Health & Safety

July 18, 2013

Cheating Death: A story about second chances

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Staff Sgt. Susan L. Davis
319th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
CheatingDeath_pict
Tech. Sgt. Mark Hopkins spent 43 days at Altru Hospital in Grand Forks, N.D., after suffering a motorcycle accident that nearly ended his life. Hopkins is member of the 319th Civil Engineer Squadron.

GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. (AFNS) — May 27, 2012, is a day that Tech. Sgt. Mark Hopkins will never forget — even though it’s a day he can barely remember.

It was the day he made a choice that drastically altered his life forever, and almost ended it in the process.

“All I remember is hopping on my motorcycle around noon on my way to hang out with some fellow bikers for a friend’s birthday,” he said. “I woke up a month later from what I thought had been a nap. Apparently, I’d had a pretty serious motorcycle accident.”

The injuries he suffered from the accident should have been enough to kill him, he said. The wreck ruptured and shattered the left side of his skull, caused his brain to bleed, his eardrums to burst and fractured his left eye socket. He was left with a traumatic brain injury and almost totally deaf in his right ear.

According to the blood tests taken at the hospital, Hopkins had a blood alcohol level roughly twice the legal limit, and had been wearing a helmet that wasn’t approved by the Department of Transportation.

He said his road to recovery has been a long and difficult one. Shortly after arriving at Altru Hospital in the city of Grand Forks, he was taken into surgery where the doctor induced a medical coma in order to prevent any further bleeding and swelling on his brain. He spent the next 13 days in a critical care unit.

His injuries were so severe that the Grand Forks AFB Honor Guard began preparing for a military funeral when news of the accident got back to the base.

Once Hopkins came out of the coma, he underwent intensive speech, mental and physical therapy. He relearned how to stand, walk, brush his teeth, and feed himself. A month into his stay at Altru, he was finally able to recognize his family and friends, and speak their names.

“A staff sergeant from work who I was friends with was standing at my bedside, weeping and unable to stand up straight,” Hopkins said. “Apparently after countless visits over the past month, I finally recognized him and spoke his name for the first time.”

After spending 43 days in the hospital, Hopkins was released to go home, although he was far from finished with his recovery process.

“I continued therapy three days a week and had to be with someone at all times, both in and out of the hospital,” he said. “My skull hadn’t been repaired with titanium yet because my brain still had to heal a while longer.”

It would be several months before he could have his head hardened with titanium while the healing process continued. During that time, he was forced to wear a black medical helmet to protect his brain from further injury, which his doctor said could very well have killed him.

“My days were short then,” he said. “I would wake up in the morning and just be so miserable and exhausted, and I would have to lie down for a nap in the middle of the day, and wake up again around 5 p.m.,” he said. “My wife, Melissa, worked, but would come home on her lunch break. My three kids (14, 13 and 11) took turns staying with me throughout the days on summer break. They would take me for walks around the base, always making sure I had my black medical helmet on, and calling my wife if I refused to wear it.”

Finally the day came in November 2012 when Hopkins had the portion of his scalp hardened with titanium where fragments of his skull had been removed immediately after the accident six months earlier.

During his healing process, Hopkins endured the grueling ordeal of having staples applied to and removed from his scalp (more than once) and having the doctor insert a needle the size of a pencil into his head to drain the excess fluid that would build up.

Hopkins expressed his deep remorse over the choice he made and what it put his loved ones through.

“I have no one to blame except myself, for what happened,” he said. “I failed to practice my own safety techniques that I’d learned throughout my years of riding, and I nearly lost my life for it. My wife, children, family, friends and co-workers nearly lost me because I was selfish and I chose to drink and wear improper safety equipment while operating my motorcycle.”

Hopkins, or “Hopper,” as he’s known to his friends, had 14 distinguished years of service behind him when the accident happened, but he will be discharged soon and will lose his career.

Surprisingly to some, however, Hopkins still has an unwavering love for riding, and plans to work on motorcycles after he separates from the Air Force.

But, he said there are two things he will never ride without again:

“A DOT-approved helmet and sobriety,” he said.

Hopkins has a firm grasp of the gravity of his situation, and said he is very thankful to have been able to come out on the other side.

“This is my second chance to continue to be a better father, a better husband, and a second chance to do something I love,” he said. “I am the living example of what may happen to a biker who does not put safety first and respect his bike, and the trauma it can cause. If I can help save one life just by sharing my story, that makes it worth it to me.”




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(U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Chris Drzazgowski)

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