WAVERLY, Ia. – Laura Baker was in the thick of last year’s rolling circus of sweat-stained memories that is the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.
She was there among the 10,000 riders who mingled in the shadow of grain elevators, jostled each other in line at roadside pie stands and made fast friends by the time they dipped tires a week later in the Mississippi River.
Yet Baker doesn’t remember pedaling a single mile.
The now 26-year-old University of Denver graduate student and Wartburg College alum rode her inaugural RAGBRAI last year with her father, Tom, a Waverly Realtor.
So technically, Baker isn’t a newbie — often emblazoned with a virginal “V” on his or her calf muscles and subjected to a week of quirky rituals.
But she recalls neither the heat nor the high jinks. Weeks after last year’s RAGBRAI, she crashed her bike and suffered a traumatic brain injury that erased six months of her memory.
Through a grueling yet remarkable year of recovery, she became determined not only to climb back on her bike, but also to return to RAGBRAI with her dad.
“That sort of represented getting back to her previous life, I think,” he says.
Starting next Sunday, she’ll make good on that commitment. In a way, she’ll ride RAGBRAI for the first time — twice.
Her first RAGBRAI: exhilarated by the speed, the moment
Baker is described on the Caring Bridge website where friends and family chronicled her rehabilitation as a “bike enthusiast, vegan, intellectual, coffee connoisseur, loving daughter and best friend to many.”
She and her dad last year joined the North Iowa Touring Club based in Mason City.
“How could you not remember riding in that heat?” he asks, incredulous.
“Maybe it’s selective memory,” his daughter jokes.
Baker also doesn’t remember meeting Nate Krueger from Wisconsin, a fellow member of her RAGBRAI team. They got to know each other on the ride and even dated as she recovered.
On the third day of last year’s RAGBRAI, Baker and Krueger, 36, picked up century-loop patches from RAGBRAI co-founder John Karras in Stratford — official recognition of pedaling a 100-mile day — and then gained speed into a deep valley outside of town. They must have been pushing 40 miles an hour.
Baker steered her steel-frame Surly commuter bike named Charlie — yes, she names her bikes — with a forest-green body and bright yellow handlebar tape.
Krueger got rattled by the speed.
“It felt like that whole front fork was ready to fall off, the wind was so strong across that gorge,” he says.
Baker by all accounts was exhilarated, but remembers none of it.
A hard brake, a hard fall and a traumatic injury
For Baker, to hurtle downhill on a bike is to feel suspended in air, untethered from the earth. She talks about bicycling the way some people talk about hang gliding, surfing or snowboarding.
“There is just something so incredible about that feeling of the wind rushing around you,” she says with a smile.
But the very thing she loves is what nearly killed her last year.
Here’s how that fateful Sunday, Aug. 26, transpired in rural Colorado:
Baker and her graduate school friend Kathleen Burkhardt embarked on the Venus de Miles, a Colorado bicycle ride for women that lets participants select from a variety of route lengths.
Burkhardt, 27, was a novice biker under Baker’s tutelage.
Baker rode Jake, her lighter, Kona-brand racing bike with a sleek black, orange and white carbon frame.
“She kept reassuring me the whole time that I could do 50 miles, because I had my doubts,” Burkhardt says.
The friends were about 10 miles into the ride, flying downhill on a rural stretch of highway southwest of Longmont, Colo., at about 8:30 a.m.
Burkhardt remembers an image of her friend shortly before the crash.
“She comes up on my right side, and she flashes me the biggest grin. She crouches down because she’s just eating up that wind.”
They crested a small hill and saw traffic lights at a busy rural intersection ahead, where North 79th Street meets Highway 52. The light was green but suddenly switched to yellow as Baker approached the intersection ahead of her friend.
So Baker braked — hard.
“Next thing I knew, she’s completely cartwheeling with her bike,” Burkhardt said.
Burkhardt stopped her bike and ran toward Baker, yelling, “I’m coming! I’m coming!”
(It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later that Burkhardt opened her iPhone app that tracks bike speed and noted that she had been rolling along at 32 miles an hour when Baker flew past.)
Baker was lying facedown on the pavement along the right edge of the road, just before the intersection. She was bloody, with her arms beneath her body.
“She was clenching her jaw really tightly and making a really uncomfortable noise.”
Burkhardt later learned that her friend’s twitching and writhing, in which she rolled her arms and shoulders inward, curving in on the core of her body, were classic posturing movements as the result of a brain injury.
One of the next bicyclists to crest the hill happened to be a registered nurse.
An ambulance was on the scene in minutes. The emergency crew slid Baker onto a backboard and only then removed her helmet. Burkhardt let her tears flow to help negotiate her way inside the ambulance, to stay by her friend’s side on the way to the hospital.
You couldn’t tell just by looking at Baker that she had a traumatic brain injury. But the seriousness of her condition began to sink in once the neurosurgeon spoke to Burkhardt. She phoned Baker’s mom, Debbe.
Her mother was alarmed but at this point didn’t have a good grasp of how bad her daughter’s injuries were. An accountant, she imagined she might have to spend a couple of days in Colorado.
When she reached Longmont United Hospital late that night and saw her daughter riddled with tubes and IVs, she concentrated on the positive: She’s breathing. She’s alive.
The watching and waiting began.
A damaged brain results in slower processing time
Baker suffered three compression fractures of her vertebrae and serious road rash on her right shoulder that took weeks to heal. A small cheekbone fracture beneath her right eye wasn’t even visible.
Her trauma was a “closed head injury” because there were no skull fractures. Her sheared brain cells — also referred to as a diffuse axonal injury — caused slower processing. In talking to her parents, one doctor likened the result to a major traffic accident ahead of you on the interstate: You can no longer use that route and must go around. That takes longer and is less efficient.
But Baker didn’t exhibit signs of aphasia (loss of language in speech or writing), which can be common.
David Demarest, a clinical neuropsychologist at On With Life, a nonprofit brain injury rehabilitation center in Ankeny, says his discipline has been fond of magic numbers.
At one time, the bulk of improvement for traumatic brain injury patients had been expected within six months. Then 18 months became the consensus marker.
But patients “can get better and do get better over lengthy periods of time,” he says.
A good day: On command, holding up two fingers
Some glimpses into the early days:
“We are all very optimistic that Laura will begin to wake up in the next couple days as some of her swelling decreases and her sedation is lessened,” Burkhardt posted on the Caring Bridge site at 1:12 a.m. Aug. 29, three days after the accident. “They inserted a feeding tube today so Laura is getting lots of great nutrients to help her body heal … including cow protein.”
Baker’s first significant response came the next day, when a nurse asked her to squeeze his hand, and she did. Her father arrived at her bedside later that day, and that was when Baker’s eyes fluttered open for the first time — just a flash, but enough that he chokes up when talking about it.
A triumph for Baker in the early days: holding up two fingers on command.
She remained feverish, and a sinus infection caused labored breathing. A tracheotomy tube was reinserted into her larynx to fight congestion and ward off pneumonia.
A Sept. 8 Caring Bridge blog entry from Baker’s mom, Debbe: “It is such a relief to see Laura resting after being awake much of the day. She had help from therapy again sitting up on the side of the bed. Doesn’t sound like much to you and me, but it is really hard work for Laura. It is hard to share this, but yesterday she could not hold up her head by herself. So today’s bright spot was when she managed to do it for a couple moments, before tiring. We’ll take that.”
Baker’s parents weren’t sure their daughter would be able to communicate once her tracheotomy tube was removed.
Krueger experienced what felt like a “detached reality” when he visited a few weeks after the accident. He sterilized his hands and was led through a series of locked doors. Baker had been having a bad day, was a bit delirious and still riddled with tubes.
“I broke down crying,” he said. “It was just so tough to see. And just impossible to mentally prepare for seeing her in a situation like that.”
But when she smiled, he also felt certain that “the Laura I knew was still in there.”
Some memories begin to return ‘like a trickle’
After three weeks in Longmont hospital, Baker was accepted into Craig Hospital in the suburban Denver city of Englewood, one of the world’s leading centers for brain trauma treatment.
But even world-class experts and youthful vigor on her side didn’t automatically tip the scales in her favor.
“Just because you’re young doesn’t guarantee good recovery,” says Demarest, who’s the director of psychology, neuropsychology and rehabilitation counseling services at On With Life. “There’s so much about recovery that we don’t know.”
The human brain remains stubbornly mysterious, by turns fragile and resilient. But for Baker, the milestones of recovery steadily escalated:
She brushed her hair. Sept.15.
Ate dry Cheerios, Sept. 20.
Tied her own shoes, Sept. 27.
On Oct. 18, her back brace was removed.
She climbed her first flight of stairs, Oct. 23.
She did talk, and to help her cope with frequently asked questions, Baker consulted a binder given to her by her speech therapist. She often found the answers written in her own handwriting.
Baker’s therapists reassured her that she hadn’t lost her intelligence. It’s just that her brain must rebuild connections, rerouting the wiring of her thought.
All this might evoke comparisons to the Jason Bourne films, or Christopher Nolan’s “Memento,” in which the main character tattoos himself with notes as a substitute for his short-term memory loss as he hunts down his wife’s killer.
Or for lighter fare, there’s the comedy “50 First Dates,” in which Adam Sandler woos a clinically forgetful Drew Barrymore.
But don’t trust Hollywood’s convenient plot turns, where lost memory “comes back in this great flood,” Baker’s dad cautions. “It’s more like a trickle. It’s a slow process, and it’s been hard for her.”
When memory returns, Demarest agrees, “it tends to come back in kind of a spotty fashion,” and only gradually does the missing chunk of time shrink.
When Baker realizes she’s asking about something she’s already been told — whether it concerns the lost events of 2012 or her wobbly short-term memory — it can be “sort of a sad slap in the face.”
But she was buoyed when graduate school and bicycling friends staged a benefit concert for her Nov. 10 and raised thousands to help cover her uninsured medical expenses.
She was discharged from Craig on Nov. 14 and returned to Waverly three days later. She continued outpatient treatment at a Waterloo clinic until a final appointment and evaluation Feb. 11.
Less ‘shoot-from- the-hip’ now, and a bit more subdued
This is a family of four — including Baker’s older brother, Tim — that likes to laugh through its troubles. Baker isn’t a particularly religious person, but her parents kidded her this spring that she should be able to hide her own Easter eggs.
His daughter has retained her humor, Tom says, even if her “shoot-from-the-hip-type” personality now seems a bit more serious, more subdued.
“I take a second to process what I’m doing and make sure that it’s not inappropriate or offensive,” Baker explains. “I have to spend a little more time sort of checking myself to make sure I’m being OK.”
The inch-long tracheotomy scar on her neck is a faint but visible trace of Baker’s healing. Tracking the progress of her brain has been trickier — losing half a year while also striving to rebuild her crippled short-term memory.
One memory from last year’s RAGBRAI did resurface:
At the end of the 100-mile day, which included a stop in Stratford, she reached Webster City and the edge of the city park where her North Iowa Touring Club team was camped.
Longtime family friend Brent Jensen greeted her and pushed her bike so she could shuffle along with the least possible effort. When she reached camp, she plopped down and asked for a beer.
And that weary memory — of walking and sitting, not biking — didn’t re-emerge until March 7 at a restaurant in Waverly when she shared dinner with her parents and Jensen.
“We sat down, and it was just pretty much when I looked at him and said, ‘Hi,’” Baker remembers — she actually remembers. “It didn’t come back in a flashy way. It just was there all the sudden. Just softly and pleasantly.”
Baker didn’t say anything to Jensen or her parents at the time. She wanted to savor the moment quietly for herself, inside what she often jokingly refers to as her “broken brain.”
Her return to ‘magical’ pleasure of bicycle riding
On March 10, she returned to Denver to resume her independent life with as much of a sense of normalcy as possible. For Baker, that includes bicycling.
Her first official bike ride after the accident had come on Thanksgiving Day in Waverly. Baker’s parents chronicled the moment with a smiling photo of their daughter.
Wasn’t it frightening to climb back on a bicycle and expose herself to another fall?
“No, it was exciting,” Baker insists.
(Her mom’s view: “I’m just glad she doesn’t ride a motorcycle,” Debbe says dryly.)
Baker’s return to daily bicycling this spring has been, in a word, “blissful.”
“The first time I rode my bike back in Denver, I smiled huge for like a couple miles nonstop,” she says.
Baker doesn’t just have bikes on the brain. They’re a crucial extension and everyday manifestation of her morality. She doesn’t even own a car. She has worked for the Denver Bike Sharing nonprofit that operates the Mile High City’s network of bike-borrowing kiosks.
Bikes in her view are ideal tools of global conservation, public health and community spirit. (You pull up next to a fellow bicyclist at an intersection and you’re likely to talk to each other. Not so in a car.)
“I think bikes are magical, and that’s never going to change,” she says.
So giving up bikes in the name of extreme caution just wasn’t an option.
Riding RAGBRAI again, in search of lost memories
Baker has two leg tattoos. The most recent is a mountainous Denver skyline with a bike in the foreground, inked a few years ago.
On her left leg is a phoenix she chose at age 21.
Baker this past year represents a sort of bicycling phoenix.
She was considered a rock star of swift recovery at Craig. Think about how far she has come: In September, she couldn’t eat solid food. She struggled to manipulate wooden blocks.
She began by answering simple questions posed by her therapist: What is today’s date? The year? Where are you? Why are you here?
She progressed through a range of tests. For instance, in October she scored just 26 hits per minute on a machine whose randomly generated lights are designed to measure hand-eye coordination, and, ultimately, the processing of the brain. Earlier this year in Waterloo, she scored 83 per minute.
Today, Baker feels lucky to have escaped such a catastrophic crash without worse injuries. But unlike the well-defined finish line of a bike ride, the end of her recovery is distant and vague.
For now, she works part time at a pet supply store. This fall, she plans to return to the University of Denver to finish her master’s degree in media, film and journalism, a year behind her friends and classmates such as Burkhardt.
Her career goal is to work for a nonprofit dedicated to social justice.
But first, she plans to pedal 406 miles across Iowa on Jake — yes, the same bike she crashed — and try to conjure those RAGBRAI memories lost in her mental fog.
Tom, who first rode RAGBRAI in 2010, is already ribbing his twice-newbie daughter.
“I can tell all the good stories I want about RAGBRAI last year,” he says.
Putting together the puzzle pieces of a better self
While in the hospital in Denver, Baker mentioned to her friends: “I miss myself.”
It was recognition of the jigsaw puzzle of her personality that she’s struggled to piece back together. She lost not only time and events in the last year, but also some of her self-perception.
Memories don’t just amuse or horrify us. They’re the building blocks of our character and identity. So even before she escapes her 20s, Baker has confronted a premature mid-life crisis of sorts.
She posted this on her Facebook wall on her June 19 birthday, with a “feeling loved” emoticon: “It is an extra special birthday for me this year. Not that turning 26 in particular is a milestone but I am so happy to be alive and largely unscathed. I know, without a doubt, that you all are the reason I came back to my world more joyful and grateful than ever before. THANK YOU!!!”
She talks about her aspirations for Laura Baker 2.0. She doesn’t intend this to sound egotistical, but she liked the person she was before the crash.
“I hope I’m just like a better version, a more thoughtful version of myself.”
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