Mike Aitken Road To Recovery
On October 5th, 2008, Mike Aitken’s life changed, and so did many others, including mine. Nothing could have prepared me for the first visit to the hospital to see him. He had his world flipped upside down. When Mike woke up, the path to recovery involved relearning how to use his mind and body. Would you be strong enough to deal with a healing body and doctors telling you that riding a bike in the future was unheard of for an injury as serious as yours? From the moment Mike woke up he was ready to start working towards healing. He did not waste any time. Before a dedicated physical therapy team he began to prove that he would recover. He showed everyone in the medical world a thing or two about possibility and mental drive. This drive comes from a strength within Mike’s core. Of course everyone in the BMX world has already experienced these characteristics – we’re all familiar with Mike’s natural style and connection to his bike.
Mike is living proof of the fragility of this amazing existence. He is showing that in the blink of an eye life can and does change. Unfortunately hardship can be the path to liberation. He is an individual who is strong enough to take on this challenge for himself and others. There are realities that set in, like life cannot always be strictly about the bike. There must be a point when we all have to acknowledge the possibility of not knowing what is next and coming to terms with accepting this. At the exact same time, there is a uniqueness to cherishing the moments we do have in our everydayness on our bikes and being with friends. Mike is a supportive and positive individual who is challenged every day. He greets these challenges with momentum to move forward and be thankful for the fullness of life. All this being said, Mike continues to progress daily on his bike. Keep your eyes open for the new Anthem video, as a reminder of who “The Boss” is.
Mike Aitken is without doubt a true living legend. He is unquestionably one of the most talented and iconic riders to ever exist in BMX, and his unmistakable style has been enjoyed and imitated – but never duplicated – by countless riders around the world.
On October 5, 2008, Mike suffered a serious crash and brain injury that left him in a coma for three weeks and his body and mind in complete disarray.
After he and his family were given grim prognoses from countless doctors, Mike has gone and proven them all wrong, and now in less than two years time he is walking, talking, and living a very close to normal life. And perhaps most importantly to those reading this magazine, he is riding his bike again. It truly is unbelievable.
Being around Mike, one can’t help but pick up on the incredibly positive and optimistic attitude that has allowed him to come so far in such a short amount of time. He never has a bad thing to say about anyone or any situation, and his love for life and appreciation for his family, friends, and everything he has is extraordinary.
These days, Mike’s biggest inspiration is his four-year-old son Owen. Whether they’re pedalling around the neighborhood or cruising a skatepark, Mike and Owen go out riding together almost every day, and it really is a sight to see. It’s awesome how psyched Mike gets watching Owen ride. He’s a proud father for sure, and I feel as though a father-son bond as strong as Mike and Owen’s is incredibly rare. And Owen totally kills it on his bike, by the way.
When I was in Utah last month, I saw Mike crash real, real hard one day – he nose cased the landing of a big jump and went over the bars straight to his face. He scraped up his face pretty bad, cut both elbows and knees, and knocked the wind out of himself. It was a serious wreck to be sure, and to be honest, I was a little freaked out. I think everyone was. But Mike just laughed it off. In true Mike fashion, he told me, “The only thing that hurts is my pussy.” As he explained later, he’s happy just to be able to crash again.
While Mike will be the first to tell you that the road to complete recovery is a long one and that he still has a ways to go both physically and mentally, it’s easy to see that he is withoutadoubtstillverymuch“Mike.” Hispersonalityandhis riding style are both so unique and so remarkable, I don’t think anything could ever possibly take that away from him.
I sat down with Mike one evening, along with his close friend Elf and new friend Tom Dugan. We had a candid talk about his injury, his recovery, his life, and his future. I found it absolutely fascinating, and I’m confident you will as well.
– Walter Pieringer
Walter: So Mike, how’s life these days?
It’s going good, I’m getting back to riding finally; over the past three weeks I’ve been feeling pretty good.
Walter: How long ago was it that you hurt yourself? Two years on October 5.
Walter: Wow. I know it’s a big question, but what have the last two years of your life been like?
Dude. Insane. I’ve learned more in the past two years than I’ve learned all my life about life. I’ve learned everything from how doctors work and how they don’t work, and about all this medical BS that you just don’t ever see yourself wanting to know about. I’ve had a crazy couple of years, but it’s starting to all make sense now; it’s coming together pretty good.
Walter: I don’t even know where to begin with questions. Elf: I think obviously we know, being your friends, but I think the people reading this won’t realize the kind of shit you’ve had to overcome every time you’re going to ride; it’s not like you can just go out and do what you used to; you almost have to overcome every time you go out riding. Even if you just did that trick the day before, that next day, you have to learn it all over again.
That’s been the hardest part. I’m my own worst enemy, because I’m my own worst judge, too. Getting past that has been pretty tricky. For me, I could ride, and it felt like the next day I woke up and I couldn’t. I could in my mind, but I’d get back on a bike and be like “Shit. Oh yeah.” A lot of people are like “How do you do it?” But it’s like you either do it or you don’t. To me, it’s not really a choice, because the other choice involves not riding at all. So I’d rather have fun any way I can now; it’ll come back eventually.
A lot that’s seeing me through it is my son Owen. One day I was sitting out on the front lawn all bummed; he was probably almost three at the time, and he comes up to me, and he’s like “Hey dada! Wanna go ride around the block?!?” All psyched. I was like, “Yeah man, let’s do it!” He’s my little riding buddy. I always take him out, just to go pedal around. It kind of reminds you of why you even started, you know? But yeah, it was a battle to get past the stuff in my head, and every time I ride it’s a little bit different getting past it. It’s been a long, hard road, and my shit just got bumpy for a little bit. It’s starting to smooth out now.
Walter: I feel like almost everyone in the world, after an injury like yours, would just hang it up. Say to themselves, “Alright, this sucks, I can’t ride my bike anymore, life goes on.” What do you think has driven you to continue with it, to come back?
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? Riding’s not something I do as much as it is me. I’ve ridden a bike since I was two years old, and I started racing when I was eleven. From eleven years old on, it’s just been my life. If you take BMX away, you’re really taking away my whole happiness, everything. All my friends, everyone I know in BMX has kind of molded who I am and how I am. I guess that’s the only drive you need in life – I don’t know, figure it out through BMX.
Walter: You were telling me the other day that you had to start from scratch, not just with bike riding, but with everything.
First of all, to me, it was like waking up the next day, except I was in Utah, and the whole right side of my body was paralyzed. I was in a room surrounded by my family, and the first thing I said was “What happened? Where am I?” And then I said I’m sorry for putting them all through that. For me it was a day, but for them, it was three weeks. The first week after I woke up I don’t remember really anything; I remember patches. You know when you have a concussion, and you’re like “What happened?” and you ask the same questions over and over? It’s like that times a million. They said when I woke up, it was like I was three years old. I mean, I’m still coming to age, you know? It’s still kind of clicking a little bit. At times I’m me, but at times I’m not me, because I’m still figuring that out. It’s wild; I’ve had to re-learn how to swallow, breathe, walk…. Basically you go from being an infant to an adult again, but the difference is I’m in an adult body, and people expect to me to act like an adult, then I don’t, and people who don’t know me are like “Oh shit! Who is this dude?!?” But then again, I wasn’t that much of an adult in the first place, so….
Elf: You’ve come back from complete disarray. When I first met with Mike when he got back from the hospital. . . . how much weight had you lost? 50 pounds or more?
Less. I weighed 165, and I weighed 130 pounds when I woke up.
Elf: He didn’t even look like himself.
I looked like a concentration camp victim.
Elf: He couldn’t walk, he couldn’t talk.
The loudest I could talk was a loud whisper. They had to shut the door to the room to be able hear me.
Elf: There’s no way to prepare to witness your friend in that kind of position. You can never be prepared for that. To see you right now in front of me, from what I saw that day, is the most amazing thing.
The thing that got me through it was my family and friends. My friends are like my close family. All the BMX community has really helped me through it; I don’t know how to thank everyone for helping me. It’s pretty intense.
Elf: Your family made you a map in the hospital, huh? They put a pin from where everyone in the world was rooting for Mike, and there were pins everywhere. Your family was telling me “We knew Mike was popular, but we had no idea it was of this magnitude!”
I thought the same thing. I’ve always known that people knew me a little bit, but god damn, you know? I was like “Alright, I guess! You’re from where? I don’t even know how to say that, but alright!”
I remember, also, they have a little therapy room. As soon as you wake up they start therapy. The first thing they start doing is moving me around in my bed, like you can see in the It Only Takes Once video. I don’t even remember that at all. Then, they start teaching you how to walk again. It took me three days to even be able to walk. I remember trying walk down the hallway and just falling on my knees. I had someone on both sides of me, and a walker; we had a brace that braced my hand to the walker because I couldn’t even hold myself up. My right hand was attached to the walker because I didn’t have any strength. They’d take me down to this room, and I’d do exercise bikes, stairs, little walking courses. As I got better they’d take me to real stairs, fire escape stairs. It was like 25 stairs, and I remember looking down and being like, “Damn those things are steep” and being scared to walk, you know?
Elf: I remember when they were testing your memory at first, you family, they told you the next time I came in you were supposed to flip me off, and the next time I came in you did it – I’ve never been so psyched to get flipped off.
They gave me little tests all the time; one of the first tests they gave me, they asked me to list all the animals I knew. I was like “cat, dog, cucumber.” [Laughter] They asked me to name all the states, and I was like “North Dakota, South Dakota, West Dakota,” just going off on the Dakotas man. I couldn’t list all the states for you now! I’m no bookworm! There’s like 40 of them, right? [Laughter] Every day they’d ask me where I am.
Tom: How sick of saying that shit did you get?
I couldn’t do it man. They’d be like “Where are you?” and I’d say like “LDS Hospital.” I mean, I’d just say stuff from my memory that would pop into my head. Like, I wasn’t even at LDS Hospital, I was at IMED, but every day I’d get asked, like “What day is it?” and I’d be like “Sunday” and they’d be like “It’s Tuesday” and I’d be like “Damn, this is hard man!”
Elf: How was it when you went back to Bethlehem?
I went there in July, and it was the first time I’d been back. I saw the room I was in, where my family was. It was crazy walking in there, because everyone at the hospital instantly knew me, but I didn’t know any of them. They’re all like hugging me and stuff, and I’m like hesitant. I just wanted to go say thank you to all the people who saved my life. It’s pretty crazy because my body was there, but I wasn’t.
There was a certain window my wife would sit in, and my family just knew not to talk to her because she was thinking, and kind of going over stuff in her head. When we went back, I was sitting in the window with her, and she was smiling at me, and she was like, “I knew this day would come. I knew this would happen. Everybody told me no, but I knew it would happen”. It was awesome. I went down to Posh to knock on the landing. It was pretty hard! Not as hard as my head though, I guarantee you I put a dent in that thing at least! [Laughter]
Walter: I’m sure you fucking did man! The plan for the future is I’m gonna go down there and do that trick that I got hurt on over that jump again. Not lettin’ it take me out like that. Ever since I first started riding, my friends would always say “Man, you gotta get back up and do it again so you’re not scared of it for life.” I’m not letting it do that to me. I’m not going out like that.
It’s crazy, because I did that trick over that jump all weekend long, and it just happened to be one time. It was the end of the day, we had gotten up early; we were at the trails at 10:00 AM, and we had stayed at Doug Faulk’s house which isn’t right in Bethlehem, it’s about a half hour away. I remember chilling in the parking lot, drinking coffee and stuff, and I actually remember talking to everyone and laughing about how when you have a friend in BMX is a lot like having a friend in a war probably, because you’re all from different places, but you know each other really well, and you watch each other get hurt all the time. But anyway, me and Chase were gonna go eat somewhere; Stew wanted to get a different angle of what we were shooting, so I was like “Alright man we’ll do that then we’ll go.”
Tom: Was that gonna be the first meal of the day? I had coffee and a muffin or something. But yeah, Chase is like “You wanna go get something to eat?” and I’m like “Yeah” then I just clapped myself out. Like I said, I woke up in Utah, like “How the fuck??”
Tom: How long was it before you ate? [Laughter] Walter: How has Trista dealt with all this?
She’s dealt with it really strongly. I mean, my friends would come to the hospital, and a lot of them would walk out of the room crying. Even in PA, if they’d cry in the room, she’d go up to them and say, “It’s all about the woo-hoos not about the boo-hoos.” So she’s just been a rock.
Elf: Remember when they wouldn’t let you have anything to eat in there?
She swabbed my mouth with Mountain Dew.
Elf: He wasn’t allowed to have any of that. I wasn’t allowed to have it because I broke my jaw on both sides also, fractured around my eye, collapsed a lung, and collapsed my sinuses. So I couldn’t drink pop because it would go down the wrong tube, and I couldn’t eat normal food because my jaw was broken on both sides. So I just had this shitty stuff that looked like real food, was in the shapes of real food, but didn’t taste like it.
Tom: So you’d have daily swabbings of Mountain Dew? She wasn’t supposed to do it!
Elf: It was like “watch the door” type of shit. I’d have to go do exercises and stuff every day for like four hours. Your muscle atrophy is crazy; I would hold up my arm and I could see my bone, and everything would just sag down. Plus your stamina is just gone. Like, even still I remember two hours being a short amount of time to ride; now I’m like, damn man, feels like I’ve been riding forever.
Tom: What was the first meal you had? Like, the first actual meal? Noodles, there’s this place called Noodles. She took me there, because it’s all pasta and stuff. And we went to a movie.
Tom: What movie was it? I don’t even remember man. I remember a couple of them; one of the movies I just clapped out and fell asleep, because my attention span, I couldn’t even follow the movie. I’ve had to re-learn everything physical, which is a no-brainer – haha – I’ve also had to re-learn things mentally, which I didn’t even think about.
Walter: Wow. Like what? Like every day life man. Like your emotions, how to handle them. How to even be, you know? Had to figure all that out again. That’s been harder than the actual physical stuff, because from the moment I woke up, I just wanted to be right back where I was, because it felt like I was there a day ago, you know?
I had also never had anything serious happen to me until this; I broke my collar bone and separated my shoulder, so with this, I’ve just been treating it like I broke my arm, because that’s all I’ve ever known.
Elf: You were always the best at getting out of wrecks.
Except for this one I didn’t have the chance. Bam! No “kitty” out of this one.
Elf: Haha yeah, we always called you the cat.
I’ll be back man. I think I’m on my fifth life, so I’ve got a lot left.
Walter: What percentage would you say you’re at mentally right now?
Mentally? I’d say I’m at about 90%; it’s coming back. I had a bruise only the size of your thumb print on my brain. That’s what caused….it was on the left side of my brain; it was a frontal lobe injury. Your frontal lobe controls the right side of your body, your short-term memory, and your inhibitions. So, I mean, all that kind of stuff has sped up the process of me becoming an old man and not remembering. . . . like, I’ll say something now and just forget it; there’s no remembering. It’ll come back, you just have to work on it. I still have some more to go, but I feel like the train is coming to its destination here.
Walter: That’s good to hear man.
It’s been a long two years. It’s crazy, because when the accident happened, my little boy was two, and now he’s four. It’s like, damn, because time for me has gone by in a flash. And they say time flies after you have a kid and get married, but damn, it’s flown by fast, because I’ve been working my ass off every day to try and get back. At least I’m done with the stuff that isn’t fun at all to do; I can just go ride now to work out and stuff. I do a little working out still, but when I would just go to the gym and work out every day and stuff, it was just not fun, you know? The whole reason I got into BMX was to not work out, not train, but. . . . it’s fun again now, so it puts a smile on my face.
Walter: Does Owen understand what happened?
Yeah. He’s pretty aware. That’s why he always wears his helmet now, because he knows. He’s like “Dada I don’t wanna get a thing on my neck, I wear my helmet.” I’m like “Yeah man, you don’t want to go through what I went through.” A little piece of plastic can save you going through a lot of drama. I think a helmet’s like what, $35? I owe hospitals over $300 grand.
Walter: The other day you were talking about the doctor who turns your muscles back on. What’s the story with him?
His name’s Craig Buhler; it’s called Chiro Mat. He’s definitely a gifted healer; I mean, he’s the whole reason I’m even back to where I’m at, because he got my muscles working again. He says you can work out as much as you want and it doesn’t do anything if your muscles aren’t turned on. What he does is through pressure points in the body, he turns your muscles back on, and you can work out and get them strong again. So he basically had to work on turning everything back on on my right side and then some. The first time I went in, he did these things that are called cranials. He sticks a balloon up your nose, and he has a little hand pump. Your skull has little seams in it; it’s not fully one piece, so it can get misaligned. So when he pumps up those balloons in your sinuses, it realigns your skull and it takes pressure off your brain stem. So he did that, and I heard this crazy popping and cracking. He did it all together probably 50 times. He tells you to breathe out slowly when he’s putting the balloon up your nose; then he’s like, “Okay take a deep breath,” and then you have to open your mouth and stick your tongue out, otherwise the balloon would pop out your ear and hurt like hell. So it’s the craziest amount of pressure you’ve ever felt in your sinuses. But it works – I could immediately think clearer. Things just came a bit clearer to me; my thought process was a lot better.
Walter: That’s so crazy.
Anyone who has a problem, I’d say surgery is the option you should think of last. A lot of times it’s a muscle not working, and you should look into that, because going under the knife is pretty crazy, and even most people you talk to who had a crazy surgery say they still have a problems afterwards.
Elf: You went in there with a crazy slouch, and you came out straight. Yeah, I went in there with a slouch. I sat down and told him my story. He was like “Well what do you want to do?” and I told him what I want to do with my life and where I’m at. The doctors before that who I told that to, they said, “I’m sorry, but I think you’re a bit ahead of yourself. You’ll be lucky if you’re back riding ever, let alone in 2 years.” They told me “You were on a level up here, now you’re down here with the rest of us.” I just got up and walked out of the room. I said “I’m sorry, but I think you’re wrong.”
I told the same story to Buhler, and he said, “Okay, get onthetable,we’vegotsomeworktodo.”Hehadmelay down on my back, and he’s like “Wow you’re crooked.” He just popped me back into place and turned on some muscles and stuff, and was like “Stand up now. You’re straight.” I went home that night, and my wife, my mom, my dad, everybody was like “What?!? You’re Mike again! You’re straight!”
It’s crazy, because all the mainstream doctors have always told me it’s hocus pocus and blown it off, because it’s not them making the money. I don’t know; they want your money. Everyone is brought up in life to trust the mainstream doctors, because they can heal you and make you better. But a lot of them are just trying to make money like the rest of us. Which is kind of messed up; it’s like finding out that Santa Clause isn’t real when you were a kid.
Man, to have everything taken away kind of teaches you to not take stuff for granted anymore. Even little stuff like walking you take for granted. Lifting up this can and taking a drink of it. For the longest time, I forgot my right side even existed. I became kind of ambidextrous, because when you have a brain injury, it shuts off all the links it’s made, because every road to the right side of your body is a dead end, so your left side kind of just takes over. I mean, I had to re-learn how to write, too, which was one of the hardest things that I’m still trying to get back. Eating, I had to eat with my left hand.
Walter: What was the original prognosis the doctors gave you, regarding walking, and riding, and life and everything? They told my parents and my wife in PA that I’d be a vegetable. I think they do that because they don’t want to get sued or something – but if you don’t have something good to say, don’t say anything at all. Damn, a vegetable? Shit! I guess that’s what I am. Some sort of extreme vegetable, got a little kick to it!
The reason I walked out of the hospital the day I went home was because everybody told me I couldn’t. You don’t tell an Aitken they can’t, because damnit, they can, you know? That’s how my whole family is. They told me I can’t – well I’ll show you, you bastard. They told me when I got home that I’d be on a walker or a wheelchair for months. They told me not to walk up the front steps to my house – I have two stairs. I was just laughing. I got out two weeks early, too, because I was just so adamant about wanting to get out. And I worked hard. Usually they say they have to tell people to get up, do their exercises and work out, but they don’t want to do it because they’re so depressed. With me, they wouldn’t have to wake me up, I’d be up in the morning and have my shoes on because I wanted to be back to where I was. So, they say it’s been a different experience working with someone as driven as myself as opposed to the average Joe.
Elf: You were bypassing people who had been there forever in your therapy, going far beyond what they were capable of after they had already been there for a long period of time.
Walter: How long have you been riding bikes since the accident?
I mean, off and on I’ve probably ridden about ten times, because it’s so depressing to me to ride, being where I was at to where I am now – it’s night and day. It was hard to even show myself to people, because I felt like I needed to show them what I used to be able to do. So that was a hard battle to get past. Now I just have fun; I mean, the past two weeks have been a blast; I’ve learned a ton. Right now, I have a black eye, two scraped up elbows, bloody knee, hand’s all messed up – it’s just like when I was 12 years old and learning. I know how to do stuff, it’s just kind of re-programing my body how to do it. All the muscle memory is gone. I just gotta show myself how to do it again.
Walter: I can’t even imagine how frustrating that must be.
Elf: Since you’ve started riding again, I’ve seen you take gnarly-ass crashes, like, still crashes that would take regular dudes out who haven’t had what happened to you happen, and you pop right up.
Tom: I don’t think people are realizing what hard shit you’re still eating even after everything that’s happened to you.
Walter: You went down at the trails real hard a couple of days ago. It sucks, because even then, I had the wind knocked out of me, but the whole time I wanted to laugh!
Elf: Why is it we do that? [Laughter]
I think it’s part of a defense to make yourself not look like a pussy! It hurts, but it’s funny. I don’t know, there’s kids that ride who don’t think crashing is pretty damn funny. . . . they’re pussies. I’m just saying. Because even when it hurts, it’s funny.
I remember the first time I crashed real hard since I started riding again. I was psyched! Remember the first time I tried to ride?
Elf: Oh yeah. Everyone was real scared, because I couldn’t ride at all.
Elf: I almost didn’t want to look. I crashed, ate shit hard man. I was like “Damn! That felt good!” I never thought I’d be able to eat shit like that again.
Elf: You were smiling and laughing; we were all like kinda freaked out. I wanted to run after you while you were jumping. Walter: Well, is there anything else you want to talk about, Mike?
The first Interbike was pretty nuts, because I had to tell the story like a million times, and I couldn’t even remember it. I wanted to wear a T-shirt that just had it written out on it! People still come up to me, who I haven’t seen in forever, and they’re like talking all slow, “Mike! ARE. . . .YOU. . . . ALRIGHT?”
Elf: They’re all in your face, like you’re “special.” Dude, you act like I’m retarded or something! I had a brain injury, I’m not “special.” [Laughter]
Elf: You ever mess with anyone? I should! But, after hitting my head, I’m not that smart.