Mike Saavedra - Breaking Bad
"I was put to sleep without knowing if I would wake up with one less leg."
5 Jan 2015
Interview and Photos by Jeremy Pavia
Anyone that has ever ridden BMX understands that there is a risk involved each time you step on your bike and ride. Although though that is widely understood and accepted, it doesn’t make it any easier when an injury does come along. From sliced up shins, to torn up hands, to road rash, to bruises of every size and color, to sprains, tears, breaks and more, it is all part of the process. Mike Saavedra knows this all too well and has been recovering from a severely broken leg that required immediate surgery for a few months now. It is times like these that can make you sit back and contemplate your involvement in BMX, your dedication to two wheels, and the chase for fulfilment. Find out exactly what went wrong, how he almost lost his leg, and how he has been taking his physical therapy into his own hands.
So, let's start from the beginning. What is the story with your leg?
I basically fractured my entire tibia including part of the upper fibula as well. I was immediately rushed into surgery where I received a titanium nail down the tibia, and two large incisions down the sides of my leg to relieve the pressure in order to keep the muscles from dying. Obviously I knew my situation was bad when I arrived at the hospital but I had yet to truly comprehend the severity of my situation and the danger I was in of completely losing my leg.
Fill everyone in on what you were doing out on the East Coast at that time.
I had flown out two days prior to meet up with my Deluxe teammate Mark Potoczny and road trip to the eastern half of Pennsylvania to ride the TRA event and celebrate 20 years of Posh and I was stoked! 2014 was quickly becoming one of the best years that I've spent on my bicycle, and it will definitely be the most memorable.
What trails were you at?
The infamous Hazelwood.
For those that don't know, Hazelwood is a gnarly trail spot that definitely has the potential to take you out at any moment. What is it about the place that makes it that way?
That's true, they definitely are not for the faint of heart. They are big, fast and twisted. Those boys know what they're doing for sure. Hazelwood is one of the best spots I've ever ridden.
Damn, so what were you doing when you crashed? You had said before that you weren't really warmed up and it was a simple mistake.
Yeah, it was only my second run of the day. I came up short on a left hip slipping my left pedal, which is my forward foot. At that point my bike crossed over my leg pulling it underneath me.
What went through your head before you hit the ground? Did it happen quickly or was it one of those crashes that almost feels like slow motion?
Well it went from bad to worse pretty quickly. I felt my ankle start to roll to the outside as soon as my foot slipped. At that point I was ready for a bad sprained ankle. What I didn't realize was my momentum was about to cross my leg. That's when I heard it break twice as it pulled my foot 180° behind me. I didn't even crash I ended up sliding myself out to stop. I looked down and saw my foot facing the wrong direction.”
Hearing your own bones break has got to be one of the craziest things I can picture happening to someone.
Yeah it was nuts. I’ve broken a few bones before but I don't think I've ever actually heard them snap. I'd have to say the worst part was when I looked down and saw the bottom half of my leg backwards. At that point there was only one thing to do, pick it up and turn that fucker around.
How long was it from the time of your crash until you got to the hospital? You must have had an ambulance ride right?
It wasn't long. But we actually decided that it would just be quicker to get me out of the woods in the back of Mark Potoczny's car as quickly as possible. The ambulance would've had a hard time finding us. I was lucky to have them around to help. I was at the hospital within thirty minutes of the crash.
How was it pain wise initially?
I’d have to say that the most painful part was getting pushed out of the woods in a wheelbarrow. It was a shit show. I had an incredibly intense deep burning pain that grew from my foot and came all the way up my leg. It pretty much felt like someone had stabbed me in my calf with a searing hot knife. But I can't thank the boys enough for pulling through for me and powering me up that hill and out of those woods as quickly and efficiently as they did.
So what was the technical term for your specific injury?
Once I was in the emergency room it didn't take the doctors long to diagnose compartment syndrome. What that basically means is due to the intense trauma the muscles experienced in the accident they had swelled up so bad they were no longer receiving blood. So the doctors made two large incisions down the side of my leg in order to relieve the pressure. Although this might be a very barbaric procedure it ultimately keeps the muscles in your leg from dying due to lack of blood. They rushed me into surgery that night to make sure that I didn't lose my leg.
You were in the hospital for a while out there, how did you stay sane?
That’s a good question. But again, I was very fortunate to have such good friends in Pittsburgh. The boys were constantly coming by bringing me food and checking on me as well as some very interesting characters that worked at the hospital.
What was the worst part?
Probably when the cops stole my cannabis after going through my backpack.
What was the best part?
That I didn't lose my leg!
How is your leg feeling now and what has the recovery process been like for you?
It's good, it doesn't really hurt too much. But so far it has been a slow and steady process, I'm just being patient and staying positive. I know it's going to take some time before I can rebuild the strength.
How long do you have before you will be feeling back to normal?
It is going to be about a year before my leg is fully recovered.
Obviously the doctors know you ride BMX professionally so what kind of time frame did they give you before you would actually be riding again?
My doctor is awesome. Dr Chao has worked with some of the best athletes in the world so he is no stranger to bad injures. He won't baby it and will help push you. So I hope to start pumping around by April or May.
"The hardest part is never the physical recovery but the mental and emotional recovery."
What kind of physical therapy are you getting into?
Well that has proven to be a financial challenge because therapy does not come cheap. So I've taken my personal drive combined with the endless stream of information from the Internet and created my own physical therapy program. In tough times like these, the more resource full I can be, the better.
In these situations, you always have to look on the bright side simply because that is the only option you have. How have you been handling things mentally? A serious injury can really mess with your head depending on the person but you seem to be keeping positive. What's the secret?
Yeah, that's very true. The hardest part is never the physical recovery but the mental and emotional recovery. But one of the most useful traits as a human being is the ability to adapt to any situation. I guess the fact that the night I went into surgery I was put to sleep without knowing if I would wake up with one less leg. Once I had accepted that as a possibility, anything less was a blessing. Our thoughts play such a huge role in our mental and physical health. I knew that I couldn't afford to waste any energy on negative thoughts when I had been surrounded by so much love and positivity. Even now almost two and half months into recovery I still find myself starting to get frustrated so I'll try to find a quiet place to meditate in order to channel that energy into something positive and useful.
Have you had a serious injury like this in the past?
Not really to this extent. Back in 2010 I blew my right ACL out. Ironically that also happened in Pittsburgh. But that was a walk in the park compared to this. It did help me better understand how to manage my time off though.
What occupies most of your time during your recovery?
A lot of physical therapy. I try to do at lest an hour of mobility and flexibility every morning, then get some juice and have another go at a more strength-based therapy session in the afternoon.
Is there anything you would have done differently looking back on the situation?
Yeah sure, I mean a lot of different things lead to it. I had only been back in California for a few days after returning from Barcelona before I took off again. My body never had a chance to catch up. Plus I rushed myself into it that day. I thought that I could push though the jet lag. That's why it's happened on my second run. I knew better than that. I've been riding over 15 years. But there is no point in dwelling on what has already happened. It's definitely taught me very a valuable lesson, which is to not deny your instincts.
There must be a list of people that have helped you out along the way so far during this whole process.
Of course, if it wasn't for the support of these people my journey would have been much more difficult. The whole Pittsburgh scene is badass. Those dudes made me feel like family and I can't thank them enough! Jake for all of the Whole Foods runs everyday, Mark and Mike Protozny, Ryan Popple, The Wheel Mill, Candy for smuggling in the goods and keeping me entertained. Mike Halahan for looking after me! And everyone who came to visit or sent positive thoughts into the universe I thank you and appreciate it deeply. Although Pittsburgh keeps trying to kill me, I still love the place.
Any time spent in the hospital means the bill starts once you check in, and doesn't stop until you check out. What about health insurance? I know that a lot of BMX pros out there don't have anything as far as insurance goes but every situation is different.
Yeah, our medical system can be very expensive. And typically if you don't have insurance you get kicked out soon as they feel like they've done enough. However, I received what I felt like was top-notch care despite the fact that I had no insurance. While I was in the hospital I applied for financial assistance and was fortunate enough for it to cover the bulk of the six-figure bills. That left me with a much more manageable amount plus follow up care and physical therapy.
How can people help out and support the cause?
There is actually a GoFundMe account set up. Thanks to all who have helped out so far! I will be paying it forward for a long time to come. I don't know where I would be with the love and support of the BMX community.
Any last words?
It's not what we have, but how we use it that makes us happy.
"Although this might be a very barbaric procedure it ultimately keeps the muscles in your leg from dying due to lack of blood. They rushed me into surgery that night to make sure that I didn't lose my leg."
A closer look at the backyard of a boy called Ora...
With Erik Elstran and Luc Legrand