This story is punctuated with a warning to motorcycle riders this summer. Clarence Burkhalter built his own bikes and raced motor cross as a kid. Then, he set a new record after he ended up in a Chicago trauma center. Now the 29-year-old is sharing his story so others stay safe during motorcycle season.
“He’s been interested in bikes his whole life and motor cross and riding, rebuilding,” his mother Satin Burkhalter said. “Clarence can build a bike, he can take it apart.”
What’s filled his life with joy since he was a little boy is now all packed up in a 5 x 10 storage unit.
Everything changed August 30, 2020.
“Usually I have my helmet. That day I didn’t,” Clarence Burkhalter said.
He said he “made a quick move” on one of the bikes he built and according to the traffic crash report, he was traveling at a high rate of speed when he collided with a car at 40th Street and Western Avenue. He said has no memory of the accident but the emergency room doctors at Mt Sinai Hospital do and so does his mother.
“I got up to that room, my son was just broken up,” Satin Burkhalter said. “I saw bones sticking out of his legs and arms. I saw blood everywhere. … (Dr Jonathan Bean) said, ‘Your son is probably going to die tonight and I want you to prepare for that.’”
“He was bleeding to the point where we had to initiate what we call a massive transfusion protocol,” Bean, a trauma surgeon at the hospital said. “So he was getting multiple units of blood and replaced his blood volume many, many times.”
While a typical trauma patient might receive 50 units of blood, Clarence Burkhalter got 300 over the course of 48 hours, the most ever administered to a single patient at Sinai.
“I remember Red Cross calling saying they were running out,” Satin Burkhalter said. “I didn’t even know something like that happened.”
Bleeding from his heart, lungs and liver, his bones broken from top to bottom, the chef and father of two held on.
Bean said his chances of survival were “very slim.”
“He was so severely injured I did not have a lot of hope,” he said.
But bean didn’t give up. He sees hundreds of motorcycle accidents a summer.
“As the weather gets warmer and everybody wants to be outside, people want to go on the roads, go get on their bikes and enjoy the weather,” he said. “Unfortunately, some people don’t wear their helmets, don’t wear the body armor that they need to.”
“I’m just so glad they didn’t give up,” Satin Burkhalter said.
As the hours ticked by and the blood trickled, they saw a sign of hope.
“The blood started to work with the body and the liver started remembering it’s job, and the one kidney,” Satin Burkhalter said. “Everything just started working and they were no longer saying ‘He’s not going to make it.’”
Clarence Burkhalter had ten surgeries and spent 44 days in the hospital
“Every day I had a question, ‘Why am I here?’” he said. “’You were in a motorcycle accident.’ And every day it helped me understand what it was.”
Nearly a year later and still recovering, he lost a kidney and part of his foot and he faces more orthopedic procedures. But he was able to thank his caregivers in person.
“The progress and the help I’ve gotten made a big difference,” he said. “I think that I wouldn’t have been able to make it without the help from my mom or the docs or anybody else that helped me.”
“Unfortunately, we see so many people in his situation die,” Bean said. “That to be able to see someone like him make it through and get through to the recovery phases it’s very gratifying.”
“I’m just so grateful that he’s still here,” Satin Burkhalter said. “Now I just worry. I’m hoping he never wants to get on the bikes again. That’s my only worry now.”
Motorcycle fatality rates are naturally higher because riders are not protected by the vehicle or a seat belt. And while helmets, body armor and safe speeds are recommended for motorcyclists, doctors urge drivers to be aware of the cycles around them to avoid accidents.