Colchester biker becomes poster child for motorcycle helmets
Andrew Pisano has had a lot of crashes in his life, but he’s never had one like this.
It happened in Columbia, Connecticut, on a November night that took Pisano’s memory with it. Evidence left at the scene tells the story: Pisano’s Kawasaki cruiser was on the side of the road, a dead deer next to it. Items from his pockets were on the ground.
“My bike was actually sitting upright,” Pisano said this week from Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford. He is left to surmise the rest.
“Somebody ― probably me ― picked it up,” he said. “And I walked off and fell down like a hundred feet away.”
That’s where his friends found him in the light of day hours later, according to Pisano. He was taken by a Life Star Helicopter to Hartford Hospital, where he regained consciousness after about two weeks. He was out again when doctors removed part of his skull.
The 34-year-old father of four spent a month in intensive care before his condition improved enough for transfer to another part of the hospital. He arrived at Gaylord on Jan. 3 to recuperate at the facility dedicated to conditions like spinal cord injuries, brain injuries and strokes.
Pisano, who owned The MotoBarn on New London Road in Colchester, has been fixing bikes and breaking bones since he was about 11 years old. Crashes on dirt bikes, sport bikes and cruisers have led to fractures in his left foot, both knees, collarbone, elbow, wrist and a couple fingers.
He got a brain bleed, a broken neck and a broken collarbone in his midnight collision with the deer.
“Wear your helmet,” says Pisano, who is literally a poster child for what can happen if you don’t. His image stared down in March from a New Haven-area bulletin board as part of Gaylord’s Brain Injury Awareness Month campaign.
Almost half a year out from the crash, Pisano doesn’t know when he will drive or get on a bike again. He takes a taxi 45 minutes each way for therapy at Gaylord’s outpatient facility. Doctor’s orders prevent him from getting behind the wheel until his neck brace is removed, which could take another month or so.
He’s hopeful he can ride his bikes again. In addition to the cruiser, he has a Suzuki SB650 sport bike and a Suzuki DRZ 400 dirt bike.
“That’s my whole freaking life,” he said. “My bikes and my kids. That’s all I’ve got. Hopefully, I can ride. We’ll see.”
Pisano said his four boys ― 1-year-old twins, a 4 year old and a 5 year old ― were limited to two visits in the intensive care unit during those early weeks after the crash. He doesn't remember the first time they stepped into his hospital room.
“And they came on Christmas,” he said. “I remember that. They were crying. It was a whole thing.”
Allison Greco, a speech language pathologist at Gaylord, said Pisano wasn’t able to get his children’s names out when he first arrived for inpatient therapy. As she showed him pictures of everyday items through an app on her tablet, he identified just over half of them.
It’s like being a kid again himself, Pisano said. He’s learning to walk, talk, read and write all over again. He used the word “stressful” to describe it.
“Because I know it, but I just can’t say it,” he said. “Or I feel like I should know it, and I can’t do it.”
Greco said her patient was committed to working through his challenges with the help of speech, occupational and physical therapists.
“I would cue him to ‘stop, breathe and retry.’ And it worked for him,” she said.
In a speech session this week with his outpatient speech language pathologist Shannon Masella, Pisano struggled to spell tomato and correctly identify a potato. His therapist remained encouraging.
“Give yourself a chance,” she said.
Pisano’s condition is called aphasia, according to Masella. It’s a language disorder that stems from brain injuries.
“The areas in your brain that control speaking, coming up with the words you want to say, your spelling, your reading, your writing, all can be impacted from a brain injury,” she said.
The therapist couldn’t predict how long it will take for Pisano to get his speech back to where it was before the crash. Some people continue therapy for six months, while others need two years.
“It just depends,” she said.
In a large workout room with his physical therapist Victoria De La Rosa, Pisano worked on balance, thigh strength and endurance.
He said it’s easier now to work his body than to find the right words. But at first, it was walking that seemed most insurmountable.
He started by simply walking the room, past people lifting weights, leaning on railings for support, and balancing on inflated rubber disks.
“To the edge of the room and back. That’s it,” he said. “It was hard, and even once I could do it, it was exhausting.”
Now he has the strength to heft heavy “battle ropes” from side to side and up and down in a cardio workout repeated for 30 seconds at a time. He can weave through a course of multicolored cones set up in a straight line without losing his balance. He can do squats in a chair and against the wall.
He said he wants people to know it’s easier to wear a helmet than to recover from a brain injury.
He said he typically wore a helmet while riding his dirt bike offroad, but never while he was on the cruiser designed for leisurely rides over the open road.
“I thought I was good riding a safe bike. And it didn’t matter. The deer was there, and there was no moving,” he said.
If he’s able to ride again, he’ll be more cautious about going out by himself late at night.
“I’m lucky to be alive, never mind walking and stuff,” he said.