Happy to be Alive

By Rich Schneider

When Jason Paul crawls out of Gray’s Lake and heads to his bicycle for the first transition in the 2011 Hy-Vee Triathlon, he will leave his comfort zone and enter what, for him, will be the most challenging phase of the race.

The former high school swimmer will grab a towel and dry himself with his right hand. He will use the same hand to slip on his shoes and fasten the chinstrap on his helmet.

Then Paul, 38, will pull two straps around his back and under his right arm, tighten them across his chest and connect them to the left part of his body. Once the plastic elbow, wrist and fingers are locked into place on the handlebar, he will climb onto his bike and start to pedal, something only he believed was possible 11 months earlier.

•••

Paul doesn’t remember the accident. It was Oct. 4. He was on his way home to Des Moines from the Newton Hy-Vee, where he was produce manager. He stopped for gas, sent two text messages while the car’s tank filled up, and then pulled onto Interstate 80, headed west.

He woke up in a hospital bed with his wife, Deb, by his side. His left arm was gone.

Paul was just happy to be alive.

“I didn’t know how I would deal with the arm and how I would do everything, but I knew it would work out,” says Paul, now the assistant manager at the Hy-Vee Drugstore in Des Moines.

Authorities say he fell asleep at the wheel. A semi in front of him had stopped for construction. Paul’s car slammed into the truck at an estimated 80 mph.

With his arm nearly severed, he crawled from the wreckage, handed his cell phone to a bystander and told her to call his wife. Then he sat down on the side of the road. Some off-duty paramedics who saw the aftermath of the crash rushed to his aid. Paul lost consciousness before the medical helicopter reached Methodist Hospital in Des Moines.

“He looked battered. There was dried blood, glass in his hair, and he was on a ventilator,” Paul’s brother Justin recalled. “I’m thinking: If he comes out of this just missing his arm, we’ll take it.”

Paul spent three days in ICU and was out of the hospital in a week. He credits his survival and quick recovery to the level of conditioning his brother Jeff, a professional triathlete, had helped him achieve prior to the accident. It was the second time physical fitness had saved his life.

•••

In 2004, Paul was 30 years old, weighed 330 pounds, suffered from high blood pressure and ran out of breath when he bent over to tie his shoes. He decided to undergo gastric bypass surgery, which helped him lose 100 pounds.

Drawing inspiration from Jeff, Paul embarked on a radical workout regimen and set his sights on competing in the inaugural Hy-Vee Triathlon in 2007. But foot ailments that required surgery forced him to settle for the swimming leg on a relay team.

Paul refused to give up. He sacrificed sleep for more predawn workouts and again pointed himself to the Hy-Vee event, which he finished solo in June, 2010, four months before his accident.

“I think I was saved because my body was in good shape, so it handled the stress of the accident, the blood loss and everything that went with it,” Paul says. “I really feel if I wasn’t in shape, I wouldn’t be around right now.”

CEO Ric Jurgens visited Paul on his last day at Methodist hospital. Paul told the boss: I will compete again in 2011.

•••

He had been home only a few days. Occupational therapists were due to come by for his first session, so Paul hurried to make breakfast for his wife and three children. He cleaned the kitchen and took a shower before the therapists arrived.

“They were amazed I did all that by myself. My attitude was, I have to, I can’t rely on other people to help me,” Paul remembers.

Jeff, too, was amazed at his brother’s resilience.

“I don’t know if its denial or stubbornness—or if he really thinks it’s no big deal.”

•••

Two months after he lost his arm, Paul was back at the YMCA for workouts. He had a bike custom built so the brakes and gears were on the right-hand handle bar, and he signed up for the Summer Daze triathlon in Newton on May 14.

Two-hundred twenty-three days after the accident, Paul broke the tape in Newton.

“It was very emotional toward the end; I was so happy my family was there, and I was just excited that I did it,” he says.

Adds Jeff: “He probably got the biggest cheers of anyone who crossed the finish line that day.”

Brotherly inspiration spread. Josh and Justin decided they, too, would get in shape. Both pledged to be at Jason’s side next month at the Hy-Vee Triathlon.

Of course, they’ll have to catch him first.

“I’m sure I will see that smile on his face, even though I’m thinking, ‘Man this is torture,’” Justin says.

Maybe, as Jeff says, it’s denial. Maybe it’s stubbornness. Or maybe Paul really thinks that the loss of an arm is no big deal.

Either way, it’s hard to argue with that smile.

“I think I’m a better dad for my three kids and a better husband,” Paul says. “I kind of try to be an inspiration to a lot of people now; I’m not going to let this keep me down.”

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