Kates recalls his recovery after accident

Journalism professor thankful for all the support received

Brenda Echeverria, Arts & Rec Editor

While visiting his daughter Lucy at University of Oklahoma in November 2017, Dr. James Kates heard an engine revving as he crossed the parking lot to his daughter’s apartment. He looked over in time to see a Jeep Liberty barrelling toward him and was hit by the passenger side of the front bumper. He didn’t remember much after that.

Dr. Kates didn’t know it at the time, but he would spend much of the next two months in various hospitals, unable to walk due to severe knee injuries.

He recalled the accident in his office last week during an interview with the Royal Purple.

“When something happens so fast, you don’t remember everything. It’s all sort of a blur,” Kates said.

Although he has recovered from the accident and is back on campus teaching courses this semester, it was a long journey to return to good health.

When the accident occurred, Kates was visiting Lucy for “Dad’s Weekend” at University of Oklahoma. In the morning, he drove to his daughter’s apartment where he would meet her for brunch. He had been running a bit late.

At around 9 a.m., he was hit by a university student who was speeding. Kates was in shock and disoriented from the impact when the ambulance arrived.

“I remember thinking at the time—and this was so incredibly naive—I remember thinking ‘oh, this isn’t that big of a deal. I will be okay. They’ll stitch me up, and I may look a little funny, but I’ll be back in the classroom on Monday, and I’ll explain to students why I have a bandage on my head,’” Kates said. “But it didn’t turn out that way.”

Dr. Kates was taken to the University of Oklahoma Medical Center, which has a level one trauma center. A Computed Tomography (CT) scan determined he had bleeding in the brain, which the doctors later said was fairly common with the type of injury he sustained. He was still under the impression that he would just have an interesting story to tell students the following Monday.

He remembers meeting one of his first surgeons whom he describes as a “hipster trauma surgeon.”

“He was a younger guy who said, ‘woah, that’s a pretty nasty looking head wound you’ve got there, my man,’ and I thought, ‘wow, I have a hipster surgeon,’” Kates said with a laugh.

The doctors didn’t realize the extent of his injuries until they performed an MRI scan of his legs. Both knees were badly injured, with almost all the ligaments of his right knee destroyed.

“My main reaction was incredulous because I couldn’t believe it had happened,” Kates said. The university said he could not return to work immediately.

Julie Ridgeman said her heart dropped when she heard the news. She initially wondered how she could help Dr. Kates and his students, who would need another professor to finish off the semester in Dr. Kates’ stead. Fortunately, various faculty members stepped up to cover his classes during his recovery, Ridgeman said.

Dr. Kates spent 10 days in the hospital in Oklahoma, one of which was his birthday. His wife negotiated for authorized medical transport back to Wisconsin, where he wanted to be.

It was a 14-hour ambulance ride from Oklahoma to Wisconsin.

His return home signaled the beginning of multiple surgeries and extensive physical therapy.

“He had a really, really bad injury,” said his physical therapist, Dr. Linda Westlie. “But considering the situation, he gave me his best effort every time I did therapy with him. And when he wasn’t in therapy, he was sitting in his chair correcting papers and checking his email, so he was keeping his mind active as he was recovering.”

He remembers when his chief physical therapist Dr. Westlie first went into his hospital room and told him they would be getting him out of bed for therapy, he thought  ‘you must be out of your mind’, which is something he is able to laugh about now.

Therapy was a difficult time for him with a few low moments said Kates—moments where he believed he may not walk again.

However, Dr. Kates set goals for himself while recovering. He wanted to be able to play his trumpet at his church for Easter and to walk for his other daughter Maggie’s graduation from Marquette University in May. He accomplished both of those goals.

His effort and hard work helped him recover in time for the fall 2018 semester. He said one of the best things about his recovery process was that it coincided with the summer. He even bought a kayak and tried it out after watching YouTube videos in anticipation.

He remains thankful for others’ support while recovering.

“I’m glad to be back, and everyone has been so nice,” Kates said. “I’m very thankful to everyone that reached out, because it does make a difference. I have great colleagues and great friends and a great family, and they were all wonderful to me, and without their support, I would have not been able to get through this.”