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ICYMI: Michigan Business Beat | Gerry Roston An Inspirational Story of Recovery and Perseverance

Michigan Business Network
September 18, 2023 9:00 AM


Chris Holman welcomes back Gerry Roston, Experienced Tech Startup Executive and Innovation Team Leader, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Watch Gerry and Chris discuss his near-fatal accident and how his focused mindset has assisted in his recovery, in the YouTube video shared below:

In this conversation, Chris looked to find out several things from Gerry:

Gerry, tell us about your career?
·         Career summary: I earned a PhD in Robotics, did technical work for a number of years, then moved to startups. After working for a few, I started leading them; and then I started teaching/coaching/mentoring folks starting tech-oriented businesses.
A few years ago you had quite the ordeal can you tell us about that?
·         The odds of my getting to the hospital alive were beyond miniscule and recovery from the injuries sustained is astonishing.
We've known you for quite a while, and you always had that entrepreneurial spirit, did that help you?
·         Being an entrepreneur requires that one often deals with tough situations. I feel that my being an entrepreneur provided the mindset that helped me get through the ordeal.
Recovery can take quite a while, If you've had support, tell us more?
·         I believe that the caring and support shown to me by the regional entrepreneurial community and the people that I have coached/mentored is a major factor in my recovery.
Medicine in today's society sometimes takes some knocks, give us your experience?
·         The medical system is large and may seem impersonal, but the nurses and therapists who work with you daily truly want to see you get better and go home.
Where do you go from here?
·         Short-term goal: Get back to work in a coaching/mentoring capacity.As we wrap up, what would you like the Michigan business community to take away from our conversation?

·         Bottom line: Fight with all of your ability for the things that matter.

Gerry also shared a written narrative of his experience as more context for his challenges and remarkable recovery:  

This document outlines the accident we had three years ago and my recovery from said accident. Based on what I have heard, I think it makes sense to tell this story out of pure chronological order. With that in mind, I will start with a brief background about myself, that which some doctors said to me six to twelve months after the accident, then talk about my injuries, what led up to my getting to the hospital, and finally a few words about my recovery process.

When the accident occurred, I was a 58-year-old male in generally decent shape. Yes, I was about 20 pounds overweight, but there were no indications of any medical issues. Educationally speaking, I earned a PhD from Carnegie Melon University in the mid-1990s, technically in Mechanical Engineering but my area of focus had been robotics (since the early 1980s) and my dissertation looked more like computer science than anything else. Prior to returning to school to get my Ph.D., I had worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, again in the field of robotics. Prior to the accident, I worked both as the CEO of several technology-focused startups and also taught, coached, and monitored people who wanted to start such businesses.

One other thing I will mention, because it might bear on my recovery, is that based on the GRE examination I took in 1988 (or 1989, not sure which), my IQ was several standard deviations above the norm. I am using the past tense, i.e., ‘was’ versus ‘is’, since I have no idea how the TBI may have impacted my intelligence. By ‘several standard deviations above the norm’, I used to joke that I hadn’t joined MENSA because that would have been slumming it.

We currently live just south of Ann Arbor, Michigan, the home of the University of Michigan (UM). One of the things for which UM is known is it hospital, which is one of the top ten hospitals in the country. I think that it is fair to assume that a hospital’s being this good reflects the quality of its doctors and that such a place rarely hires other than stellar folks. After we returned home, more on the details later, I was being seen by UM doctors for various matters and two or three of them, who saw my medical history, literally said to me that my recovery was a miracle. To hear such words from doctors of that quality astounded me because, to me, it implies that they cannot figure out why I survived and recovered – and if they cannot figure it out, could anyone?

So, what did they see that made them say what they did? The following is my list of injuries that I extracted from the Geisinger Hospital discharge report, of which I have a copy.

· Diffuse axonal injury

· Acute blood loss anemia

· Right frontal subarachnoid hemorrhage

· Vertebral artery dissection

· Dissection of carotid artery

· Left carotid bulb dissection at C2, grade III

· Left posterior first through fifth rib fractures

· Right first and second rib fractures

· C4-C7 transverse process fracture

· C5-T1 spinous process fracture

· Closed fracture of the spinous process of axis

· Right temporal bone fracture

· Closed fracture of hyoid bone

· LeFort types I, II, and III fractures

· Comminuted and displaced mandible fracture

· Closed fracture of thyroid cartilage

· Facial trauma

· RUL pulmonary contusion

· Mild pneumocephalus

· Ppneumatoceles in right upper and middle lobes

· B/L lower lobe aspiration

· Right submandibular laceration s/p repair

· Traumatic Brain Injury, Glasgow Coma Scale index of 3

Some of these, to a non-medical person such as myself, do not seem too severe, like the rib fractures; but some of them are surprisingly serious. For example, when my dentist heard about the LeFort fractures, she was stunned.

One of the injuries that is more serious than it might sound is the TBI. An article that was published in the October 2009 issue of the Journal of Neurosurgery says “A Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS) score of 3 on presentation in patients with severe traumatic brain injury due to blunt trauma has been recognized as a bad prognostic factor. The reported mortality rate in these patients is very high, even approaching 100% in the presence of fixed and dilated pupils in some series.” I asked, out of curiosity, about my eyes and was told that they were fixed but not dilated.

As severe as these injuries were, the far more interesting question is this: How did someone so injured actually make it to the emergency room? This, in my opinion, is where the story gets interesting. (Note that due to the TBI, my period of post-traumatic amnesia lasted six weeks, thus the following is that which I have learned from various people).

At about 6:00 pm on 15 November 2019, which was after sunset, while driving on I-80 in Pennsylvania, from New York City back to Michigan, a route we had driven numerous times, the accident happened. My wife, Dr. Lorraine Thompson, was driving the car, presumably at highway speed, when a large (300+ pounds) male deer tried to jump over the car. It failed to do so and came through the windshield, and according to PA Trooper Cody Klinger, the first police officer on the scene, there were no hoof marks on the hood, so he believes that the deer’s first contact with the car was the windshield. I was told that the impact of the car killed the deer, but as it was dying, it kicked me in the head at least once.

Luckily, Lorraine was essentially uninjured and kept on driving at about 10 mph on the highway with the deer in the car’s windshield. When the accident happened, just a few miles behind us on the highway was Michael Manning, of Vermont, driving a pickup truck. Mike was on his way to Indiana, for business purposes, but this was his second job – he had recently retired after a 25-year career as an EMT, both in the military and civilian worlds.

Mike passed us within a couple of minutes of the accident, saw the seer in the windshield, and decided to stop us to help. He put his vehicle in front of us, allowed us to hit him (and at that low speed, no issues), and brought the vehicles to a stop. He told me that he was not overly concerned about Lorraine, since she appeared uninjured and was semi-conscious, but initially, he did not know that I was there. Something made him realize that I was in the passenger seat, but he said that he assumed that I was dead because he assumed the deer’s antler had pierced my throat. Luckily, said antler broke off when the deer hit the car.

What made him aware that I was still alive was that he heard me struggling to breathe. He assumed that the problem was that the deer was pressing on my chest restricting my ability to breathe, so he got on the car and pulled the deer off of me. Once he got that done, he noticed all of the damage to my face/head and realized that I was drowning in my own blood. About that time, Trooper Klinger appeared and he and Mike pulled me from the car. Once out of the car, Mike cleared my throat and held me in a position such that I could breathe until the EMTs arrived on the scene. Despite all of his heroic activities, in one of the last emails we exchanged (two years post-accident), Mike indicated “…upon your going into the ambulance, I had almost zero hope that you were going to survive.”

What makes this story truly amazing is simply this: Based on the injuries sustained, it is believed that if medical care had not started within 10-15 minutes, I would have died. But what does this mean? There are about 240,000 EMTs in the US, but since the person who saved me is retired, let’s double this number. Let’s also assume that any EMT who happened by would have tried to help, but the EMT would have to be physically strong enough to move the deer and experienced enough to know how to treat me. A bigger assumption is that the EMTs are distributed evenly across the country, but it is likely that there are many fewer EMTs around central Pennsylvania than the nationwide average. Even though these caveats ‘reduce’ the number of EMTs, they will not be used in the upcoming calculation. I then found the traffic flow rate for the relevant portion of I80 for the time of day, and putting all of this data together, the odds of an EMT being there within the necessary time frame is upper-bounded at 0.2%.

One more bit of good fortune. Where the accident occurred, at around mile marker 185 on I80, there is not much going on. Yes, State College, the home of the University of Pennsylvania, is about 20 miles away, but there are no notable hospitals in that town. I suspect that if I had been brought to a typical county hospital, I would probably not be writing this today. However, about 25 miles east of the accident is Danville, PA, which is the home of Geisinger Hospital, a level 1 Trauma center with highly trained and skilled staff. Even though I was in a coma and seriously injured, they were able to perform a number of surgical procedures, etc., that allowed me to live.

But their saving my life would not have been sufficient to allow me to return to work. I believe that my recovery came from the therapists who worked with me. After being a patient in the trauma ICU at Geisinger for an entire month, we were transferred to the UM Hospital. After being there for a month, during which time I started walking again, we were transferred to Eisenhower Rehabilitation facility, in Ann Arbor, and only a handful of miles from our house.

Because of the injuries I sustained, I had (and still have) a fair amount of nerve damage. As an example, one of the nerves that was damaged was the nerve in my left shoulder, and when my physical therapist asked me to do an exercise with a one-pound weight, I was unable to lift it. While you might think that given both my college degree and my inability to do something as simple as lift the one pound weight that I would have a negative opinion of the therapists. Completely wrong. One thing I realized quickly is that the therapists are strong supporters of their clients and that they have but one goal in mind – to help the client get well enough so that they can move home.

We were at the rehab center for four months before they thought us well enough to leave. And yes, if you are doing the math, we moved home shortly after the pandemic started, despite the fact that I was at great risk since I was told my immune system was still healing itself. One trick I came up with to help get us home more quickly and to hasten my recovery was simply this: whatever the therapist asked me to do, and their asks were generally quantified, I tried to exceed their request. By exceed, I don’t mean that the therapist asked me to walk around the block and I ran a marathon – that would be stupid and impossible. If the speech therapist, while doing naming therapy, would ask me to name five items, my goal was to name six. This trick has two major benefits: First, it helps you recover more quickly, and second, it makes the therapists enjoy working with you since they see that you are trying to get better.

In addition to this one trick, the only other thing I can suggest is that TBI patients think about that which they enjoy doing and how, by working through their therapy, doing those things can again become possible. One thing that kept me going was the hope that upon recovery, I would be able to work, again, as a coach/mentor, and that motivated me because a) I truly enjoyed doing that and b) I feel as if I have to, somehow, repay the world for having saved me. This belief was reinforced by the people I had coached – the outpouring of support from these people once they heard the news (and a dear friend shared the news, via email, with hundreds of folks in the southeast Michigan entrepreneurial community) was amazing.

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