Photography: Matt Lingo
It’s hard to imagine being unconscious for 10 days, especially while someone buzzes off your hair and removes part of your skull. For some people it can take years to recover from an accident, others never fully do. When Katie Conner woke up from her coma after a hit and run bicycle accident, she found out that the San Diego community had raised over $11,000 for her medical treatment. She was shocked and grateful. Only months after the accident, Katie was ready to give back. Her sole goal became recovery and training to bike the 545 mile AIDS/Lifecycle fundraiser.
It was a night in October when Katie was riding her bike home from work on her regular route through West Point Loma Boulevard, without a helmet. Unexpectedly, a vehicle struck her, which lead to an immediate loss of consciousness. A 911 emergency call was made and she was rushed to the Surgical Intensive Care Unit (SICU) in San Diego. The driver who hit Katie fled the scene and was never found.
In the hospital, the monitors showed that the swelling of her brain was not going down and was consequently putting pressure on her brain stem, which controls all functions vital to life. The doctors did not have a choice but to remove a portion of her skull. This allowed the brain to swell outward. The 23-year-old, was medically induced into a coma: “I think one of the strangest things is that I just don’t remember 10 days of my life, crazy to think about,” Katie says.
Waking up from a coma was strange for Katie. She remembers being in a room in a hospital bed with her parents beside her. They had immediately flown across the United States from Maryland as soon as they were informed.
Unable to speak, she was given a notebook and a pen to write: “I was confused. I couldn’t talk because of the breathing tube in my throat. I thought it was spring. I wrote a note to my baby cousin wishing him a Happy Easter – it was Halloween time. I would tell my parents to go home and get me a change of clothes because I had to go to work,” she recalls.
Amidst the confusion, it finally hit her: Katie realised that she would never live a ‘normal’ life again. “I struggled with that very badly. My hair was all gone, I thought I had no more friends, romantic relationships would never develop again, I wouldn’t do the things I enjoy like working out, going to concerts, and travelling with friends. I cried daily saying, “I just want to be normal again.”
It was in rehab when Katie found out that the community came together and raised over $11,000 for her. She was speechless, “These people that I barely knew came together and helped me as if they were blood relative. The support I received from the community still blows my mind.”
Not to mention, that back home in Maryland, Katie’s uncle also created a GoFundMe page that generated over $40,000 to pay for medical bills and for her parents to stay throughout the recovery process. “My parents left their jobs, my brother, three dogs and their day-to-day behind to be with me. The world was put on pause for me.”
At times, Katie still feels a slight sense of guilt, having her large family drop everything for her and fly across the country, “Sometimes I feel like I should have moved back home. But they understand I am happy here.”
Before the accident, Katie signed up for AIDS/Lifecycle event because she was new to California, looking for a hobby and a way to meet people. A friend, who is now her boyfriend, told her about the amazing cycling community in San Diego. “I went to one of the events and everyone was so nice and so into biking. At the time, I didn’t even own a bike, but I signed up [for the AIDS/Lifecycle fundraiser] and put down a payment on a bike, but then I got in the accident.”
When Katie was able to speak again, she asked her doctors and parents if she was going to be able to take part in the event, which was less than six months away. “I went to pick up my bike that I put a payment on. In my Mom’s and doctor’s mind, there were small chances of me riding.”
However, Katie is goal obsessed and driven. Nothing was going to stop her taking part in the seven-day event that happens only once a year, where 3,000 cyclists ride 545 miles through California. She was motivated more than ever after the accident, especially because she wanted a way to return all that she received. “I may not directly know the people living with AIDS that I am helping, but that doesn’t matter. We are all human. We all live on the same planet. If I can help someone, then I will, because that is what the San Diego community, including many strangers, did for me. I didn’t want to be scared of something that once brought me happiness and is now symbolic of a life-changing event,” she says. Katie’s Dad, Mike Conner, always says that his daughter is a stubborn one, but Katie calls it being “strong-willed”.
“Because of this experience [accident], I have decided to ride for a second year. So, from June 5 to 11, 2016 I will ride my bike again to support the life-saving services offered by San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the Los Angeles LGBT Center. In those seven days, over 1,000 people in the United States will become infected with HIV,” Katie explains.
Katie has already raised over $4,486 to end AIDS, but she is not finished yet! “Giving back, in any form, feels euphoric. Setting goals, reaching them, and having a sense of accomplishment fuels my life. Just like I wanted so badly to have my “normal life” back, I put my mind to it.” Not remembering the accident or the days after benefitted Katie because she had no fear to ride her bike again. “It made me more determined to show that I could prevail and that I could go back to my life. The fire inside of me burned so strong, stronger than the one outside. “ She also believes that the accident was “the best thing” that happened to her. “I appreciate a lot more; help from people, simple pleasures, medical personnel, my family. When life is sweet say thank you, when life is sour say thank you and grow. I’ve grown.”
Katie worked hard every day to recover physically and mentally from her accident and she accomplished what she was striving for – completing the ride. For the rest of her life she will have a scar on her neck and forehead to remind her to live her life to its fullest, “It could end at any second,” Katie concludes.
Click here to support Katie and her cause to help fight HIV/AIDS!