvement with sports activities. He used to coach soccer and football for his sons' teams. Some parents knew him through his other links he had in the community.

It was Bolewski's friendly personality, Stiman said, that contributed to the community's general readiness to support him.

"He just always would reach out and always smile, and always make you happy," Stiman said. "He's just that kind of guy, and I think that's why [there was] the spirit that he would make it no matter what... All of us said if there's anyone we know that could come out of this injury, it's Tom."

Friends describe Bolewski as a go-getter. Thomas Barron, president of the Santa Clarita Velo, said Bolewski was a lead bicyclist in the club and an aggressive downhill rider. He also wasn't one to let obstacles stand in his way.

"He's one of the only guys I ever knew that chased dogs," Barron said.

"The bane of bicyclists is having a dog chase you. Well, Tom would turn and chase the dog back to [its] house."

One thing Bolewski said he misses the most is not being able to take part in his usual physical activities.

Even though he was injured while dirt biking, he does not blame the sport for what happened to him.

"There wasn't really anything that I could have done different," Bolewski said. "It's the kind of accident or fall that just kind of goes along with the sport. It happens to everybody. I just had the misfortune of hitting a rock."

Bolewski is now receiving in-patient physical therapy for two weeks at the Northridge Hospital's rehabilitation center.

"He just called," Kim said. "He can now lift his right knee off the bed."

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