Triathlete John Bysiewicz has long road ahead after race director lost part of leg in accident

BRANFORD — With focused concentration, flanked by an occupational therapist and a physical therapist, John Bysiewicz took small, deliberate steps across the gym at Gaylord Specialty Healthcare / Gaylord Hospital.

“Step and turn,” said Paula Savino, physical therapist. “Step and turn. Make sure your shoulders don’t pitch forward.”

Bysiewicz, 60, a Shoreline triathlete is learning to walk again, outfitted with a prosthetic limb after losing his lower left leg in a near fatal accident.

The avid runner and cyclist is well known by running enthusiasts across the state as the owner of JB Sports, which organizes statewide some 20 road races, including the upcoming 2023 Run for Refugees; the popular Faxon Law New Haven Road Race; Branford Road Race; and MJP Wealth Advisors Fairfield Road Races.

He has been in rehabilitation since sustaining life threatening injuries when he was struck by a car while riding his bike on Route 146 in Guilford, Nov. 12.

Bysiewicz underwent a battery of 11 surgeries due to the multiple injuries he sustained, including loss of his left leg below the knee; loss of left foot; broken left elbow, radius-left; pelvis and left hip; many scrapes and bruises on left leg; and open wound fractures on left and right feet.

One more surgery, on his left arm, is expected.

According to a Guilford Police report, a vehicle, driven by R. Neal Stom of Branford, was traveling west when it crossed over the center line into the eastbound lane and hit Bysiewicz.

Stom, 30, who left the accident scene, was arrested and charged with evading responsibility, resulting in serious physical injury, the report said.

Bysiewicz’s sister, Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz talked about her brother’s positive attitude.

“He’s been very forgiving toward the person who hit him at 50 miles an hour and then left him there,” she said.

“He is just the most brave and tenacious person that I know,” she said.

Bysiewicz does not remember the moment of impact.

“You think about cars behind you,” he said. “You never expect when you’re riding a bike that a car’s going to come from the other side of the road and turn into you. You just expect they’re going to go straight.”

Route 146 is a road that he said he rides “over 100 times a year.”

He said it’s the safest route for him to ride because there’s “less traffic and wide sightlines.”

Bysiewicz is grateful to passing motorist , Niko Knuttel, for stopping and coming to his aid after seeing a small bag, a cell phone and pieces of a bicycle in the road.

Knuttel saw the debris, passed by and then turned around to check the area.

Bysiewicz said it was “just a stroke of luck” that he was found when he was, by Nuttel.

With a last-minute change of plans, Nuttel was going to visit his mother in Guilford rather than go to a party.

“He decided instead of going on 95 that he was going to go along the water, he was going to take the scenic route,” Bysiewicz said.

“Without him not going to the party and taking the scenic route it could be a totally different story,” he said.

Susan Bysiewicz said the whole family is “so very grateful for Niko Nuttel.

“If not for him, my brother might have died,” she said.

Bysiewicz’s wife, Jenny Glass, talked about meeting Nuttel at the Stony Creek Market.

“He’s just a really nice person,” she said. “A really thoughtful person.”

Bysiewicz remembers nothing of the accident, except the moments after being loaded into the ambulance when he was able to give the driver his wife’s phone number.

Three days later he woke up at Yale New Haven Hospital.

Glass, along with her husband’s sisters, Susan Bysiewicz and Gail Bysiewicz, made the decision to amputate his left leg below the knee.

“It was devastating to hear that, but ultimately it was the only decision I could make and John’s sisters agreed,” she said.

“There’s just no other decision,” she said. “He wasn’t going to live. The doctors said, ‘Leg or life.’ When they say something like that, is there really any other choice?”

Susan Bysiewicz recalled that decision and talking to Glass on the phone.

“She knows how much John loves to run and bike and she did not want to make that decision,” Susan Bysiewicz said. “I said, ‘You must choose life because John needs you, his kids need him, we need him. The decision was so, so clear.”

When he woke up and realized the extent of his injuries, his wife was visiting.

When she left, Bysiewicz said, “I remember calling her right after that and saying “Jenny, I forgot to thank you for making sure I stayed alive.”

Two weeks ago, this lifelong athlete was fitted for a prosthetic on his left leg, below the knee. He anticipates this to be the first of many prosthetics he will be fitted for over the next year.

“They’ll have different attachments at the bottom for biking and for running,” he said. “If I’m able to run.”

“It’s learning to walk all over again,” the Branford resident said.

“I had a big operation earlier this month, they put a rod in my femur, did some bone graphs on my hips,” he said. “Once they put those together, I was able to start learning how to walk a couple weeks ago.”

“First thing was learning how to balance myself,” he said. “I still have not gotten used to putting enough weight on my left leg, but gradually I’m doing a little bit better, hopefully putting more weight on my left leg, so I can get more used to walking in a more normal gait. It takes a lot of concentration.”

He is also receiving occupational therapy for injuries to his left arm with a focus on “regaining a range of motion, function of the hand, so a lot of stretching and just encourage him to use that hand during all functional tasks,” said Jaclyn Lavigne, his occupational therapist.

“When he first came, he was non-weight bearing on three of his limbs, so now he is weight bearing on two legs, still not weight bearing on his arm,” she said.

“As far as OT he’s pretty much washing and dressing himself, able to take his prosthetic on and off, it takes a little longer, but he’s still able to do it,” she said.

“Yup,” chimed in Bysiewicz.

Susan Bysiewicz attributes his recovery this far to his “inner strength and courage and determination to get better and his incredibly positive attitude. He’s been ultra-focused on his recovery.”

He continues to work from Gaylord and was on the phone right before his therapy session, regarding the IRIS Run for Refugees 5K , scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 12.

“I have an event coming up in two and a half weeks where we’ll have 3,000 people, which we have to plan for,” he said.

Bysiewicz can’t remember a time when he wasn’t involved in athletics.

“I’ve always had a healthy lifestyle,” he said. “Every day after school, I grew up with kids in the neighborhood playing sports every day. Every day after school was either football, basketball or baseball, unless it rained and we played ping pong.”

Then there was cross country and track at Middletown High School and at UConn.

Bysiewicz said there is no comparison between his athletics and the road to recovery.

“It’s much more difficult,” he said. “When I got on the bike or when I got running or swimming, I know exactly what I can do. Maybe a little bit faster one day, a little bit slower the next day.”

“This is, I wake up and I actually get a little anxious about what’s going to happen because I’m doing something new – especially in physical therapy when I’m learning to walk,” he said.

“I’ve ridden thousands of times; I’ve not learned how to walk...” he said. “This is 10, 15 sessions, so it’s a lot more challenging than it is being an athlete.”

Savino sees this difference in her daily work with Bysiewicz.

“Historically being an athlete, being competitive and having that mindset is not always congruent with what is needed in terms of realistic expectations and timeline within the rehabilitation process,” she said.

She added, however, that he has to be constantly reminded of this.

“Disappointment happens if you have a really high expectation and then you don’t have that achievement at that time,” she said. “So, it’s important in rehabilitation, in my experience, to remain focused on the right here, the right now, take everything one day at a time because it’s also not a linear path. The trajectory is not straight and upward.

“It is very bumpy,” she said. “It is very curvy. It is very difficult. There are good days and bad days. There are so many variables with how the human body recuperates from anything and this is a multi-trauma event, with multiple variables that need to be slowly overcome. It is not easy.”

Savino works with him on “basic mobility tasks,” including walking; getting up from a chair; getting in and out of a bed; lying down, sitting up and rolling side to side on the bed.

She said he is doing “excellent.”

“The extent of the injuries put a lot of obstacles in the way that need to be navigated and there is no shortage of hard work, perseverance, working through a lot of discomfort in order to just keep moving forward,” said Savino.

She attributes some of this to the fact that Bysiewicz was physically fit when the accident happened.

“Having been active his whole life helps, not only physically makes it easier, but mentally being able to stick to it in spite of physical discomfort as well,” she said. “Because the mindset of an athlete is to push through discomfort in order to a achieve a goal,” she said.

Bysiewicz said his wife assists with some of the occupational therapy.

“She comes up every night and she works on my arm,” he said. “She works with moving the range of motion. She hurts me as much as Jackie does to increase range of motion.”

Lavigne, sitting beside him, laughed.

On this day, at Gaylord, Bysiewicz was using a cane.

“Just to warn you, it’s a lot less supportive,” Severino said.

“So, I would encourage you to start out with small advances on all three,” she said, referring to his two legs and his cane.

“Small, small, small,” she said, guiding along. “As you gain confidence and get used to the lack of support that it gives you, you can make steps larger, but I wouldn’t start out trying to make great strides because your odds of losing your balance are much greater with less support.”

By all accounts Bysiewicz has made great strides.

His left side took the brunt of the impact, but his right foot was broken and he had a deep cut “which has healed and allows me to be 100 percent weight bearing on my right side,” he said.

Prior to this accident, the only broken bone he ever suffered was an elbow injury playing basketball in middle school.

He prefers not to talk about the driver who is responsible for the accident, but did say “I just know he was a distracted driver.”

“There’s a lot of distracted drivers,” he said. “People are texting when they’re driving, they’re doing other stuff and that’s not the way we all learned how to drive.”

“We all learned how to drive was to pay attention and maybe change the radio station, that’s all we ever did,” he said.

“It really bothers me that as cars get safer there’s more people dying than there should be,” he said.

Bysiewicz is staying positive and avoiding the question “Why me?”

“ ‘Why me’ isn’t going to help me get better or go through my rehab quicker, it’s not going to help my mental state of mind,” he said.

“I don’t think that’s helpful,” he said. “Right now, I can’t think about that, I can think about what I have to do to get better in my rehab, what I have to do in work and spend time with my family and people who visit me.”

Bysiewicz’s three daughters all came home immediately after the accident. His oldest, 26-year-old Sophie, an environmental engineer, came from New York City; Isabelle, 24-years-old, came from Taiwan where she is teaching English; and her twin, 24-year-old Raissi, came from Washington, D.C. where she works at a law firm.

While they were in town, Stony Creek Congregational Church set up a meal train to feed the family for a month and a half while the girls were in town.

Friends from Middletown High School and UCONN have reached out to him and visited him, in addition to members of the running community and friends.

“Thousands, if not more, have reached out to me,” he said. “It makes me feel that people appreciated the time we spent together, so it makes feel good that people care.”

Glass said the care and compassion “has been amazing.”

“There was a ramp built on the back of our house a week after this happened by our neighbors,” said Glass.

Even his sister, Susan Bysiewicz, said her brother has so many visitors that she has to call to make an appointment.

Bysiewicz is focusing on the positive. The target date for his discharge is Feb. 11.

He is looking to the future as he continues rehabilitation.

“One thing I want to get back to is to be able to walk OK and be able to be fairly independent, that I can do almost everything - that’s the most important thing,” he said.

“Then from there hopefully I can bike, hopefully I can swim,” he said. “I don’t know if I can run, I don’t know what damage is done. I had a bad left knee before and I don’t know if there’s any damage to that.”

“I’m learning to accept I can do what I can do and that’s all I can do and hopefully I can get a little bit better every day,” he said. “That’s my expectation.”