Sunday, March 17, 2013

Metro columnist Dan Casey: Journalist recovering remarkably from crash

Doug Thompson, a Floyd-based journalist, is still recovering after he collided with a cow when he was riding his motorcycle on U.S. 221 in November. This photo was taken last week.


Doug Thompson, a Floyd-based journalist, is still recovering after he collided with a cow when he was riding his motorcycle on U.S. 221 in November. This photo was taken last week.

Dan Casey is The Roanoke Times' metro columnist.



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Tuesday morning started as usual for Doug Thompson, the Floyd County-based journalist. He was out of bed at 5 a.m. First he edited some copy for Capitol Hill Blue, the longest running political news site on the Internet. The ex-Washingtonian launched it in 1994.

Next he did a little writing for his popular blog, Blue Ridge Muse. Then Thompson was off to cover an 8:30 a.m. meeting of the Floyd County Board of Supervisors. They're deliberating on the coming year's budget; the meeting took most of the day.

By early evening, Thompson had a draft of his story for The Floyd Press, a weekly now owned by billionaire Warren Buffett. He turned in the finished copy Wednesday morning; the paper publishes Thursdays.

Little of that would be remarkable for a veteran scribe. But less than three months ago Thompson, 65, was in Carilion Clinic following a bad motorcycle wreck on U.S. 221 near Poage Valley Road. For a time, doctors didn't know if he'd ever walk or talk normally again, or recognize friends and loved ones.

The night of Nov. 9, while returning home after covering a Floyd County football game outside Staunton, Thompson hit a black cow in a dark stretch of roadway. A rescue squad crew scraped him up off the asphalt and rushed him to the Carilion Clinic trauma center.

The motorists who first came upon the accident and called 911 wondered if Thompson would make it to the hospital alive. The doctors told his wife Amy that there was a 50 percent chance he'd lose his right leg.

Even if he didn't, they cautioned, there was no telling what Thompson's mental state might be when he regained consciousness from his closed head injury. He had bleeding on his brain. He might not recognize her, they said - the couple has been married 33 years. He might have the mind of a 12-year-old. Later, Thompson would be able to joke about that: "That might have been an improvement," he cracked.

The accident ripped off the right side of his face; broke his lower right leg in three places; pulverized his right eye socket. He also chipped a rib and messed up his right shoulder. The greatest uncertainty concerned the head injury and what long-term effects that might have.

Yet when we met for lunch on Thursday, Thompson walked into the Wildflour Cafe at Towers Shopping Center with neither crutches nor a cane. He seemed a lot like his old outrageous self - maybe toned down just a bit, I offered.

"Amy says, 'you're more hesitant,'" Thompson said. " 'You think about things before you say them - you don't mouth off as much as you used to.' "

For sure there are other differences. Thompson now has two metal plates, at least 11 screws and metal rod in his lower right leg. "I light up a metal detector like a Christmas tree when I go through it," he cracked. A plastic surgeon did a pretty good job rebuilding his crushed right eye socket.

That eye is now situated a bit lower than his left one. It doesn't faze him, though - he sees fine. His distance vision is 20-10, he said, same as it was before the accident. He's thinking about getting some reading glasses for fine print; he never needed those before.

His right shoulder aches, he's lost 20 percent of his hearing in his right ear and he can't turn his head all the way to the right. His scar-free right cheek - the one left flapping by the wreck - looks better than his left. But it's numb. Those things may ease over time.

He lost 45 pounds in the hospital and would like to lose about 25 more, he allowed. His right leg is not yet at full strength and he wonders if it ever will be. You probably won't see him clogging to bluegrass music at the Friday Night Jamboree at the Floyd Country Store.

"I'm having to live with the fact that I'll probably never be as up to speed as I was," Thompson said.

But none of that kept him from traveling to Bluefield three weeks ago for a Floyd County High girls basketball game, or following the team to Richmond last week for the state championship tourney.

Thompson was in the hospital, including in-patient rehab, from Nov. 9 to Christmas Eve. He's finished speech therapy and occupational therapy but he still goes to Christiansburg twice a week for physical therapy.

Most of the first month that he was in the hospital is still a blur. "I run into people and they say, 'I came and saw you in the hospital,' and I don't remember because that was a period in which I was 'out,' " he told me.

At one point during the still-fuzzy phase, when he was still in intensive care, he yanked out his IV lines and tried to check himself out of the hospital.

But finally, he can remember the accident.

He'd ridden his Harley south on Interstate 81 from Staunton then took I-581 toward Roanoke. Then he headed home on U.S. 221, aka Bent Mountain Road. He stopped at Bojangles in Cave Spring for some chicken for Amy. Then he headed south toward home.

As he rounded a bend near Poage Valley Road, Thompson saw a white cow in the road and managed to avoid it. What he didn't see until too late was a black cow behind the white one. By the time he did, his only option was to lay the Harley down. When he did, the motorcycle's windshield clipped the cow's rear leg. It scampered off the road; he was spread out on it, laboring to breathe when the first motorists arrived on the scene.

There's one correction Thompson offered to an earlier column I wrote about his accident. He was not wearing a minimal-protection skullcap-type helmet as Roanoke County police had told me back in November. "It was a three-quarter helmet with a full face shield," he said.

Thompson's absence was certainly noticed up in Floyd County, where he started his journalism career as a teenager. (Later, he worked for five years at The Roanoke Times; then at a paper in Illinois, then on Capitol Hill as a congressional staffer and later a lobbyist before he returned to Floyd for good in 2004).

Soon after he returned here he became a prolific - and sometimes controversial - stringer for The Floyd Press. And all of sudden after the accident his stories and photos were absent.

"People would see me in the grocery store and ask about him," said Wanda Combs, the paper's editor. "They would email me and there was a lot on Facebook about him. People were really concerned; they wanted to know about his condition."

She added: "We're very happy he's back â? he does a great job."

At the Floyd Country Store, they were opening the famed Friday Night Jamboree with a prayer for Thompson's recovery. In a close-knit community like Floyd, Thompson said, "it doesn't matter who you are, or how people feel about you for certain things. When somebody gets hurt, they pull behind you."

These days, Thompson can be found most mornings at the Blue Ridge Restaurant, where he joins a few other aging motorcyclist friends for breakfast. "We call ourselves The Sons of Lethargy," he joked.

There are still some medical issues Thompson must attend to, of course. Not least of those is the hospital bills he racked up since the wreck. Until last summer, when Amy Thompson lost her job, he'd been insured under her health care policy. At the time of the accident he was uninsured, save for $5,000 worth of medical coverage under his motorcycle policy.

His medical bills exceed $700,000.

Medicare kicked in Dec. 1, the month Thompson turned 65. The rest of the bills are unpaid. Though the owner of the cows was cited for allowing them to get loose, the farmer's insurance carrier is being persnickety about accepting liability in the crash.

Thompson has hired attorney Jonathan Rogers to sort that out; it looks like a lawsuit is in the works.

"I don't have any desire to take advantage of anybody," he told me. "But I do want them to take responsibility."

There is one question, of course, that he's been asked a lot. Will he ever ride a motorcycle again? The answer is, he intends to, by this summer, if not sooner. When we met for lunch Thursday, he was coming from a motorcycle dealership.

Amy has asked him never again to ride at night, though.

"And I agreed to that," Thompson said.

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