From hit-and-run to coast-to-coast, biker triumphs

On a mission to “promote Traumatic Brain Injury recovery and awareness,” Doug Markgraf hopped on his bicycle in San Francisco more than seven weeks ago and started pedaling.

The East Falls man has since climbed and descended mountains, cruised through deserts and plains and traversed every terrain in between.

Next on his schedule is a Friday tour of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania’s Neuro-Intensive Care Unit, one of many brain-injury centers he’s seen along the way.

On Saturday, Markgraf will host a fundraiser for the Raisin Hope Foundation at Billy Murphy’s Irish Saloonery in East Falls.

From there, it’s onto Toms River, N.J., where he’ll complete his nationwide ride. Nearly 3,000 miles is a lot of ground to cover to bring attention to an issue, but it’s not too far for Markgraf, who is five years removed from a coma at HUP.

A sophomore and member of Drexel University’s cycling team in May 2006, he was struck by a quad-cab pick-up truck that was towing an ATV on Lancaster Avenue. Photos from the scene show a bicycle mangled beyond repair. Images from the hospital captured a life in jeopardy.

The still-unsolved hit-and-run left Markgraf with, among many other ailments, a diffuse axonal injury, or brain-tissue tearing.

Markgraf’s father, Dan, recalls hearing very few positive updates about Doug’s chance of survival from a physician whom the family now remembers as “Dr. Doom and Gloom.”

But when family members realized he’d survive, their talk turned to an uncertain quality of life. They didn’t know whether he’d be able to walk, talk or care for himself.

“I’m not sure how I was hit, what the circumstances were. I never spoke to police officers about it,” Markgraf said Tuesday via phone from western Pennsylvania. “Forty-five minutes prior, I remember that last moment vividly. Then, I vaguely remember waking up in [Moss] rehab hospital.”

After two weeks in a coma, and even longer in a semi-comatose state, he thought he was caught in a nightmare.

“There was severe depression. I couldn’t grasp what really happened, so I slept a lot,” he said. “I felt completely and utterly alone, no matter who was there with me. It was tough mentally understanding what I was going through, but we all [TBI victims] have that.”

When he regained the ability to write – which is how he communicated while a tracheotomy tube prevented speech – he was asked how his day was. He wrote the Japanese phrase for “It’s a good day,” even if it wasn’t exactly that.

The TBI affected his memory to the point that, when he got back to Drexel, he had to switch from mechanical engineering to education, a degree he achieved last year. Instead of working in robotics, he now teaches it to students at Universal Institute Charter School in South Philadelphia.

While recovering – which he said he still is – Markgraf found support and mentorship through “fellow survivor” Saul Raisin and his Raisin Hope Foundation. He also worked his way back to the bike seat through physical rehab on a stationary bike and then real biking in the suburbs. It took a year-and-a-half for Markgraf to feel comfortable riding in the city again.

The trip, which benefits the Raisin Hope Foundation, was inspired by Markgraf’s desire to prove to himself that he could do it, and prove to others with TBI “that they can, too.”

He left for the West Coast the day before school was out and timed it so he’d be back in time for professional development days before the new school year starts. As part of the message, he has five bicycle helmets on or near his bike to draw attention to rider safety.

“I knew that if I was heading home, and if I found I was running behind schedule, somehow, someway, I could speed up,” said Markgraf, who chose the San Francisco starting point because he knew of a notable TBI center there.

He routed the trip through cities which he knew also had such facilities that he could stop in as a source of inspiration to patients and, through attention generated, “educate and inspire people to learn a little more about brain injuries.”

Among the things he said he’s learned is that “you don’t want to get a brain injury in Wyoming or Nevada, since there’s no support for brain injury whatsoever. They pretty much just send you off, Medevac you to Salt Lake City or somewhere else.”

“The day that I get back in Philadelphia, I’m going to write up a letter that everybody can send to their local politicians asking them to mandate, or require, that insurance companies offer better [support] for brain-injury treatment and recovery,” said Markgraf. 

He said he only has a “vague anger” at the person who hit him, though he admits he’d be tempted to slash some tires if he’d ever found out who was responsible. In a way, he said, he kind of saw the accident coming.

“There’s a statistic out there that once every 3,000 miles, you’ll have some sort of bike-versus-auto incident. So, I was kind of prepared for an injury, though I never suspected one that was going to change my entire life,” he said, noting the irony of bringing that up when he’s “just approaching the end of my first 3,000-mile bike ride.”

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