Tenafly cyclist shares story of survival

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In just a split second, Michael O'Brien's life changed forever.

The Tenafly resident was riding his bike in July 2001 when suddenly, as he was rounding a bend in the road, a white SUV came at him, full speed.

He was in New Mexico for a business trip and had gone for a pre-meeting ride at dawn. 

"The driver crossed into my lane and I didn't have enough time to react," O'Brien recalled. He was close enough to see the driver's face and realized he was too distracted to see he had crossed over the median.

"He hit me head on."

O'Brien hit the grill of the SUV, broke through the windshield and fell back into a heap on the asphalt.

He broke both of his legs, fractured his shoulder, shattered his left femur and lacerated the left femoral artery. He spent five days in the ICU and underwent numerous surgeries.

During his long recovery, his worldview underwent a dramatic shift.

Up until then, the then 33-year-old father of two had led the life of the successful businessman.  He worked 65-hour weeks as an executive and, in his spare time, went running and biked about 30 miles a day.

"It was always about trying to keep up with the Jonses and everything else we all do in Bergen County."  

The accident marked a turning point.

At first, along with the physical challenges, he struggled with despair and anger.  He wanted revenge against the SUV driver. "I was pissed off in the beginning. I felt life was unfair."

But an "aha moment" made him rethink his attitudes.  

At the hospital, he was placed in a room with three quadriplegics.

"I realized my accident could have been a lot worse," he said. "They [the other patients] helped me see what I was still able to do. Simple acts such as getting myself out of bed and into my wheelchair were out of their reach."

He began to realize that it wasn't his accident that would ultimately define him but his response to it. "If I wanted to be the best husband and father I could be, I had to show up with a new attitude." 

Michael O'Brien of Tenafly says his life changed after a 2001 biking accident. (Photo: Courtesy of Michael O'Brien)

He now refers to the day of the accident as "the Last Bad Day." And though his experience and its aftermath was difficult and painful, he says he is now grateful for it.  

He opted to share what he learned by writing a book about his experience. 

"Shift: Creating Better Tomorrows: Winning at Work and in Life,"  which was released last month, describes his accident, recovery, and resilience. He hopes to inspire his readers to become "everyday heroes" who help change lives. 

Among the life lessons he shares with readers are to be mindful, be accepting, and be forgiving. "Today it's easier to look at our phones than at each other. Be aware," he says. "Be reflective." 

He is donating the proceeds of the book, which is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, to World Bicycle Relief, which distributes bicycles through social enterprise programs in rural developing areas. 

His next book signing will take place on Sept. 16 at Pedal Sports in Oakland. 

Darren Heath of Texas, a business consultant in the pharma/biotech industry, who worked with O'Brien for 18 years, marveled at the transformation of his colleague.

"He was always a fast-track kind of guy. He was very driven," said Heath.  

When the news was announced that O'Brian had been in a terrible accident, it was a shock to everyone in the company, said Heath.  "We knew it was serious. I knew he had two little kids. I knew his career was probably over. I prayed for him."

A year later, when O'Brien returned to the office, "There was something different about him," Heath said. His greater courage and compassion, he said, helped O'Brien become a better person as well as a better professional. 

"He believes if someone is happy, then they will do a better job and he's right."

Although the doctors had warned O'Brien that he faced a lifetime of health issues and physical limitations, he  has since participated in several bike marathons. 

"It all starts with a mindset," said O'Brien, who after working as a sales professional and marketing director for 22 years, opened Peloton Coaching and Consulting in 2014.

"I wasn't going to focus on what I couldn't do and didn't have but rather on what I can do and still had."

O'Brien insists that his story is not so unusual. "Life can shift for anyone in a moment," he said. "The only question is How will you respond when it does."