June 12, 9:30 p.m. It was an ordinary night for motorcyclist Shawn Stoughton, cruising down Highway 503 on his beloved Harley Davidson, until it turned into every biker’s worst nightmare.
As he was turning the corner on Tamarack Lake Road, where he lives with his wife and two sons, he beeped his horn, waving to a friend on the nearby road. Then, suddenly, he was unconscious, lying face-up in a ditch full of snapping turtles, his wife and kids hovering over him as they waited for paramedics to arrive. Stoughton had just hit a moose.
“I don’t remember the impact. I had no time whatsoever to react … I saw the moose but it was just for a millisecond,” he told The Highlander during a recent interview.
Stoughton remembers going, “just a touch over the speed limit,” but admits it was too fast for that time of day. “There was no braking, no skidding, just 50 miles an hour and then …,” he said, his voice trailing off.
Stoughton’s wife was doing laundry outside their house when the accident happened. “She heard my bike coming – they have loud pipes on them – then she heard what she claims was the smack, the impact. She knew. She didn’t have to guess. She knew it was me,” he said.
She raced outside with Stoughton’s sons and saw the dead moose and the bike on the ground, but couldn’t find Stoughton – he had landed in a ditch 30 feet away. The first responders who arrived soon after told him: “Don’t move. You’ve just hit a moose.”
He was taken by ambulance to Haliburton and the responders loaded him straight into a helicopter. “I knew I was in trouble when I was getting loaded into that chopper,” he said.
Stoughton ended up spending seven long days in Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto. His brain was bleeding, he had lacerations in his liver, he broke his eighth and ninth ribs, broke his kneecap, tore the meniscus out of his knee, broke a bone in his hand and slightly separated the vertebrae in his neck. He was in a neck brace and couldn’t get off his back for two days. He was hooked up to IV for three.
“I turned 48 in Sunnybrook, had my Father’s Day in Sunnybrook and went back for hand surgery on my 24th wedding anniversary,” said Stoughton. “They [the doctors] were originally talking about rehab. They didn’t know if I could walk again because my knee was as big as an NFL football.”
Eventually, the bleeding in his brain and liver stopped and he was taken off IV and given normal medication. Stoughton used a walker for a few days and was soon pushing the walker ahead of him and then walking to it. After a physiological check-up, the doctors decided he didn’t need rehab, and he ended up making a miraculous recovery – checking himself out of hospital after a mere week.
Almost a month after the accident, he stepped into his dad’s garage, where the bike is stored. He was instantly overcome with emotion, burying his face into his tattooed forearm to stifle his tears. Stoughton claimed he’ll never ride again and has plans to possibly fix up the bike with his dad and sell it.
“It would be a selfish act [to ride again] … I have my life, I have my family – the bike is worth nothing.”
The motorcycle is surprisingly intact, with only a handful of dents here and there and a few plates of shattered glass and metal lying on its seat. A metal Harley-Davidson badge also broke off during the incident but curiously, a small cross has been left hanging from the handlebars. Stoughton attributes much of his astonishing survival and recovery to God.
“My mother noticed this here after the accident,” he said, cradling the cross in his hand, “she says it’s the reason I survived.”
“Definitely,” he responded, when asked whether he agreed or not. “I’m just really grateful,” he said, reflecting on everything that’s happened since the accident. “For my family, for my brothers, my mom and my dad. My wife, first and foremost. My kids,” he added, choking up.
“I’ve got a bit of post-traumatic stress. That kind of terminology ... I get it, I understand it but where there’s a will there’s a way. You have to learn from your mistakes and hopefully help somebody else.”
Stoughton wants to reach out to other motorcyclists and tell them to pick out proper protective gear and a Department of Transportation (DOT) certified helmet.
“It’s not about being cool,” he said, calling out riders who strip down to shorts and sandals in the sweltering heat. “And don’t ride at night. If you’re stuck riding at night in this neck of the woods, you need to respect your speed and know that around every corner, anything could be there. Even if it’s a racoon, it’s enough to throw you off your bike.”
Stoughton is a plumber and has been out to only a handful of jobs since the accident. He’s making a slow recovery at home, surrounded by his wife and two kids, aged 18 and 23. He plays in the Haliburton rock band Wescali with one of his sons and is looking forward to jamming again once his hand is back to normal.
Get-well cards and gifts from friends and family are clustered in the centre of Stoughton’s dining room table. “It’s hard to smile right now,” said Stoughton, as his picture was taken for the paper in front of the busted motorcycle he’s driven for over 48,000 miles. He’s been riding since the age of 20. “I’m not a legend. I’m not a hero. I’m just plain lucky. I’m the luckiest guy you’ll ever meet.”
FELIX WONG is a reporter for The Highlander.