Patient Profile – Jan Morgan, M.D.
Cyclist survives a brush with death and becomes a vocal advocate for helmet use and biker-protection laws.
David Morgan, M.D., had just finished dressing for work the morning of May 22, 2011 when the phone rang. “I knew I was getting a call at the wrong time,” David says.
His wife, Jan Morgan, M.D., was training for her second Ironman Triathlon®. She was doing a 70-mile bike ride around her hometown of Starkville, Miss., that morning with her friend Kim. “I knew her pace and I knew how long they were riding,” “It was too early for them to be finished,” David recalls.
It was Kim calling. “She said, ‘Jan’s been hit, and it’s bad.’”
About 50 miles into their ride, a motorist hit Jan from behind. The police report describes the force of the crash launching Jan off her bike, into the air, and then landing on the hood of the motorist’s car, rolling into the windshield. When the driver came to a stop, Jan flew forward on the asphalt.
What happened next seemed unbelievable to onlookers rushing to the scene. The Starkville Daily News quoted the accident report: “The driver… exited the vehicle and observed the cyclist while talking on the phone. [The driver] then re-entered her vehicle and ran the cyclist over again before being forced from her vehicle by a witness.”
For the first couple of weeks after the accident, doctors at North Mississippi Medical Center focused on keeping Jan alive. Major injuries included collapsed lungs, sternal fractures, a lumbar burst fracture, scalp lacerations, a frontal lobe contusion and hemorrhaging in the temporal lobe of her brain.
“You name it, I had it,” Jan says.
Doctors kept her in a coma and on a ventilator for five weeks. Jan doesn’t remember anything from a couple days before the accident to nearly three months after.
Her husband isn’t so lucky. A radiologist, David says it was difficult knowing all too well how much his wife was suffering. “Seeing it from the patient side was hard,” he says. “It was an emotional rollercoaster. It made me appreciate what patients’ families go through all the time.”
It was two weeks before David knew Jan would live. He immediately began seeking a brain injury rehabilitation hospital and found Shepherd Center. She was still a 4 on the Rancho cognitive-functioning scale when she arrived at Shepherd Center more than five weeks after the collision. “She was confused, agitated, not aware,” David recalls. “It was like talking to a 6-month-old.” Still, staff started Jan on physical, occupational, speech and recreation therapy. For about 10 days, there was little progress.
“The staff kept telling me, ‘She’ll come out of this.’ But it was frustrating,” David says. “Then one day, a nurse came in with pills, and Jan reached to take the pills from her. The nurse and I did a little dance. It was the tiniest, simplest act, but it meant a lot. She had done it on her own. That was the first time I had real hope that she could be herself again.”
Payal Fadia, M.D., medical director of Post-Acute Brain Injury Services, was Jan’s doctor at Shepherd Center. “It was normal for her to be confused and agitated initially with the combination of her fractures and brain trauma,” Dr. Fadia says. “Once we got her settled down, she did well. She really progressed quicker than most, especially considering the depth of her injuries.”
Jan doesn’t remember much from her time at Shepherd Center, but she knows she was a challenging patient. “They had these food monitors, and if you hadn’t eaten enough, they gave you Ensure,” she says, laughing. “For some reason, that made me angry. So I started hiding my food. I thought, ‘How smart I am! I should get extra points from my therapist. I’m problem-solving!’”
“They were so patient with her, but still demanding,” David says. “They made her stay out of bed, made her sit up when she didn’t want to. And there was lots of screaming and resistance from Jan. Believe me! But they were fantastic. It was what she needed.”
David never left Jan’s side during the ordeal. He took showers and naps at the apartment Shepherd Center provided for him, but he didn’t go home until Jan did.
“His support was everything,” Jan says. “I knew he loved me before this happened. But, wow! And he had to live through it all. I didn’t know. When I finally woke up, it was like I missed it – like I read the book or saw the movie about the experience. The more I learned, the more I sobbed for him.”
Jan could walk with assistance by the time she left Shepherd Center. Now, other than short-term memory issues, there’s not much that holds Jan back.
A year after the accident, she was swimming and taking 8-mile Saturday morning walks with her husband. A half-marathon is on the calendar for January 2013, and she’s mountain biking, too.
Of course, it’s hard for the Morgans to escape the cycling world. After Jan retired as an anesthesiologist a few years before the accident, she and David opened their own bicycle shop – Boardtown Bikes.
Jan’s story has provided her with an opportunity to become an even more visible proponent of helmet use and of “Share the Road” laws protecting cyclists on the road. Her story has reached bicycling groups and newspapers throughout the United States. And nobody buys a bike in the Morgans’ shop without the follow-up question: “Now, do you have a helmet?”
On Sept. 29, 2012, Lee Jenkins, executive director of the Brain Injury Association of Mississippi, presented Jan with the group’s annual “TBI Hope Award.”
“It’s really a miracle that she’s alive, much less doing everything that she’s doing,” Lee says. “We need stricter injury-prevention laws for bikers on roadways. And Mississippi doesn’t have a statewide bike helmet law. Jan’s story is such a good example of why we should.”
In spring 2012, when the driver who hit Jan was found guilty of simple assault with a deadly weapon, the judge initially gave the driver a six-month suspended prison sentence. Jan, however, requested that in lieu of jail time the driver produce a public service announcement (PSA) about safe driving and sharing the road. That PSA is now in production.
“The year before I got hit, Mississippi passed a law that motorists are required to leave at least three feet of space when passing cyclists,” Jan says. “But not enough people know the law. Since my accident, two more riders in Mississippi have been hit, and they died. I want to make people aware so this doesn’t happen anymore.”
Written by Phillip Jordan
Photography by Russ Houston
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 740 inpatients, nearly 280 day program patients and more than 7,100 outpatients each year in more than 46,000 visits.