Saturday, August 1, 2015

News-Press Feature: One Lee County bike crash changes many lives

In the News-Press continuing spotlight on bicycle safety in SWFL, "Share the Road Florida", feature writer Janine Zeitlin profiles the human consequences of one of those bike crashes--Naples bicyclist Milton Quinonez's fight to survive after suffering a brain injury during a 2014 crash on Fort Myers Beach.  For more information on the series, see  Share the Road:In-depth coverage of bicycle safety in Southwest Florida.

Naples bicyclist Milton Quinonez fought to survive after suffering a brain injury during a crash on Fort Myers Beach on July 12, 2014. Click here for the video by Andrew West/
Photo by Andrew West/News-Press

"I just heard about Milton..." 
Elena Quinonez felt a knot in her stomach.

It had been there since her husband left on his bike ride earlier that morning. Maybe it was stress? She didn’t usually work on Saturdays, but the beachside restaurant in Naples where she was a waitress was slow. She had just one table: two people for a late breakfast in the company of sunshine and the Gulf of Mexico. She ducked from view to check her phone.

She saw a text from a friend.

I just heard about Milton….I am praying for him.

Her eyes rushed with tears. She called her friend.

“You don’t know anything?” her friend asked. “I’m so sorry.”

Milton, her husband of more than 20 years, had been hurt in a bad crash on Fort Myers Beach.
Elena dialed Milton’s cell phone. A stranger picked up.

“Who’s this?” the woman answered.

“Who’s this?” Elena responded.

It was an emergency room nurse.

“What’s going on with my husband?” Elena asked.

She told her of Milton’s injuries. He suffered six broken ribs, his scapula was split in two places, one of his lungs had collapsed, and the other was punctured. He had a large gash in the back of his head. But the worst thing was his brain.

“He’s breathing, just hurry up,” the nurse said.

Elena wept as she drove the 35 miles from Naples to Lee Memorial’s Trauma Center in Fort Myers. What would she tell their daughters? Would he survive? What would they do if he didn’t?

Shortly after 8 a.m. on July 12, 2014, 46-year-old Milton Quinonez was critically injured when an 84-year-old driver struck a group of bicyclists.

Related:7 Florida bicycle crash facts that may shock you

The past year has been fraught with fear, stress and frustration as Milton, his wife and their daughters, now 18 and 12, define a new normal for their family. The driver’s life has been drastically altered too. There was one redeeming consequence. The crash ignited an effort to make the roads safer.

“That, to me, was the turning point,” said Tish Kelly, a Naples cyclist behind a push to toughen legal punishments for drivers who injure bicyclists and other vulnerable road users. She rode with Milton in the past.

“Milton was definitely the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

"I should have hit them harder"

The morning of the crash, Milton Quinonez and nine other bicyclists left Naples and pedaled north. They were heading off Fort Myers Beach on San Carlos Boulevard near Buttonwood Drive in the outside travel lane. Lee Luenser, of Fort Myers Beach, was driving his white Elantra in the same direction. He was on his way to bridge class.

Lee Luenser, the driver, shortly after crash (LCSO photo).  

Crash reports and sworn affidavits offer this account:

Luenser barely missed the rear bicyclist but struck the next rider with his right-side mirror. He swerved away and then back toward the group and rammed into the back of Quinonez’s bike, throwing him onto the hood and windshield. Quinonez’s head smashed into the glass. Luenser veered left again and then back toward the bicyclists, hitting another rider.

Bleeding bicyclists and their broken bikes scattered across the road. Quinonez was in the worst shape.

Related:Southwest Florida's heartbreaking bike deaths

James Keith Spain, a Naples doctor on the bike ride, held the head of Quinonez, who lay lifeless on the pavement, in effort to keep him alive. He was unconscious and bleeding. Luenser stood a few feet from them and watched. He leaned against the bridge, a grimace on his face. His shorts were on backwards.

Did you not see us? Spain asked.

“You were in the road.”

Spain couldn’t believe what he heard, so he asked again.

“'Yes, I should have hit all of them.' Deputy Orlando asked if he understood what he had just said. 'I understood exactly what I said.'”

Luenser's response when asked about the crash

“I should have hit them harder.”

Deputy J. Orlando also asked Luenser what happened.

“They were on the road."

He asked Luenser if he realized he had hit some of the bicyclists.

"Yes, I should have hit all of them."

Orlando asked if he understood what he had just said.

"I understood exactly what I said."

Luenser was treated at the hospital for a neurological issue and possibly had a medical event while driving. An investigator gave him tickets for careless driving and an expired tag, which inspired outrage from other bicyclists, who deemed his actions criminal.

The statements weren’t enough to bring a criminal charge of reckless driving, said Tiffany Wood, a Lee County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman. “There was no way to prove he was reckless driving … He has to have malicious intent.”

Despite the affidavits from the doctor and the deputy, Luenser’s friends said he is not the kind of man to hurt people on purpose. He was active in his church.

“If he said it, it was certainly because he was so befuddled and so scared,” said Trudy Archer, who knew Luenser through St. Peter Evangelical Lutheran Church on Fort Myers Beach and the American Legion. She said Luenser cried when he talked of the crash. “Everybody is a victim, not to downplay that Lee was certainly the cause.”

Luenser has moved to Wisconsin, where he lives near his daughter, Linda. He could not be reached through a number listed in public records and Robert May, who identified himself as his son-in-law and reached at the home of Luenser’s daughter, said Luenser would be unable to speak under advisement of his attorney. Messages were left with Luenser’s attorney.

May said Luenser can no longer live on his own and can’t afford a care facility. May blamed the crash for his decline. He wishes there was video. He thinks the bicyclists were culpable, though the crash investigation and judge found otherwise.

“They destroyed his life and there’s really nothing he can do about it,” he said.

“I remember a healthy active guy ... This just kind of kills me to see him this way.”

"The theme is patience"

No one knew how Milton Quinonez would be when he awoke from 10 days in a coma.

Milton Quinonez was in a coma for more than a week (Photo: Andrew West/The News-Press)

In the days after the crash, Elena reached out to friends and asked them to keep his name off Facebook because their two daughters, then 11 and 17, were visiting family in Colombia. She hadn’t told them.

Broken bones heal predictably; brain injuries do not, said Dr. Robert O’Connor, trauma surgeon and co-director of the surgical intensive care unit for the Lee Memorial Hospital. “You’ll have a scheduled progression of repair for a broken bone.”

“Brain injuries are the exact opposite of the spectrum,” he said. “Different parts of the brain can be injured to different severities.”

When it comes to healing, “the theme is patience,” O’Connor said.

As more bicyclists and motorists co-exist on the roads, the greater the chances the two shall meet and collide. Bicyclists could better protect themselves with lights, which are required at night, and wearing reflective clothing and helmets, O’Connor said, but the best crash prevention is for people to pay attention. Many bike crashes are cased by unsafe driving, he said, and in those cases, there’s no iron-clad defense for bicyclists.

Related:7 bicycle -friendly cities that make Floridians jealous

“In Southwest Florida, we’ve got a bunch of 90-year-old people either having strokes and heart attacks behind the wheels and kids are texting. If you’re in the street, you’re a target. You can do everything right and they still can get you.”
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"He can’t do what he really loves..."

Crickets chirped a cool evening in February as Milton and Elena Quinonez strolled around their middle-class Naples neighborhood. The moon glowed round. Elena switched on a flashlight. Milton used a golf club for balance. The crash left him with a bruised brain. He’s in a constant state of dizziness. It’s like living life on rough seas.
He steers clear of crowds. Bright light and noises bother him. He fatigues easily. He spends his days at home. He owns a small tile and marble business, but was also the installer and has been unable to work. The hardest part has been the loss of independence. He wasn’t driving due to the dizziness. He doesn’t trust his reflexes either and depends on his family, especially Elena, for everything.

Headlights flashed toward the couple this evening. Milton clenched Elena’s hand.
Photo by News-Press
“Car coming!” he warned. He rushed toward the grass, drawing Elena with him.
He used to scream.

Milton remembers little from his 14-day stay at Lee Memorial. The first thing he recalls is someone telling him he’d be transferred to a Naples hospital.

What am I doing here in the first place? he wondered at the time.
In Naples, he started rehabilitation and had about 30 sessions total.
“The other part was God. I guess he didn’t want me to go.”

Two months before the crash, he had been so strong, biking around Italy with friends and putting in up to 200 miles a week on the roads. But his passion had not been without danger. Just 13 months before this crash, he had been struck by a motorist in Naples. She was arrested for DUI. He had road rash, but nothing as severe as last year’s crash. He credited his helmet with saving his life.

“The other part was God. I guess he didn’t want me to go.”

His neurologist told him the first year would be the hardest, but he couldn’t promise a full recovery. He could be dizzy for 18 months. It could be for life.

Elena and Milton are suing Luenser for auto negligence and seeking damages such as lost wages and medical bills. Ted Zelman, a Naples attorney and a bicyclist, is representing them. Luenser’s coverage limit is $50,000, Zelman said, so he will look to Luenser’s assets or to the insurance company if there’s a judgment in the couple’s favor.

 “The most important thing is try to prevent this from happening to other people,” said Zelman. “His whole family has been impacted.”

The couple’s 18-year-old daughter, Andrea, cried when she thought about how much their lives had changed. For years, he had been taking her and her little sister on lunch dates each weekend. He no longer does this. He feels it would be unsafe to drive them.

“He can’t do what he really loves and we can’t do what we usually do,” she said. “The hardest thing is how frustrating it all is for him.”

"Isn’t there anything more?"

Tish Kelly spoke in Tallahassee several times last session to bolster support for a bike safety bill. Each time, she shared stories of Milton and her husband. In 2014, a pickup truck driver struck Chuck Kelly. Chuck counted more than 20 broken bones. He no longer rides. He’s in too much pain.
The driver received a $170 fine.

The real work of the bill began after Luenser’s hearing when Tish Kelly met Jeff Michelland, a federal prosecutor and another riding friend of Milton’s. Both were frustrated with a legal system that could dole out a maximum fine for Luenser of $1,000 and a yearlong license suspension. He failed to submit a medical report and his license will remain revoked unless he’s medically cleared.

Milton and Elena were upset by the outcome too.
Elena approached Tish Kelly in tears after the hearing.
“Isn’t there anything more?”
Kelly and Michelland arranged to meet with Collier commissioner Georgia Hiller.

The result was a bill sponsored by Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, Chuck Kelly’s law partner in Naples. Among many other safety provisions, it boosted the fine for careless driving that harms a vulnerable road user up to $2,000. The standard fine for careless driving is $161. Different versions of the bill made it through the House and Senate but session ended before they were reconciled. They plan to revive it next session.

Meanwhile, Tish Kelly and Michelland urge bicyclists to abide by the laws. They’ll need to foster political goodwill toward bicyclists to make the bill law. Tish Kelly heard of lawmakers who received anti-cyclist mail. But education about the rules of the road is lacking among drivers and bicyclists, said Kelly, who plans to create a public service announcement.

“Ignorance is off the charts.”

Cyclists are to conduct themselves as though they are behind the wheel and motorists need to realize that they have a right to do so.”

Would it be crazy to ride a bike again?

Milton Quinonez, Photo by Andrew West, News-Press
In the past year, Milton Quinonez has not lived a day without dizziness, but his body is feeling stronger. He stopped taking medications to help his brain and muscles relax. He’s started to drive himself on short errands.

“I don’t know if my brain is better or I’ve learned to live with it.”

The family has run through at least $40,000 to cover bills, by his estimation.

“If I didn’t have money saved, I would have lost the house and everything. That’s why I say, you never know how much this will change your life.”

Earlier this month, his wife drove him to a neurology appointment. Milton reached for Elena’s hand as they stepped inside the office. His neurologist watched as Milton walked on his toes, and on his heels. Milton told him there are days when he feels better.

Just don’t do anything crazy, the doctor told him.

Would it be crazy to ride a bike again? To Milton, now it would, but one of his road bikes remains in the garage. Elena thinks he will one day return to the saddle. Milton can’t answer in certain terms.

“That would be great if I could go back on my bicycle because the day I go back on my bicycle it means I’m done with this. This is all over.”

Share and learn about ideas to make the roads safer on The News-Press Facebook page, Share the Road Florida.

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