When Simon Brooks stepped onto the Bear Creek Greenway to run a half-marathon on Sept. 23, he wasn't just racing the clock.
Every stride the 20-year-old Southern Oregon University sophomore took was symbolic of the great lengths he's covered in a remarkable comeback from the brink of eternity.
A year and a day earlier, on Sept. 22, 2011, Brooks was the focal point of two other races: One to extend his life after he suffered traumatic head injuries in a skateboarding accident, and the other by family and friends to reach Providence Medford Medical Center from hundreds of miles away before the clock timed out.
Simon Brooks never gave helmets much thought before his near-fatal accident. Now he is a staunch proponent of wearing them.
"I'm the epitome of a person who knows the importance of a helmet," Brooks said. "My parents thought I was dead because of the lack of helmets. I want to tell whoever has the chance to ride a longboard or anything with wheels, they should definitely have a helmet, because there is no seatbelt."
Last spring, Brooks participated in an Oregon State Public Interest Research Group safety campaign on the Southern Oregon University campus.
"I told the students I could think of only two reasons not to have a helmet," Brooks said. "One was a conscious decision not to buy one because they think it's cooler not to wear one, or they can't afford to buy one, and OSPIRG is selling discounted helmets."
Skateboarders don't like to be considered cowards and take severe risks to prevent that perception, he said.
"Recklessness is brave and cool," Brooke said. "In my opinion, the most cowardly thing in the universe is disregard. If a person has the ability to easily take measures that can prevent his or her family's pain and suffering, and these measures are not taken, this person is being really uncool. In society today, maybe we need to be brave against the people who think we are cowards for being safe. It is so much more cowardly to disregard the feelings of our loved ones so that our friends will think we look cool."
Alisia Howard, clinical coordinator for Providence Emergency Services, has dealt with severe, disabling injuries involving skate- and longboarders in recent years. As a result, she is spearheading an effort by nurses to reach students before they suffer traumatic injuries. She was part of a group trained at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center in Portland, and hopes to launch a program here early next year, going into classrooms with presentations and videos to share with children.
"Simon has said he would work with us, which is really good," Howard said. "Because it's most impactful when it's coming from someone who had it happen to them."
Simon Brooks doesn't remember much about what he was doing on the Wednesday night a week before he was to begin his sophomore year at Southern Oregon University. There's little doubt, however, that he was partying where alcohol and drugs were involved, obscuring the potential danger when he and a friend, Zach Lough, set off early Thursday morning on their longboards.
As they cruised down Mountain Avenue around 2 a.m., Lough dismounted because of the steep, curving nature of the road as they headed toward North Mountain Park.
"He decided to take it easy and didn't realize I was less-skilled in my current state," Brooks said.
Not only was Brooks careening out of control, he wasn't wearing a helmet. As his friend walked down the hill, "he heard me make some unsettling noises," Brooks related, as he lay bleeding on the concrete near Larkspur Lane.
Emergency responders took Brooks to Ashland Community Hospital, where triage was performed, but it was quickly apparent his head injuries required a higher level of response.
He was rushed to Providence, where a trauma team, including a neurosurgeon, awaited Brooks' arrival. Louise Sakraida, who coordinates critical care activity, had just arrived for her shift when Brooks came in.
"It was a devastating head injury," Sakraida said. "He was almost a certain donor candidate, and it's not often you feel that certain right off the bat. The CT (computed tomography) scan showed pressures that were incredibly high." Initial readings and activity gave little hope to the medical team.
"With his injuries, we did not anticipate he would last more than a few days," Sakraida said.
State law requires that hospital personnel who believe somebody may become brain-dead to begin a review leading to organ donation.
"We did that, and we don't often do that so early," she said.
No surgeries were needed, but drugs to reduce swelling were applied, and Brooks was placed on a ventilator.
While the medical team fought for Brooks' life, other hospital staff tried to reach his family — made more difficult because his cellphone was password protected.
"Three of his friends were there, and they were not able to offer information other than he was from Alaska," said Alisia Howard, clinical coordinator for the Providence Emergency Department.
Eventually, with help from Ashland police, a Providence chaplain was able to track down Michael and Valerie Brooks, Simon's parents, in Alaska at 5:30 in the morning.
"We knew when the chaplain called — and not a doctor — it was obviously a clue, but we weren't told he wouldn't survive," said Valerie Brooks.
Was it serious enough for their older son, Andrew, to come? Yes.
Should his sisters in Portland and San Diego come? Yes.
"That's how we knew it was bad," she said.
Under the best of circumstances, Ketchikan to Medford is no easy task with iffy connecting flights. Standby flights are even less sure, but the Brookses found friends who were willing to swap out their seats to go standby.
"If we hadn't made arrangements to trade tickets, we might not have made it that day," Valerie Brooks said. "That was a marathon."
Dealing with dying patients whose family members are hundreds of miles away is not unusual for Howard's staff.
"I've held a phone to dying patients' ears so their family members could tell them goodbye," she said.
While older patients often have living-will instructions for medical staffs, that's not the case with younger patients who have suffered traumatic injury.
"We're using every life-saving measure available to us," Howard said. "They don't have a living will, per se, so we do everything."
By noon, Kathryn, one of Simon's two older sisters, arrived from Portland. Emily, who lives in San Diego, had hopscotched from Las Vegas to Portland and driven down from there.
Both were at Simon's side when their parents arrived at 8 o'clock Thursday night.
While the medical staff didn't share its prognosis with the sisters, Emily Brooks, a registered nurse, was able to size things up.
"She prepared us before we went in," Valerie said. "It doesn't look like him with the tubes and alarms. After we saw him quickly, that's when we were told it was a nonsurvivable injury."
Over the next couple of days, Simon's parents faced a decision no parent wants to ponder.
"It's a terrible process for parents to go through," Michael Brooks said. "Simon is a strong, young man. If he was going to live, he had to have a chance to live on his own. We told the medical staff to take the breathing tube out."
That step had to be delayed, however, because the sedatives first had to wear off, otherwise they might have kept him from breathing.
While the Brookses were away from the hospital at a friend's house, the sedatives wore off, and Simon sat up and started removing his IV and other tubes.
"That was a definite sign things had turned," Valerie Brooks said. "We had been sitting with the organ donor team all evening. Because he was so severely injured, we were told it could be involuntary sitting up and taking tubes off." Even though he wasn't conscious, there was hope.
"We could clearly see he was attempting a comeback, and they removed his breathing tubes shortly after that," she said.
In the days after the accident, Simon was attended by a dozen family members and friends. They had put together drawings and Facebook collections.
"The first thing I remember is waking up and looking at a picture my sisters had put on the wall," he said. "Rodney Manabat, my good friend in high school, showed his graphic design skills when he made a silhouette based on a picture with blue hair and a red hat and 'Go Simon' on it."
It was touch-and-go at times, but Brooks kept defying the odds. He remained under intensive care until Sept. 27 and left Medford long before anyone expected. By November, Brooks was heading north for rehab at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. What was supposed to be a monthlong ordeal was completed in two weeks.
Brooks returned to school last winter, becoming a creative writing major.
A few days ago, Brooks stopped by Providence with flowers in hand.
"It took a while, but his recovery was beyond anything we could have anticipated; it was off the charts," said Sakraida. "He brought flowers ... he's back in college, has a job and a girlfriend. He's totally articulate and can keep you laughing."
Brooks retrieved his longboard from the police department, but he didn't ride it. Instead, he parked it beneath his computer. These days he gets around on a Specialized mountain bike that has lights — and he wears a helmet.
There still are aspects of recovery ahead — his sense of smell hasn't fully returned.
"If he simply would have been a breathing, functional young person," his mother said, "it would have been beyond great.
"The fact that he could be at school and have the wherewithal to train himself and finish a race is really quite incredible. He's a quiet guy with goofy sense of humor, but he's really determined. I think the race was indicative of the way he's going to approach everything in the future. He's not a perfect kid, but he's a really good kid."
Greg Stiles is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at 541-776-4463 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.