Tom Eblen

The road back: Laura Babbage describes recovery from brain injury’s ‘darkest hours’

Laura Babbage doesn't mind short hair as long as it comes with an intact brain

Laura Babbage spoke at the Go Red for Women luncheon at Heritage Hall where she spoke about her recovery after a bicycling wreck in France. She spoke on her appreciation for her doctors and implored women to pay attention to their health.
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Laura Babbage spoke at the Go Red for Women luncheon at Heritage Hall where she spoke about her recovery after a bicycling wreck in France. She spoke on her appreciation for her doctors and implored women to pay attention to their health.

Laura Babbage, a hospital chaplain and well-known Lexington volunteer, has always given the opening prayer at the American Heart Association’s annual Go Red For Women luncheon. She was determined this year would be no different.

Never mind that 15 weeks ago she had a bicycle accident in France that left her with a traumatic brain injury. She endured an induced coma, two airlifts, 15 days in hospitals, a tracheotomy, a ventilator, a feeding tube, four weeks of in-patient rehabilitation and eight weeks of out-patient therapy.

On Friday, she took the stage before 800 people at Lexington Center to celebrate a miraculous recovery, expressing gratitude for the medical care and outpouring of support she has received and joking about how slow her hair is growing back.

“I can run, jump rope and swim, perform memory exercises — some of you may want to talk to me — and drive my car,” she told the crowd. “I truly appreciate everything. I tell people: short hair, intact brain.”

This has been a big week for Babbage. She had her last out-patient therapy session Wednesday at Cardinal Hill Rehabilitation Hospital, where she spent a month recovering after nine days at University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center.

On Thursday, she took a driving test to make sure it was safe to get back behind the wheel. In addition to the heart luncheon Friday, she returned to UK Medical Center to thank doctors, nurses and staff who cared for her.

Next month, Babbage, a former nurse, plans to resume her work there as a chaplain.

“I was a good chaplain before all this, and now I will be even better,” she said. “What I have learned is how tender families are during this kind of situation. Everybody has to take on a new role, including the patient. My family has been my major motivation for getting well.”

Babbage, 57, said she received enormous support from her husband of 37 years, Bob Babbage, a lobbyist and former state auditor and secretary of state, and their children: Robert, 29; Julie, 24; and Brian, 22. Her five siblings also were there for her, especially her sister, a nurse, who took six weeks off work to care for her.

Babbage and I became friends through cycling. We have ridden hundreds of miles together over the years. So it was a relief to sit down and talk with her about this story now that it has a happy ending. Her hair may still be growing back, but her articulate thoughtfulness has returned in full force, along with her irreverent sense of humor and infectious laugh.

“I feel very grateful,” she said. “Because we all know it could have been otherwise.”

‘It’s your mom. It’s bad’

Babbage was injured while on a cycling trip with her youngest son to celebrate his graduation from Furman University in Greenville, S.C. On July 21, they were in the French Alps. It was the ninth day of a strenuous 12-day group tour that rode some of the Tour de France’s toughest routes a day ahead of the world’s best bicycle racers.

After riding about 15 miles beside her son that day, Babbage dropped back as they climbed a mountain. A while later, she was descending the mountain between two groups of her fellow cyclists. That’s the last thing she remembers.

Babbage thinks she may have been rounding a curve when her bicycle’s brakes locked, sending her over the handlebars. She landed on the right side of her head, putting a dent in her helmet and cracking her sunglasses. She suffered no broken bones, but the impact sent her brain slamming against the inside of her skull, causing traumatic brain injury.

Nobody saw her crash, but within moments other riders came upon the scene. One was a physician from Canada who administered aid to keep oxygen flowing to her brain, which probably saved her life.

Brian Babbage knew something was wrong when riders behind his mother caught up with his group and she wasn’t with them.

“This woman is sobbing and goes to Brian and says, ‘It’s your mom. It’s bad,’” Bob Babbage said. “So he starts back up (the mountain) and is passed by an ambulance. Literally by the time he gets up there you can hear a chopper coming.”

Laura Babbage was airlifted to a hospital in Grenoble, where doctors stabilized her and induced coma to help her brain begin to heal. Family members flew to France.

Doctors tried to see if she would come out of the coma on her own, but she wouldn’t. So her family began working with Michael Karpf, UK’s executive vice president for health affairs, to hire a Learjet ambulance to bring her home. Six days later, she was back in Lexington, still in a coma.

“Those were the darkest hours,” Bob Babbage said.

“They didn’t know,” Laura Babbage said. “Is she going to wake up? Is she going to be able to talk or think or remember?”

After a few days in intensive care, her eyes opened. As she was regaining consciousness, a friend called her husband’s cellphone.

“He calls right in the clutch,” Bob Babbage said. “I said she’s just waking up. She’s following my commands. He said, ‘That’s got to be the first time!’”

‘Who is that?’

When she was almost ready to leave UK hospital for Cardinal Hill, Laura Babbage was allowed to make a brief visit home. That’s when she asked to see pictures of her in the French hospital. She knew her husband would have taken some.

“I look at his phone and said, ‘Who is that?’ He said, ‘Honey, that’s you,’” she said. “Which only made me more grateful for the doctors and nurses and technicians who were there to not only care for me but to care for my family.”

Only after seeing the pictures did she realize how badly she had been injured.

“Since I’ve been cognizant, I’ve had no pain, which is really very helpful when you’re doing physical therapy,” she said. “At Cardinal Hill, they have just the right combination of pushing you and encouraging you. They’re telling you, ‘Good job!’ but also, ‘Can you give me four more?’”

Traumatic brain injury scrambles the electronic signals the brain sends to the rest of the body. Babbage had to learn to walk again. One of her biggest struggles was getting her eyes re-coordinated, which affects everything from vision to balance. Clear thinking came back gradually.

“Any time someone came in to ask me a question, I looked at Bob and said, ‘What do you think?’ Well, that’s been short-lived!” she said, bursting into laughter.

Aside from the love and support of her family, Babbage said she has been most touched by expressions of concern and offers of help from hundreds of friends, acquaintances and members of the local cycling community.

“For all the negativity in the world, I think of Lexington as a little haven,” she said. “I know that as a chaplain and working in the ER, seeing all kinds of horrible tragedies. But I can say today that I am amazed and completely touched by the support and the outpouring of love.

“But it’s not me in particular; it’s the situation,” she added. “What I think they do is they imagine: What if that were me? What if that were my wife? Or my mom?”

Doctors had predicted her recovery would take about six months. She thinks it has been quicker because she is competitive and keeps herself in good shape. She and her son trained intensively to prepare for the bike tour.

“Everyone who has thought about getting in shape should just go ahead and do it, because you never know when an accident is going to happen,” she said. “I never took inappropriate risks. I was going a reasonable speed. But things just happen.”

She said it doesn’t bother her to talk about the accident, and it has helped to hear stories about what happened in the two weeks she can’t remember. As a chaplain, she plans to encourage other families to tell those stories when their loved ones are ready to hear them.

“Because they will be very curious, and it’s also a mender,” she said. “It’s just a way of getting you from there to here. I had never thought of that as a chaplain, I have to be honest with you. How much those stories mean.”

Many of the stories are funny in hindsight, “and laughter is a healer,” she said. “My family and I, when I could, would laugh a lot together.”

Finally, I asked if she plans to return to cycling.

“I knew you were going to ask me that,” she said. “I really hope to. I really plan to. But I will talk with my family before I make that decision. And if they have issues, honestly, as a mom, I would say no.”

Then her husband interrupted. “Laura, I will get you the best stationary bike,” he said as she dissolved into laughter.

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen