Consciousness creeps back to Randy Pritzker slowly, and for a moment he’s not sure where he is.
The cold wetness on his face is mud. The cold metal tangled in his legs is his mountain bike.
There’s pain between his shoulder blades, and it’s pushing up through his neck, so intense that he knows something is broken. He can’t move.
This is a problem: Face down in a remote ravine in Cutler Park, moving will be a requirement if he’s going to survive.
But the inability to move is not at the top of the list of Randy Pritzker’s problems, because the pain in his chest is just as intense. And that pain brings a more immediate problem: He can’t breathe.
As seconds thud slowly by and neither breath nor movement comes, Pritzker begins to panic.
The pain in his chest be damned, he wills himself: “Let me breathe!”
First small gulps. Then gasps. Then deep, choking heaves.
Pain like this makes time slow down, and the moments since he and his bike sailed off a bridge and into this muddy ditch feel like hours. There is no one around. He is miles deep on a little-traveled bike trail on a quiet weekday morning, alone.
He has broken ribs and a collapsed lung. He has broken four vertebrae in his neck, two of which are shattered. One wrong move could send a bone shard through his spinal cord, paralyzing him. This is why people with spinal injuries are immobilized: Sometimes the falling doesn’t kill you, but the getting up does.
He doesn’t know yet how badly injured he is. But even if he did, Randy Pritzker hasn’t spent his first 49 years on earth being discouraged by life’s obstacles. He’s not going to start now.
He wiggles his toes. “At least I’m not paralyzed,” he thinks.
Through excruciating, radiating pain, he pulls his cellphone from his sweatshirt and calls his wife, Jonina, tells her he has fallen off his bike, and that he’ll meet her in the parking lot.
Then, gasping and writhing, he forces himself onto his feet, props himself against his bicycle, and begins to claw his way out of the ravine.
‘I have found meaning from my accident, and it is giving me purpose.’ — Randy Pritzker
This is how hard-driving Randy Pritzker is:
He met his wife at a funeral. His grandmother’s funeral. Where Jonina was the rabbi.
His sisters were ribbing him, but so what? He saw a beautiful woman and an opportunity, and he went for it. And when Randy Pritzker goes for something, he goes full speed.
At his law firm, the other partners joke that he takes anything but an unequivocal “no” as an invitation to push forward.
“If someone cracks the door, you jam it open,” he likes to say. “You blow through it.”
Many mornings, he blows through doors by testing the limits of his body. Biking a treacherous stretch like the more remote sections of the 3-mile Blue Heron trail in this park in Needham near the Newton line, he plays a game with himself to make it even more difficult. The challenge is simple: “Can I make it around this whole trail without putting my foot on the ground?”
Some mornings, when his body and mind are focused singularly on the inches-wide trail and nothing else, he can. Beyond the exercise and the allure of the woods, the unencumbered focus is the point of this whole daredevil act.
But other mornings — this morning — that focus was elusive.
Pritzker left the house at 7 a.m. on a May morning and already something felt off. Maybe he was catching a cold or maybe his allergies were acting up. He slipped off the trail, then he slipped off again. Over and over, he straddled his bike and waddled back onto the path.
The game was shot. The trail won. Pritzker approached the last challenge, a narrow wooden bridge. He knew this bridge well. If he climbed the incline before it too slowly, he wouldn’t make it across. Too fast, and the roots crisscrossing the trail leading up to the bridge’s base would catapult him off his bike.
Maybe his focus wandered off again. Maybe the odd feeling he woke up with got to him one more time. Or maybe, at some fundamental level, it’s this: Randy Pritzker has always gone too fast.
The last thing he remembers is his front wheel slipping off the left edge of the bridge.
Pritzker trudges inch by inch on a rocky trail. He’s not sure how far he walks, his battered bicycle supporting his weight. The pain makes it feel like hours; in reality, it’s probably several minutes.
To the north, Blue Heron stretches into a wide, flat trail that circles a pond at the northern end of the park and leads to the parking lot. People jog and walk with their dogs there, but here the forest is so dense that it might as well be in Maine. It is silent and empty. Even the thrum of traffic on nearby Interstate 95 doesn’t penetrate.
Maybe the blow to his head clouds his judgment, and makes the notion that he’ll hike the mile or so back to the parking lot and hop in his wife’s car seem plausible, but it’s a fantasy. The cars racing past, a vague flash behind the trees, are no help. Finding someone on this trail, on this day, at this moment is no sure thing.
Then, remarkably, two women appear.
He should reach out to them like the godsend that they are. Instead, paralyzed not by his damaged spine but by some combination of bravado and embarrassment, he looks away.
“Are you OK, sir?”
He tells them about the fall and the searing pain between his shoulder blades; he hands them his phone. They hit redial and talk to his wife, who’s relieved that someone has found him, and then they call 911.
Rather than lying Pritzker down on the uneven ground, which would mean moving him more and risking further injury, the women guide him to a nearby tree. His mud-smeared helmet still strapped to his head, they prop him against a tree, his fragile and cracked spine held in place against the bark.
Getting help to this rugged spot won’t be easy. Cars can’t travel this path, let alone ambulances. For the first time since he awoke in the ravine, he’s not alone. But there is no telling how long help will be.
Randy Pritzker is not a patient man.
Growing up in Natick, his mother would take him with her to the supermarket.
“Why don’t we get in the longest line, Randy, and just talk?” she would say to him. “That way you can learn a little patience.”
That was agony for young Randy Pritzker. But it was nothing compared to this.
He stands against the tree, his legs slightly bent. The pain refuses to recede. His muscles exhausted, his legs start to quiver. His new friends soothe him and talk to him, keeping him calm.
After a while, a police officer on a motorcycle bounces down the trail. He says paramedics have cut down a fence, but the ambulance still can’t get to him. The officer’s eyes widen when Pritzker explains the intensity and location of his pain.
The gurney is finally rattling toward him.
Three hours after he awoke in a ravine, Pritzker is lying down again. The easy part of the trail — where people walk their dogs and no serious mountain biker would spend any time at all — is the hardest ride of Pritzker’s life.
He screams every time it hits a rock or a root or bump. He closes his eyes, but that’s worse, focusing the pain rather than suppressing it. He opens them. His head is secured. All he can see is the treetops.
Rock by rock and root by root, they make their way out of the forest, into the ambulance.
If the three hours in the woods were hard, the time after is harder.
Three months out, the bones aren’t healing like his doctors hoped, and he may still need surgery. The pain is there all the time, and he wears a contraption that immobilizes his neck. Some days he works from home, others he makes it into the office. His law firm has done right by him, giving him time and space to recover.
Jonina takes their daughter back to college for the fall, but he can’t make the trip. He checks into a hotel near his office for the week because he still can’t drive.
It is a changed and difficult life. But instead of being miserable — instead of letting the scary depression of the days that followed the accident take hold — he finds now that he is grateful:
For arms and legs that still move, and the chance to walk a few blocks every morning, where he lurks outside the door until someone arrives to hold it for him.
For the kindness of the two women who found him and stayed with him and kept him still — people with whom he’s still in touch but who want no recognition for what they did.
For the helmet that saved his life, a necessary safety precaution about which he’ll soon speak to students at Natick High School; he’ll serve as living evidence of its value.
And for the lessons he almost never had the chance to learn.
“I have found meaning from my accident, and it is giving me purpose,” he says, now driven to share his story with anyone who might benefit from the lessons he learned in that ravine. “My life is now richer than it was.”
The pain still lingers between his shoulder blades, but time is back to normal now. It’s life that slowed down.