Surviving ‘face-breaking’ speed

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — For some it’s about competition, for others it’s an adrenaline rush, but for Derek Hamby, bicycling is about passion.

Hamby, an avid bicyclist and manpower and organization chief at Schriever Air Force Base, has been riding for close to 20 years and competed in multiple bike races, including a 100-mile trail race last year.

“I will never be that person winning the race — I do it to challenge myself and get better,” he said. “To me, bicycling is about memories; it’s just time with friends.” 

Which is why each year Hamby plans a bicycling trip with a close group of friends who share the same passion for riding. However, last year’s trip to Anniston, Alabama, would forge memories some wouldn’t want to remember.

“It was our second ride of the day and we were just going downhill, nothing really fast, but I had a head cold and a hamstring injury,” Hamby said. “It was a bad cold — I really shouldn’t have been riding because I just couldn’t react.”

The trail the group had decided to ride was rated green by the International Mountain Bicycling Association, meaning the difficulty rating was “easy.” During his ride, Hamby hit what would normally be a small bump to an experienced rider, but this time it proved to be life-altering.

“All I remember is I was riding a nose wheelie and I thought ‘I need to save this’ and I don’t remember what happened after that,” Hamby said.

Hamby lost control of his bike, was thrown over the handlebars and crashed face-first into a rock.

“I remember waking up and my friend he … I don’t know what he did, but I know I laid there for two hours waiting for rescue,” Hamby said.

Upon arrival at the local hospital, a breathing tube was inserted and Hamby was medevaced from Anniston to a larger medical center in Montgomery, Alabama. There, he was placed in a medically induced coma for three days due to a collapsed trachea.

“I ended up breaking my nose, shattering my jaw completely, I lost my teeth, part of my (chin) bone completely came out, I tore my lip off, broke my C7 and T1 (vertebrae) in my back, broke my collar bone, and cracked a rib,” Hamby said. “I also had severe tongue lacerations to where they had to sew my tongue back together — I’ve lost all feeling in my tongue and my chin.” 

News of the accident traveled quickly back to Schriever AFB.

“As a commander, you never want to hear about one of your members being hurt or injured,” said Maj. Justin Long, the 50th Force Support Squadron commander. “When I was notified of Mr. Hamby’s accident, I couldn’t believe how quickly the entire 50th FSS and other members of team Schriever rallied together to support him.”

There were many touch-and-go moments while Hamby was recovering in the hospital, and he began to question whether he would ever ride again. It was during a visit from a friend that Hamby decided to persevere and overcome the injuries he had sustained.

With the support of his friends and Air Force family, Hamby was released after 14 days in the hospital — nine of which were in the intensive care unit.

Due to the extent of his injuries, he has undergone reconstructive surgery on his jaw and will eventually need bone grafts in order to fully repair his chin.

“When I looked at my Garmin a month later, I was going 20.4 mph … so apparently that’s the face-breaking speed,” Hamby said. “I was actually going slower than I would normally go because I didn’t feel comfortable and because I didn’t want to break my friend’s bike … which I did.”

Although Hamby’s injuries were severe, he was wearing a helmet and other personal protective equipment at the time of his accident, which ultimately saved his life.

“The doctor said without a doubt, if I wasn’t wearing (my helmet) there is no question — I wouldn’t be here today,” Hamby said.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “A helmet is the single most effective way to prevent head injury resulting from a bicycle crash.” 

“A helmet is such a simple and inexpensive piece of PPE that can save your life,” Hamby said. “For those who don’t think they need to wear a helmet, it is their choice to take the risk, but remember, whether you like it or not, you’re a role model to your kids and others.”

As a Department of the Air Force employee, Hamby has been exposed to numerous safety messages and briefings, which he said influences the safety precautions and decisions he makes before each ride.

“From a safety aspect, I did a lot of things right and a lot of things wrong that day,” Hamby said. “What I did right was I had friends with me in case there was an injury, I wore the proper PPE — helmet, glasses and gloves — but I shouldn’t have been riding at all that day because of how I felt, my hamstring, the cold, and I was on someone else’s bike that I wasn’t used to.” 

The 50th Space Wing Safety Office recommends always wearing PPE while riding off the installation and stated that PPE is required while riding a bicycle on base. More requirements for cycling on base can be found in Air Force Instruction 91-207.

“I want people to realize that no matter what the extent of my injuries were, I’m alive, and that wouldn’t be the case if I didn’t wear my helmet and glasses,” Hamby said. “No matter what you do in life, a small amount of risk is inevitable, but this (accident) shows more than anything how important safety really is.”

Hamby has since resumed bicycling and can regularly be seen riding around the installation during his lunch hours.

“My biggest achievement was getting back on my bike and doing my first mountain bike ride four months after my accident,” Hamby said. “This may sound cliché, but if it wasn’t for the wingman concept that is stressed in the Air Force, I couldn’t have gotten released from the hospital in 14 days, finished my rehab and be where I am today.”

This feature is part of the “Through Airmen’s Eyes” series on AF.mil. These stories focus on a single Airman, highlighting his or her Air Force story.

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