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Once paralyzed on a Wyoming hill, this Billings man is back on a bike, chasing dreams

Derek Riddle backboard
Posted at 6:23 PM, Jun 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-29 20:24:06-04

BILLINGS — "I could hear the bike running behind me, and I told myself, ‘Derek, get up,’ and I couldn’t.”

For Derek Riddle, hillclimbing is life.

"A little bit of motocross here and there, but not too much," Riddle said. "I have a huge passion for hillclimbing. I want to hillclimb right now."

It’s been a year and a half since Riddle’s last climb. In late January 2020, Riddle wanted to show off one of his favorite spots - the Cowley monsters down in Wyoming - so the family loaded up and headed south, including his stepmom and registered nurse Summer.

"My dad said, ‘Don’t ever get on a motorcycle.’ He was terrified of them because one of his friends got paralyzed and died on one," Summer said. "So I was afraid of motorcycles and I still am. I tried to fit in. I don’t fit in to that regime with Derek, but I support him.”

Derek Riddle riding
Derek Riddle has been competing in hillclimbs since 2013.

She’s had no choice - the Riddles are an off-road family. Almost everyone had their own ride that day, except Derek.

"I broke two of my bikes that year, and I borrowed a bike that day - I bike I’d never rode - and I took off like normal, racing up the hill," Derek said. "I did a big wheelie into a four, five-foot ledge, and it bucked me off."

"I was on a hill parallel to the hill Derek was on," Summer said. "I heard, ‘Call the police. Call 911,’ and I just saw a body.”

Derek had fractured his C5 vertebrae and couldn’t feel anything below his neck. Almost any mind in that situation would begin to race, but Derek’s stayed calm for one reason: "I knew my kids were there, and I had to be strong for them in the moment," he said. "They thought I might pass, and I told them, 'I’m not dead yet. Come over here and talk to me.”

Help arrived not long after to carry Derek down the hill and into a LIFE Flight helicopter. An hour later, Riddle was at St. Vincent’s hospital in Billings getting prepped for surgery with Dr. Louis Ross.

Derek Riddle backboard
Derek Riddle lies on a backboard after fracturing his C5 vertebrae in a hillclimbing accident in Cowley, Wyoming.

"He had what we call an incomplete C5/C6 paralysis," Ross said. "It is one you’re worried about what the outcome is going to look like for him."

The broken bone in Riddle’s neck was putting pressure on his spinal cord. Relieving it was Ross’ main concern. "My best expectation and hope in a situation like his was that he was going to make some recovery, get to where he could maybe walk again, at least with some assistance," Ross said.

"They just wanted me to move my toes and I couldn’t," Derek said. "But deep down inside of me, I could feel them. So I told them to give me two weeks to a month and I’m going to walk out of here."

But suddenly, everything changed, and Riddle had to win a different battle first. "My lungs started filling up full of pneumonia, and I had to really fight," Derek said.

"The most scared I ever was - we were in the ICU, and I was pushing on (Derek's) chest because he couldn’t cough up what he needed to cough up," Summer said. "Kelly - his dad - was suctioning him, and (Derek) just came back from that. I can’t believe it."

That showed everyone Derek’s ability to fight. After that came an even bigger milestone.

"My little brother Andrew felt my Achilles tendon flick. That was one of the most exciting feelings ever, he told me," Derek said. "From there, I started flicking toes, ankles, started lifting my legs off the bed an inch or two.

"I would try so hard to lift my legs, and I wouldn’t be able to. I’d lay there and be frustrated, and then the simplest feeling of, 'Move your leg.' Flick. It was way easier than I thought."

On Valentine’s Day, Derek was transferred to Spokane, Washington, to start an intense rehab process. Then came March 15, 40 days after the accident.

"We went up there to see him every weekend. We'd see new progression," Summer said. "And then he just gets up and starts walking, and I'm like, 'Oh my gosh! Derek, you weren’t lying when you said you were going to walk out of here!'"

Derek Riddle walking
Derek Riddle walks out of St. Luke's hospital in Spokane after a long rehab process.

Derek hasn’t stopped checking off boxes since.

"Six months to the day, I got to ride a dirt bike - I rode my dirt bike," he said. "A year to the day, I got into a footrace with some of my kids and nieces and I beat them."

Now, there’s just one thing left.

"It's been really tempting to enter a hillclimb, because I just want to race so bad. It takes about a year and a half to two years for it fully to heal up, and I don’t want to mess up (Dr. Ross') masterpiece here, but I think after that, it might be on."

"Very remarkable and not common," said Ross of Derek's recovery. "It’s one as a surgeon, my colleagues and I, when we see that happen, we talk about it. It's heartwarming. It really makes it worth it."

Derek Riddle Dr. Louis Ross
Derek Riddle (right) and Dr. Louis Ross pose for a photo at the St. Vincent's Neurosurgery Center.

SAINTS 2021 Day of Giving will benefit the St. Vincent Neuroscience Center of Excellence this year. Money raised will help support several clinic and program enhancements, including a remodel of the Neuroscience Center and construction of a state-of-the-art Multiple Sclerosis Infusion Center, increasing capacity, comfortability, access to care, and technology.

There are three ways to give: