East Falls resident debuts brain-injury awareness documentary in Ambler

Saturday’s weather called for temperatures in the high 90s but that didn’t stop 26-year-old Doug Markgraf, and six other cyclists, from participating in a 20-mile bike ride from Philadelphia to Ambler, Pa. that morning.

It was the 4th annual Head Injury Ride for Recovery and it was organized for a cause close to Markgraf’s heart. Back in 2006, the then 20-year-old Markgraf suffered a severe brain injury when he was hit by the driver of a Dodge Durango as he rode through the bicycle lane in West Philadelphia near 55th Street and Lancaster Avenue.

The driver sped off, but he or she left the East Falls resident in a coma with 21 brain bruises. For a while, it was uncertain if Markgraf would ever regain his consciousness from such catastrophic injuries, let alone ride a bicycle again.

But during the next two years of recovery and rehabilitation, Markgraf surpassed one expectation after another – eventually relearning how to ride his bicycle again and receiving his bachelor’s degree from Drexel University, where he had studied at the time of his accident.

“I spoke with a lot of neuroscientists about whether or not my recovery had to do with my level of physical fitness,” says Markgraf. “It’s about refusal – someone who refuses to hear what people tell him.”

“This Beats a Coma”

Markgraf set out on a 56-day bicycle trip across the country last summer to raise awareness for traumatic brain injuries, filming his journey all the while.

“I want to help people understand what it’s like when you have a brain injury,” Markgraf says. “Traumatic brain injuries are very common place…but a large part of it is unseen.”

Director Scott Richardson pieced together Markgraf’s point-of-view footage into a narrative, and then filmed the remaining interview segments with Markgraf. The documentary, “This Beats a Coma”, debuted in Ambler this weekend.

“I didn’t see any of the film for 56 days, while Doug was on the road,” Richardson says. “I thought it seemed like a crazy idea then, and I don’t think it’s any less crazy now.”

“This Beats a Coma” shows some of the challenges Markgraf faced as he cycled alone from state to state. He endured 15 flat tires throughout his journey, and racked up four flats in a single day during his first week. Markgraf set up his tent on the side of the road some nights. But he was also surprised by the hospitality he received from other brain injury survivors and their family members he connected with along the way, who allowed him to sleep at their homes for the night.

The Ambler Theater’s auditorium was nearly filled to capacity with Markgraf and Richardson’s family and friends, along with other brain-injury survivors.

Connecting with brain-injury survivors 

One such survivor is 42-year-old Rosemont resident Eric Meneely, who cycled with Markgraf from Philadelphia to Ambler on Saturday. Athough Meneely and Markgraf hadn’t met prior to Saturday afternoon, Meneely says he attended the bicycle ride and screening after he learned of his astonishing similarities with Markgraf’s injuries.

Meneely, like Markgraf, was 20 years old when his motorcycle collided into the back of a car – propelling him face-first through the windshield, then somersaulting over the roof and hood before hitting the ground. Twenty years later, cycling has become Meneely’s main mode of transportation, because his brain injury prevents him from receiving a driver’s license. Meneely still sees double vision, has limited range of motion in his right eye and has struggled with balance.

While each brain injury is different, Meneely says almost all survivors deal with memory, physical coordination and speech impairment while recovering.

“If you haven’t been there, you don’t what it’s like,” Meneely says. “It’s like you’re born all over again. I had to learn how to walk again, like it was an accelerated growing up phase where I was acting like a four or five year old even though I was 20.”

According to the Traumatic Brain Injury Network of Pennsylvania, about 3,000 Pennsylvanians become severly disabled by brain injury every year. The Center for Disease Control reports that 1.7 million people suffer from traumatic brain injuries annually.

Reaching a larger crowd 

With “This Beats a Coma” wrapped, Markgraf and Richardson’s next goal is to share the film with more brain-injury survivors – especially veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Markgraf says he hopes the film will give hope to survivors, but also change brain-injury treatment in the United States. Markgraf mentioned to the audience after his film screening that insurance companies often deny coverage for brain injuries.

“Brain injury survivors are getting sent home as soon as they learn to swallow. That’s like giving a two-year-old a pair of work boots and expecting them to know how to work,” Markgraf said, eliciting applause from the crowd.

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