Broken body, repaired soul
Admission for Shane Hmiel came by way of a throbbing right hand so painful the weight of a single bed sheet hit like an anvil and reduced him to tears. Even in his sleep.
He had been partying hard at a local bar the night before when someone poured a beer down his back. They exchanged glances and half-breathed apologies. Minutes later, the guy did it again, and laughed this time -- and threw a haymaker. Hmiel threw a counter-blow, and it was on. Bouncers gouged Hmiel's eyes and fish-hooked his mouth, tearing his cheek from his gum line as they wrestled him away from the other men. He was always feisty.
That's all he remembers of the incident. He awoke crying and sped to the ER, certain the hand was broken. Doctors at the hospital X-rayed it, and delivered shocking news: His hand wasn't broken after all. There were teeth lodged in it. A pair, in fact, so deeply gouged into his knuckles they were invisible to the naked eye.
And worse yet, infection had set in. If the teeth weren't removed immediately, amputation was a genuine possibility.
"That's when I knew I had to get clean," Hmiel says now. "That fight was the stupidest thing you've ever seen. But I'm so thankful it happened. That was the moment that turned my life around."
It was July 2007, and Hmiel was a drug addict in complete blind denial. He started smoking marijuana when he was 12, to look older and tougher because "that's what the badasses did." He was small in stature and got pushed around a lot. But behind the wheel of a race car, size didn't matter. Speed did. And Hmiel had a talent for driving fast that only God can provide.
Throughout his teens and into his 20s, Hmiel continued to smoke pot daily. At 5, he had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He would later be diagnosed with bipolar disorder and severe depression and anxiety, as well. Weed was always his crutch.
It was rough the first time. Then the second time we said, 'OK, he has a pretty big problem.' Then the third time we decided to forget about racing altogether and worry about getting the kid's life back in order.” -- Steve Hmiel
"My brain used to run 40,000 miles an hour," he said. "Marijuana slowed it down while I was putting cars together and doing maintenance. I never smoked when I drove race cars. And when I raced, I raced my f---ing ass off. I had the world in my hands until I screwed up."
NASCAR's substance abuse policy gives the sanctioning body the right to administer drug tests at any moment based on "reasonable suspicion." There is no drivers' union, so competitors have little choice but to consent. Hmiel failed for the first time in September 2003, after a race in Richmond, Va. He tested positive for marijuana and was suspended until January 2004. It did not curtail his drug use.
"I tried cocaine multiple times after I got in trouble with NASCAR for the first time," he says. "I switched over to cocaine because you get it out of your system faster. I learned about that on the Internet."
Hmiel estimates using cocaine about 100 times. At that time, he was competing in all three major NASCAR divisions and was exhausted. Cocaine provided the upper he needed.
He would fail a second drug test in May 2005, this time testing positive for marijuana and cocaine. And a third -- and final -- failed test came in February 2006.
"It was rough the first time. Then the second time we said, 'OK, he has a pretty big problem,'" says Shane's father, Steve Hmiel. "Then the third time we decided to forget about racing altogether and worry about getting the kid's life back in order."
His NASCAR career was over, and Shane Hmiel still wouldn't admit he had a problem. Steve is a NASCAR lifer who raced with the likes of Dale Earnhardt and Mark Martin. He is highly respected in the garage. And here his son was banished from the very platform that built the Hmiel family's charmed life.
"The embarrassment it put my parents through was really bad," Shane says. "My dad's been around forever. He doesn't deserve that. But I had thought about it so long, I'd decided, s---, I knew it was going to happen."
Shane Hmiel spent 10 days in the hospital fighting off the infection in his hand. He checked out on July 22, 2007, and the very next morning checked into rehab at Talbot Recovery Center in Atlanta. The majority of patients take nine-week sessions, and the "extremely addicted" stay for 14 weeks.
"When you're extremely addicted, it takes at least 90 days for your brain to reset," Hmiel says. "I was there 103 days. They considered me extremely addicted. I thought I should be nine weeks, that's how bad in denial I was."
The cost for his stay was $40,000. During that time, he lived with three other patients in a two-bedroom apartment three miles from campus. Hmiel says TRC is located in a drug-ridden neighborhood, and he had the opportunity to score some crack just outside his door, or sneak out after midnight for some booze.
But he didn't. That's when he knew he was healing. He left TRC behind in October 2007. He hasn't used since.
"It's over 1,300 days I've been sober. I've never done anything for 1,300 solid days in my life," he says. "I haven't even brushed my teeth for 1,300 straight days. Since I was 12, that's the longest I've been sober.
"And I've been clean long enough to where people had started saying, 'Maybe this dude ain't full of s--- anymore. Maybe he really is trying to be a legit human being now. Maybe he's not just some dope smoker on the back side of the pits.'"
By 2010, Hmiel had rebuilt his reputation in the racing community by getting his hands dirty, racing self-tuned dirt modified cars on forgettable racetracks all over the south. During that time, nationally syndicated television show "3 Wide Life" did a story on Hmiel, which was seen by the show's originator, Louisiana businessman Steve Pruett.
Pruett and his son, Alex, were regulars in United States Auto Club sprint car racing. So he knew the dirt track life well. It's not glamorous. It's blue-collar hard work. Pruett enjoyed Hmiel's raw honesty and gave him a reporting position on the show. Like Hmiel, Alex was clinically depressed and fought anxiety. He was also diabetic, Steve Pruett says, and refused to take the proper medicine to combat it. In September 2007, Alex died suddenly at age 20.
Crushed, Steve Pruett sold Alex's racing fleet, with the exception of one dirt Midget sprint car Alex had designed and built, but never raced. In 2009, Pruett decided to honor Alex by fielding it for another driver. Hmiel was chosen. He had never driven a dirt sprint car, but nearly qualified for the main event at the season's biggest race. Pruett fell in love with Hmiel because he worked hard with humility. He was so much like Alex.
They raced hard and won often. In fact, Hmiel made history in 2010 by winning the series' three most prestigious races all in the same season -- the Hoosier 100 at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis; the Rich Vogler Classic at Winchester, Ind.; and the Pat O'Connor Memorial at Salem, Ind. It had never been done. And this is a series that produced Indy car legends such as Mario Andretti and AJ Foyt and that sent Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne to NASCAR superstardom.
"You have to have some serious nuts to win those races," Stewart says. "They're the crown jewel races in sprint cars."
Hmiel was progressing so quickly that plans to jump to IndyCar were under way. For Pruett, Hmiel's racing rebirth was vindication for his son. Oddly, he had never seen Hmiel race. Going to the racetrack is too painful. The sound of a sprint car motor makes him weep for Alex.
"I could only watch online," Pruett says. "In fact, I never even met Shane until his accident."
On Oct. 9, 2010, the USAC Silver Crown series rolled into The Action Track in Terre Haute, Ind., for a 100-lap showdown on the fast, bumpy dirt track. A wreck on the same track earlier in the season had left Hmiel with an injured lower back. He knew he was hurt but didn't want to hear that news, so he raced with immense pain all summer.
To heal, he invested in three months of merciless training at Pit Fit, the Indianapolis-based fitness center that had trained several Indy 500 champions. When he first walked in the door, he saw IndyCar driver Wade Cunningham sprinting on a treadmill. An hour later, he walked out. Cunningham was still full-bore. Hmiel bought in instantly, and by fall 2010 was in the best physical condition of his life.
His doctors tell him now that his fitness level helped save his life.
Fast-forward to October, and during practice he was the fastest thing on site, and told his mother, Lisa, that he had no plans to remove his foot from the throttle in qualifying. As he screamed down the backstretch into Turn 3, the left tires of his car lifted off the ground, shooting him up the track and toward a concrete wall with no energy-absorbing barrier.
Hmiel was always a gambler. Rather than lift off the gas pedal and let the car settle, he kept his foot in it. It was a split-second decision made by hundreds of drivers, thousands of times a year.
It nearly killed Hmiel.
USAC Silver Crown cars have no roof, only a roll cage, and Hmiel hit the wall flush with his head at 125 mph. He was paralyzed instantly. And barely alive.
The wreck is sickening, the kind that resets the desensitized minds of its witnesses: Auto racing is a life-and-death prospect. Every corner. It's why drivers don't generally attend funerals and tend to disassociate themselves from their injured brethren. It's too close to home.
The helmet Shane Hmiel wore that day is mostly blue, with black and red accents. It is stippled with pockmarks and dirt flecks. Its crown is scraped white and fractured horizontally, from the middle to the right temple by the blow that sent him from the driver's seat to a wheelchair.
"It's devastating to watch," says Juliet Anderson, Hmiel's exercise physiologist. "I'm surprised he came out alive. But he came out alive for a reason. This is his second chance to do something big."
Third chance, actually. He beat drugs, then cheated death.
Hmiel lay in a coma for 32 days, for most of which it was medically induced. When he woke, he was aboard a small airplane. He couldn't move and didn't know why.
"Mom was crying and started talking to me, she said, 'Shane, you were in a crash, and you're paralyzed. But it ain't gonna be forever,'" Hmiel says.
In that moment, Hmiel faced a fundamental decision that would lay the course for the rest of his life: react angrily or react gracefully. He had always taken the angry approach to life. Not this time.
"I'm probably less disappointed now than I was before I got hurt. You can't fake it. This is for real," he says. "The way I'm feeling right now was the way I woke on Nov. 17th in that little King Air with my sweet mom. It's never changed."
According to Hmiel's accident report, he suffered life-threatening injuries, including multiple spinal fractures and a traumatic brain injury. As a result of the brain injury, he experienced multisystem failure, including respiratory failure.
He had a torn artery in the right side of his neck and an aneurysm in his right carotid artery, the main channel of blood to the brain. Doctors feared a stroke. He also had a hole in an artery that was a vital channel of blood to the spinal cord.
"He died three times in ICU," Steve Hmiel says.
When Lisa and Shane's brother, Tyler, arrived at the hospital in Indianapolis, doctors initially said they expected no long-term issues with Shane's spinal cord. The family left the hospital optimistic. Steve, meanwhile, was at that time the competition director at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and was at a Sprint Cup race in Fontana, Calif. When he arrived at the hospital, he identified himself.
"They said Shane was gone," Steve says. "I said, 'S---. He died before I got here. I really wanted to see him before he died and say goodbye.' They said, 'He's not dead. He's in an MRI.'"
The next morning, the Hmiels' lives changed forever when a surgeon entered the room and explained the pending surgery. He would insert a vertebral "jack" to replace the T6 vertebra that exploded in Shane's neck and scattered fragments everywhere.
"This doctor says he's not sure he can get all the fragments out," Tyler Hmiel says. "So we should prepare for a ventilator the rest of your life. 'Go ahead and build ramps all around your house. This kid's going to be in wheelchair the rest of his life. He'll never move from the shoulders down.' That doctor was as blunt as he could be. He wasn't preparing you for rainbows and butterflies."
Lisa was inconsolable, "in shock," she says. She basically blacked out and doesn't remember much. Steve's knees buckled.
"I was really f---ed up, man," Shane says. "I'm a miracle. And I'm a miracle because of the people that took care of me at 7:30 at night on Oct. 9, when I hit that wall. Everybody that touched me. Everybody that stood around me and comforted me. Everybody that prayed for me. That's the only reason I'm alive."
Minutes after that verbal blow was delivered, Steve was on the phone with IndyCar officials to determine whether Shane could race with a pair of 18-inch rods surgically implanted in his back. The answer, Tyler says, was yes.
"They built my neck to race again," Shane Hmiel says. "Can you believe that s---? They should've built it to walk again."
A new obstacle
The greatest challenge came after surgery, when Shane began throwing up and inhaling the vomit. His lungs developed acute respiratory distress syndrome, a condition that damages blood vessels in the lungs and prevents oxygen from being exchanged in the bloodstream. It is a dangerous prospect for healthy folks. For Shane, it was far worse because his brain injury slowed all of his bodily functions.
To combat ARDS, doctors placed Hmiel on a special table with a hole in the top for his face, like a massage table. They then placed a heavier mattress on top of him and rocked him back and forth to allow his lungs to drain fluid. At that time, there were only six such beds in entire state of Indiana.
Once Shane was stable, doctors told Steve that his son was minutes from death and that patients in his condition have less than a 10 percent chance of survival. Once he was able to turn over onto his back again, Shane could muster just four breaths per minute.
"He hiccupped the other day," Steve says. "That was a huge deal. Doctors told us he'd never hiccup or spit or laugh again."
Shane was transferred to Shepherd Center in Atlanta on Nov. 15, 2010. Doctors saw Hmiel progress well physically and chose to extend his stay past an initial prediction. Steve Hmiel explains that Shepherd will extend a patient's stay only if he shows potential of improvement. No patient had ever stayed more days consecutively than Shane Hmiel stayed.
"If he'd never had the accident, he'd be in Indy right now, living an amazing story," Pruett says. "But now it's an even more incredible story. I can't believe what's emerged from the wreckage."
Hmiel's body is broken. But his soul is healed. He is physically injured yet spiritually reborn. For the first time in his life, emotional emptiness is replaced by unwavering direction.
"I figured he would either go back to a life of drugs or do something very special," Lisa Hmiel says. "And I sure as hell didn't think he'd be this strong for this long."
It is a hot September Tuesday, and Hmiel's butt is planted in a bulky, black motorized wheelchair, just inside the front door of his parents' home near Greensboro, N.C. He wears a trendy white V-neck T-shirt and gray shorts. His feet are covered by gray slip-on shoes. He looks as if he is headed to play golf. Hmiel is a stickler for fashion and notes that just because he's in a wheelchair doesn't mean his wardrobe is relegated to sweatpants.
His right hand is almost fully open; further, he says, than most quadriplegics ever experience. It rests on the U-shaped stick that serves as the chair's steering device. He pulls the stick back toward his chest, whips around 180 degrees and wheels into his parents' bedroom. He wants to show off some gadgetry.
One is a standup frame, a black device with a computer-chair seat-bottom and a long lever that, when pulled, lifts Hmiel into a standing position. He smiles fondly when discussing how amazing it feels. He uses it for an hour three days a week to maintain circulation in his lower extremities to prevent fluid retention.
My goal for my body is to improve something else, doesn't matter what it is. If I can improve my body every day, you never know what might happen.” -- Shane Hmiel
The other device is a stationary bike, connected wirelessly to a company in Maryland called Restorative Therapy, which alters its resistance based on Hmiel's daily progress. He rides three days a week, nine miles per session, wearing pads on his legs and on the top of his backside that stimulate his muscles and trigger his legs to pedal. The bike cost $15,000. Insurance did not cover it.
Hmiel attends therapy sessions five days a week. Three are spent in physical therapy at Race To Walk, one of two non-medical-based exercise facilities of its kind in the country. It is in Mooresville, N.C., 75 minutes from his front door.
The other two days are spent in hand therapy at Hand & Rehabilitation Specialists. His therapist, Trudy Kleinhans, is one of two specialists in the state of North Carolina. Her office is 15 minutes from Hmiel's home.
It is 10:39 a.m., on an August Wednesday at Race To Walk. This is not rehab. They don't use that word here. The facility's founder, Andy Bricker, says his clients are treated with the esteem of Olympians. Less than a year has passed since the wreck, and Hmiel is upright. Ten months ago, he was locked up completely.
"You can't describe how helpless you feel," he says. "I remember it. Miserable."
Anderson tightens a black harness positioned around Hmiel's torso and underneath his thighs, which is then clipped into a pulley system with steel tethers that lift him perpendicular to the floor. He can then slide down a long horizontal steel beam held up by 15-foot tall A-frame posts and use any number of training machines lined up in a row underneath the overhead beam. Today, Anderson chooses an elliptical trainer.
As the workout progresses, Hmiel offers Anderson detailed feedback about his body, much as he did when telling his crew chief how his race car handled, so adjustments can be made to improve performance. His work with Anderson is multifaceted. There are no rules as to what she can try as long as his safety isn't compromised. His body is her puzzle.
The main goal is to methodically re-educate Hmiel's brain to sync his mind with his muscles. She does this by manually stimulating his muscles with her hands, thereby assisting his body in internally recognizing what's moving how, and where. Spatial awareness is critical.
At times, he is unable to determine whether he is performing a movement voluntarily or Anderson's manipulation of his muscles generates progress. She works to strengthen his muscles through typical personal training techniques, such as weight training. They perform weight-bearing exercises, too, so Hmiel doesn't lose calcium in his bones and promote osteopenia, as well as range-of-motion exercises to sustain good circulation.
As the session nears completion, Hmiel is lying on his back with his knees in his face, and Anderson comments that she's sorry for making him uncomfortable.
"Uncomfortable? This ain't uncomfortable," he says. "Uncomfortable was when I first met you and I had a damn urine bag hanging out of my shorts. That was embarrassing as s---."
Hmiel's buddy from high school Adam Colborne, who has walked alongside him through drugs and paralysis, quips, "At least you aren't lying now when you tell people your penis hangs out of your shorts."
All within earshot cackle. That Hmiel can laugh is telling. His attitude, once that of a punk kid, now fills every room he enters with grace and inspiration. The misunderstood approach of his youth is long gone, replaced with tangible humility.
"I believe it's huge," Anderson says. "It makes a difference in your recovery process physically and mentally. You're left with your mind when you're alone, and your attitude takes a large toll. I'm inspired that he's come from where he was beforehand and been knocked down, to the level he's at, and able to have that drive and determination in him to get better."
Hmiel figured as of July he had 75 percent feeling in his body, and he was ecstatic that he's starting to feel his butt again. He mentions this openly to a man sitting on a stool in front of a squat rack working on grip strength. He is Jerome Davis, a rodeo legend from around these parts, a former world champion bull rider and, incidentally, Luke Perry's body-double in the movie "8 Seconds." He was paralyzed 13 years before in Fort Worth, Texas, when he butted heads with a bull named Knock 'Em Out John.
"I remember when I first came here and saw Jerome, and was like, 'Holy s---! That's Jerome Davis!' " Hmiel says. "Then we met and he says, 'S---! You must be Shane! I read all about you.' That meant a lot to me."
A week later, Hmiel is at hand therapy, working on fine motor skills such as feeding himself and drinking and gripping. Hand therapy is far more taxing on Hmiel than broader physical therapy. It is an exhausting mental challenge for his brain to talk to his hands and fingers. It is not unlike the difference between the challenges of racing versus the challenges of stick-and-ball sports.
He started here in April 2011 and couldn't feed himself. The inability to do so, Hmiel says, was the only embarrassing part of paralysis. It isn't fair, he feels, for your dining mate to negotiate your meal and his or her own.
When he did feed himself again, on May 31, 2011, he ate a hot dog.
"Every time you see him cross another threshold, it keeps us going," Steve said. "That hot dog was one of them. The other day, we put him in the passenger's seat of my truck and rode around. It was the first time he'd been in a car, not in his wheelchair. Then he reached over and rolled the window down. That was so cool."
He experiences a breakthrough moment on this day at hand therapy. His left hand is in Kleinhans' lap. She pulls his thumb up off his palm, and he must muster the strength to pull it back into place. He does so. The whole place erupts in cheers.
The last exercise in this hourlong session has Hmiel seated in front of a long silver lever with a black handle at the top. It is attached to a computer that calculates the pressure he generates in a 75-second push-and-pull sprint. His right arm and hand are strong. It is his shifting arm.
"My goal for my body is to improve something else, doesn't matter what it is," he says. "If I can improve my body every day, you never know what might happen."
Fast-forward to June 2012. Doctors remain mystified by Hmiel's improvement. His physical therapist isn't certain he'll ever walk again unaided, but remains optimistic based on his body's overall strength increase.
He walked with assistance for the first time in mid-April 2012, and as he rounded a corner in the hospital, a certain doctor stood there, facial expression that of a man who had seen a ghost. Months ago, that same doctor had told Hmiel flippantly that he'd never walk again -- as he exited the room with his back to his patient.
"I walked around the corner, and he was standing there," Hmiel says. "I said, 'Remember me?'"
Twenty months had passed since the accident, and Hmiel is talking substantial trash to his buddies at a Charlotte-area lunch table and reminding his girlfriend, Lindsay Cromer, that he is "the Tom Brady of quadriplegics."
As laughter fills the room, Hmiel pauses, then begins recounting the one-year anniversary of his accident.
Still in racing
He was a car owner by then, and the USAC series was in Granite City, Ill., for a three-night event at Tri-City Speedway. Hmiel was fielding a brand-new car with a brand-new engine for driver Levi Jones, and he told no one he was "upside-down" financially. The race winner that weekend would take home $10,000, a hefty purse in the USAC Midget ranks. Sixty cars showed up to claim it.
"We looked so ghetto," Hmiel says. "We had a s---ty trailer and then the first night we blew up a motor. A guy wanted $2,000 to rent a new one. I had $1,500 in my bank account -- total. So I wrote him a check that was only three-quarters good. It wasn't really a good check. But I knew if we could just make the feature, I could cover it."
That was on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2011. While his team spent its entire Friday changing engines, Hmiel and Cromer snuck off to Belleville, Ill., to take in a chili cook-off. After the injury, racing wasn't the end-all, be-all anymore. Life beckoned. On Saturday morning, they drove into St. Louis to attend a party before the evening's race.
When they arrived back at the track, Hmiel was told Jones would have to start in the C-Main, a preliminary qualifying race that helps determine the field for the main event. Jones performed well enough in that race and the next preliminary to qualify for the main event.
He would start 16th. It was a stop-and-go night, but, by Lap 21, Jones was the leader. He would not look back. Redemption stood at the finish line. Heartache was in the rearview.
And as the clock struck midnight, Shane Hmiel sat in Victory Lane again, in a wheelchair this time, on the one-year anniversary of the accident that put him there.
"I couldn't even talk or breathe," he recalls. "It took hours and hours for me to get over the feeling that every part of that whole year was worth it. I'm still not over it. It just proved my thought that my entire life has been planned out.
"You hear all the time about rich kids that are born with a silver spoon in their mouths. I'm the kid who woke up handicapped with a silver spoon in his mouth."
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