Tom Bracken wasn’t looking for a watershed moment when the honoree of the Pat Tillman Award for Service took the stage at the ESPY Awards last month. If he’s being honest, he’ll admit he was just passing time.
You tend to watch a lot of TV when you are recovering from a horrific bicycle crash — one that led to surgery for internal bleeding and a severe pelvis injury, weeklong stays in the hospital and a rehabilitation center, followed by weeks of rehab at home.
This segment grabbed him.
Bracken said he was moved by the story of retired U.S. Army Command Sergeant Major Gretchen Evans. Following a 2006 rocket blast in Afghanistan that left her with life-altering injuries (including total hearing loss), Evans founded an adaptive racing team that brings hope and dignity to others, mostly veterans, who have suffered through traumatic moments.
“It was an incredible story,” Bracken said.
One that hit home.
Bracken, the longtime head of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, is not one to feel sorry for himself. Not one to look at the walker or the wheelchair he currently is using as anything but necessary tools in his recovery. Not one to ask, “Why me?”
Evans’ story reinforced that notion.
“I have a situation that, by Sept. 1, should correct itself,” he said. “I should be back to normal. That’s a short period of my life to go through something like this. I can deal with that.
“I haven’t felt sorry for myself since Day One, because this stuff happens. But, after seeing her story, it put it all into perspective.”
July 2 began like so many other days for Bracken. He rose early, worked out for 90 minutes at his home, then took his specialized hybrid bike out for a 20-mile ride that included a trip down East Avenue in Bay Head.
“The road is about 2 miles long,” he said. “Everybody bikes on it, Rollerblades on it, walks on it, runs on it — it’s one of the biggest parts of my route. It’s a route that I’m very familiar with. I don’t know how many thousands of times I’ve ridden on it, but this day was different.”
A large dog, which had escaped from its leash, raced toward the bike. Bracken said he didn’t see the dog until it was too late. There was some sort of collision and Bracken was thrown forward.
“I was launched,” he said.
Then, he was confused.
“I was using toe clips; I always do,” he said. “I remember thinking, while I was lying on the pavement, ‘How were both of my feet free?’ I had no idea.”
This much he was certain: He knew he was badly hurt.
Bracken had hit his head (thankfully, he was wearing a helmet) and his elbow. He had road rash all over his body, but especially on his shins and elbow, which were bleeding profusely. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was bleeding internally — and four foot-long screws would be needed to put his pelvis back together.
“As I was lying there, I knew I couldn’t get up,” he said.
There always are a few hidden blessings in events such as this. In this case, the fact that it happened in such a heavily trafficked area was a plus.
“People were over me right away,” Bracken said. “They called the police, they called first aid, they called my wife.”
Bracken, who said he never lost consciousness, estimates he was at Hackensack Meridian Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune within an hour of the accident.
There, he had another blessing: Dr. David Polonet, of University Orthopedic Associates, was on duty.
“He is one of the top, if not the top, orthopedic trauma physicians in the state,” Bracken said. “I was very fortunate to get him. He operated on me the next day and helped pull me back together again.”
Bracken spent a week at the hospital recovering, then was transferred to a Hackensack Meridian Health rehab facility where, he said, he learned what he needed to do to recover.
“They taught me the proper way to get up and out of bed, to move around, to take a shower — all the life skills that you need,” he said.
Rehab was a big part of those two weeklong hospital stays. As was TV. Bracken said he was grateful that both Wimbledon and the British Open provided hours of daytime coverage.
“Your options are limited in the hospital,” he said.
Of course, if you know Bracken, you’d know there was work to do, too.
“I worked as much as I could,” he said. “I had my iPhone and my iPad, so I kept up. I even had a bunch of Zoom meetings from the rehab facility — there literally was nothing else to do.”
Bracken alerted the state chamber staff and the board — and told them they could tell anyone they felt they needed to.
“I wasn’t hiding anything,” he said.
After all, it was easy to tell, he joked.
“I was on the screen during those Zoom calls, and, let me tell you, it wasn’t pretty,” he said. “You only get to shower in the rehab place twice a week, so you have to make do.”
When he wasn’t on work calls, he was on personal calls. Bracken said he was overwhelmed by the number of people who reached out to him, including Gov. Phil Murphy and some of the key members of his staff.
Working from home hasn’t been an issue for Bracken. Like so many others, he learned how during the pandemic. The past two weeks, however, have been different. There’s a rehab component, too.
“They say, ‘Move as much as you can, because blood flow helps the healing process,’” he said. “So, I have a wheelchair and a walker. They want me to get on the walker several times a day. It’s difficult, but it’s a very aerobic exercise, so I do it several times a day.”
It’s become a family event.
“I go out every night with my wife and now my grandkids,” he said. “They take me for walks in the street in my wheelchair. They wheel me for a while and I wheel myself for a while — so I get a little bit of aerobic exercise there, too.”
Rehabbing is tough — but it’s something that Bracken enjoys immensely.
“I look forward to it every day,” he said. “The biggest challenge I have is to not overdo it. I’m proud of the fact that I’ve been able to pace myself.”
Bracken said being able to exercise in any way has helped bring a sense of normalcy.
“I’m a firm believer that, to be able to do what we do, you have to be physically fit as well as mentally fit,” he said.
He aims to be something else: independent. It’s something that doesn’t necessarily sit well with his family.
“They are overly concerned and overly protective,” he said.
In a good way, Bracken said.
“They don’t like the fact that I’m doing it myself, but I’m trying to be as independent and as little of a burden as possible,” he said.
Tuesday marks one month since the accident. Saturday marks his 75th birthday.
Bracken said the crash has given him new perspective — but it hasn’t changed his mindset. He has no plans to retire anytime soon.
“Not in the least,” he said. “If anything, it has motivated me to come back to show that you can come back from something like this and not miss a beat.”
From the beginning, Labor Day weekend was pegged as the time he should be completely healed. Bracken is grateful that all signs indicate he will have a complete recovery. He knows his story could have had a different ending.
“This could have been a lot worse,” he said. “I could have had head damage. I could have broken bones. I could have done something that would have stayed with me forever.
“I was extremely fortunate. And I will say that forever.”