By JANE REUTER – THE GAZETTE
May 16, 2005-Two months ago, firefighter Ben Mabrey was rushed from the Tri-Lakes’ Black Forest fire station in an ambulance, his chance of survival uncertain.
Last week, he returned to the station bearing a homemade spice cake — a gift for the firefighters who saved his life.
Chief among them is his father, Capt. Max Mabrey.
Ben, 21, was a Tri-Lakes resident firefighter, living in the Roller Coaster Road station while he worked toward a degree in fire science. At 3 a.m. March 4, emergency tones roused Mabrey from his second-story bed. Downstairs, Max, a paramedic, was also rushing to respond to the site of a smoke-filled garage.
No one saw what happened next.
When Max walked into the bay, his son lay crumpled at the bottom of the fire pole. He was posturing, a rigid curling of the body that indicates severe brain damage. Doctors later found two skull fractures, several broken ribs, a collapsed lung and a pelvic fracture. “I thought he was dying,” Max said. “I thought he had the mother of all epidural (brain) bleeds. “I’ve witnessed many people die from a severe head injury, and it’s an ugly process. For that moment in time, I thought he and I were going to go down that road together.”
But Ben hung on.
He spent 12 days in the intensive care unit. After regaining consciousness, the extent of his brain injury became clearer. He recognized his mother but couldn’t place his father.
“We’d ask who Max was, and he’d say, ‘You’re the teacher,’ or, ‘You’re the bald-headed paramedic,’” Ben’s mother Susan said. “And he is.”
Little more than two months later, Ben has exceeded his doctors’ and family’s expectations. He’s recovering at his parents’ Florissant home, a roomy cabin tucked into a valley west of town. His sunny personality has returned, and he is rarely without a smile. Wednesday, he set aside his crutches and walked for the first time since the accident. Minutes later, he raced to his bedroom, far too quickly for his mother’s comfort. “I’m going to start tap dancing right here,” he said.
His positive attitude, the family believes, has been key to Ben’s recovery. Although he sometimes loses his train of thought and often repeats himself, it doesn’t stop him from talking. “Sometimes the stuff I want to say comes out wrong,” he said. “So I go back and try to think of what I’m trying to say.” Ben describes the fall in detail, but his parents don’t think he really remembers it. He’s aware he isn’t the same as he was before the accident. “I’m thinking what’s wrong with me is my mind got reset, and now it’s coming back slowly,” he said. “It’s kind of off, because when I hit the ground, it stopped every single thing.” The Mabreys say the accident has woven them more tightly together.
“This was the best Mother’s Day I ever had,” Susan said. “We’re blessed.” “There was a time we just prayed he’d wake up,” Max said. “His speed of recovery has been remarkable.”
How far the recovery will go is uncertain. “The thing with a brain injury is you never know where they’re going to stop their improvement,” Max said. “If he stopped right where he is today, he probably wouldn’t be able to do much more than a menial-type job. Six months, a year from now, if he continues to improve, I’d expect he’d be able to return to the fire service, be a chef, or anything he wanted to do.”
The fire pole at the the Tri-Lakes station was sealed off after the accident. “They asked me and Ben what we wanted them to do with it,” Max said. “I told them, ‘It isn’t the pole’s fault.’ We’ve all known for a long time the fire pole is dangerous. Being a firefighter is inherently dangerous. As far as I’m concerned, this was a horrible accident.” Ben is determined to make a full recovery. When he does, he wants to return to the fire service.
“Every day, I think about it,” he said. “I like the thought I can go and help somebody. I like guaranteeing them everything’s going to be all right.”