SPORTS THE COMEBACK OF KEITH BABB

After a devastating accident, his athlete’s heart brought him back to compete again.

Great legs!”

That’s what the cute girl in the hatter top said as he leaned over the pool table to make a shot in that pub in San Antonio. Keith Babb remembered her comment as he and his best friend, Joe Kuntz, pumped down Highway 342, outside of Lancaster on their way to Waxa-hachie.

Keith had mounted his bike at White Rock Lake the previous week and ridden the 610-mile round trip to and from San Antonio as part of his own training regimen. He and Joe had recently qualified for one of the most challenging bicycle races in the world, the 750-mile Paris-Brest-Paris Classic, by turning in respectable times in four long-distance brevet races. Now they were making this tiny jaunt to and from Waxahachie-their farewell to pre-race training before departing for France in three days.

Keith, thirty-eight, had quit his job teaching computer science at Skyline High School in order to go to Europe for the race, selling his Lakewood condo to finance the trip. He and Joe were in top athletic form on that August 15, 1987. They had great legs.

But top form and great legs are still vulnerable to outrageous fortune, as they would both learn a few literal and figurative miles down the road.

One minute they were laughing and shouting to each other over the sound of the wind at their backs. As always, cars would pass them without Keith and Joe even being aware of their presence until they felt the backwash and saw the receding bumpers and taillights. So of course Keith didn’t know, until days later, that the driver of a delivery van had fallen asleep at the wheel as his vehicle hurtled toward them.

Joe felt the van brush past him at sixty-plus miles an hour, knocking him off balance and sending him sprawling onto the pavement. When he picked himself up off the asphalt, he looked down the road. The van had smashed into Keith and dragged him and his bike 111 feet under its wheels, leaving him crumpled in a fetal ball in a ditch on the side of the highway. The driver of the van was stepping down to the road surface, shaking his head as if to say, “What’s going on? Where am I?”

Hardly feeling his badly bruised side, Joe limped toward Keith, flailing his arms and screaming to passing drivers to stop and help. When he got to Keith, the first thing he noticed was a gaping hole in Keith’s leg.

Joe had been a medical supplies salesman. When he saw that there was no blood flowing from Keith’s leg wound, he feared the worst. But as he turned Keith’s head around, positioning it above the level of his heart, Joe heard Keith moan. “Thank God he’s alive,” Joe thought.

Then Joe saw Keith’s face, awash with blood. Keith’s eyes were wide open, but the eyeballs were covered with dirt. And the eyes weren’t blinking to shed the dirt. They stared off into nothingness.

A moment later, Joe, the driver of a passing pickup truck, and the dazed driver of the van were lifting Keith into the bed of the pickup. They started out for Waxahachie, but one of the other passing drivers must have called ahead for an ambulance. They met one on the road and flagged it down. The paramedics worked frantically on Keith for fifteen minutes before moving him from the truck to their vehicle. They told Joe that Keith had to go to the Trauma Center at Methodist Hos-pital in Dallas if he was going to survive.

Keith remembers experiencing the “White Light” as they rolled him into the emergency room- the light that those who approach the threshold of death have found beckoning them to a comfortable reunification with the universe. Keith Babb, like others who have returned, says that somehow, at that moment, he knew he was not ready. He remembers making a decision to live.

When Dr. James Moody, the neurosur-geon, opened Keith’s back to survey the damage, he was momentarily stunned. What he saw looked much worse than what the X-rays showed. Keith’s mid-back vertebrae had exploded on impact, and the contents of the spinal column, though not completely severed, were pulled out of the torn dural sac. It was hard for the surgeon to tell what was spinal and what was torn muscle and ligament. Bone fragments were imbedded in the confused mass. In short, it was an acute spinal injury case, leaving Keith with next to no hope for ever regaining lower body functions-leg mobility, bowel and bladder control, sexual performance.

But Keith Babb is an athlete at heart. Because he was in top physical form, he was able to survive a devastating blow that would kill most human beings. Muscles toned to perfection protect the organs and neuro-system far better than an average physique can. But beyond mere survival, his athlete’s heart, his will and determination, wrote the next chapters of Keith Babb’s life.

Once he was able to think clearly enough to assess his situation, Keith decided that he would dedicate himself heart and soul to regaining the fitness of the man he was on that August day when he was declared qualified for the Paris-Brest-Paris Classic. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, he hoped he would someday make that race.

After five surgeries to repair and reen-gineer his back and knees, after three months of hospitals and constant narcotizing pain medications, after two months of well-intentioned but constantly painful hospital physical therapy at Baylor Rehabilitation Center, Keith Babb took a hard look at himself. His weight was down from 197 to 155 pounds. His legs were now shriveled toothpicks, victims of partial paralysis and atrophy. They were black from the constant injections of Demerol. His vision was still cloudy, perhaps from the drugs, perhaps from the head injury’. Still. Keith knew he could somehow take control of his life.

First, he dropped all pain medication. “I needed to have a clearer mind in order to deal with what I had to deal with,” he says.

Next, after his torso cast was removed, Keith ignored his doctor’s recommendations and checked himself out of Baylor. “I knew that what was holding up my rehabilitation more than anything was lack of sleep,” he says. “Nurses kept coming into the room at all hours and turning on the lights to work on another patient. I had to get to where I could sleep a whole night to keep my attitude up.”

Keith asked Joe to pick him up at Baylor and take him to the Sheraton Hotel, where he thought room service would serve as a good one-week transitional phase between twenty-four-hour hospital nursing and personal autonomy in his own apartment. Then Joe went looking for that apartment while Keith designed the perfect lightweight wheelchair, one that would fit behind the seat of the handicap-equipped Porsche 928 that he would buy the following week. This was to be rehabilitation in style, courtesy of the sizable (he refuses to say how much) settlement the delivery van’s insurance company had provided.

Once moved into the apartment, he began his slow but determined recovery with the help of his family, Joe, and Roxanne Snyder, his physical therapist.

At first, simply getting into the chair, wheeling it to collect his mail, and then wheeling back to bed would exhaust him. He would lie in bed for hours trying to do leg lifts and cope with the pain. He could move his right leg, but the left refused to cooperate. He worked with hand weights to rebuild his arms and torso so that getting in and out of the chair was not so difficult.

He had slowly regained his bladder and bowel control in the hospital. The week before leaving Baylor Rehab, he had felt another kind of recovery, an exciting twinge as a nurse soaped his inner thigh in the shower. He was too happy to be embarrassed. “It was very painful, though,” he says. “Anytime you don’t use a muscle for a long time and then reactivate it, it’s going to cause some pain.”

Finally the day came when Joe helped him onto a stationary exercise bike. Keith managed to crank the right pedal, but had to prop his left leg up on a foot rest, His left knee was still locked in scar tissue from the surgical reconstruction. Later, drinking beer to help him endure the pain, he would spend time each evening with his left leg planted on the floor, rocking his wheelchair back and forth to break the scar tissue down so that he could start to bend his leg again.

Though she didn’t say so at the time, Rox-anne says she was “scared to death” when she heard about the day. nine months after the accident, when Joe and one of Keith’s neighbors lifted him onto a real bicycle. They let him coast down a hill just to prove to himself he hadn’t lost his sense of balance. Although steel rods held his delicately reconstructed back in place. Roxanne wasn’t so scared of the damage Keith might do to his body. She feared that a fall might bruise his psyche, throwing him into depression and destroying his motivation.

But Keith didn’t fell.

In the coming months, he learned to stop the bike up against trees, fences, and walls so that he could pull himself off to dismount. Neither leg was strong enough to support him if he had tried to dismount in a normal manner. He could inch his way along upright, using the bike as a sort of walker on wheels.

Then came the day Keith took his first step without the aid of his forearm crutches. On that day he confirmed what he had hoped all along: he was coming back.

Another victory came the night the pretty girl in a North Dallas club had refused to take “No, thanks” for an answer until he finally gave in and wheeled himself up on the dance floor, pulled himself up out of the wheelchair, and leaned against a rail, moving to the driving beat of the music. Then she kissed him. It was not pity. It was attraction.

Keith’s Porsche and (he fine clothes he bought helped shore up an understandably battered self-image. And there were other things. Keith Babb had never been the kind of guy to frequent strip joints before his accident. But when Joe wheeled him into the Million Dollar Saloon six weeks after he had left the hospital, Keith was having a good time before he knew it. To have beautiful young women smile and laugh with him, even if they were mainly interested in the money in his pocket-that felt good.

There were times when Keith was too eager to resume the life he had led before the accident. One night, when one of the dancers was talking about missing her sister in Corpus Christi, Keith spontaneously offered to drive her to Corpus. But after a few hours of conversation on the road, he realized there would be no weekend of sensual delight with this temptress. He had never heard of Guns n’ Roses or any of the other fifteen-minute fads that obsessed the much younger girl.

They got as far as Austin. He took the girl to the airport, bought her a round-trip ticket to Corpus, and put her on the plane. Then he made the long drive home. Just sitting in the car was agony long before he hit the Dallas city limits,

“I knew from long-distance training in the past that you have to experience pain to get any improvement,” he says. “But your body sends signals to tell you when to quit. I wanted to rebuild myself, but I had to remember to not become so obsessed that I lost sight of other things that mattered. Like just living life,”

On July 15, 1988, Joe took him out to White Rock for his first ride at the lake. On that day he met Lisa Price, a twenty-nine-year-old medical transcriptionist, A casual conversation between cycling enthusiasts on the bike trail blossomed into an engagement four months later.

During those four months. Keith’s progress was astounding. Finally he could ride all the way around the lake unaided. His left knee became flexible enough that he actually began to obtain some small amount of pump strength from it; before, the right leg alone had carried the load. He stopped using the wheelchair altogether in October, relying primarily on forearm crutches to get around and experimenting with a single cane.

Almost two years after that day on Highway 342, Keith can now manage an awkward, improvised gait without the cane, He still has areas of numbness in his legs and his ankles do not function as they should. He’s always on the lookout for sports supports, wraps, and orthotic braces that he can use to help him walk or ride his bike more efficiently. And he’s once again in long-distance training. He can now ride forty miles in a day and plans to be ready for the hundred-mile Hotter “N Hell 100 race on August 26 in Wichita Falls.

“It’s not going to be a race for me. It’s about finishing,” says Keith, “I used to love the speed and thrill of competition. But what I’ve gone through has changed my values a bit. Now it’s a great enough joy just to be around to do it. And doing it means going all the way…if my legs hold out.”

“Great legs,” the girl had said. Great heart, too.

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