Mike “Pedal Monster” Heikes, who sustained a brain injury when he was 18, has a remarkable life. Not only is he an accomplished cross-country cyclist who tirelessly promotes TBI awareness, he is also the founder of Helmets for Kids and a proud recipient of a 2002 Jefferson Award.
You have all heard the saying, “What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls the butterfly.” Well, for me, September 4, 1982 was the day I left my caterpillar life forever and began my wild adventure as a survivor of traumatic brain injury.
Here is my story:
I was a hard working kid with a 3.5 high school GPA, 2 jobs, a scholarship to my local college, and a great, promising future ahead of me. On the Saturday before I was to start college, I rented my first apartment and moved away from home. I wasn’t even away from home one night, though, when I made a mistake that almost cost me my life.
My friend, Marty, and I, both just 18 and not old enough to drink in Minnesota, bought some beer at a convenience store. We drank and celebrated in my new apartment then, hungry and restless, we drove to Perkins Restaurant to get something to eat. I worked at that restaurant so I knew everyone on shift that night. Before we drove away, I told one of my fellow employees that Marty and I had plans “to go flying.” Yes, we would go flying alright.
Marty, had a 1970 Mustang that had the rear end jacked up with big wide tires. I had a 1974 Corvette that I loved to race on the curvy highway that led to my parent’s house. My record was 80 mph, but tonight, Marty wanted to see if his Mustang could beat my Corvette. It was 2:15 a.m. when we sped out onto that same familiar highway. We hit the curves at over 100 miles per hour and that is when Marty lost control. His Mustang skidded sideways, rolling over several times before coming to a stop — appropriately in front of a cemetery. As we just found out, my Corvette handled the curves much better than his Mustang did.
Fortunately, Marty was not badly hurt, but, I couldn’t say the same. My body was thrown through the closed passenger window and slammed onto the cold, hard pavement. Marty climbed out of his now totaled car and ran to the nearest house to get help for me, hammering on the door until someone answered. The couple inside had already heard the squealing of tires and a sound they described as “a tin can being crushed.” They had immediately called an ambulance. It arrived in record time, but, by then, I was already lying flat in the road, soaking in a large puddle of my own blood. That bloodstain would be on the highway for several years until the road was resurfaced, an eerie reminder of how close I came to being buried in that nearby cemetery.
When the left side of my body hit the asphalt, my brain rebounded, slamming into the right side of my skull. The impact caused bleeding in my brain which caused blood clots to form so I wouldn’t bleed to death in a matter of minutes. All that was visible of my face was the very tip of my nose. My head was one large, black watermelon. I had subdural hematoma on three levels, with the one at the base of my brain causing the greatest concern. I needed surgery, quickly.
It wasn’t until four months after surgery that I finally returned home to my parent’s house. Before I left St. Luke’s Hospital, the staff asked me what kind of problems I thought I would encounter after my discharge. I had no idea what they were talking about! I had planned to resume my life where it had been interrupted by starting college again. But, as I had already found out, life throws curves. I knew as soon as I returned home that I was not the same kid who left.
That first night home, I cried myself to sleep. Changes were now hard for me to adjust to and I missed the commotion of the hospital setting. I knew I needed to have a better attitude about the challenges that life was presenting. I knew I had to have the attitude that “what does not destroy me will strengthen me”, so I went to see what was left of the car. Marty’s once powerful mustang was now a ball of tangled metal, making me realize just how fortunate I was to have survived such a horrific crash. Sometimes, when I think about my accident, I wonder if I should consider myself lucky, blessed, or just a credit to good medical care. I may not ever know the answer to that question, but I do know that I have been given special gifts that I will always treasure — my life and the people who loved and cared for me. It doesn’t matter what happens to us in life, what matters is that we make the most of what we have. And that is exactly what I planned to do.
I held a series of jobs over the next few years. I worked as a wheel chair pusher, a dishwasher, and a prep cook, to name a few. I even tried working at my old Perkin’s job, but my short-term memory problems got in the way and I didn’t interact with people as well as I used to. One job performance evaluation commended me for using notes and lists to insure that I completed my work, but not everyone understood that I didn’t deal with life on the same terms as they did. Regardless of how hard I worked, I was often fired. After being fired from Perkins, I was completely discouraged. The neurosurgeon who had performed the surgery that saved my life asked me, “What are you going to do now?” I told him, “I am getting a social security disability check and I live at home so I don’t have to work.” He was upset with me because I had made it this far and now I was giving up. The look on his face said it all, and I thought, how can I let this man, and all of the other medical professionals who had put so much time into my recovery, down by giving up? So, I found another job and have had a job ever since. Thank you for that push, Dr. Johnson!
I never thought that I would be scrubbing toilets as a living for 25 years, but, I also never thought that I would be a survivor of brain injury either. Stuff happens. I take pride in what I do, even if it is menial and repetitious work such a cleaning a toilet. Maybe it takes me a little longer to do things because of my brain injury, but I try my hardest at any challenge I’m given. I think that sort of attitude was beneficial in my recovery. It also set the path for the surprising life that was still in store for me.
Eight years after the accident, a glitch in the system at my local DMV caused me to lose my driver’s license. It took two weeks for the problem to be corrected, but, in the meantime, I needed to get to work so I bought a bicycle. Growing up on a farm in Minnesota didn’t give me many opportunities to ride a bike. The only thing I really knew about bicycles was that they had two wheels so this was something new for me. Gratefully, those few weeks and my new bicycle changed my life forever. Before I knew it, I was riding hours a day. I was riding so much that I grew to hate driving my car. Besides, I did some of my most profound thinking while I was riding my bicycle. It is proven that exercise brings more oxygen to a person’s brain, which enhances mental clarity. I could certainly use all the oxygen I could get.
As the fall of 1992 approached, I realized by looking at my ride logs that I had ridden every day since July of that year. Even though winter was coming on, I decided to see how many more consecutive days I could ride in Minnesota. Those of you who know what Minnesota winters are like may be inclined to call me crazy. Well, I don’t blame you for questioning my sanity. I, myself, questioned my sanity on world-wide television. KXJB Television, Fargo, North Dakota did a story on my winter bicycle riding. CBS picked up the story and the story traveled around the world. People as far away as India heard me question my sanity as to why I ride my bicycle in Minnesota during the winter. But, I ride anyway, covering over 20,000 miles in some years. And to think that doctors never expected this brain injury survivor to walk again!
When I started riding my bicycle in 1990, I could only ride a short distance before I needed to rest. I could not imagine that I would someday ride over 3000 miles in one month. I could not imagine that I would ride 21,754.71 miles in one year and over 150,000 miles in the next 17 years, or that I would ride in all 50 states and all of the bordering Canadian Provinces, raising over $100,000 for charity. And I certainly never imagined that I would start my own organization and raise enough money to purchase and give away over 2000 bicycle helmets to prevent brain injuries like mine. But, that is exactly what I did. Never underestimate the abilities of a brain injury survivor when they put their mind to something.
For me, the hardest part of the bicycle rides across the United States was not riding my bicycle thousands of miles. The hardest part was not climbing up mountains or riding across deserts. For me, the hardest part about riding was dealing with my short-term memory deficit. Remembering when to turn, remembering which way I was going after stopping for a bathroom break, and, in general, remembering all that was required for me to remember, became problematic. More than once, I headed off in the wrong direction and more than once, I got lost. The obstacles that I encountered because of my short-term memory deficit, though, soon became opportunities to show people that we, survivors of TBI, can accomplish things in the world of the able-minded.
My biggest goal in life was to ride in all 50 states, and, by 2001, Alaska was the only remaining state left for me to ride in. Fortunately, I also had another goal left. I told my girlfriend, Teresa, that I had to ride in all 50 states before I got “serious”. In July, after I toured the great state of Alaska, I was finally ready to act on my promise. I went to Lake Alice, the place where we had our first date, and posted signs that read, TERESA, WILL YOU MARRY ME? and signs that read YES and NO. Since I had mentioned in many press interviews that I would propose to Teresa once I hit this goal, I felt it was appropriate to invite the media to the proposal I didn’t think the press would come, but, to my surprise, I received five messages from area media wanting to cover the proposal. WOW! I could not back out now! It was not until that moment that I thought, What if she picks the sign that says NO? I would be inviting the media to see me get turned down! Dig hole, bury head! Gratefully, right there, on Valentine’s Day and in front of all of Minnesota, she picked the YES sign. Our wedding was as you would expect. Instead of dropping flower pedals down the aisle, they dropped bicycle pedals. When we walked out of the church, there was a tandem bicycle with streamers and tin cans tied behind it and a sign that read JUST MARRIED.
Now that I had ridden in all 50 states, Washington DC, all the bordering Canadian provinces, and married the girl of my dreams, what was left? Maybe it was time to settle down and concentrate on my growing Helmets for Kids program. I questioned if I could raise money for Helmets for Kids without doing a bicycle ride. The answer was yes. People felt that Helmets for Kids was such a good program that they were willing to donate money, even if I didn’t ride across the United States to raise it. In 2006, I raised more money for Helmets for Kids than I did in any single year for any charity. I raised $20,000.00 to help prevent brain injuries like mine by fitting and giving away thousands of bicycle helmets, and the donations keep coming. That’s a great feeling. But, even this isn’t the end to my adventures! There was one more remarkable surprise in store for me, one that I still, to this day, can hardly believe really happened to an ordinary brain injured guy like me.
In 2002, I found out that I the proud recipient of a community Jefferson Award, an award given to “Ordinary people who do extraordinary things without expectation of reward.” I was flattered. On this ride to Washington DC, though, I traveled by plane. All of the United States senators were invited to the ceremony. I met Hillary Clinton, former First Lady Laura Bush, and Condoleezza Rice, to name just a few of the people who were present. If that wasn’t enough, the award committee was even kind enough to arrange a bicycle for me to ride while I was there so I didn’t have to interrupt my daily riding streak that, at this point, dated back 10 years.
All of this is a life I could not imagine on the day I returned home from the hospital and cried myself to sleep. My goal was just to change my attitude and find a way to have a normal, productive life. My attitude changed my life in wonderful ways, but, in spite of all that has happened, I still feel that my greatest accomplishment in life is being a survivor of TBI. All you survivors out there should be proud of the fact that you survived. What we have been through and will continue to go through every day of our lives is not easy. If you can survive a TBI, you can do anything.
On August 2, 2013, I was riding my bike when I was hit by a car and thrown into the windshield, shattering it. The driver received a citation for negligence, and, if it wasn’t for my helmet which, by the way, cracked in half from the impact, I would have sustained yet another brain injury or worse. Instead, I only received a broken leg. Because of my broken leg, my mission to ride my bike every day came to an end on August 2nd, after 21 years straight. I will get back on my bicycle as soon as my leg heals.
To find out more about Mike, his book, his speaking engagements, and his organization, "Helmets for Kids," click here.