Bird finds bright spots on long road to recovery
Longtime local coming back from devastating bike crash
Don Bird shoveled snow around his home’s front yard Thursday, which was no small feat.
“He went out yesterday and moved the snow around so it would melt faster,” said his wife, Molly Ireland. “And that’s the kind of thing he used to do and nobody told him to do it. He just did it.”
The couple’s life instantly changed after Bird was nearly killed in a single-bicycle crash on Maroon Creek Road last summer, leaving him in a coma for days. But moments like on Thursday, when he shoveled the snow, showed his physical condition and mental awareness are gradually improving.
At their home Friday, the two talked freely about how their lives were shaken by the crash, while daily signs of progress keep them hopeful for better days. Just Monday, Ireland worked five hours at Pitkin County Library and away from Bird, only the second time she’s done that since he came home in late October.
“And we were both terrified,” she said. “Everything new is scary. The first Monday he was looking for things to do, and this last Monday he said it blew right by — ‘I showered, I watched a game, I took a walk and went to the mailbox.’ So one of my next goals for him is to walk down to the ARC (the nearby Aspen Recreation Center), work out, and walk back.”
Occupational, physical and speech therapy are a way of life for Bird, who suffered traumatic brain injury, an open-head wound, eight broken ribs, a broken pelvis and scapula, and an orbital socket injury in his right eye.
“He’s gotten new words,“ Ireland said. ”And what he thinks about and how he thinks about it — he’s a planner and always has been, he’s way more organized than me, and that’s starting to come back.“
Bird retired in March 2018 after 27 years as the administrator of the Pitkin County Jail. He moved to Aspen in 1970 and met Ireland, who came here in 1982, while they were working at Stage 3.
The crash happened on morning of July 28. Bird was riding his e-bike down the upper portion of Maroon Creek Road, and the rest is a blur after that. Bird crashed his bike, but he doesn’t know how.
“I don’t remember any of that stuff,” Bird said.
It’s a road he had cycled more than often, his home being in the Five Trees neighborhood by Aspen Highlands. In more recent years he had been using a pedal-powered e-bike, a Class 1, to ride up. He would typically ride downhill with no pedal power, Ireland said, so there was no reason to believe he didn’t change that pattern on the morning of the single-bike crash.
A Blazing Adventures driver, who had driven a group of cyclists to Maroon Lake, spotted Bird lying on the ground, in the middle of the road, near the west portal. The driver, also a medic, was the first to provide aid to Bird, who was transported by ambulance to Aspen Valley Hospital. There, he was stabilized and then airlifted to St. Anthony’s in Lakewood.
Bird was in Lakewood for three weeks, while Ireland stayed in a nearby hotel. His next three weeks were at Post Acute Medical Hospital, and again Ireland stayed close by. She missed work at the Pitkin County Library for six weeks.
“I went home for the first time at the end of the second three weeks,” Ireland said. “I had to clean out the fridge and mow the lawn and do those things.”
In September, Bird moved to NeuroRestoration in Littleton, where he continued rehab. On Oct. 25, Bird returned to his Aspen home.
“When we went over Independence Pass, I asked him, ‘Do you remember this?’ and he said, ‘No,’“ Ireland said. ”And we drove through town, and again, ‘Nope.’“
Yet through those long and grueling days under medical care on the Front Range, Bird would recognize the faces of his wife and two children, Katie and Jack, and his best buddy from college who came to see him.
“He’d smile when the kids would come in,” Ireland said, “and he was really happy to see me.”
COVID-19 precautions restricted visits to Bird to just one person a day for a while, Ireland said. Between pandemic restrictions, as well as Bird suffering pneumonia shortly after the crash and other medical issues, their lives were in upheaval.
“It was pretty awful,” Ireland recalled.
Yet the couple said the Aspen community was there for them, and it still is as Bird continues his recovery.
“We couldn’t have done it without the help from Alpine Bank and the GoFundMe with Anderson Cole and Austin Owen,” who are friends of the family, Ireland said.
Bird’s speech is similar to that of a stroke survivor. He recognizes faces but isn’t always good with names.
“I remember who people are but I can’t say their names,” he said. “I know who they are when I see them.”
One name Bird can match with the face is that of Anthony Rizzo, the starting first baseman on Bird’s favorite ball club, the New York Yankees. For his 74th birthday, Ireland gave Bird an autographed photo of Rizzo (wearing the uniform of her favorite team, the Chicago Cubs), along with a personal note of encouragement.
Bird also keeps a New York Yankees game schedule close by. He hasn’t missed a game yet on TV this season, he said. Following a football or a baseball game isn’t a problem for Bird, his wife said. Keeping track of current events, however, can be challenging.
Still, he recently watched documentaries on Vladmir Putin and Nancy Pelosi, and urged Ireland to do the same.
Also a history buff, Bird is trying to read more, but it can be a struggle. Ireland will read to him sometimes, and he’s been reading himself a book about the early stages of World War II.
A ski instructor for 37 years, Bird isn’t downhilling these days. He and Ireland, though, have Nordic skied as a way to rehab. Bird also has returned to Aspen Community Church and attends on Sundays, and he’s gone to City Market and Whole Foods with Ireland.
“Everybody has been good to me and nice to me,” he said. “People I run into ask me how I am. People have always been very helpful to me.”
A caregiver watches over Bird on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, “but we’ve been trying to shorten on either end of the day, so that he’s alone before she gets here and he’s alone after she leaves and before I get home,” Ireland said.
It hasn’t just been Bird who has had to re-acclimate.
“I decided a couple of months ago, we were both kind of depressed, and I said we’ve got to start planning some fun stuff on the weekends,” Ireland said. “We have to make an effort because it’s too easy to just sit around, so we’re trying to go to movies and we went to our first two social gatherings last week.”
On Monday night, the City Council listened to ideas for each old building. However, nothing laid out what the community space would actually entail — only aspirations and gathered community comment.