August 25, 2012 - Reported in lcsun-news.com. Joseph Gaytan IV counts himself blessed to be back among the living. The 24-year-old Las Crucen, a husband and father of two, was riding a bike early one morning last month along U.S. Hwy. 70, when he was struck by a driver who didn't spot him along the dark road. It was a dismal start to a story that's since turned miraculous. His wife, Nicolle Gaytan, said she was at home that night at their house near Brahman Road. Her husband was visiting friends in the area, and, when he was ready to leave, he couldn't find anyone to give him a ride, she said. He wound up borrowing a bicycle. Nicolle Gaytan said her husband likely attempted to take a short-cut.
The family's home is near the highway. Nicolle Gaytan recounted hearing a swarm of sirens and a helicopter that night. She chalked it up to yet another crash on Hwy. 70. "I thought: "An accident must have happened. It must've been pretty bad,'" she said during an interview last week. It wasn't until about 3 a.m. the same day, July 21, that she received the heart-stopping news her husband had been the focus of the emergency response near the Baylor Canyon Road exit. Nicolle Gaytan said a state police officer knocked on her door. "He told me Joseph had been in an accident, and he'd been flown to (University Medical Center)," she said. "It's horrible. I was in a state of shock."
A police report for the incident indicated a 23-year-old man and a 24-year-old woman were the driver and passenger of a 1993 Ford Focus that was traveling westbound on Hwy. 70, when it struck Joseph Gaytan from behind. The couple wasn't injured seriously. The report indicated Joseph Gaytan may have been under the influence. Capt. Rich Libicer of the New Mexico State Police said the officer filing the report had reason to believe Gaytan may have consumed alcohol, but it didn't result in a criminal charge. Nicolle Gaytan said her husband had a couple of beers about 12 hours before at a family picnic by the river. But she didn't believe he'd been drinking right before the crash.
Libicer noted it's not actually illegal to ride a bike on Hwy. 70, though that is prohibited on interstates and roads where notices are posted. Whether biking-riding on highways is advisable is a another matter, he said, because drivers often overlook bicyclists on those routes.
Following the crash, Joseph Gaytan was whisked to El Paso —the beginning of an emotional rollercoaster for his family. He had a fractured skull, bleeding in his brain and a dislocated jaw. But, surprisingly, he had no other broken bones — despite having been hit by a vehicle traveling at highway speeds. Nicolle Gaytan said she and her mother-in-law arrived at the hospital in El Paso around 5 a.m. the day of the crash. A flurry of trauma doctors and nurses tended to her husband, who was in the intensive care unit. Nicolle Gaytan described the first two days as "rough."
"The neurological surgeon talked to me and told me he had a 50 percent chance of living or dying," she said. "She couldn't give us any answer whether he'd survive or not." Doctors placed Joseph Gaytan in a medically induced coma, where he remained for two weeks. Even if he survived, there was no telling whether Joseph would recover his memory, the ability to speak or his motor skills. Doctors speculated he might require, for the rest of his life, a device to help him breathe or a feeding tube.
He also caught pneumonia during his hospital stay because of a breathing tube, according to his wife. But in spite the many uncertainties, Joseph Gaytan made fast strides toward improvement —so rapid, in fact, they surprised everyone around him. "One of his nurses said they'd never seen a patient recover from a traumatic brain injury the way he did," Nicolle Gaytan said. Once the coma-inducing drugs were halted, Joseph Gaytan gradually began opening his eyes and moving his arms and toes. His recovery gained steam from there, so much so that he was released Aug. 11 to go to a rehabilitation hospital in Las Cruces. It was only 22 days after the accident.
He's set to go home once and for all on Monday. Indeed, Nicolle Gaytan said her husband didn't lose his memory, except for the 24 hours preceding the crash; he's able to talk; and he can move. However, he's still regaining his strength. "He laughs. He eats. He's walking," she said.
Added to the physical recovery is a spiritual rebirth. The near-death sparked Joseph Gaytan to believe in God, his wife said. That's because her husband, upon emerging from the coma, reported having visited both hell and heaven. He indicated he first experienced hell, a place of incredible, stabbing pain. Then God rescued him, washed him in an ocean and then took him to heaven, where he "ate off golden plates," she said. Nicolle Gaytan said her husband was given a message from God, telling him to turn his life around and beginning helping people.
Joseph Gaytan hasn't ever been "very religious" and had questioned the existence of a higher power, his wife said. But, ever since the crash, he has wholeheartedly embraced faith and seems like a new person. "In the Bible, it always says that God is a good shepherd, and he always finds his sheep," she said. "And Joseph is one of his sheep." Nicolle Gaytan said people in many states were praying that her husband would survive. And his near-death experience — and seemingly miraculous recovery — have renewed the family's faith. The Gaytans plan to start going to church.
Nicolle Gaytan said she bears absolutely no grudge toward the couple that hit her husband, and she's thankful they called 911. Plus, she's grateful to the first responders, police and doctors who helped her husband. But there's more to his survival than that, she said.
"I don't believe it myself sometimes," she said. "He's living proof there is a God."