At the scene of Tonya’s crash at the top of Modjeska.
In the movie Wild Hearts Can’t be Broken, no one could really make sense of the reason why Sonora would want to fall off a tower on a horse into a pool of water, even after she became blind. Some might call it brave. Some might call it stupid. Either way, the audience watched in awe.
You can’t deny the fact that someone who would take such a ridiculous risk despite a crippling handicap would fascinate someone as much as it would befuddle them. It’s this paradox that sets precedence for Tonya Depue’s story. Why continue to ride a motorcycle after horrific injuries nearly stole her life? Is it insanity? Is it passion? Or is it that hers is a wild heart that can’t be broken?
I sat with Tonya at a café near her home two years after her accident to ask her those questions. She was just returning from a long ride down the coast with a friend, her first since the accident. She smiled and laughed the way a happy and confident woman would and in that moment I never would have guessed she was just a quarter of an inch from losing her life only two years earlier.
Paramedics struggle to get Tonya on the board and into the ambulance, meanwhile keeping her comfortable despite a broken neck.
On May 28th, 2011, it was a perfect day for a ride. Sunny with clear skies and cool temperatures were beckoning Tonya to the streets. She climbed astride her Kawasaki Ninja ZX-6R and met up with friends, Aaron and Joey at Little Saigon in Westminster, CA. From there, they headed out to Santiago Canyon, rode down Live Oak Canyon Road and turned back to Cooks Corner, a grill and bar located off El Toro Road, for a quick break.
Rejuvenated, the three of them rode west on Santiago Canyon Road with Tonya at the back of the pack. Since the road was crowded, they turned right to take a detour on Modjeska Grade, a tight twist off shoot off the beaten path. The road began climbing and with the guys slowly disappearing from Tonya’s view, she continued at a spirited pace. Once she arrived at the peak of the hill, her fear of heights overcame her and panic set in as there were no guard rails. “I knew I was going too fast to take the curve,” Tonya remembers. Her vision became fuzzy and instead of the road twisting to the right as it appears to just before the crest, it went left. Upon seeing the drop-off, Tonya laid on her rear brake, sending her bike into a slide. Suddenly the rear tire gripped and she was flung like a rag doll 25 feet down the canyon wall. “I remember thinking ‘oh shit!’” she recalls. “I remember waking up on the ground and Aaron saying, ‘Don’t fucking move!’” With back pain shooting down Tonya’s spine, she thought it might be broken and attempted to remove her helmet and jacket, but her friends Aaron and Joey struggled to keep her still, insisting she not move and that help was coming. “It’s the worst feeling in the world to see one of your friends laid out on the side of the road,” Aaron recalls of Tonya’s accident. “I remember that day like it was yesterday.”
Once the ambulance arrived, Tonya only remembers bits and pieces, but she still recalls the excruciating pain she felt as she was carried by paramedics on a stiff, shaky board up the hill to the ambulance. The ride to Mission Hospital wasn’t much better, as the constant rocking and swaying only augmented the pain in her back.
Tonya’s crippling injuries would still require therapy more than two years after the accident.
Tonya woke up in a hospital bed and laughs as she remembers frantically searching for her phone. “I remember asking how my bike was,” she says, but her friends insisted not to worry about it. A neurosurgeon visited Tonya and it was then Tonya found out her neck might be broken, and after a C.A.T. scan, her fear was confirmed. The neurosurgeon stood by her bedside and told her C-6 and C-7 vertebrae in her neck were broken. She felt pangs of fear at the thought of the doctor’s needing to perform a tracheotomy during surgery and that this would mean she’d need to be on life support, or worse, they’d need to place a respiratory tube down her throat and leave it there. The doctors reassured her she’d be okay and Tonya succumbed to the surreal oblivion induced by anesthesia.
After nearly eight hours in surgery, Tonya woke up in the I.C.U. in a doped up stupor still in search of her phone. It was then that Aaron took her phone to make that difficult phone to Tonya’s then 21-year-old daughter let her know that her mom was in the hospital.
Tonya later learned that the surgery was invasive, requiring incisions from the front of her neck and down the back of her neck. The doctors installed a plate and four screws to her broken vertebrae and fused the neck back together.
Not only did Tonya just break her neck, but she also broke six ribs, dislocated her shoulder, tore her ACL and meniscus and punctured a lung. The neurosurgeon let her know that she was just an eighth of an inch from being paralyzed and a quarter of an inch from severing an artery near her spine that could have made her accident fatal. Tonya would also later learn that the neurosurgeon would perform ten trauma surgeries like Tonya’s throughout that year, and only Tonya and one other patient were able to walk again.
Tonya was released from the hospital a week after surgery and her daughter drove her home while she was drugged up on Percocet’s. Tonya remained homebound for two months. During this time, she wore a neck brace 24/7. She was supposed to wear the brace for three to four months, but after the second month, she grew restless.
Tonya began doing research online to find out what exercises or physical therapy she could do to make herself stronger. “I visited with the neurosurgeon the second month and asked if I could take the neck brace off,” she says. Because Tonya had begun to make herself more active by walking around the house and performing physical therapy exercises she had researched on the Internet, her neurosurgeon agreed to let Tonya remove the neck brace.
Friends at M1 Sportriders had bake sales to try and raise money to get Tonya through difficult financial times while she was healing.
From that point on, Tonya started stretching her neck more and more and she continued to do physical therapy on her own at home. After four months, she began attending professional physical therapy sessions and the therapists were in disbelief by how far she’d come with all the work she’d done on her own as a result of her research. Tonya posted her exercise sheets on the walls at home, which she used as reminders to constantly be working on improving her mobility and flexibility. She owes much of her progress to these makeshift work-out stations. Tonya’s daughter drove her to the first few in-office sessions, but after five months, Tonya was progressing so quickly, she began to drive herself.
Once Tonya’s neck healed, she was able to start in-office therapy sessions for her other injuries. On May 7, 2012, approximately a year after her accident, doctors were finally able to operate on Tonya’s ACL and meniscus injuries. The surgery required removing part of her hamstring to repair the shredded ACL and meniscus. Tonya had to wear a leg brace for three months following the surgery.
Fortunately, Tonya’s shoulder was healing on its own, as she had been doing therapy to build muscles in her shoulder for seven months. On the down side, Tonya’s ribs took more than a year to heal. “They still hurt when I twist around,” she admits. Tonya’s last loose end is her hip, as it remains inflamed and her doctors are unsure as to why. She might have one last surgery ahead of her. “They thought it might be fluid,” she says. “But it’s not and I’m still in pain all the time.” In the mean time, Tonya continues to do physical therapy for her knee once a week.
With depleted savings, no income and a stack of medical bills, stress was beginning to set in for Tonya and she knew she had to slowly start going back to work. Luckily, she had help from friends like Jenn and Pete Jaynes, the owners of M1 Sportriders, who arranged bake sales and fundraising events to help Tonya until she could get back on her feet. “So many people helped me with money and food,” Tonya says. “It was a blessing.” Tonya also learned she qualified for the MSI or Medical Services Initiative Program, which is basically federally funded insurance to help low income adults pay for medical bills due to trauma. With this program, most of Tonya’s medical expenses would be covered.
After Tonya’s meniscus surgery, she started working with her good friend Chris, who has helped her in the past. Tonya would help Chris behind the counter at a beauty supply store despite wearing an aspirin collar and being in a lot of pain.
Tonya with her riding buddies Joey (left) and Aaron (right). “Every time I ride that road and come up to that section, I always think of what happened. I should’ve been going at her pace to keep her safe. She was my prodigy and I almost got her killed. She says it was the back brake but it was more me pushing her on a road she wasn’t familiar with and she didn’t have enough knowledge to save herself when she got into a situation. I learned a huge lesson that day.
Before the accident, Tonya owned a travel and hair service business where she visited bedridden trauma patients at their homes and in hospitals to do their hair. She lost a lot of clientele due to the accident, but now she’s working part-time with her friend Chris, she’s also working to reestablish her business. “I had to do what I had to do to get my life back,” Tonya says. “It’s been a tough road.”
How Her Accident Has Affected Her Family
Tonya lives with her now 24-year-old daughter and 28-year-old niece. Her daughter and niece work in the school district and meanwhile, they’ve been helping Tonya to recover. Tonya’s daughter is inspired by the fact that Tonya rides, even after having such a bad accident. But a lot of Tonya’s family has ceased communications with her. “I had family issues where I quit talking to my brother and sister three months after my accident. It was an emotional roller coaster,” she says.
Now, much of her family won’t speak to her at all since she’s back on the bike, which can add weight onto an already difficult recovery. Tonya says she talked to her sister recently who asked her, “Are you back on that stupid bike again? Don’t call me if you go down.” How could someone say that? “It makes me mad,” Tonya says. “Why would you be mean and tell your family something like that?”
Of course, it’s understandable considering the anguish family endures when caring for an individual who has suffered a major injury but still, a depressed individual with no passion or hope cannot recover the way someone who is taking risks can. “You should be able to do what you want to do,” Tonya insists. “This is what I love to do. It’s my life and my decision.”
Getting Back in the Saddle
Jenn Jaynes had fixed Tonya’s bike shortly after her accident, but Tonya wouldn’t ride her bike again until eight months later. “I rode down my street and was really nervous and scared.” She can even pinpoint exactly where her fear kicked in. “I was afraid to make the turn at the end of the street, as a curve is what got me into trouble the first time.” She rode slowly, despite fears and a tender neck, but she was back in the saddle and that was all that mattered.
“My therapist thinks getting back on the bike is crazy,” she laughs. “Always when I see him, he says ‘You got a second chance. You’re not on that motorcycle right?’ I always say no and I never tell him the truth.” He told her it was going to take a couple of years to get back to her old self, so she continued to ride periodically, taking short jaunts to the store and later, rides down the coast.
Sutures on the back of Tonya’s neck after surgery
Tonya knows if she crashes again, there are no more second chances. She will never revert to her crazy days of going fast with the boys in the canyons, but she still has aspirations. She still wants to attend a track day so she can check it off her bucket list.
But before she goes to the track, she wants to continue to lose weight and make her quadriceps and core muscles stronger as those are the muscles that mainly support her body. A strong core means less discomfort and Tonya knows it.
She knows she has to remain accountable if she is going to continue to get better. She goes to the gym at least three to four times a week and has been on the Atkins diet for about 48 days. She has lost 20 pounds during her recovery by doing cardio and hitting the weights. She also says that as of March 2013, she was able to cease her pain medication. “I’m always going to have to exercise to be limber and not be in pain for the rest of my life,” Tonya says. So in a way, the accident made Tonya’s life better by forcing her to take better care of herself.
Lessons Learned and Word to the Wise
It’s amazing how nearly losing your life can make you appreciate the little things like waking up and being able to walk. In Tonya’s line of business, she’s realized how lucky she is because she could have ended up like the patients she used to see every day. Most of those patients are on life support and never getting out of bed. They’re paralyzed from the neck down because of bicycle accidents, motorcycle accidents and sometimes accidents that just happened under the influence of alcohol. Many of them are comatose.
Tonya’s will to live a normal life has enabled her to avoid sinking into depression and becoming a lost cause like some of the patients she’s done hair for over the years. Tonya did, however, shut herself off from her friends for a short time because she didn’t feel good about herself. She felt handicapped because she couldn’t ride or do the things she was used to doing. “I miss being around people with bikes,” Tonya says. “I miss the camaraderie and going to bike nights.”
Tonya today, smiling and recovering with a positive outlook on life.
Tonya came to the realization she had to stop hiding after doing a customer’s hair. Her customer is fifteen years older than her and had the same injury as Tonya. Tonya’s customer cannot move her neck and shakes all the time because she quit therapy, is hooked on anti-depressants and pain medication and gets Botox injections in her neck to be more comfortable. “I keep trying to convince her to swim or do something,” Tonya says. “I don’t want to end up like her. I’d rather be dead.”
Tonya Depue has invested more than 150 hours into her recovery with research, physical therapy and working out at the gym. She continues to ride whenever she can and will most likely own a bike until she’s too old to ride. Tonya’s story has inspired others to persevere through the pain. So much so, she now has more than 2400 friends on Facebook.
Some might wonder why Tonya would still want to ride after a nasty accident that nearly crippled her. To her, it’s pure logic. You fight to live your life the way you want or you give up and toss back the pills. For Tonya, rolling over and sucking down the pity juice just isn’t going to cut it, even if the doctor insists you can’t take a second chance for granted after you were a quarter of an inch from death. Tonya continues to work hard and push down the bumpy road to recovery despite being criticized for her love of riding. She is an inspiration to any victim who has ever wanted to retire to a wheelchair and quit. I wish she could step into the room of every hopeless accident victim, slap the invalid out of them and say, “You might be in pain but you can find other ways to get around it and live again.”