A life changed forever in a matter of seconds
When Chris Vangelder, 47, of Mashpee, left for work on his motorcycle, the morning of June 27, 2012, he didn’t know that a short time later, at an intersection in Mashpee, an accident would change his life.
A dump truck in front of him made a right turn and Vangelder continued to ride in his lane on Route 28. But a car shot out in front of him after the truck turned.
“I had to swerve to my left to avoid him,” said Vangelder. But the car hit him, anyways.
Vangelder remembers every detail of the accident.
“I remember getting hit, I remember sitting up. I lost my right foot and my leg was behind me.”
What he didn’t realize is that he suffered an open book broken pelvis (the front of the pelvis splits open like an open book) internal bleeding, and a traumatic amputation of his right foot. His right leg was in bad shape and he had a fractured thoracic (t-9) vertebra in his back.
To say that he survived is an understatement and a true testament of his will to live.
Vangelder spent the next four months, including two months in the rehabilitation unit. During his stay, he was in a coma for two weeks. He needed 140 units of blood in the first few days, had 31 operations, including three amputations of his right leg, and his organs shut down.
He went into cardiac arrest three times, the longest lasted close to 10 minutes. He regained consciousness to find a nurse doing chest compressions to resuscitate him.
He endured four weeks of dialysis treatments to rid his body of waste products when his kidneys failed. What he didn’t know at the time was that his kidneys only had a 25 percent chance of ever functioning again. Fortunately, they did.
In the midst of all of these medical challenges going on in his body, there was one more revelation. When Vangelder regained consciousness from his coma, he realized he was blind.
“When I came out of the coma, no one knew I was blind. I was on a lot of drugs and on life support. I thought that it was dark because I was in the intensive care unit. When I finally could speak a little, I asked my dad why the room was so dark and he said the room wasn’t dark. But I said, the lights aren’t on. That’s when we realized I was blind.”
Vangelder said he lost his sight due to the optic nerve being starved of blood flow during one his cardiac arrests.
By the time he came home, he had lost 70 pounds and all of his muscle mass. He was so weak, he couldn’t brush his teeth.
The Mashpee community and others rallied around Vangelder and his family. They did everything from holding fundraisers to making handicapped accessible changes in their home.
“We are so appreciative of the love and support we received; we are blessed on so many levels,” said Courtney, Vangelder’s wife.
It was the support of his family, friends and his own determination that has helped Vangelder make and adapt to the changes in his life and to keep moving forward.
It is now his mission to teach new drivers and all who will listen how to be safe on the roads. He stresses what he has learned as a motorcycle rider and what he has learned since his accident.
He instructs students about motorcycle safety during drivers’ education classes at the Professional Driving Schools, Inc. in Hyannis. He tells them his story and then highlights what they need to remember when they are driving a car and are in proximity of a motorcycle.
Here are his important tips about motorcycle safety:
- Gauge an oncoming motorcycle’s speed before pulling out. You aren’t able to judge the speed of a motorcycle because of its size. You don’t know if they are going 60 mph or 20 mph. Even if they are going 20 mph, they can speed up in a matter of seconds. When you look to your left, they can appear very far down the road and so it’s important that after you look right, you take a second look to your left. If you don’t, they could be right next to you and you won’t know it.
- Give yourself plenty of room between your car and the motorcycle. On many motorcycles, you can slow down from 60 mph to 0 mph by downshifting and not using the brakes. If you are following a motorcycle, the brake light may not even come on if they are downshifting and they can be slowing down very quickly.
- Don’t trust a motorcycle’s directional signal. The directional lights on the motorcycles are not self-cancelling as they are in a car. They don’t automatically shut off when taking a turn. If you see a directional blinking on a motorcycle, don’t trust it and assume that the driver is taking a turn.
- Motorcyclists are especially vulnerable. There is no such thing as a “fender bender” on a motorcycle, according to Vangelder’s father, David. You can get hurt on a motorcycle in small accidents but if you have a small accident in a parking lot with a car, it’s usually minor and can be fixed.
- Look twice, save a life. It’s important to take a second look to make sure the motorcyclist is not close to you. “I assume the driver that hit me looked once but if he had looked twice, the accident may have been avoidable and may not have happened,” Vangelder said.
Vangelder also recommends the students make a set of rules about their own driving, whether it be cars or motorcycles. His only regret about the day of the accident is that he broke one of his rules. He only rode his motorcycle to work if it was before 7 a.m. because the traffic, especially in the summer, is so heavy. That morning, it was 7:15 a.m. when he left for work and the only reason he decided to take his bike was he planned to go riding with a friend after work.
He advises new drivers to drive inside their comfort zone.
“If you don’t feel comfortable driving at night or in bad weather, don’t do it until you are comfortable.”
Vangelder ends each class with two final thoughts for the new drivers.
First, “you don’t want to be in the shoes of the person who hit me; I would rather be me. I’d have a hard time living with myself by changing another person’s life and that of his family in that way.”
Second, “when you see a motorcycle, just think of the crazy, one-legged blind guy and you’ll back off.”
Finding New Meaning
Vangelder keeps busy these days working at his shop, Hyannis Transmission II in Hyannis, and continues to oversee family businesses that his sons are now helping to manage. Courtney helps out with the business side.
He diagnoses car problems by sound, which he always did, but now hears the more sensitive changes in the engine and transmission. He and his son, Devin, 20, are a team in that area because Devin does the driving.
“I’m learning a lot,” said Devin. He wants to follow in his father’s footsteps.
Jake, 24, manages the family’s Custom Coatings Company.
“The accident has changed my direction in life. I’m in a position to step up and handle more responsibility and I enjoy the aspect of the big picture, working with my family and growing the company as a whole,” said Jake.
Lukas, 16, a junior at Mashpee High School, helps his dad at the shop and his brother on the weekends.
Vangelder assists in coaching Lukas’ soccer team.
“It makes me happy seeing dad on the sidelines coaching my team,” said Lukas.
Vangelder is also learning to play guitar again by listening to YouTube videos. He started taking lessons two months before the accident and it was the first thing he asked for when he came out of his coma.
He continues to deal with phantom limb pain, which feels like pain in the leg that is amputated as if it were still attached.
“My level of pain has changed from the severity of feeling like a blowtorch was being used on my leg to the sensation of being stabbed in the leg,” he said. “The pain comes and goes very quickly now, which makes it more tolerable.”
He misses riding his motorcycle and said that if he wasn’t blind, he’d be riding again. For now, he settles for being a passenger in an open-air jeep to get that feeling of the wind in his face.
Featured Image: From left to right: Lukas Vangelder, Devin Vangelder, Chris Vangelder and Jake Vangelder.