Bruce Hart, too chicken to die, came back twice

September 24, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

BRUCE Hart was an iron man in his football days. Now he sits in an iron wheelchair and makes jokes about it. He's too chicken to die, he laughs, so this is his lifestyle alternative.

He was an All-Metro lineman at Poly three decades ago, a two-way lineman for the old Baltimore Junior College who literally never left the field of play, and when he went to Towson State University, he'd leave their football practice and then drive straight to practice for the semipro Harrisburg Capitols.

On Saturdays, he'd play for Towson State. On Sundays, he'd play for the Capitols. On Mondays, he says, he would die. It's another joke. But it's no joke that he died twice in 1984 and came back to live. Not just exist, but live. The distinction is important.

In his playing days, Hart was 5-feet-11, 240 pounds, with a 54-inch chest, a 36-inch waist, and an 18-inch neck. He was sheer muscle. Now he can't move a muscle below his neck, not since that day in January 1984, when he drove out of the National Guard Armory at Glenarm and got hit by a 21-year-old kid who simply lost control of his car at a bend in the road.

Hart remembers banging into a guard rail, blacking out, and waking up with his body hanging across his car's console. He was wearing a seat belt. He tried to open his door, but realized he couldn't move his arms or his legs.

"Are you OK?" asked the kid who hit him, who was uninjured. "No," said Hart. "Get some help."

A National Guard chaplain, Paul Grant, came running out of the armory and kept Hart immobilized. Men from the Lutherville-Timonium Volunteer Fire Department arrived, cut a hole in the roof of his car, and lifted him out.

"By that time," Hart, 50, was remembering last week while sitting in his home in Fallston. "I knew I was pretty bad. I kept saying, 'Get my briefcase. Call my wife. Get my keys. Lock my car.' Hah! My car didn't have a top anymore, and I'm worried about locking it. They told me, yeah, yeah, sure. But, see, I needed to keep talking. I figured, if I keep talking, I won't have to think about the injury."

On the helicopter ride to Shock Trauma, he died. The medics pulled him back. At the hospital, he died a second time but came back. His neck had been broken in three different places, his spinal column severed.

At Shock Trauma, he refused to go to sleep. He'd hear the changing rhythm of life-monitoring machine beeps when he started drifting off, and worried it meant he was dying. So he kept his eyes open. He counted sheep, counted cars, counted the names of everyone he'd ever known.

When they gave him sedatives to make him sleep, he had nightmares for three straight nights: falling face down, unable to stop himself, smashing his face. He woke up screaming. Then he started remembering.

At Poly, he'd played football for the legendary Bob Lumsden. Lummy would say, if a play doesn't work, you huddle up again and try to push forward. There's no use second-guessing what's already gone wrong. To Hart, this translated precisely to his new life.

Also, he remembered a psychologist saying human beings could only hold onto one thought in their heads at a time. So Hart figured, if I think positive, I won't leave any room to think negative.

He spent two months at Shock Trauma, then 10 more months at a veterans hospital in Richmond, Va. His high school teaching days were now over. His days as an officer in the National Guard were now over. He had to figure out how to spend the rest of his life. There were two small children at home, the youngest adopted just months before the accident. His wife, Sue, would have to take charge.

"My wife," says Hart, "is unbelievable. I broke my neck, but the backbone I have at home was even stronger. She is the strongest person in the entire world."

But he needed to find a life for himself. After college, Hart had taught and coached lacrosse, first at Towson High, later at Bel Air High. A year after the accident, he got a phone call. It was Frank Mezzanotte, then the lacrosse coach at Edgewood High, now vice principal at Harford Tech.

"I need a jayvee coach," said Mezzanotte.

L "I can't do it, Frank," said Hart. "Mentally or physically."

At that point, he wasn't getting out of bed more than 30 minutes a day. Then he had to learn to use his arms, little by little. There were operations to transfer tendons from his fingers to his biceps, so he could feed himself.

A year later, Mezzanotte called again. He said, "I'm coming to get you." Hart offered excuses; Mezzanotte refused to accept any. By now, Hart was in a wheelchair and drove his own specialized van. Mezzanotte took him to Edgewood High, where he'd built a special sidewalk directly to the lacrosse field.

"I was very apprehensive," Hart remembers. "I didn't know how the kids would react. Who's this guy in a wheelchair? But they were terrific, and I'll forever be grateful."

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