The ER wasn't where Key had planned to spend the night back on May 29, 2007. He'd worked a bit late to finish the standing operating procedures for his brigade's rear detachment and emailed a copy to four of his co-workers. He kidded them that someone needed to have a copy should he get hit by a truck on his way home. He couldn't have imagined how prophetic that would be.
Key left his office and got ready for the ride home. A dedicated motorcycle rider for more than 25 years, he liked cruisers. Donning his chaps, vest, gloves, helmet and goggles, he got on his Harley-Davidson Fat Boy and headed out Fort Campbell's Gate 3. He could have turned right and gone home through Tiny Town, his normal route. However, it was such a nice day he decided to take a more leisurely cruise. Turning left, he rode along Highway 41A North toward Interstate 24. He had no idea he was about to meet a dangerous driver on the road.
Mark Bruner (a fictitious name) was also headed north on Highway 41A, one hand wrapped around a bottle and the other on the wheel. Driving a company truck, it wasn't even 5 p.m. and he was already drunk. In a hurry, he'd decided to use the turning lane dividing the highway's north and southbound lanes as his personal "passing" lane. There was a liquor store ahead and he had a date with another bottle. But he wouldn't keep it.
Key had just gotten back up to speed after stopping for a red light. Cruising in the far-right lane, he was aware of the cars in the lanes to his left. Everything seemed normal " or so he thought.
Meanwhile, Bruner realized he was almost to the entrance for the liquor store's parking lot. Quickly, he turned right to cut across all three northbound lanes. But he didn't quite make it. Key's 700-plus-pound Fat Boy was about to turn Bruner's four-wheel-drive pickup into a three-wheeled wreck. Seeing the white truck with its red lettering suddenly pull in front of him, "I grabbed a handful of clutch and hit the brakes," Key said.
He also instinctively steered toward the truck's right-front fender, knowing he was more likely to survive being thrown over the hood than into the pickup's windshield or roofline. Almost instantly, the Fat Boy's solid front wheel slammed into the pickup's right-front wheel, tearing it off the axle.
The impact shattered the bones in Key's left arm. The Harley then pivoted toward the left, smashing the pickup's passenger side. As it did, the bike's left engine guard folded back, catching Key's foot as he was thrown off the bike. Key landed unconscious on the far side of the truck. April Niblett, a nurse from Fort Campbell's Blanchfield Army Community Hospital (BACH), was driving home and happened on the accident. Leaving her car, she ran to Key, who was lying on his back in the road. Holding his head still, she spoke gently as she tried to calm him. The injured rider asked her to call his wife and gave Niblett her number. Looking at Key, Niblett noticed his eyes were wandering as if his mind was trying to process what had happened. Joined by others offering to help, she checked him for injuries.
"We did a 'once-over' " just looking for any injuries we could see with the naked eye," Niblett said. "Obviously, there was blood, so I went to the trunk of my vehicle, where I kept my medical bag. I opened it and started handing out gloves and we started bandaging the injuries where we could."
Working on his left side, Niblett was using a pair of shears to remove his glove when she saw he was bleeding profusely from a compound fracture to his wrist. She immediately bandaged his wound to staunch the flow of blood.
But for Key, survival wasn't certain.
"I remember thinking, 'Man, you have died this time " I don't think you're going to make it out of this one,'" he said.
Police arrived at the scene first and called Vanderbilt, requesting Key be airlifted to the hospital. Later, as he was being loaded into the helicopter, his wife told him, "I love you and I'll see you when you get to Vanderbilt," Key said.
Those words meant the world to the severely injured rider.
"I told the flight medics, 'Don't let me die before we get to where we're going … you've got to keep me alive at least that long," Key said.
Nibblet's efforts had kept Key from bleeding out at the accident scene, buying precious minutes before emergency medical technicians arrived. During the flight to Vanderbilt, the flight medics did their best to keep him alive. Even so, he barely got to the ER before he bled out and flatlined. He'd need four more units of blood before doctors could get his heart beating again and stabilize him. More than a week later, he awoke in the intensive care unit, surprised to find a cast on each limb.
During his first week in the hospital, Key underwent five surgeries to repair 82 fractures. Over the following six months, he would undergo four more operations. Several doctors performed the surgeries, each a specialist for the injury being operated on. The collection of metal pins, screws and plates used in Key's surgeries read more like a shopping list for AutoZone than one for medical supplies.
After spending more than three months at Vanderbilt and a skilled nursing facility in Clarksville, Tenn., Key returned home for rehabilitation. Exactly a year later he returned to work at Fort Campbell, working at BACH through the Warrior Transition Battalion's "Work Site" program as he continued therapy and healing. Grateful to be alive, he recognized the things that made the difference that day.
"I'm a firm believer in helmets," Key said, noting he'd suffered a severe concussion during the accident. "Putting padding between your 'coconut' and whatever you're going to hit is going to help."
He's also a believer in wearing personal protective equipment.
"I always wear leather," he said. "Any kind of cushion you can put between you and whatever you're going to hit, I think, in some way, bleeds off part of the energy. … It kills me to see kids out there in T-shirts, shorts and tennis shoes. They're going to get burned from the pipes and the asphalt."
He also believes riders need to practice their survival skills to protect themselves from drivers like Bruner. Each time he returned from a deployment, he found a safe location and practiced his emergency braking and maneuvering skills. He believes it enabled him to make the split-second decision that likely saved his life.
"I think this was one of those one-in-a-million accidents," Key said. "I really didn't see it coming, but I have to think that I instinctively chose to hit that truck where I wanted to."
And then there was Niblett. By helping him at the scene, she gave him the precious minutes needed until emergency medical personnel arrived. By doing that, Key believes she saved his life.
Some riders break the rules and pay the price. Others are the victims of motorists who, like Bruner, disregard others' safety. Key believes he survived that day because he'd protected himself by being prepared for the worst. In his mind, survival is no accident " it's the result of making the right choices.