February 21, 2010
MIRACLES OF THE ROCK
“There’s something about those nines,” he sighed, and he sure had
It was late afternoon six months ago, 9/9/09, and Richard “the Rock”
Burton had just finished up working on his granddaughter Madison’s
bicycle at his home in Englewood, Colorado. Life was good. The
40-year veteran, a champion in every division he’d ever run for a
full season, was still fast and hugely popular in the race trucks at
Colorado National Speedway and everywhere else he raced. And
something new was giving him a lot of enjoyment as well. He was
mentoring his 19-year-old grandson Matthew, just beginning his own
career behind the wheel.
Richard’s wife Vicky was just starting on the barbeque for the
evening’s crew, when there was a distinct thud down the street.
Richard knew instantly the seriousness of the sound. The cars had
hit hard. He grabbed the bike and peddled off to see if he could
help. He had just put pegs on the bike, and it was miracle number
one, he says, that at the last second Madison decided not to climb
on and ride with him.
Weather was coming, no question, but there was just one cloud in the
sky. How random that suddenly there was a huge bolt of lightning.
And how ridiculously random that it would not target the tree 15
feet away, but instead strike Richard square on the side of his
The thunderous blast and flash of light brought neighbors, two
sisters, out to the street. At first they saw nothing unusual, but
they smelled something burning. It was the Rock. When they found
him, he was wrapped around the twisted bicycle, arms and legs
flapping, muttering gibberish, smoldering.
One sister ran to the scene of the car wreck. The ambulance had
already left, but by some second miracle, a fireman was still there,
and he rushed over to Burton. By every appearance, the Rock was on
his way out. By now all movement had stopped, and he was in full
cardiac arrest. The fireman went to work, frantically, with CPR.
When an ambulance finally arrived back on the block, the clouds had
arrived in earnest. The crew had to get Richard inside the vehicle
before administering the paddles, because it began to sprinkle.
Again and again they zapped him. No pulse. No pulse. Finally in
exasperation, one last try, and it was miracle number three. A
slight, but real, response.
When they arrived at Swedish Hospital, the situation was beyond
grave. The family was told that Richard would not last the night.
But right then, in another totally random coincidence, Dr. Ira Chang
walked into the facility, fresh from a training program on a
procedure for stroke victims called “arctic sun.” The body is taken
down to 33° F, essentially allowing the brain to focus on itself and
its own trauma. The technique had never been used on a lightning
victim before. Vicky gave the okay to give it a try.
“It was miracle number four, because I am here to tell you about
it,” says Richard. Yes he lived, but the winter season has been no
cake walk. It was three weeks in critical care, then the multiple
trauma unit, then rehab at the Craig Hospital. There were grueling
times, pneumonia, and a staph infection. Richard lost 50 pounds.
“It’s hard to describe just what it was like,” the Rock explains,
his speech slow and soft, but determined. “You have to understand
that I had to learn to do everything again – talking, swallowing,
eating, walking. My ears and throat were really fried. We all come
to take so much for granted what we can do each day, without
thinking about it. It was really hard, but, you know, there’s
something inside me. I just don’t know how to quit.”
There was something on the outside, too. Thousands of fans,
supportively hanging on to every word about his condition. A
fantastic medical team. And there were the Rock’s fellow workers at
the wastewater plant, all of whom traded in their vacation time for
benefits to Richard.
Now, as the late winter sun burns a little stronger and spring
approaches, the therapists are beginning to address Richard’s
reaction times. If successful, and if he can pass a driving
simulator, written, and road tests, he could conceivably even get
his road license back. Richard is eager but cautious on this point.
“It would totally kill me if I hurt someone because I was driving
before I was really ready.”
The stunning fact is that the Rock is preparing carefully for an
even bigger challenge. “Right from the moment I regained my senses,
my goal has been to race again. To be just as good a racer as I was
the year before.”
Last week the Rock, steadied by a cane, was back in the garage with
the guys, fiddling with the #36 truck. He knows it will be a while
yet, and he will put young Matthew in the seat until he is ready
himself. Matt has been looking sparky in the super stocks and he
also landed himself a modified coupe ride last season.
Matt has been the Rock’s biggest fan for years. One day, back when
he was knee high to a hub cap, he was polishing the race car and
muttered, “Someday I am going to be the Rock.” Richard responded,
“That could be. But in the meantime, we’ll call you the Pebble.”
The Pebble is now in awe of the Rock. Asked if it is possible that
his granddad could actually race a car again, Matthew says, “I can’t
believe this whole thing. He was SO HURT. Every day it seems I hear
more about what he went through in the hospital, but he has
recovered so much already. I honestly don’t think I am going to be
in that truck too long.”
If Richard Burton runs again, it would
be a disservice to label it miracle number five. Miracles are things
that are glorious for sure, but random and outside human control.
The return of the Rock would come from the incredible fortitude of a
special man, his family, and the community around him.
(Joe Starr Photo)
© 2010 Lew Boyd, Coastal 181