Happy to be alive

Craig man recuperating from near-fatal injuries

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Gregg Smith fell asleep at the wheel in mid-July, but the 56-year-old Craig man feels like he's just waking up.

Smith, a Bresnan Communications employee, was heading to a service call in Walden on July 14, when he fell asleep. He remembers losing control at the wheel and rolling the vehicle twice. The first time, his head hit the roof; the second time, his head dug into the asphalt.

Emergency workers spent hours removing gravel and grass from his head, said Smith's wife, Judy. After he was transported by ambulance to Yampa Valley Medical Center, doctors discovered he had broken two bones in his neck and had three broken fingers. Smith soon was airlifted to Denver Health, where doctors discovered another broken neck bone, enough of an injury that doctors said he was lucky -- to be alive and not to be paralyzed.

"The doctors said he had injuries similar to Christopher Reeve, and they typically don't have to do anything with those patients because they usually die or are quadriplegic," Judy said.

But Gregg Smith did not die; and Friday was the first day he's walked without a walker.

The Smiths cannot explain the bizarre twist of events that worked favorably for Gregg between the day of the accident and Sept. 16 -- the day Gregg returned, tearfully, to the couple's Craig home to begin the recuperation process.

"I have this saying on my desk that coincidences are God's way of remaining anonymous," Judy said. "Through all of this, we've just had one coincidence after another."

The first coincidence came, Judy said, when the first person on the accident scene, a woman traveling from Cheyenne, Wyo., knew not to move Gregg too much while trying to extract him from the vehicle. Her careful maneuvering may have kept Gregg from later becoming paralyzed, Judy said.

The scene also is where the prayers started -- the first of many, the couple insist -- that are responsible for pulling Gregg through the rough months ahead.

"When she got out of the car, she told the kids in the backseat to pray for whoever was is in that vehicle," Judy relayed from conversations with the rescuer. "That was the first of many who would pray for us."

Upon arriving at the Denver hospital, Judy's goddaughter, a resident doctor, unexpectedly had been transferred to the same hospital. Jodi Widner, who the family soon dubbed "Dr. Angel," helped treat Gregg. She also helped the family understand complex medical terms and Gregg's prognosis.

Gregg never moved from his position on a stiff board from July 17 to Aug. 3. During that time, he underwent surgery -- an astonishingly quick procedure that took two hours, but should have lasted three times as long, Judy said. Also, she said, a renowned surgeon happened to be visiting the hospital and assisted in the procedure.

After being in the intensive care unit and being immobile for 23 days, Gregg should have been unable to stand, but he did for three minutes.

"It was quite a feat," Judy said, and laughed, "no pun intended."

But hard times hit when Gregg had a stroke and developed pneumonia. The left side of his body was unresponsive for a week, but on the eighth day, the old Gregg started to come back.

"I gave them a thumbs up," he said, smiling.

Gregg is now recuperating at the couple's Craig home. A neck brace holds his head up, and an arm brace keeps the fingers on his left hand from curling. He's walking and talking easier with the help of regular speech and physical therapy.

But, it's been the help from friends and family that has pulled Gregg back to health, the couple said. Judy, who works for the Bureau of Land Management, has been granted leave through the end of November from the generosity of her co-workers statewide. They donated their leave time so Judy could have time off with pay.

While Judy practically lived at the Denver hospital, the couple's house was cleaned and the plants were watered. After being home for two weeks, the couple hasn't had to prepare one meal, as people keep dropping off food.

A bag stuffed with get-well cards, many of which say they are praying for Gregg, is a testament to goodwill that has been launched their way. At least five area residents perished in car accidents last summer, and a few of the accidents involved drivers falling asleep. Still, Judy wondered aloud why Gregg was allowed to live.

"I had a friend say there was like a cloud over Craig that you just knew were prayers," she said. "People said they were praying for him, and you could tell it was true. You just can't explain something like this."

One of Gregg's goals is to return to work at Bresnan, but doctors are forecasting a yearlong recovery. The accident is covered by workers' compensation.

With a knack for humor, Gregg even joked on his harrowing helicopter ride from the Steamboat Springs hospital to Denver hospital.

"I asked if they could give me a window seat, but I don't recall them opening the window," he said.

Looking back, the experience that almost took his life may have occurred for a reason, Gregg said.

"Because God brought me through this, I think he's got something in store for me," he said. "I just have to figure out what it is."

Amy Hatten can be reached at 824-7031 or ahatten@craigdailypress.com

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