A Near-Fatal Motorcycle Crash Changes An Actor's Life, but Not His Refusal to Wear a Helmet
Bounding into his manager’s Los Angeles office, actor Gary Busey launches instantly into a rapid-fire monologue about himself. Clad in faded jeans and a lime-green Harley-Davidson sweatshirt and waving an unlit cigar, he seems still the happy Hollywood hellion. Looking at him, there isn’t a clue that five months ago he almost lost his life in a motorcycle crash and required two hours of neurosurgery to remove blood clots between his skull and brain.
Yet to hear Busey, 44, tell it, he is a changed man—more at peace with himself than after he survived a near-fatal car accident when he was 22, or after he was nominated for an Oscar in 1978 for his performance in The Buddy Holly Story, or after he overcame addictions lo cocaine and alcohol only four years ago.
To the distress of Busey’s wife, Judy, and their 17-year-old son, Jake, one thing that hasn’t changed is Busey’s love of motorcycles and his refusal to wear a helmet while riding. For years, he and fellow bikers including Jay Leno have been among the most vocal opponents of laws requiring protective headgear, despite the fact that 142,000 Americans are injured in motorcyle accidents each year. (A 1986 General Motors study reported that one quarter of the 4,505 motorcyclists killed that year while riding without helmets would have lived had they worn helmets.) Busey spoke with correspondent Jack Kelley about his near-fatal accident and his controversial stand.
Every motorcycle rider thinks about the possibility of an accident. But I figured I was sharp enough in my reactions not to have one. I’d been a good athlete all my life, and I had ridden dirt bikes with my son, Jake, for years. But the fact is, on Sunday, Dec. 4, 1988, there I was, sprawled at the feet of a policeman with paramedics on the way.
I had arrived home in Malibu just the day before, after wrapping a movie. My Harley-Davidson, my beautiful motorcycle, had been in Bartels’ cycle shop in Culver City for repairs. I took it out Sunday morning, rode it down the street, made a U-turn, headed back, accelerating to about 50 mph. I was so excited to be in the wind again, to be back in town, to have a movie in the can.
Passing Bartels’, I approached a corner where a bus was letting off passengers. I swung to the left of the bus, then turned right in front of it to turn onto the cross street, which leads to the freeway. But the cross street had an island, and I had to turn more sharply than I had anticipated. There were gravel and rocks and a little bit of slickness on the street, too, and I went into a skid. I hit my rear brake, which is what you’re not supposed to do with a big bike—and it whipped around like a fish.
The bike slammed into the curb and threw me over the windshield. I came down on the curb headfirst, hitting the back of my head, then the right side of my head and then my back. Wop-wop-wop! Then I was out. Gone.
Gene Thomason, who sold me the bike and was standing in front of Bartels’ as I drove off, ran across the street, took my gloves off and pressed them against my skull. Blood was shooting out from a hole the size of a 50-cent piece. He says I squeezed his hand so hard I dislocated one of his fingers. He saved my life.
I was taken three miles to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and operated on that night. It was a critical situation. The right side of the brain, where the damage was, controls verbal and musical skills, emotional expression and the ability to recognize visual patterns. After the operation, I couldn’t talk, walk, swallow. I had temporarily lost my fine motor skills and couldn’t hold a guitar. I learned later that 50 percent of patients with head injuries like mine die.
I do not remember Cedars-Sinai or the first six weeks after the crash. I had posttraumatic amnesia, common among head-injury victims. People have told me I was angry that I was in the hospital and didn’t want the nurses touching me. The doctors wound up isolating me in a psychiatric ward and giving me three types of medication to calm me.
Mel Gibson came to see me the night after the operation. There were drainage tubes coming out of my skull and I had cardiac-monitor wires taped to my chest. He couldn’t understand a word I said except for one sentence. I took him by the hand and said, “Get-me-the-hell-outta-here.” He told me later, “That’s when I knew you were going to be okay.”
My family believed the sedatives the doctors put me on made me a vegetable. The Cedars-Sinai psychiatric staff refused to take me off the drugs. Finally, after four weeks there, I was transferred to Daniel Freeman Hospital, an Inglewood rehabilitation center with a floor specializing in head trauma. My doctors there, Barry Ludwig and Roger Light, started me on a program of occupational therapy, speech therapy and a physical fitness regimen that included 30 minutes a day working with weights for my arms, back, chest and shoulders. A rehab nurse or a therapist was with me at all times. We started at 8 A.M. and went until 5 P.M. every weekday.
I don’t remember remembering until two weeks after I arrived at Daniel Freeman. By that time I was walking and talking again. I wasn’t so fast or efficient in all my reflexes, but once I started remembering, I knew deep down that death wasn’t gonna get me. And knowing that made me improve more.
To restore my cognitive abilities, part of my rehabilitation consisted of looking at pictures and identifying shapes hidden within other shapes. Also, there were computer games in which I would have to move eight suitcases from one table to another and keep them all in order. They sound like childhood games, but they were really hard at first.
One night, after two weeks at Daniel Freeman, I was sitting in bed when I looked up and saw the Grim Reaper standing in the corner. He was seven feet tall, with a brown robe. He pointed at me and said, “Relax, it’s not your time to go. You have been given gifts. These gifts are ready to be received by mankind. So get on your feet and improve.” Then he laughed, spun his scythe and left.
I wasn’t asleep and I hadn’t been up for days. Whether this was a premonition or an angel in disguise, I don’t know. But it was a positive reinforcement to stay on the road to recovery, which I’ve done.
I was out of the hospital on Feb. 7, three months ahead of my scheduled release date. I think I’m probably at about 99 percent of where I was physically before the accident, and the doctors say I have the ability to even improve on that a little bit. I have my balance back. My reflexes and peripheral vision are above normal, and I’ve got the blood pressure and eyesight of a teenager. The doctors say they haven’t seen improvement this fast on a head trauma this severe in their careers. They don’t know how that happened. It just did, through hard work, excellent treatment and prayers of family and friends.
My music is coming back now, too. I’d been a drummer before I sang in The Buddy Holly Story 10 years ago, and since then I’ve played guitar and sung socially. I’m putting together songs I wrote from 1980 to 1986. I’d like to make my first album.
My life revolves around physical fitness now. When I get up in the morning, I meditate for 30 minutes. Then I work free weights in a gym in the house. Lotta repetitions, lotta sets. I sprint a bicycle six miles on the Pacific Coast highway and then I swim 800 to 1,000 meters. I’m on a high-protein, low-carbohydrate, no-sugar diet. I lost 25 lbs. after the accident because I just couldn’t stand hospital food. The only medication I’m on is Tegretol, an antiseizure medication. I’ve never had a seizure in my life, but the injury was so severe they don’t want to take any chances.
People ask me if I regret not having a helmet on the day of the accident. The only thing I regret was having the accident in the first place. I rode my bike again for the first time in April. I was a little anxious and extremely conscious of driving safely. Judy knew I was going, but she didn’t say anything. My son asked me to sell the bike, but I said, “I’m your dad, and I’ve got to experience this.” I think everybody worries a little bit when I go out on a bike now, including me. Every time I’m on it, I really pay attention to what I’m doing. I cruise at 35-45 mph. I don’t want to crash again.
My whole family wants me helmeted up. Back in April I put on my helmet and sat on the bike, but I just felt like I couldn’t see and I couldn’t hear. So I don’t ride with it. I think helmets should be mandatory for riders 16 to 22 because young people express themselves with speed and aggression. And I think everyone who buys a bike for the first time should have to take a training course and wear a helmet during the training.
But for riders over age 22, I’m still pro-choice. Helmets do prevent some head injuries, but some people get killed wearing helmets.
When I see other riders going too fast now, sometimes I pull up beside ’em in my car and roll down my window and shake my finger at ’em, saying, “You guys be careful. You don’t want to end up like scrambled eggs.” They recognize me, give a thumbs-up and slow down.
There was a reason I had that accident. I received a lot of acclaim for The Buddy Holly Story—my first big movie—and I was nominated for an Academy Award. After that, because success happened to me very fast, I was difficult on pictures, hard to get along with and frightened of my own aggressiveness. This accident was a like a godsend, warning me to stop and get my life in order. It’s taught me to be more gracious in my understanding of life, to not be so goal-oriented, but to enjoy the process of achieving something. It’s also taught me to listen and not always be thinking my own thoughts and talking my own spiel.
The idea now is to relax and let it happen, to be one of the brushstrokes on the canvas of life, not the whole painting. Dealing with the accident has given me my life back. And I’m happy to say it’s not over yet.