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Life lessons learned

Last week, Dallas Herndon rode his bicycle to Panera Bread on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard to grab a quick bite to eat. He took his regular route and, as usual, rode sans helmet, hair blowing in the wind.

His navy fixed-gear bike approached a stop sign on Alumni Drive, right in front of the Botanical Gardens. Herndon stopped, put his foot down and checked for traffic.

What happened next is a bit hazy for the 23-year-old junior majoring in finance. He recalls taking a left turn and something malfunctioning about 50 feet from the sign.

Herndon believes his front tire failed, catapulting him headfirst over his handlebars onto the asphalt. He said he doesn’t remember seeing anything or anyone, just hearing a lot of questions.

“I usually ride that route every day and I seriously ride seven days a week,” he said. “There were no cars, no curbs or potholes. Something just malfunctioned on my bike.”

People stopped and called 911 while one man held Herndon’s neck still, applying pressure to his skull.

He was transported to University Community Hospital (UCH) where doctors performed emergency surgery after a CT scan revealed a fractured skull.

To make matter worse, Herndon was suffering from an epidural hematoma – internal bleeding between the skull and the brain. He would need neurological surgery to take a piece of his skull out. One week later he lives to tell his tale, but with one gigantic reminder: a couple of screws and a scar that will take up the entire right side of his head.

“I’m an experienced rider and I try to keep myself out of situations where I’ll get hurt,” he said. “It can happen to anybody.”

His mother, Kathleen Herndon, a pediatric nurse at the same hospital, said she couldn’t be more thankful of the way the doctors and nurses treated her son. She said the accident didn’t fully hit her until earlier this week when she drove her son home from the hospital.

“I have a huge knot in my stomach now,” she said. “I’m a strong person and I have to be reassuring for my patients, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have my knots inside.”

Friends posted pictures and updates of Herndon’s condition on a fixed-gear bike forum during his stay at UCH. Dozens of friends and strangers sent their prayers and condolences to the young man who was put in an intensive care unit.

Many vowed to never ride without a helmet again, but one in particular actually took the vow to heart.

Aaron Walter of St. Petersburg is the type of guy who always thought about purchasing a helmet, but never did. He looked at one for about three weeks, but didn’t buy it until the day after he saw Herndon’s spill.

Walter, 29, said he wasn’t too thrilled about wearing it Monday morning on his way to work, but when wet asphalt caused his bike to fall out from beneath him, he was glad he had it on.

“There is not a single doubt in my mind that if I wasn’t wearing my helmet I would look like Dallas or I’d be dead,” Walter said.

He thinks the wet road, combined with new tires, caused him to fall on the right side of his head, just like Herndon. He said his new helmet was destroyed on impact.

“I’m too sore to get on a bike right now,” he said. “In the next couple of days I’ll be good to go but I’ll never set foot on the thing again without a helmet – I’ve vowed.”

He knows a lot of people won’t rush out and buy a helmet after hearing their stories. But these things are a catalyst. Someone always leads by example, he said.

“It’s weird to think that I didn’t just talk about it, I did something,” he said. “That’s the most incredible thing to me.”

Herndon will return to classes Monday, although he won’t be riding for a while. He said he’ll be back on soon, though, this time with a helmet strapped tightly to his head.

“I don’t want anybody going through what I went through,” he said. “I hope it changes a lot of people’s minds on helmets.”