When Russell Anderson began to talk, one of his first words was "bike." At age 3, he rode a two-wheel bicycle (minus the training wheels), and at 4 he placed first in a mini-motocross race. By the time he was 9, he'd tried just about everything on wheels - scooters; skateboards; unicycles; BMX bikes; 50, 60 and 80 cc motorcycles. He'd garnered so many first-place trophies, he was automatically advanced to the "Expert Class." At age 10, this red-headed, freckle-faced boy was the youngest "expert" in the history of the Utah Sportsman Riders Association.
On Memorial Day 1987, a day his parents, Nancy and Carl Anderson, will never forget, Russ was one race away from taking first over-all in the five-race AMA regional qualifier in Las Vegas. The racetrack was filled with the usual hills, turns and jumps, preceded by one of the longest high-speed starts in motocross. Before the racers reached the first turn, they would be traveling at speeds in excess of 60 mph. His competitors were 15 and 16 years old, and this unusual 10-year-old felt the pressure.
Past the first hill, Russ lost control. He was thrown head-first into the ground, with the full weight of his motorcycle behind him.
Moments earlier, his mother had insisted on snugging the strap of his $200 safety helmet closer to his chin. It probably saved his life. Elaborate safety gear had prevented any other injuries, but this was one of the worst traumas possible. His brain was thrown against his skull at the same rate of speed the motorcycle was traveling.
Helplessly, Nancy Anderson watched as her son's 87-pound frame was lifted into the ambulance. She held her own breath as an emergency technician revived Russ' breathing five separate times en route to the Boulder City Hospital. She cried bitterly when hospital regulations prevented her from riding in the helicopter that took him to a better-equipped Las Vegas facility. An off-duty nurse gave her a ride to the hospital and showed her where to wait. Russ was connected to 13 different life-support devices and monitors.
Carl Anderson remembers the all-night drive from Delta to Las Vegas to see his son. Because he'd started a new job that required Saturday work, he hadn't taken Russ to this race. He almost blamed himself. Over the phone, the doctors had refused to speculate on whether Russ would even wake up, much less regain normal functions. And Carl knew of an older man whose whole personality and functions had changed drastically after a similar accident.
"I felt like I'd walked into a space capsule at the hospital," he recalls. "Everywhere I looked were blinking lights, monitors and tubes."
But although Russ remained unconscious for the next 48 hours, the boy finally woke for short periods of time. Everyone cheered as he wiggled the fingers and toes the doctors pointed to. He recognized his parents and he rattled off times tables at their instigation. He also remembered all the state capitals his father had just taught him for school. There were a few gaps in his memory, but that was to be expected after such a traumatic accident.
Because of the demands of a new job, Carl couldn't remain at his son's side. Again he drove through the night, back to Delta. This time he felt more optimistic - even thinking perhaps that Russ could be back on the track in a couple of weeks. Because they hadn't been warned about what to expect in the case of brain trauma, they were unprepared for what was to follow.
Though he was weak, Russ began to walk around the ward for short periods of time. His doctors told Nancy the boy would need several weeks of rehabilitation. She thought, "He's walking and talking and eating. What else does he need?" Still, she decided to have him transferred to Primary Children's Medical Center, where he'd be close to home. She thought he'd be there for just a few days.
Reality didn't hit her until she and Russ were at the airport, waiting to catch their plane to Salt Lake City. They were checking their bags when Russ began to bite his nails off and spit them at the broad back of a man standing in the same line. "I told him to stop, but he just looked at me and went right on doing it. That's when I began to worry," Nancy says.
On the plane Russ gobbled all of his food and part of hers. He bolted down three packs of peanuts in rapid succession and guzzled two drinks of pop. She excused this behavior because he'd had nothing but liquids for the past three days. But she did wonder why he showed no interest in the flight, though it was his first time on an airplane. And he persisted in unbuckling his seat belt each time she buckled it.
At Primary Children's his behavior deteriorated. Because of continued swelling, his brain had stopped sending important signals to his body. He no longer knew when he was full, so he ate voraciously; he wet his pants unless someone reminded him to go to the bathroom; he wandered in and out of other patient's rooms, helping himself to the food on their trays or swearing at them. He'd lost all his inhibitions. He looked like a normal 10-year-old, but his behavior had reverted to his "terrible twos."
"Anything and everything he'd ever heard came out of his mouth," said his mother. "Whatever he thought, he said. If somebody was fat, he'd tell them so. If their hair looked dumb, he'd point that out too. He'd flirt with a young girl in the hall or proposition a nurse." Nancy pauses. "This was my shy little 10-year-old? I didn't even know he liked girls _ or that he had a girlfriend at school _ but I found out while we were there." She tried to suppress a smile. "He told me all kinds of stuff. I pumped him for information."
Nancy remembers the worry and frustration of that time, but she also learned to laugh _ when she could. "Early one morning, he wandered into a ward filled with four sleeping children. After inspecting each of them, he went back to the nurses' station. `You don't have to bother going in there _ they're all dead.' The nurses laughed all day."
However, not all of Russ' behavior was funny. His hyperactivity made it difficult for the nurses to manage him. No longer content to sit at mealtime, he wandered in and out of his room between bites. He was impatient, demanding, even violent when anyone crossed him. His doctors urged Nancy to consider putting him in the adolescent unit of the psychiatric ward where he would have to earn privileges on a point system. She refused, offering instead to stay with him during all of his waking hours.
Nancy arrived at 6 every morning and remained until 10 or 11 each night. She spent four to six hours a day following Russ as he rambled over the acres surrounding the hospital. "I wish I'd had a pedometer to measure the distances as we walked. I'd guess we covered about 15 miles a day _ and I was two months pregnant."
One day, she stopped at a picnic table to rest. Russ continued to pace around the table, his hands clasped tightly in front of his body. His voice droned on in rambling sentences as he circled the table over and over. She rested her head in her hands for an instant and dozed off.
Suddenly, "Mom! Help me _ I can't stop!" Russ was still pacing around the table. "I can't stop. Please help me to stop," he pleaded.
"What do you want me to do?" she asked, confused.
"Take my hand and hold it real tight so I can stop." His brain had become his prison _ stuck in a pattern he could not escape.
By this time, Nancy was putting in 15 to 17 hours a day, with only a few hours off each weekend when Carl came to relieve her. She was feeling physically and emotionally drained. Carl persuaded his boss to give him a leave of absence. The next weekend, they traded places.
"It was pretty discouraging at first," he remembers. "Russ had lost all ambition _ he didn't care about anything. In therapy, they couldn't get him to read or put puzzles together. If we withheld TV he was just as content to stare at the ceiling. I even told him if he didn't start trying, he'd be in the hospital the rest of his life. He told me he didn't care."
Carl and Nancy credit Russ' racing buddies with turning his life around. They had privately discussed never letting him race again _ if he ever recuperated. But whenever his friends talked about motorcycles or racing, Russ would pay attention to their conversation and ask questions. Carl began using old videos of races to stretch his attention span. Later, he and the doctors devised a reward system for performance in therapy. Suddenly, Russ began to respond.
He applied himself in therapy and earned a two-hour pass to watch his friends ride at Bonneville Raceway. When Russ cried all the way back to the hospital, it became clear that he was no longer content to stay in the hospital for the rest of his life. His doctors assured him he could leave when he began acting more "normal."
Carl says, "All of a sudden Russ began caring what his friends thought of him. He'd ask them to remind him when he wasn't acting `normal.' They'd get up to leave, he'd start to cry and beg them to stay. `That's not normal, Russ,' they'd tell him, and he'd pull in his lip and try to control his emotions."
How much of this does Russ remember? Nothing of the accident and only vague memories of the hospital. It was a time of enormous confusion. During his hospitalization, he once asked his mom, "Is this my real life, or is it a dream?"
Seven weeks after the accident, Russ was finally ready to come home. He worked with a tutor the rest of the summer to fill in the gaps he'd lost. Miraculously, he returned to his usual "A" record the next school year. And he has continued to excel in both academics and sports. But there are a few lingering changes in his personality _ he worries about the future and tries to have everything done ahead of time. Although most mothers would welcome a change like that, Nancy knows this compulsion is the aftermath of the injury.
Not all head trauma accidents end this well. Very little is known about the brain's recuperative powers. As Carl puts it, "Doctors can repair just about every part of the body _ or replace it, but all we could do was sit back and wait for the brain to heal itself."
A year and a half after the accident, Russ is fully involved in the racing that he loves. He often places first or second in Utah's expert class. He's considered to be one of the top five competitors in his races. Perhaps he'll even be rated No. 1 in the nation for his class.
But whatever the outcome, his friends and family already know he's a winner _ in more ways than one.