Until she had a horrendous bicycle crash six years ago, Kelly Cruser of Ashland was an orthodontist and No. 2 in Oregon bike racing for women older than 35.
The crash happened for no apparent reason, with no vehicles or other bikes nearby, as Cruser challenged her new husband to a high-speed sprint on Arnold Lane in Medford. He was taking his first ride on a Land Shark that was her wedding present to him.
The crash "mashed" the right side of Cruser's brain, paralyzing her entire left side and leaving her in an 11-hour coma with much memory loss. Two months of rehabilitation followed at Providence Medford Medical Center before the long road back.
Cruser was wearing a helmet — she would have died without it — she says, adding that she knows cyclists who don't wear helmets, and "they're asking for hell."
"I had to relearn to walk and talk. I didn't recognize my own house. I couldn't speak for a long time. I had to sell my orthodontist practice," says Cruser.
During her arduous recovery, she says, "some days can be really rough, but the next day is a different day."
Cruser tried running but kept falling down. She still doesn't have the balance needed to bike, but she finally found the ideal workout — Nordic walking, using ski poles and practicing "cross-crawling," which is an exaggerated form of moving arms and legs in opposing directions and pushing off with the poles. It has done a lot for her core and upper-body strength and helps rehabilitate her brain, she notes.
Trainer Carol Lee Rogers, who turned Cruser on to the poles in 2005, had an equally traumatic bike crash in the 1970s. She said recovery is about "focused determination: Who am I? What can I do? You keep your head down. Like biking, you focus on the road and go straight ahead — and that's what Kelly has been doing. It's been beautiful to see her improvement and how it's helped connect her head and body."
Before her injury, Cruser would train by biking 150 miles a week — nothing else. Her legs were huge and muscular, and her arms thin. Now, she notes, they're back in balance.
Cruser does dog therapy with veterans at Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center & Clinics in White City and a reading program with troubled second- and third-graders — using Rondeau, her Portuguese water dog — to help clients communicate.
"I love it. It really opens up connections," she says.
Cruser goes at recovery from many directions, doing lots of reading and playing brain games on www.luminosity.com. She has walked Nordic-style from Lithia Park to the summit of Mount Ashland. She credits the unflagging support of husband Rick Billin and says she found "beautiful" support in a Providence group for neurologic-rehabilitation patients.
Key to Cruser's inspiration for recovery was "The Brain That Changes Itself," by Dr. Norman Doidge. The book shows the scientific basis of positive thinking and coins the term "neuroplasticity," which refers to the ability of the brain and nervous system to develop new cells and functions throughout life, not just in youth — and to "teach and stand in" for parts impaired by stroke, injury or psychiatric causes.
"I'm a living example of it," says Cruser. "I'm doing all kinds of stuff — and I'm a hell of a chef."
Asked in her support group whether she would turn back time and change anything, Cruser replies, "No, I wouldn't change anything. It's so beautiful now. I don't remember a lot of the past. Who I am now is who I know.
"I love all the beautiful things I know. I learned that just about anything is possible. There's so much you can do. I'll be in recovery the rest of my life, and I look forward to seeing what's going to happen."