How Biking Across America Inspired the Ultimate Comeback: An Interview with Dr. Tara O'Rourke, DPT

Dr. Tara O'Rourke is an avid road cyclist and newly graduated doctor of physical therapy. She tells the story of a nearly fatal incident during the summer of 2014 that steered both her professional and athletic achievements. From learning to use a walker to biking over 4,000 miles, Tara's heart and never-give-up attitude is truly an inspiration to us all.


Jennifer:

So, tell everyone a little bit about yourself.


Tara:

I was born and raised in the Bronx, New York. I studied Athletic Training at NOVA Southeasern University in Ft. Lauderdale. Then I decided to continue on to study Physical Therapy at California State University, Northridge. And that’s where I’m living now, I just graduated from Physical Therapy school in May, and I’m finishing my last clinical internship.


Jennifer:

Awesome, congratulations. I also saw that you just ran your first half marathon. I was actually surprised that it was your first one, seems like you’ve done one before. Congrats on that. How was it?


Tara:

So I was actually training for a full marathon in March and I sprained my ankle three weeks before bouldering. I literally reached the peak of training, the 20 miler, it was time to taper, and I never got to taper.


Jennifer:

Oh no, how did that happen? Did you fall off the wall and sprain your ankle?


Tara:

There’s part of my gym in the cave when you’ve got to move your own crash pad. And unfortunately the crash pad wasn’t completely right under where I fell.I fell on the edge and my ankle hit the ground. It was bad.


Jennifer:

You have to move your own crash pad around in the gym? I’ve never heard of that.


Tara:

Yeah, it’s like outdoor climbing.


___________


Jennifer:

So you grew up in New York, you're currently living in California, and are a newly graduated physical therapist. Tell us first about the accident that you went through.


Tara:

Yeah, so the half marathon I ran this past weekend happened to be on the same day as my accident, five years later. So, that definitely gave me a little motivation while I was running.


It happened on July 14, 2014. I was walking, and I got hit by a car that was going at least 45 mph. The car didn’t see me. Everyone asks, “was he drunk?” and I don’t know - I don’t really care - I’m just happy to be alive. I have no grudges towards that guy.


I went into the windshield, it shattered, and then I flew about 30 feet, and landed on the grass island in the middle of the road. So, that little patch of grass probably saved my life. I’m forever thankful for that piece of grass.


I suffered a list of injuries, and I had no recollection of the accident when I woke up in the hospital. It was very traumatizing to wake up in a completely different body than you remembered last.


It was a tibia-fibula fracture; they put a rod in my tibia. An ACL avulsion, meniscal tear, dislocated elbow, and severed sternocleidomastoid.



“I went into the windshield, it shattered, and then I flew about 30 feet...that little patch of grass probably saved my life.”

Jennifer:

Wow, so you’re in the hospital, you don’t even remember that you were hit. What happens next?


Tara:

Well I probably asked about 100 times, “what happened?” because I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I slowly learned about each injury. I didn’t learn about the ACL avulsion and meniscal tear until a few days later when they did the MRI.


I was just terrified. I was thinking about all of the things I might never do again. I was having an identity crisis because I’ve always been the ‘fit girl’, the ‘athletic girl’- and I was thinking, “who am I if I don’t work out?” It was very hard to comprehend.


"I was just terrified...thinking about all the things I might never do again."

Jennifer:

Yeah. So how long did you spend in the hospital?


Tara:

I surprisingly only spent five days. I had a blood transfusion, and I stabilized pretty quickly. Thankfully, my dad’s retired so I was able to go home and live with him. I had nurses come that did my wound changing. We had a home physical therapist come, and I stayed with my dad for about a month, and had his help, which I’m super grateful for. If you’ve ever been in the hospital, you know it’s not fun.


Jennifer:

Definitely. So what did you’re home physical therapist do with you?


Tara:

He brought a foot peddler. I was just so excited to do that, being a cyclist. So I could pedal with my feet, do straight leg raises; he helped teach me stretches for my elbow and for my knee, since I was lacking a lot of range of motion in both of them.


He helped me learn how to use a walker. So, since I had an elbow injury along with the leg injury I couldn’t use crutches. I had a nice fashionable walker.


“Since I had an elbow injury along with the leg injury, I couldn’t use crutches. I had a nice fashionable walker.”

Jennifer:

Did you have any sort of cast on your leg or did they just do the surgery?


Tara:

They just put the rod in my leg pretty immediately. A few hours after I woke up, I went back under for anesthesia. So I woke up, gained consciousness, had no idea what was going on, and the next thing I know I was back under. Looking back on it, it felt like I was up for a few minutes, I’m sure it was a few hours, and was back to sleep.


So, I didn’t have a cast, luckily. But it’s interesting, I’ve heard of some people who have had my surgery and they have had a cast. Every doctor is a little different; I just had a brace.


My biggest concern was that I would never run again. I really had a huge fear that my running days were over. I was thinking, “I wish I ran more”, you know? You never know when you’re last day could be.


“My biggest concern was that I would never run again. I was thinking, I wish I ran more. You never know when you’re last day could be.”

Jennifer:

Exactly. So, what was going through your mind during this time where you’re using you’re using your walker, you’re trying to get stronger and you’re not sure...what kinds of things are you thinking to keep your spirits up?


Tara:

Well, luckily, I had a great friend, Lisa Jennings. She was biking across America at the time. And just days before the accident, I was asking her a million questions about her trip, because I wanted to do it the following summer. Then after my accident, that wasn’t crossing my mind by any means. But of course, Lisa calls me and she brushes off the accident, unlike everyone else. Which I appreciated, since everyone else was freaking me out by how much they were.


She asked, “are you still going to apply to bike across America next summer?” I thought she was apeshit crazy, but I decided to give it a shot. She convinced me.


I had 10 months, why not? The worst thing that happens is that I fundraise money for cancer anyway, for a great cause.


That is honestly what saved me, so much. Whenever I was having negative thoughts, I was like, “no, you’re going to bike across America next summer.” It really drove me, having that goal.


“Whenever I was having negative thoughts, I was like, no, you’re going to bike across America next summer. It really drove me, having that goal.”

Jennifer:

So how long after your accident did you actually sign up for the race?


Tara:

I think it was less than two weeks.


Jennifer:

So you’re hit by a car, and less than two weeks later, you sign up to bike from Baltimore to San Diego on a bicycle, not a motorcycle. You decide yes, I’m doing this, 10 months from now. Is that right?



Tara:

Yes, that’s correct. When I told my dad, he thought I took too many pain killers that day.


Jennifer:

Yeah, what did they think, were they supportive?


Tara:

At first, they were a little scared. Rightfully so, it’s a crazy thing to say two weeks later. But, I was on a mission. I didn’t care who thought I was crazy. I believed it was possible. I was studying athletic training at the time, so I had some sense of recovery rates and everything. And I know that biking is a low-impact activity. It would really just be building my endurance and strength. I was scared I would never run again, but I was thinking, at least I’ll have biking.


“I was on a mission. I didn’t care who thought I was crazy. I believed it was possible.”

Jennifer:

Did you have anyone specifically that you looked up to that had done anything similar to you?


Tara:

One of the people who was my inspiration throughout my recovery was Anderson Silva. I don’t know if you remember, but he’s an MMA fighter. I think it was a few months before my accident, he was in a fight and broke his tib-fib. He had a rod put in his tibia. So, when I realized that I had the same surgery as him, I followed him on social media, I looked up how long it took him to do this, this, and that. He’s older than me, so I was thinking if he can recover, and return to MMA, I think I’m going to be okay. That really helped me.


Jennifer:

That’s pretty cool. How were his recovery times?


Tara:

I think he was running 6 or 7 months later. And he returned to fighting.


Jennifer:

That’s awesome. So, it’s gets to the time that you actually have to do the race. Were you feeling up to your expectations?


Tara:

I was feeling up to it. I actually got on my bike, I remember I was home in New York, I think it was late September because it was around my niece's birthday. And that was the first time I got on my bike; my accident was in July. So, about two months later, I got on my bike and I did ten miles.


“About two months later, I got on my bike and I did ten miles.”

Jennifer:

Wow, your first time on it?


Tara:

My first time on it. It was flat, but I was thinking, I’ve got eight more months? I can do this. I’ve just got to keep upping the miles slowly but surely. And my physical therapist believed in me. So, that really helped me.


“My physical therapist believed in me. So, that really helped me.”

Jennifer:

That’s awesome. So when you got to race time, did you feel prepared? Just as good as you wanted to feel?


Tara:

Definitely. I mean, wasn’t 100%. There were still times where I could tell my right leg was working too hard. My right leg would get very sore. There was that aspect, but I did a 70 mile ride right before leaving, so I was feeling pretty confident. The only thing was that I was in Florida, where it’s really flat. When I did get to the mountains, it was tough. It was tough to climb mountains on the bike.


Jennifer:

Yeah. Were you doing any hill training?

Tara:

No. In Florida, all l I had were a few bridges near me.


Jennifer:

So, during the ride, 4K for Cancer, how many miles do you ride per day, and for how many days?


Tara:

An average of 80 miles per day, for 70 days, and you get one rest day per week.


“[We biked] an average of 80 miles per day, for 70 days, and you get one rest day per week.”

Jennifer:

So for about two and a half months, you have about 10 days of rest?


Tara:

Yes.


Jennifer:

Did you have any sort of issues while you were on this journey? Were you having any pain?


Tara:

I did have some days that were a little painful. My knee would ache a bit. I think that was because of the meniscal tear. I have a big callus in the middle of my tibia because of my break. So the tib anterior, the muscle in front of the shin, has to go over that. So it would swell up because of all the scar tissue. It was a weird sensation, because you’re pulling on the clip pedals. So I definitely did have some days that were pretty achy if there were a lot of hills.


“I mean, I wasn’t 100%...I had some days that were a little painful...I just didn’t give up.”

Jennifer:

And your arm as well, you didn’t mention, but you have a graft on your arm?


Tara:

Yes, I have a skin graft on my arm. I had to load a lot of sunscreen on that. But thankfully, that didn’t give me any troubles.


Jennifer:

Did you have any days where you were thinking, “I want to give up, I don’t want to do this anymore”?


Tara:

Yeah, there were some days where I really contemplated continuing on that day specifically, because there is a support vehicle. But it’s really amazing, being with 25 other people, because they really do push you. And I just didn’t give up. I was very motivated.



Jennifer:

So, you eventually get to the end, in San Diego, and how was it at the end?


Tara:

Oh my god. One of the most memorable days was the one year anniversary of the accident, which wasn’t the end, it was in Utah, over half way through. But, my whole team dedicated that day to me, which made me cry. And at the end, I was just thinking about that, and how far I’ve come. It was unreal, thinking about where I was last summer, compared to this one.


“At the end, I was just thinking about how far I’ve come. It was unreal, thinking about where I was this summer compared to last.”


Jennifer:

That’s awesome. So, where are you now? We talked about that you’re graduated physical therapy school now and you just completed a half marathon for your five year anniversary of this accident. Where do you see yourself going, and do you have any big goals you want to achieve?


Tara:

I’m just so excited to begin my career. Everyday at my internship, I truly think wow, I’m so lucky to love what I do. I have so many special moments with patients, and it really is a pleasure to share my story when people need it. It’s hard to tell everyone, but sometimes there’s certain patients that can really use it. It’s so nice to see how it helps them. It’s like something clicks in their brain and they realize everything’s gonna be okay.


I really don’t know where I want to live right now permanently. The one goal I have in mind is a half ironman.


Jennifer:

Nice. Yeah I’m sure that comes in handy when your patients are saying, 'this is just too hard, I can’t do it.' You can tell them about what you went through. That must really inspire a lot of people that you see.

So, did this experience specifically inspire you to become a physical therapist, or were you already on track for that since you were in college for athletic training?


Tara:

So the year before my accident I was on the fence between getting my Master's in Athletic Training, or going to Physical Therapy school. I was super intimidated by how competitive it was to get into PT school. But after the accident, I fell in love with PT and knew I had to become a Physical Therapist.


"I knew I had to become a physical therapist."

Jennifer:

Awesome. Our last question is - what moves you? What are some things that you do currently to keep yourself moving?


Tara:

Currently, one of my new favorite things is rock climbing. It’s so much fun, I feel like a kid. Growing up I loved climbing trees so it’s just like a giant playground. I also do cycling, running, super blessed to be able to do that still.


I do a lot of circuit training, I used to do boxing. I love movement. Movement is a blessing. It’s not even that I feel the need to work out to stay in shape, I just feel blessed that I can move, so I might as well take advantage of it.


"I just feel blessed that I can move."

Jennifer:

Thank you so much, Tara, for sharing your story. Where can people find you or follow you if they want to learn more?


Tara:

They can follow me on Instagram @tararose.o

CONTACT

Location

Inside of Origin Climbing + Fitness

7585 Commercial Way Unit J

Henderson, NV 89011

Phone

Call or Text (702) 277 - 0193

E-Mail

For physical therapy inquiries:

jennifer@onsightmovement.com

For coaching + training inquiries:

onsightcoaching@gmail.com

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