In this episode of the Gaylord Think Possible podcast, Megan Palmer, OT, and Gaylord's ThinkFirst Program coordinator, interviews Mike Kyrsuik. Mike talks about nearly life-ending injuries from a car accident when he was a 17-year-old varsity baseball pitcher ready to graduate from high school in 1974. Mike had always been a responsible student until earlier that year when he started hanging with what he described as “the big crowd,” a group of popular jocks who often cut classes together.
Having regarded himself as a “social nobody” for years, Mike was flattered that the group had accepted him into their fold. After all, he reasoned, he was a senior, and it was finally his time to shine. But running with the big crowd exacted a hefty toll. He was invited to join the group on an impromptu road trip across the state border to buy beer. Mike politely declined, citing his unfinished paper at home. Refusing to take no for an answer, the boy even offered Mike the shotgun seat in his tiny Triumph T6. That decision would change Mike's life forever.
Mike has written a book about his experience and life titled "The Big One." For more information, see Mike's website.
Link to his story and experience at Gaylord
Note: This transcript has been edited to help make it easier to understand the content. We attempted to do minimal editing, and in a few places it was a little hard to understand what was said, those sections are noted.
Host: Welcome to the Gaylord Specialty Healthcare podcast. This podcast will feature patients, families, and medical professionals dealing with serious illnesses or injuries and is meant to inspire and bring hope, insight, and a message of belief that life after a traumatic illness is possible.
Host: Welcome back, everyone, to our Gaylord Specialty Healthcare podcast featuring our Think First series. I am Megan Palmer, I will be your host today, and we are interviewing a new person Mr. Mike Krysiuk, who is a survivor of a traumatic brain injury after a car accident when he was a teen. He is here today to tell us his story and to share a little insight on maybe how teens can prevent this from happening to them in the future. So, Mike, welcome to the show. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Guest: I'm glad to be aboard. Great! Thank you for giving the opportunity, giving me the opportunity to reach out and reach the young people.
Host: Yes, we are very happy to have you, and we want to know, first and foremost, what brought you here, why, and what happened to you in the past that led to this traumatic accident.
Guest: I was first in Norwalk Hospital. That first night my parents had to find a rehab hospital for my rehabilitation because of the accident I was in…Well, let me start, I was in a very bad car accident. My friend and I were coming down route 123 in New Canaan, Connecticut, which is on the way, going to Vista, New York. We just came from Vista, New York, and we bought beer. We were with our friends…and my friends were in a blue station wagon behind us. I was with my friend in his Triumph GT6, a small two-seater hardtop that was pumped up for speed. He was going over…My friend and I were the tall ones, and we walked in, bought the beer, we each took a six-pack, and that night… I didn't have anything to drink that night, but I just wanted. I went along with the crowd to be part of the crowd, being a popular crowd, and I just, it just and we headed out, and my friend goes, we gotta get you home fast.
So, he patches out of the parking lot, heading home down 123, and I looked across at the dial [and it is ] going between 90 and 100 miles an hour. So, we're going 100 miles an hour. He tried to downshift his gears and hit the gears and hit the brakes when we were going into a skid, skid across the street like nobody was coming in a big pile of dirt and a black shadow.
On my side, we hit the pile of dirt. My side was in the black shadow. The black shadow was a bulldozer. They don't move. Where the headlight hit the bulldozer on the driver's side, where these are on the passenger side door was all pushed in, the engine came through the engine wall at the bottom of my seat. If I didn't put my legs on the dashboard and braced myself, I would have lost both legs at the sockets. The doctor said I would have been cut in half. And uh, just be part of the crowd would go along with the boys. And uh, I was, I used this as a term. I was walking in my friend's shadows, being part of the crowd. I got lost in the shadows and nearly lost my life.
I was - everything was coming for me, my baseball, everything was going for me in high school. I was getting my grades back. I was gonna graduate. Everything was going. I was going in the next day to hand in a paper to my teacher for economics, which I've been working on. I fell behind in the class because of my fooling around, my floundering around with my friends, and I was going to hand in the paper the next day. The next day I was in the hospital, in a coma for six weeks.
Host: So, this was your senior year of high school?
Host: You were literally about to graduate.
Guest: Yes. I was supposed to have a big time…
Host: And then you were immediately in a coma for six weeks. You're, were you on the bridge of life and death? Did your parents think that you were going to make it?
Guest: Well, let me put it this way. The emergency room doctor is your last angel of hope, as they say in the hospital. That night he told my dad to be prepared. He's not gonna make it, meaning me.
Host: What a traumatic, scary message to be given about, you know, as you're looking at your child, just laying there helpless.
Guest: Well, I had my mirror. I felt like my face exploded. It all healed. No plastic surgery or anything. The mirror hit me on top of the forehead, crossed like this between my eyes, came across my cheek, and cut my left ear in three pieces. They just put it together that night.
Host: Now, when you were in the coma, did you have any kind of visions or dreams or anything that you remember from that six weeks of being under?
Guest: I was like on a field of green grass, and the sun was behind me because there was no sun in front of me, but it was brightly lit all over. There was sunshine behind me, but there was no shadow on the ground in front of me. I couldn't figure that out. I just, I was just running. Just kept running and running and running, and I was passing different parts of my life. I was going to dances. I was in school, I was playing sports games, and I had my first kiss. That got me really confused.
Host: You saw that when you were in your coma?
Guest: Yes. Your mind plays tricks on you, and my mind a lot of tricks on you. But I just kept going. And I heard this this this this phrase, and it was God to shoot for the sun and everything you do because if you miss you'll land among the stars, and that is a great place to be right now. I'm dancing in the stars. That's why every day, I shoot for the sun. I'm not gonna stop.
Host: What a message. And so, when you finally awoke from the coma, was that your first memory, or did you know what happened to you? Or did someone have to explain it?
Guest: I thought it was. I thought it was like an hour later, half an hour, an hour, half an hour later. Because in a coma, you have no sense of time. I didn't know what was going on. All I could do was roll my eyeballs. I couldn't even scratch my nose. I was a quadriplegic, which means you can't do everything. And it just came back. Like my dad would come into my hospital room every day and pop the bottom [of my foot] with his thumb because I knew I was very ticklish before the accident. When he popped it, it went into a muscle spasm.
That means I had my life back, but it was a painful recovery. But it was a happy pain if you can get happiness from pain. I was feeling the pain and was happy because, I mean, I had life in my body back.
Host: You were able to move, and then you were you also had a traumatic brain injury. So there is some bleeding on the brain from the accident as well?
Guest: I don't [know] if it was bleeding, but it was like a brain fracture like that. Give you a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 meaning worse. They gave me a 15 because…I was bleeding, and it was like I had a trach from breathing.
Guest: That's right. And also, my head was swelled out on the left side. Came across here and ended up in my ear and three pieces. [My head swelled] out like this. They had to relieve the pressure on the brain. Because if they didn't, when the pressure went down, my brain would have come out of my ears. Had a dig to burr holes in my skull. It all healed. No plates or anything. So, I can go through the metal detectors. No, no, no.
And I'm happy I'm able to talk about this and tell people and tell people about this.
Host: Right, and then once you were medically stable, they transferred you to Gaylord Hospital. Gaylord Specialty Healthcare for rehab?
Guest: Yes. They checked around, there were some other hospitals, and Gaylord was the best. If I went to a state hospital… I'd still be in there. I would still be in the state hospital if I had gone there.
Host: What was your rehab like at Gaylord?
Guest: It was great. Right from day one, the first time I went down [to] therapy, the first thing I had to do was I had to get up out of the wheelchair, [amd] sit on the mat. That was my first exercise. That's how bad I was. And if you check those parallel bars, if they're still there, my fingerprints are probably still there. I grabbed those parallel bars. I wait…and hold on. So, I wouldn't fall down when I first held on. They're probably still there. Probably [in]the dust. And those are my prints.
Host: Your fingerprints on the parallel bars. I love it!
Guest: I'm leaving my autograph.
Host: How many years ago was that now?
Host: We won't tell them your age at this point. But you are a living miracle for sure. Having gone through that and literally been lifeless and come back to life and lived a full whole life so far. You seem to be doing a lot with yourself to try to promote that message of, you know, of shooting for the sun. I'd love to know, you know, did any of those big crowd friends that you were talking about that you were sort of pressured to hang with. Did they come to visit you in the hospital?
Guest: They came and visited me when I came home and stuff there. I can understand [but] at the time, I couldn't understand. They really didn't know what to say to me and my other…how I was before. Like they see me, I'm in a wheelchair. Hey, Mike. How are you doing? You know, they didn't want, they felt very awkward asking me questions. They were afraid to put me back into shock.
Host: Did anyone else in the car besides you get hurt that day?
Guest: There were only two people in the car. Ted, the driver, and I was in the passenger's side. Ted, he somehow was able to turn himself over. He was sitting on the roof of the car when he turned himself around, and he passed out, and you know, he was in the hospital two weeks after the accident. He recovered.
Host: You know, they always say traumatic brain injury, symptoms sort of last your whole life. What things are you still struggling with now? Even after you relearned how to walk and talk and take care of yourself at Gaylord. What things are still troublesome at this point?
Guest: Well, I can't run. I can't rob a bank. I can't run. But I've taken tap dance lessons years ago to get coordination in my life. I'm no Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly, but something I say. I put it at one mark. I did. I did it.
Host: Were you able to hold a job afterward? Did you have memory impairments and stuff like that?
Guest: Not really. My memory is good. Like I went, I have two degrees, an electrical engineering degree. I got from [can't understand the words]…tech when it was open, and I, my accounting, my bachelor's degree in accounting. And I also, I'm a certified tax collector for the state of Connecticut.
Host: Oh, wow. Then you know how to do math, that's for sure.
Guest: I just retired from the town of Westport. I've worked there in the tax department for 25 years.
Host: And how are you living out the message or that vision that you recall in your coma?
Guest: I'm telling you. I feel like I was putting it on purpose to get my message out about the people and kids...I don't want them to fall into the same thing I felt. Because I found out that over 98% of the people who had what I had when I was in the hospital, the severity of the accident, their next step was to the graveyard. So less than 2% recovery.
So, I'm here for a purpose. Maybe it is just to tell people that I'm happy just to make an example. Just showing that there's a light at the end of the tunnel, not to give up, not to fall into other people's shadows, not to be a tagalong, but be a leader. Don't be a loner, but you can be a leader and not be alone.
Be a leader in that you're not afraid to stand up for what you believe in, believe in it, and you never know. Somebody may say, hey, I felt like that; hey, why don't we…You know…
Host: And what's your message to those young teens who are out there in that in crowd? And don't know how to get out? You know you said you were kind of influenced by the friends that you were hanging out with.
Guest: Well, let me think about that. You don't want to say well, they're not really friends. They just don't want to follow. You have to stand up and stand up for what you believe in, not show them that you won't be tough, [but] don't be forcible…you know. I had to learn how to talk to people and get my point across [by] looking in them in the eye and then talk about looking right in your eyes, and you know what you're talking about and you say, I'm not kidding! You [got to] understand this now. I'm not coming. (Hard to understand the last sentence or two.)
Host: Well, if you've lived it, you've been there, you've done that. You've got one of the worst parts of, you know, the consequences of what happened to you, and then, you know, afterward, you're a survivor, right? You've surmounted the most challenging of challenges of life is relearning how to live. And once you did that now, did you end up getting married? Do you have any children?
Guest: Yes. Okay. Well, I went to college [and have] two degrees -accounting and [I am] a certified tax collector. I'm retired, so I'm not chasing anybody for taxes. I'm married. I was married once. I'm divorced from my first wife, but I have two daughters and three grandchildren, two grandsons and one granddaughter. I'm remarried again to my best friend, Laurie, and she's my best friend. We were great together, and I just keep… I've done standup comedy. I went to New York to do standup comedy. I recorded an audiobook. My book is in audio now. "The Big One," right here.
Host: Tell us about being an author of that book as well.
Guest: Yeah. And my co-author, Julia Bobkoff…she pulled me out of the woods. I was, I was lost out there. She put me on the right path, and we wrote the right story to get the right message across. I did the audiobook, which was a big, big, big plus. I have like 10 stars next to it because that is me talking and me reading the whole book. I did everything, all chapters, and everything. When I got in the accident, I couldn't make a sound. All I could do was cry, and that was it. I couldn't make a noise… I cried, that's about it, that's how bad it was.
And then, I wrote the songs for the book. I have two songs up, everyone. It's called "Dust," and one is called "Change my Style." Dust is at the beginning of the audiobook, and Change my Style is at the end of the audiobook, which is not the audiobook, but it's on my website at www.shootforthesun.com. I had it done professionally. Dust, Change my Style, and I wrote one, "The Big One," which is my theme song to show him that I'm gonna tell everybody I'm back... I'm not going to go. I have something to do. So, I'm gonna live my life. I'm going to enjoy it!
Host: I love that. And then how did you come up with the title of "The Big One"?
Guest: Well, that was my nickname, [from] my cousins a long time. I was always tall. I am six feet four. I was always the big one. I stood in the back out of every elementary school picture. You know the big kids stand in the back? I was in the back of everyone...just in the back of the line
Host: I was thinking like the big one, like the one accident, you know, that changed your life. But you actually were nicknamed the big one. So, when did this book come out? Last year?
Guest: Last year.
Host: Last year, and you've had good success with it?
Guest: Yes, yes.
Host: We certainly wanted to promote that out to our listeners, too, so that they can check it out. "The Big One," right, by Mike Krysuik.
Guest: Yeah, it's on Audible. Also, you can get it on Audible here, the music, and you go to their website here. Yeah, I played the guitar, and I've been playing the guitar in some songs. We have done my website, and it's just the play..."I don't see my Shadow," which was performed here locally in Westport, a gentleman played me as a teenager, and he did a great job.
Host: That's very cool.
Guest: That is also on my website
Host: So, you've been singing, songwriting, acting, writing stories. You've definitely shot for the sun after what happened to you. It's pretty amazing stuff, Mike!
Guest: You know, acting, and I have been acting in TV, and I was in the movie as in Revolutionary Road with Leonardo DiCaprio that was shot here in Connecticut. I had a bit part…
Host: That's very cool. I wish I had known you before that I would have had you say hi to him for me. Do you think you would have come this far without Gaylord pushing you way back in the day?
Guest: No, I wouldn't. I would not be here without Gaylord.
Host: Do you think that rehab was the key to getting you back on your feet? The push that you really needed?
Guest: They pushed me. They had me, I wanted to push, but they kept the fire burning in me to go for… because I saw the light in the tunnel, and they helped me get to that end of the tunnel, and I was, and I felt great. I went fishing at Gaylord, freshwater fishing in a little pond. I went, I went to the movies.
Host: While you were a patient?
Guest: At Gaylord, at Gaylord. It was a field trip, and it was great because, like, surely, I can get back and live life again. You know, I worked extra hard to get rid of that wheelchair and canes.
Host: And did you end up going to our Traurig house while you were here? The transitional living facility?
Guest: No, I didn't. No, no.
Host: You went straight from here? Did you go home after?
Guest: Yes, straight home.
Host: How many months or how long were you here for recovery?
Guest: Three months. [can't understand the next few sentences in this section]…Hey, where I came from, it's a plus. That's a plus. Yeah. Like they say, are you still handicapped? Yeah, I still play golf!
Host: I was going to ask if you kept sports up? That's awesome. Well, do you have any last messages that you want to give our team listeners or parent-listeners or anyone who's actually going through a loved one that has a traumatic injury right now?
Guest: Okay, well, I wanna tell you…faith is very, very powerful. You have faith. You can't shoot that down. That's a very powerful force, faith. I just want to tell people, don't walk into other people's shadows to be part of the crowd and be part of anything because I did that, and I got lost in the shadows and almost lost my life. Like I said before…shoot for the sun [in] everything you do because even if you miss, you'll land among the stars, which is a great place to be!
Guest: It sounds like you are very happy in your life right now, Mike. So, thank you so much for coming on to our podcast today and for sharing your story. Mike Krysiuk, author of "The Big One." Everyone needs to check that out. Um, and the survivor of a traumatic accident who's living his life beautifully today, preaching his message of shooting for the sun.
Host: And also, the movie There's a screenplay out there, and it's being looked at right now.
Host: And hopefully, yes, very soon in the future, we'll get to actually watch the movie of "The Big One," not the accident. The six-foot-four tall guy that stars in it, correct?
Guest: Yes, yes.
Host: I love it. All right, Mike. Thank you again for coming on, and we hope to speak with you again in the future after your big movie reveal.
Guest: Definitely. I'll be, I'll be right on the board. You're on the list.
Host: Thanks so much. Mike.
Guest: Thank you.
Host: Thank you for tuning into the Gaylord Specialty Healthcare podcast. We hope that you will join us again to hear more stories that bring hope, insight, and a message of belief that life after a traumatic injury or illness is possible.