DOWNTOWN — With both of his legs broken and his left knee grotesquely shifted several inches from where it belonged, Shawn Briggs wondered if he was ever going to walk again — and was in so much pain he wished he was dead.
It was February, and Briggs, a Downtown resident, had just experienced a horrendous snowboarding accident in Colorado. He lost an edge, pinballed through several trees off the course and tobogganed down the hill head first until his buckling legs finally stopped him.
Now, just four months later, Briggs is not only walking, but taking 18-mile bike rides. He's recovered so quickly that he's already started training for the 190-mile Pan-Massachusetts Challenge, which he plans to ride until it concludes on the six-month anniversary of his horrific crash on Aug. 4.
"I'm fortunate to be alive," Briggs said. "I could have very easily been a paraplegic, quadriplegic or dead."
His near-death experience has made Briggs — who works Downtown at Burns & McDonnell, a 4,000-employee engineering and construction firm — even more determined to cross the finish line for the Massachusetts event, which raises millions of dollars for cancer research.
"The reason I'm pushing so hard is so I can do that ride," Briggs said. "Everyone thinks I'm nuts. People say, 'You might not be able to do it.'
"I am going to do that ride."
By the time he concluded his slide on the beautiful, smooth slope named "Geronimo" of Keystone, Colo., that February day, Briggs had broken the tibia and fibula in his right and left legs. His left tibia was broken in five pieces, while his left fibula broke in half.
"It was very obvious that both my legs were broken," Briggs said of the Feb. 4 crash. "They were going in directions they shouldn't be going."
Briggs said his left knee looked like "it went through a cheese grater." The posterior cruciate ligament ruptured in half; the anterior cruciate ligament tore away from the head of the femur.
"I couldn't move. Any movement would send an incredibly sharp pain through my legs," Briggs, 42, said. "All I was trying to do was breathe in slowly and exhale slowly through my mouth and basically try and make pain go out through my breathing. Unfortunately, I never went into shock."
Instead, Briggs was forced to wait for what he said was "20 to 25 minutes" before a medical ski patrol team arrived and gave him two shots of morphine.
He was lifted onto a ski patrol sled, taken off the mountain, transported to an off-road vehicle and placed in an ambulance for a 12-mile ride to St. Anthony Summit Medical Center in nearby Frisco.
"The pain was incredible," Briggs said. "Smack yourself with a hammer. I've done it. It hurts. It was a '1' or '2' compared to this."
An injury that 'set him apart'
"He's actually doing it?" was Dr. Peter Janes' reaction recently to being told Briggs planned to participate in the two-day race in August.
Janes, an orthopedic surgeon near the Colorado ski slopes for 26 years, has operated on many horrid injuries — but never one quite like the one suffered by Briggs.
"To have both legs broken and have a knee displaced, I had never seen that before," Janes, 57, said. "I'm amazed actually he's trying to do this race."
Janes said the day after Briggs' crash, he was "extremely motivated" to do whatever it took to get ready and rehabilitated for the Massachusetts ride.
So, despite a surgery in Colorado the day of the accident — where a 290 mm titanium rod was inserted into each of his legs — and a left knee reconstruction surgery at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Streeterville on May 8, Briggs said he will find a way.
"I will support him [riding] as long as he's rehabbed enough where he's safe," said Dr. Scott Cordes, the orthopedic surgeon at Northwestern who performed the knee reconstruction operation in May. "He's a more unique individual where you have to put the brakes on him to slow him down. It's a statement on his drive and motivation."
Briggs said he's always had drive. He grew up in Connecticut and was the first member of his immediate family to graduate from college when he earned a degree in construction management from Central Connecticut State University.
Briggs was divorced last summer and had just moved to Chicago from Kansas City, Mo., in December, overseeing a large group at Burns & McDonnell. His current task as a regional global practice manager is planning construction and minimizing the environmental impact of a several-hundred-mile high-voltage line project.
He knew virtually no one at the company, but word of his crash still reverberated through what Briggs called a tight-knit group of co-workers.
"The news went out right away, and everyone looked at each other in shock," said Lincoln Park resident Therese Dorigan, an environmental manager in air regulatory compliance at Burns & McDonnell. "I told my secretary, 'Please just tell me he's alive.'"
Briggs is 6-foot-4, 180 pounds and in excellent shape. Before the accident, the former high school swimmer and baseball player worked out as many as 24 hours a week. Some of his bike rides — he's been addicted to the sport since his parents bought him a Zebrakenko road bicycle for his 13th birthday — lasted up to six hours.
He had been training for a triathlon in June, which Cordes forbade him from entering.
"I had to be the bad guy that told him that that's not going to happen," Cordes, of Glenview, said.
Briggs was in a wheelchair for only a few weeks after the crash. He started riding again outdoors on his $8,500 2011 Specialized Roubaix Pro on May 27. An 18-mile jaunt on the Chicago lakefront Trail took Briggs only 80 minutes.
"He fits into the category of people who are just so driven, they're going to do everything possible to make something happen," said Lakeview resident Paul Thomas, Briggs' physical therapist at Accelerated Rehabilitation Centers in Roscoe Village.
During twice-a-week sessions, Thomas said Briggs is strengthening his knee by doing "step ups-and-downs" and exercising with balancing and foam balls. The goal is to strengthen his legs and knee enough to sustain them through the nearly 200-mile bike ride, which concludes in Provincetown, Mass., at the very tip of Cape Cod.
Briggs walks gingerly with knee braces, but the fact that he's on two feet at all amazes his co-workers.
"I can't imagine what he's gone through," said Burns & McDonnell's Scott Newland, 37, of Naperville. "The thing that strikes you the most is his mental state. Through the entire ordeal, he has maintained the most positive attitude."
Newland said competing in the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge meant a great deal to Briggs, even before the accident. Briggs said he only agreed to move to Chicago if Newland would join him on the company's 26-member Team Courage-Coneheads riding squad.
Briggs said he and his team raised $140,000 last year; his team's goal this year is $160,000. Briggs stressed that any money donated goes directly to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, which has received $375 million from the event since it began in 1980.
"The people with cancer, you see how courageous they are, how they beat the disease and how some of them live with the disease," Briggs said. "The noise from the people cheering you on at the end of the ride is deafening. There's no way you can't finish."
The "Rule of 5" holds true
The Australia-based Velominati bike racing team created a set of rules that are famous in the cycling community.
Velominati's "Rule No. 5" states "HTFU", or "Harden The F--- Up".
Briggs has subscribed to this mantra since sustaining his injuries.
He had the phrase "Rule No. 5" written on his hospital charts in Colorado and Chicago. He also has it inscribed on his racing jersey and cycling socks.
It's a constant reminder for Briggs that complaining or moping is not an option.
"What I've found out about myself from this experience is that I'm more positive and driven than I thought I was," he said.
Donations to Team Courage-Coneheads can be made here.