By Staff Sgt. Robert Hicks , 621st Contingency Response Wing Public Affairs
/ Published September 16, 2018
TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. (AFNS) -- Doctors, nurses and family members surround the bed as the ventilator hums in a rhythmic tone and the heart monitor beeps; as he awakens, he looks around confused until he finally remembers the accident the night before.
On June 23, 2012, a pick-up truck ran a red light and hit then Capt., now Lt. Col. John Berger, 321st Air Mobility Operations Squadron commander at Travis Air Force Base, California, rolling over him. Berger was knocked unconscious and later rushed to the intensive care unit at Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri.
“I was waiting to cross the street and as I took one step, I could see a flash of light out of the corner of my eye and that’s the last thing I remember,“ Berger said.
Luckily, there were people who saw the accident and came rushing to his aid before calling an ambulance.
“I remember it was a little after midnight when he was rushed into the emergency room,” said Dr. Scott Farber, a Barnes Jewish Hospital surgeon. “I was the lead general surgeon on duty at the time and was the first person to see him. We performed a computerized tomography scan on him and saw the internal bleeding. After that, he was immediately rushed into surgery.”
Berger fractured both of his hips and had eight inches of his large intestine removed due to massive internal bleeding.
“I opened my eyes the next day, saw my family and thought, 'I’m alive'," Berger said. “Next, I wiggled my fingers and toes and ran through the St. Louis Cardinals lineup and realized that my spine and brain worked. That’s when I thought to myself, ‘OK, I can do this.'"
He spent the next two weeks in the hospital recovering from his injuries where he received plenty of support from family, friends and nurses.
“A week after the accident, I was ready to get back to doing the things I loved, to include the Air Force,” Berger said. “Every morning, I would wake up at 5 a.m., brush my teeth and shave, then wait at the end of the bed for the doctor. At the end of each visit, I would ask for things like, ‘Can I start eating solid foods’ and even though I had two broken hips, I would also ask, ‘Can I walk around in the hall.'”
Berger spent 14 days in the hospital before being released to his family. His mother, a registered nurse, cared for him.
“My mom was my rock,” he said. “She was with me every step of the way. She was there when I woke up on the ventilator, when I left the hospital and she cared for me for a month after I got out of the hospital. I couldn’t have made it through all that without her.”
Berger explained how the Air Force helped him prepare for a situation such as this one.
“Resiliency matters,” he said. “Before I was hit, I continuously worked on building my four pillars of resilience. I was in a good place mentally and spiritually. I also had an incredibly supportive social network made up of family and friends who helped me every step of the way and to top it all off, I had recently qualified for the Boston Marathon.”
Even though he had a great support system, there were times he wanted to give up.
“There were definitely low points during the process to recovery,” Berger said. “There were nights I couldn’t sleep and would just lay in bed with the chills. I would be so uncomfortable and in pain, I would go two days with just an hour of sleep here and there. This caused me to lose over 40 pounds.”
Four months after the accident, Berger was up and running again trying to whip his body back in to shape. A good friend of his came up with the idea of competing in an Ironman triathlon; he agreed and asked Farber to participate with him.
The Ironman is a multisport event consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride and finishes with a 26.2-mile run.
“I always wanted to participate in an Ironman competition,” Farber said. “He provided me with the perfect opportunity, we could train together and motivate one another. It was a really great experience.”
On the one year anniversary of that tragic night, Berger and Farber completed the Ironman competition in Nice, France.
Berger’s mother and one of his best friends were also in attendance to witness him cross the finish line.
“My mother and a friend who was with me the night I was hit jumped over the barrier and ran the last 100 yards of the race by my side,” Berger explained with tears in his eyes. “As I crossed the finish line, I was overwhelmed with feelings of love, accomplishment and good fortune.“
“People tell me that I was unlucky to be hit by the truck, but I tell them that I was lucky to be three blocks from one of the finest hospitals in the country, home to some of the most intelligent and compassionate people I’ve ever met.”