The colostomy bag didn’t stop her. Neither did the pair of wound VACs or the drainage tubes. Or the fact that she died twice.
“I said to my husband, ‘I need to get back out there,’” said Colleen Kelly Alexander. “It’s the only way I knew how to be.”
On March 17, 2012, Alexander—leaning on a walker decorated for St. Patrick’s Day—finished the Leprechan 2-Mile Walk in Madison, CT, in 2 ½ hours. It was a milestone that came just six months after the cyclist and triathlete, while cycling home from work, sustained horrific injuries when she was run over by a 30-ton freight truck that missed a stop sign. The impact ripped apart much of her lower body, tearing skin off right down to the tissue, demolishing much of her soft tissue, and breaking her pelvis, hips, and an ankle.
“I hear my insides cracking,” she said in a video as she recounted the October 8, 2011, crash. “My legs feel like someone set them on fire. ‘Oh my god, my leg’s ripped to shreds.’ My abdomen’s opened up. I’m bleeding out, and I’m dying.”
Alexander did indeed die: once in the trauma bay, and again about 24 hours later. The first time, it took 20 minutes of CPR to bring her back.
On Sunday, on the first anniversary of that two-mile walk and with the support of Achilles International, Alexander will be on the starting line of the NYC Half.
“I want to cross the finish line and look at my husband, Sean, my absolute rock and my soul mate, and give him a hug and say ‘thank you’ again, and really celebrate this beautiful life I am living,” said Alexander, 37, who spent over a month in Yale-New Haven Hospital and then six more weeks in rehab at Gaylord Specialty Healthcare in Wallingford, CT, where she learned to walk again. “And then I want to high-five Matt and give him a hug and say, ‘you’re crazy, too!”
Matt is Matt Long, the NYC firefighter who barely survived when he and his bike were crushed by a bus in 2005. Alexander and Long, who recovered from his devastating injuries to run the ING New York City Marathon and compete in Ironman Triathlons, became Facebook friends after Alexander read his book, “The Long Run,” soon after leaving rehab. They will meet for the first time when he joins her at the 10-mile mark of the NYC Half.
Also accompanying Alexander will be her guide, Abigail Kelley, a 23-year-old paramedic and firefighter whom Alexander mentored when the young woman was a teen-ager. When Alexander came home from rehab, she said, Kelly often helped her shower and change the dressings on her wounds.
In the year between the two-mile walk and the NYC Half, Alexander has completed several more events, including a half-marathon in Central Park last month in 2:33:44. She has entered a Half Ironman set for August.
“The same kind of injuries in a different person would be absolutely life-crippling and it’s not done that to her,” Dr. Lewis Kaplan, one of the first providers to treat Alexander when she arrived at the hospital, told the alumni bulletin of the Yale University School of Medicine. “She’s like a force of nature.”
As she continues to recover from the crash, still facing additions to the total of 17 major surgeries she has so far endured, she has lived by a quote of Jody Williams, the Nobel Peace Prize winner (“Emotion without action is irrelevant”) and devoted herself to bike-safety awareness, speaking on behalf of the Red Cross, and raising $12,000 toward adaptive bicycles for the Gaylord rehab facility, at which she was introduced to Achilles International and began to realize that she could, against all odds, come back.
Alexander calls herself the product of many people—Kaplan and the many other doctors who treated her, the paramedics who kept her alive along the side of the road, the nurses in rehab, the physical therapists, the more than 125 people whose blood donations helped save her.
“I cross all these finish lines for the real heroes,” she said, “who never gave up on me.”
In photo: Alexander, left, at the Achilles Hope & Possibility race last June, with Trisha Meili, author of "I Am the Central Park Jogger."