COEUR d'ALENE — A life-threatening crash stopped Greg Nordfelt from riding his motorcycle around Lake Coeur d’Alene five years ago.
The 54-year-old visited Kootenai Health on Monday, the anniversary of the accident, to thank the staff members who helped give him a second chance.
"You worked endlessly for me," a teary-eyed Nordfelt told the hospital team which treated him. "I was a stranger, some Harley rider who passed out on a motorcycle and you all brought me back."
Nordfelt and his wife, Laura, who witnessed the crash on U.S. 95 south of Desmet while driving another motorcycle, made the trip back to Coeur d'Alene from Salt Lake City together this week.
"This is my first time here, even though I've been in this building before," he said, referring to how his previous visit to Coeur d'Alene ended up being an 11-day stay in the hospital fighting for his life. "I wanted to show them that I am OK. When I read about all the work that they did for me, Laura and our family, I wanted to come back now. There was a clear outpouring of love and warmth."
When Nordfelt's bank officer job ended in February, he said he could have remained in that industry but he chose to become a motivational speaker on traumatic brain injuries instead. Along the way, when talking to groups, he waves the Kootenai Health flag and praises its staff for saving his life.
"When I explain the kind of care I received, it's an easy message," Nordfelt said.
On his first journey to Coeur d'Alene, Nordfelt was battling food poisoning caused by the previous night's trout dinner. The couple thought about stopping for a breather in Moscow, but Nordfelt said he decided to forge ahead because they were closing in on the Lake City.
Laura noticed Greg slowed from 60 mph to 30 mph and veered toward the road's shoulder. She assumed he was pulling over due to his upset stomach. Then his head dropped to his side — Greg had fainted. He was thrown from the motorcycle and landed on a bed of sharp rocks.
Despite wearing a helmet and other safety gear, Greg was air-lifted to Kootenai after suffering a brain injury, broken kneecap, fractured femur and other injuries.
Laura, who rode in the helicopter, admitted she was skeptical about the "small town" treatment Greg was about to receive.
"I had just seen a horrific accident, and I panicked," she told hospital staff. "I asked someone in the emergency where we were, and said, 'We've got to go home to Salt Lake.' I thought that there couldn't be good doctors here."
After Greg started to receive treatment, she thought otherwise.
"This hospital is amazing," she said. "I'm so grateful for you and your hard work. You have people who really care."
William Ganz, the neurosurgeon who treated Greg, said the hospital appreciates the feedback and it's not often someone comes back to personally thank staff.
"It's a team; we can't do this individually," Ganz told Greg.
Joseph Bowen, an orthopedic surgeon, said seeing Greg return was "incredible."
"I appreciate you coming back," he said. "It closes the loop on what we do."
Greg, who has no memory of the accident, said he has had to relearn how to speak, read and write. But he said he wouldn't have had that opportunity without Kootenai's response, and he certainly wouldn’t be able to help others dealing with brain injuries.
"Greg has a unique perspective to offer that the clinical professionals cannot," said Brad Zollinger, director of the Neurosciences Institute at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, Utah, where Greg received rehabilitation services. "He is an ambassador of home, of determination, of resilience and of change. He is an example of the human spirit of overcoming obstacles to achieve important goals."
Laura said challenges arose even when Greg was on the road to recovery because his personality changed.
"He's gone from using the left side of his brain more to his right side," she said. "He used to be more analytical; now he's more creative and emotional."
She said it has been an adjustment, but worth it to still have her husband.
"He tries to decorate the house now and it drives me crazy," she said with a slight smile. "That's my role."
While witnessing the accident and experiencing the aftermath caused her emotional stress, Laura said, it has also prompted her to take action. She serves on the board of the Brain Injury Alliance of Utah and started that state's first traumatic brain injury caregiver support group.
Greg said he and Laura drove around Lake Coeur d'Alene this trip — albeit in a car — and they took in a cruise on the lake. They're opportunities the couple didn't have their first time here.
However, those were now side excursions to their main reason for heading north.
Greg said for a long time he felt like he had "debt" on his shoulders — that he could never repay his caregivers.
But he recently learned those who care for others and help them heal get a sense of satisfaction when they see their patients later, when they’re doing well.
"It feels good to get up here and repay some of that,” he said.
Greg Nordfelt, far left, thanks Kootenai Health CEO Jon Ness, second from left, Chief Medical Officer Walt Fairfax, Critical Care Director Todd Putren and Nurse Chauntae Peterson on Monday at the hospital. Nordfelt returned to Kootenai on the five-year anniversary of his motorcycle crash that caused brain trauma.
Greg Norfelt takes a photo of the Life Flight helicopter as it lands at Kootenai Health on Monday. Norfelt was transported to the hospital in a similar helicopter five years ago after a motorcycle crash on U.S. 95 south of Desmet.