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Injured in crash, man focuses on helping others

During the morning of Sept. 4, 1982, the weekend before he was to start college on a scholarship, Mike Heikes landed an apartment, and he and a friend decided to go out and celebrate "our new freedom."

They had timed themselves driving in his car from where he lived into town. This time around, they were in his friend's car, trying to beat that time. Heikes was the passenger.

Just north of Fergus Falls, they went into a curve at an estimated 101 miles an hour. The car rolled three or four times, and Heikes was thrown through the rolled-up passenger side window and landed on the highway.

"There's a reason the speed limit is 55," he can now joke.

Heikes, 43, is trying to prevent kids and parents having to go through what he and his parents did 20-plus years ago.

He describes the sight of him as an honor roll student, lying in a hospital bed with tubes up his nose and in a coma.

"If it prevents one kid from going through what I went through, and continue going through living with the effects of a brain injury, it's worth it. And if it saves one parent from going through what my parents went through, it's worth it."

But he's not here just to talk about the dangers of drinking and driving. He's also getting kids to use helmets while biking, something he took up after losing his license for a period of time after vision problems due to his brain injury.

Heikes will be handing out bike helmets Feb. 26-27 from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. during the dental clinic at St. Mary's Regional Health Care Center. In April 2007, Heikes gave away 260 helmets at Rossman Elementary School.

After his car accident in 1982, Heikes' bloodstains would remain on that highway for years until the highway was resurfaced. He said he doesn't remember the accident or much of high school because of the accident.

After the accident, he was taken to Lake Region Hospital in Fergus Falls, and then transported to St. Luke's in Fargo, which is now MeritCare. Doctors did surgery at MeritCare on the blood clots that had formed in his brain.

"The doctor had told my parents there wasn't much hope," the Fergus Falls man said.

He remained in a coma for a week to 10 days, was paralyzed on the left side of his body for a few weeks, and then after six weeks in Fargo, he was transferred to Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute in Minneapolis, where they didn't know if Chris would ever walk again.

He remained in Minneapolis for about two and a half months, where they got him walking again.

He started riding bicycle in 1990 when his driver's license was canceled due to vision problems from his brain injury. The license was reinstated soon after, but he kept riding the bike.

He said he wanted to say thank you to those that had helped him, but he had no money to donate. He didn't receive any kind of insurance settlement from the accident. So instead, he bicycled across the country one time for each of the three hospitals that helped save his life.

For Sister Kenny's, he raised $10,000, and for MeritCare and Lake Region, he earned about $5,000 each.

"I did other cross country rides for Kinship -- like Big Brother, Big Sister type thing -- Minnesota Brain Injury Association, a charity in Hawaii and Alaska," he said.

He still rides, but not as much as he has in the past.

"I rode in all 50 state, all the bordering Canadian provinces. I finished that in 2005."

Through all his rides, he's raised over $100,000 since 1997. During his riding is when he came up with the Helmets for Kids program.

"I saw all these kids riding without helmets, and thought 'how can I get them to use a helmet to prevent a brain injury like mine?'"

He found a service organization that gave him enough money to buy 43 helmets.

"I thought, 'where am I going to find 43 kids that need helmets?'''

Turns out, it wasn't that hard.

Last year alone, Heike gave out 5,000 helmets to kids throughout Minnesota and North Dakota. He hands out helmets in schools, through Otter Tail County Health and through word-of-mouth.

With the helmet donations taking off, Heike has also started speaking in high schools about the dangers of drinking and driving.

"I get pretty graphic in high schools and colleges. Show pictures on a screen of the bloodstained highway where I got thrown out of the car. And pictures of the car that rolled three or four times. And I show my hair."

His hair?

"When they shaved my head for neurosurgery, they saved my hair. After I was transferred to Minneapolis, they gave me this bag of hair, and they asked my mom if she wanted this hair, with sand and blood in it. She said 'why did you save his hair?' Well, it was in case my parents wanted an open casket at the funeral."

He has made some high school students cry with that presentation.

"It gets their attention."

He also speaks in churches about his experience and how going through it has made him a Christian.

He said although the main action is "stupid" (drinking and driving) being able to go out and share his story on drinking and driving and the usage of helmets "gives purpose to my brain injury."

He said he enjoys going out and talking to groups to share his story so much that at the end of last summer, he decided to make it a full-time job and is in the process of becoming a non-profit organization so businesses and individuals can donate money for his helmets and deduct it from taxes.

A helmet is 85 percent effective in reducing head injuries, he said.

Heikes gets the helmets from Wal-Mart and through Pro Rider Helmet Company.

Last summer he ordered 1,000 from Wal-Mart, but they were having trouble filling the order because the company wouldn't ship that many to Wal-Mart at once.

"They were coming in five, 10, 20 at a time, but I needed a bunch of them because I had schools lined up. So I ordered 1,000 from the Pro Rider Company. So a semi backs up to my garage and unloads 1,000 helmets. The next day, Wal-Mart calls and they got around the ordering system and they have 1,000 helmets for me to pick up."

And he's had to order more since then.

As another way to promote helmet use, if he's out and sees a kid riding his or her bike with a helmet on and with an adult, Heikes gives them a coupon for a treat at McDonalds or Burger King.

For those interested in having Heikes speak on helmet use or drinking and driving, contact him before 7 p.m. at 218-736-6023.