The James Grage Story
May 3, 2016
When a life (and body) shattering crash changed James’ life forever, his long and strenuous road to recovery brought him a new sense of strength and a changed outlook that he still harnesses today.
As seen on Men’s Fitness Magazine November Issue
“I was 24 years old,” James Grage is saying. “At the time, I was living in Chico, CA, and driving what was pretty much my last earthly possession, a Porsche 911, from Chico down to the Bay area, to San Jose, to sign a contract for a new job. I had literally my last $10 in my pocket—for gas. It was about 8 o’clock in the morning.” To save time—and gasoline—Grage was cutting across the area on a more direct country back road that knocked off some of the distance compared with the more modern Interstate 5. “Up ahead, I saw something. It was a pheasant. As I grew closer, I hit the horn, and the pheasant took off, right at the car’s windshield, blocking it and almost hitting it.”
The pheasant obscured Grage’s view and he swerved into the left lane to miss it. Grage then looked back to the road, only to see a large, construction-style truck coming fast in the opposite direction. He swerved back to the right lane then fishtailed back into the left, ramming the front end of the Porsche into the side of the truck, spinning it around so that the “straddle buggy” the truck was towing hit the car again—this time on the passenger side—spinning and shattering the Porsche into a destroyed husk. “I think I was ejected through the sunroof,” Grage says. That’s a plausible theory. According to the California Highway Patrol report, Grage’s 1974 Porsche “was in three major pieces…the engine was next to the westbound lane on [the] dirt shoulder…[and the] vehicle virtually disintegrated.” The report also stated that the collision launched Grage into a ditch 95 feet away. At that moment, James Grage’s life—every aspect of it—changed with a sickening, painful thud. The landing left him stunned: He could only stare up through the scrim of gold grasses and green weeds toward the blue California sky. He couldn’t comprehend it yet, but everything he knew was over, and the road to a painful recovery hadn’t even begun. “I tried to move,” he says. “But I couldn’t.”
James Grage, now 38, is co-founder and vice president of BPI Sports, a fast-growing sports nutrition company that makes muscle and performance supplements like the well-known pre-workout standard 1.M.R. It’s a fitting position for man forced to take a broken and battered body and rebuild it from the ground up. Today he looks almost like the competitive bodybuilder he was the morning of the crash. But the road back was a long one. When he hit the ground that day in 1999, Grage had broken both his femurs (upper-leg bones), with the sharp bone of his shattered left femur sticking through the skin like a dagger. He’d also broken his pelvis, and both arms, plus ribs and other things. His left arm was almost totally shattered, “like a bag of bones,” he says, and the nerves and tendons of his right hand were severed. “My legs were actually folded under me, behind my back.”
The successive impacts were so great that, before ejection, torn metal shredded the seat belt he was wearing. Now Grage lay in a ditch, stunned and staring at the sky. From behind the truck, two vehicles approached and stopped. In one was a woman with a cell phone who was already calling 911, and in the other was a man named Paul Lema. Lema took in the crash scene. He’d been on his way to his day job, working with challenged schoolchildren, and instinctively took charge. He started looking over the wreckage. “I saw the truck driver,” Lema says. “He was standing by his truck. And I thought: Where’s the other driver?” Lema began searching.
Ninety-five feet away, he finally saw James Grage in the ditch. “I ran up to him,” Lema says, “and at first, I thought his legs had been amputated. He was broken and bleeding from about everywhere. I asked him his name, and he told me. I was just talking to him, trying to keep him calm. He was a mess. And I said, I know a Larry Grage in Chico.” Grage said, “He’s my grandfather.” Then Lema mentioned he had a daughter, Carly, who was about Grage’s age. “I know her, too,” Grage said, matter-of-factly. “She’s my roommate’s fiancée.” Still, things were looking grim as they waited for the ambulance. “I just kept talking, asking questions,” Lema says. “He was pretty buff, but he was all torn up. I began to apply pressure to the compound fracture on his left leg, to slow the bleeding, and together we waited, continuing to talk back and forth. He wasn’t moaning or anything.”
When the EMTs and the ambulance arrived about 30 minutes later, everything went into high gear. Lema signaled to the first responders from the ditch. They arrived and checked Grage’s vital signs and trauma damage, with Lema talking quietly with him all the time. “Paul Lema was really a savior,” Grage says. “He was calm. He had a soothing voice. He distracted me.” Then Grage heard the EMTs talking in hushed tones. He didn’t know what was going on. “I was really out of it,” he says. “And all a sudden I began to hear this click-click-click…click-click, click. It was a ratchet driver. They were tilting my body up on one side with a little winch near my crotch, then they pulled my leg out from underneath me.
Then they began pulling harder, to straighten it out. I screamed—and then I just passed out.” Soon after, as Grage was coming back to consciousness, he began to hear the click-click-clicks again, “this time on the other side of my body.” And then the tilting, hard pulling, and agony happened again. “I just kept passing out from the pain,” he says. “They put his legs in air casts to stabilize them,” Lema says. “Then they got him onto a stretcher. I just kept applying pressure to the compound fracture as we got him to the ambulance.” The ambulance crew, knowing Grage needed to be taken to a major trauma center, sped down the road to a spot where a med-evac helicopter had been able to land. They loaded him into the chopper and flew him off to Enloe Medical Center in Chico. Shortly after Grage arrived at Enloe, the hospital tried to reach his girlfriend at the time, Kathy Hankins, who also lived in Chico. “They called my work, but it was my day off, so my co-workers called me at home,” she says. Hankins hurried down to the hospital, but Grage was in surgery. There was no news throughout the afternoon or into the night.
The single saving grace through the entire ordeal, Grage says, was his initial surgeon, William Doherty, Ph.D., M.D. “Before becoming a trauma surgeon, Dr. Doherty had been an engineer,” Grage explains. “He built bridges and stuff. He was also up on the cutting- edge techniques for my level of physical damage. So, really, a guy who knows both engineering and the newest techniques in trauma surgery?Dr. Doherty was perfect. I got incredibly lucky there.” In Doherty’s assessment, Grage’s trauma was simple yet complex. “None of the specific fractures were all that unusual,” Doherty says. “But all of them together? And he had multiple, multiple fractures. Each individual fracture was common, but putting them all together—this combination of them—that was going to make it difficult for recovery.” Thus Grage and Doherty started down a long road of “many, many surgeries,” Grage says. “One of the big problems was my left arm—it was completely shattered. They wanted to amputate it, but finally decided to treat it surgically.” They also had to sew up the numerous lacerations that covered his body, and reconnect the nerves and tendons in his right hand.
The surgery went on all day. Grage had gone under at about 11 a.m., and his girlfriend, Hankins, hadn’t heard a thing since. “I thought he was dead, and they just hadn’t told me yet,” she says. At 2 a.m., lost, scared, and fearing the worst, Hankins began pacing the hospital corridors just for something to do. “So I was walking the halls,” she says, “lost in my worries, and this doctor said, ‘Are you looking for someone?’” “Yes,” Hankins told him. “My boyfriend, James Grage.” The doctor pointed toward a nearby door. “He’s in here. Come on back,” he said. “And there he was, awake. He smiled when he saw me, but he was so swollen he didn’t even look like a human being. In the surgery they’d left the skin on his legs open due to the swelling, because it can lead to infection.” For Grage, the journey wouldn’t grow easier for some time.
There was another obstacle: a blood issue. “My bones were so broken that the marrow inside them couldn’t produce enough blood,” he says.Eventually, much pain and many blood transfusions later, Grage was moved from the trauma center to the hospital’s third floor, where he began to think more concretely about his convalescence. “When they finally moved him out of the bed and into a therapeutic ‘neurological chair,’” says Hankins, “I had to leave the room because of his screaming from the pain. James thought he’d be paralyzed, but the only things he didn’t break were his back and his neck.”“Dr. Doherty began to put me back together,” Grage says. “He had the patience.” He pauses for a moment. “He wanted me to walk again.” Still, the doctor was markedly cautious at every turn. “He said that my life as I knew it was likely over,” Grage says. “I was in the hospital for six weeks, and literally my first big job was eventually going to be to sit up in bed. And even that, they told me wouldn’t be easy.”
For Grage, his time in the hospital would be torture. And, not surprisingly, due to the pain and uncertainty, he became depressed. “Before the accident, James had been in great physical condition,” Hankins says. In fact, recently he’d even come in second in a bodybuilding competition in Sacramento. But with the pain and worry and inactivity—with everything up for grabs—his weight began to plummet. “For six weeks I’d been there, and I still couldn’t walk,” Grage says. “They wanted to send me to a convalescent hospital, but I didn’t want that. I told Dr. Doherty I wanted to go home. And he said, ‘How will you go to the bathroom? You can’t even walk.’” So, as Grage waited for his physical fortunes to improve, he made a pact with himself. “I grew up in a house where there were no excuses, only reasons,” he says, “so, like always, with any problem, anything I do, I break it into smaller steps, smaller goals. I’m a very focused person, but I go about attacking goals quietly. I don’t talk about it with people to try and get their input, or support or approval. I feel the more I talk about something, the more it robs me of the fire to go do it. It’s like punching a hole in my gas tank.” So, he decided: His next task was to walk again. “I hate the saying, ‘I can’t,’” he says. “And in this case, it was almost a rebellious streak. The more people—doctors and therapists—who told me I’d never do something again, the more I wanted to throw it in their face.” Working with therapists at the hospital, Grage was rigged with a walker. It was a tall order, since it couldn’t have handles because there were casts on both his arms. “But my goal,” Grage says, “was to walk from my bed to the nurses’ station, about 75 feet away. I’d go a step at a time. My left foot could move more, and then my right would slide up. And eventually, after a lot of work, I did it. ”
By now, however, Grage had dropped from the 190 pounds he away. “I was skin and bones,” he says. “Still, long story short: I was proud that I’d made it to the nurses’ station. I wanted to work for that. And eventually I got there.” But Grage had also given himself a time line. His childhood best friend was getting married in a few months, and he was the best man. The doctors and a new battery of physical therapists told him it might be a year before he could walk again—and he probably wouldn’t walk with an ordinary gait. Trying to be helpful, they suggested a wheelchair, but Grage refused. The doctors and physical therapists didn’t want to oversell the possibility of a full recovery, and told him that walking with straight legs but on his own was a reasonable goal. Still, Grage was ready to get to work—but, defiantly, not in an assisted living environment. So, after some discussions including Grage, his doctors, and Hankins, it was agreed that Grage would move into Hankins’ house. “Which was not so easy,” she says, “because we had to have someone to assist him 24 hours a day.” Then came the harder task of becoming “physically normal” again. It was, at times, agony, as scar tissue and calcification had to be broken up in his leg muscles in order for him to gain more range of motion.
Every day became a personal ordeal. “My legs didn’t bend at the knee at all,” Grage says. “And Dr. Doherty wanted a 90-degree bend. So I went to therapy every day and lay on this table with my straight legs hanging off the end, and the therapist would wrench my lower legs, breaking up the calcification in my knees for more range of movement. It was excruciating. But, eventually, we got some bend to my knees, and he pulled out a protractor to measure the angle.
That was the first time I thought: Hey, this is possible.”
There were also more surgeries to cut away the scarred and calcified tissue, as well as a trauma ambulance that took him for regular visits with Doherty. And despite the pain that came in daily, gratuitous doses, Grage slowly began to improve. But the ordeal was getting to him. Parts of his body would remain in plaster casts for more than six months; and he still wasn’t gaining much weight back. “He was so depressed,” Hankins says. “Just looking at him, sitting in a chair at my house, it made me incredibly sad. I don’t know how he did it. I don’t think I could have done it.” Still, Grage wouldn’t stop. And his physical fitness and health continued to slowly but noticeably improve. “It helped that, to start with, he was in excellent shape,” Doherty says. “But he was also a very, very motivated guy. He didn’t need any pushing to get his range of motion back. He was among the most self-directed patients I’ve ever worked with.”
Slowly, Grage began exercising what muscles he could at a local gym where, half a year earlier, he’d been a regular. “I was still using a walker, and had casts on both arms,” he says. “I started with the stationary bicycle and stretching exercises. After about six months, I was in the weight room again. I began to push myself harder. I wasn’t going to be satisfied until I was back where I was before the accident.” Beyond the workouts, he kept to a diet regimen of five or six small meals daily instead of three large ones. “This kept my energy levels up through the day, and I never felt overly full, bloated, or tired,” Grage says. He soon began to feel stronger and more capable. He also began taking nutritional supplements. “To help with recovery and build back muscle, was taking branched-chain amino acids, creatine, protein powder, and the amino acid L-glutamine,” Grage says. “This amino in particular is so great for recovery that hospitals were giving it to burn-victim patients. The protein powder not only helped give me the additional protein I needed to build muscle again, but it also helped me get the extra good calories I needed, since eating was such a challenge.”
Soon, the weight stacks and barbells Grage was lifting at the gym were growing in size. Doherty and the physical therapists expressed amazement at the rapid progress their patient was making. And James Grage began to feel like himself again. What pushed him through the relentless pain even when it seemed there was no end in sight? Grage pauses to consider the question. There’s a long moment of silence. Then, finally, he says, “I guess the answer to that question is: me. That whole ordeal made me ask, how often do we get an opportunity to really test ourselves? It’s a good question. In my case, it still needed more exploring.” The hurdles to James Grage’s full recovery continued for months, but at least his return to a full, functional physical life was gaining speed. And if he needed proof during a moment of lingering post-crash pain or an understandable breakdown in personal morale, with one phone call he could summon a stack of his friend’s wedding photos. And there in those pictures, James Grage—who should have been dead after crashing into a huge dump truck and being flung 95 feet through the air—stands proudly, the best man, leaning on a cane.
Today , after overcoming such overwhelming adversity, Grage is pretty much back to living the life he knew before that fateful day in Northern California, speeding down a back road in his Porsche 911. He’s married, living in Hollywood Beach, FL, and has two children. “I actually met my wife at a business conference,” he says. Both work in the fitness industry, and Grage can regularly be found at the local gym, pushing his once-ripped—and then completely rippedapart— body back toward top form. He’s working just as hard at BPI, which this year was named 2012 Brand of the Year by GNC. It’s a game of inches, but there are no steps back. Every bit of ground he gains toward his ultimate goal—a full recovery—he uses to leverage greater results. Simply put, he won’t give up. To him, It’s just not an option.
But despite all the comeback success, a few physical hurdles continue to haunt Grage after the crash. “I still can’t run that well,” he says. “I can run across the street ahead of a car that’s approaching, but long-distance running hasn’t happened yet. Still, I have hope, and I have time. I want to play soccer with my kids. And I’m not afraid to keep working.” Often, when he needs inspiration, Grage looks at a tattoo he wears: It’s the coat of arms of Zeeland, a province in Holland, which once endured heavy flooding that killed at least 1,800 people. It’s also where some of his family came from. On the coat of arms is an inscription in Latin: Lucto et emergo.“It means, ‘I struggle and I emerge,’” Grage says. “I like it.” Grage talks of other things, like his daily struggle with chronic bone, joint, and muscle pain that’s stubbornly lingered ever since the accident. “It’s crushing sometimes,” he says. “Really, literally, my body hurts every day. But I’ve come to believe that pain helps you grow…. You know, I’ve really been able to shape my life beyond what was supposed to be my destiny. And that feels good.” He pauses again, for a long moment, possibly considering the long road back he’s taken since the car accident. “I guess I’m not a big believer in luck,” he says.”As far as I’m concerned, you make your own.”