BELFAST, Maine —On a sunny September afternoon, cyclists, joggers and dog walkers flowed smoothly past Henry Seekins like the outgoing tide that swirled below the Armistice Footbridge in Belfast.
But as the slow-moving 28-year-old carefully placed his feet on the ground, hands firmly on the handlebars of his mobility device, he nonetheless made steady progress to the other side of the bridge.
Years ago, this pace would have been unthinkable. Seekins grew up the kind of kid who always liked to go fast. He took to dirt bikes, skateboards and snowboards like a duck to water, and when he was older, it was an easy shift to fast cars and motorcycles.
“There’s just nothing like riding a motorcycle,” Seekins said. “The wind in your hair when you’re not wearing a helmet. The freedom.”
His dad, Harry Seekins, who was walking with him as he always does these days, interrupted.
“That’s part of the issue right there, bud,” Harry Seekins told his son.
Henry Seekins, who was wearing a T-shirt that proclaimed, “Pain is weakness leaving the body,” knows better than anyone the price attached to choosing what he once called freedom.
Henry Seekins was just 21 when he decided to change his life by moving from Belfast to Phoenix, Arizona. Soon after he got there, his car broke down and he bought a dirt bike with street tires to get around. On March 22, 2012, he was rushing to a job interview when he made a couple of mistakes.
One was that he left his helmet at home. The other was that, perhaps anxious about being on time, he zipped around the car ahead of him that was turning right at a four-way intersection.
Henry Seekins did not see the van that was turning directly into his path until it was too late. He smashed into it with his body, breaking eight bones and getting glass from the van’s window embedded under his face. But the worst part was the damage the accident did to his head. He suffered a severe traumatic brain injury from the impact with the van.
“That’s the worst you can get,” he said.
When the phone rang at 9 p.m. that night in his parents’ house in Maine, it was the police from Arizona, telling them their son might not make it.
“My heart went to my feet,” Annette Seekins recalled.
Harry and Annette Seekins rushed across the country, and when they arrived in Arizona 25 hours later, their son was swollen, bruised and hooked up to machines. Tubes allowed him to breathe and eat.
“I didn’t recognize him,” Harry Seekins said.
Henry Seekins was hovering between life and death, locked in a coma for three weeks and a semi-coma for nearly a month after that.
Then he was airlifted to New England, landing in a hospital in Salem, Massachusetts, where he spent two months, followed by stints at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor and in the Brewer Center for Health & Rehabilitation.
Ten months after the accident, Henry Seekins finally came home to Belfast.
“I’m amazing. I’m a miracle,” he said, his quick grin lighting up his face.
But his long journey back was just getting started.
Road to recovery
When Henry Seekins left the hospital in Arizona, his neurologist said his recovery would not be counted in days or weeks, but years — a timeline that his family took to heart. After the accident, he couldn’t walk. He couldn’t talk. He couldn’t roll over in bed. He had lost his short-term memory and had no recollection at all of the crash and its aftermath. His body had atrophied, and at one point he weighed just 98 pounds.
But bit by bit, thanks to hard work and perseverance, he has come back to himself, or at least a version of the person he once was.
Henry Seekins learned to talk again — his first words swear words, which the Seekins family learned was pretty common for people emerging from comas. And as he got his voice back, it became clear that he had changed. The formerly picky eater would try anything. And the young man who used to be shy, reserved, nervous and anxious became outgoing, friendly and talkative — “a social butterfly,” according to his father.
“It’s a total flip,” his mom said. “I gave birth to two children, but it’s like I have three. He’s totally different.”
Some things, though, hadn’t changed. Even as a child, Henry Seekins had always been determined, his mom said. That is one of the character traits that served him well as he embarked on years worth of physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, doctor’s appointments and much more. It’s not the life he had imagined for himself, but it’s the life he has. And he’s determined to do his best to make it good.
“Rehab is my job,” Henry Seekins said.
Because of short-term memory loss, he relies on the detailed notes he makes and saves in his phone, his monthly planner and in a small notebook he keeps in his pocket.
“That is his memory,” his dad said.
The family works with eight different agencies to access the help and services he needs. Most weekdays, Henry Seekins heads to the Maine Center for Integrated Rehabilitation in Rockland to do therapy and work on skills. He recently went candlepin bowling through the center and scored a 72, which makes him smile. He also just started walking down the hall with his physical therapist.
“It felt great,” he said.
He can get discouraged. He went through a phase where he couldn’t control his frustration and fell prey to angry outbursts. But he has always been able to power through.
“I had the thought one day in the hospital — I’m so tired. I don’t want to go to therapy,” he said. “I just lay there. And it was so boring. So boring. I said, I deserve a better life than this, and I’ve been full-steam ahead ever since.”
Dreams and aspirations
Seven years after the accident, Henry Seekins has a lot of hopes and dreams for his future.
The list begins with him wanting to share his story so that others might learn from him and his accident.
“When I see someone on a motorcycle without a helmet, I think, you don’t know what you’re risking,” he said. “Nobody plans to get in an accident.”
Next, he would like to walk again. Get his driver’s license back. Have a girlfriend. Get a job. Live on his own, or with his girlfriend.
They are things so ordinary that most people take them for granted. But not Henry Seekins.
“My prediction when I was in the hospital was that it would take me 10 years to get walking again,” he said. “But if it’s 10 years, and I’m still not walking, I’m not stopping.”
His goal to walk again got jump-started recently when his parents saw an ad for a specialized adaptive mobility device intended to help people with balance issues get outside again. This summer, they bought the Afari, which was developed at the University of Maine and built by Brunswick-based Mobility Tech. It has been something of a game changer for the Seekins family. Henry Seekins, limited by his walker and wheelchair, suddenly was able to get outside. Now, he and his dad walk a lot on the Belfast Rail Trail, close to their house, and the Belfast Harborwalk downtown.
“I get stronger every day,” Henry Seekins said.
His dad said that the Afari — which looks rugged and more like a mountain bike than a walker — has also helped him meet people.
“To see the smile on his face when he talks to people — that’s been good for him,” Harry Seekins said. “He’s just beaming. You can’t put a price on that, really. It makes him forget the bad days.”
His son, who takes life one step and one day at a time, said he plans to keep on moving forward, no matter how fast or slow the pace might be.
“I don’t know how many lives I have left. I’ve used at least three. Maybe four,” he joked. “I’m content now, but I’m not done. … This is a second chance at life.”