One year ago, while practicing for the fourth round of the FIM CEV Repsol European Superbike Championship at Motorland Aragon in Spain, American Kenny Noyes crashed and suffered a severe head injury. Following a long, difficult, and ongoing recovery, Noyes is now able to joke with family, friends, and participants at his Noyes Camp Racing School.
Kenny Noyes is sitting on a quad, smiling and chatting with his father, Dennis, during a Noyes Camp Racing School at Motorland Aragon two days before the first anniversary of a life-threatening crash at this same circuit. By the way Kenny and Dennis are joking and laughing, you might think years had passed instead of just one.
On July 5, 2015, Noyes, the reigning FIM CEV Repsol European Superbike champion, had already endured two difficult days of practice. The Palmeto Kawasaki team had worked all night and the problems appeared to be resolved when Noyes went out for Sunday morning warm-up. On his first flying lap, he set the fastest sector times. Then, he crashed. The bike bounced off a wall and directly impacted Noyes’ helmet.
At the end of a very hard year, Noyes is now walking, driving a car and, of course, riding motorcycles. His family knows that without the fast and efficient work of the Motorland Aragon medical team, Noyes would not have survived. Thanks to them and all who came after, his goals today are ambitious and even visible on the horizon.
The Crash And First Days And Weeks
Noyes arrived by emergency medical helicopter at the University Hospital Clinic in Zaragoza, 80 miles north of the circuit, in a stage Glasgow-3 coma, the most critical level on the established Coma Scale: no reaction to any stimulus.
For the most critical first 24 hours, Noyes was on life support for breathing, hydration, and nutrition. His skull was drilled for a pressure relief tube, and he was kept under induced coma. A valve measured intracranial pressure. If that pressure had risen, doctors were standing by to initiate brain surgery.
Initially, the medical team prepared the Noyes family for the worst. Good news came the following morning when Dr. Pilar Luque confirmed that the cerebral hemorrhage had not grown and was capsulating. Intracranial pressure was stable and her cautious words were, “The situation is better than we expected.”
Luque explained that with this type of injury and recuperation there are no reliable predictions of outcomes or recovery time. Nearly a month after the accident, the situation remained worryingly stable and the family was warned that Noyes might remain in a vegetative state.
The Family’s Role: Good Cop, Bad Cop
Now, with Noyes making steady improvement, the family firmly believes that nearly constant accompaniment and stimulation—allowing for periods of rest, of course—are vital to the recovery of a person in a situation like that experienced by Kenny.
“You just have to remain positive and reject all negativity,” father Dennis said. When he told Kenny a familiar story about Kenny Roberts and Randy Mamola, for example, Kenny made eye contact. Dennis read aloud for hours and retold stories from Kenny’s childhood as did Heidi, who also sang songs.
Wife Iana and younger brother Denny provided more aggressive stimuli. They pinched Kenny, pulled his hair, and Iana even bit him. They exhorted him to wake up, to open his eyes, to fight back. “Heidi and I were the good cops,” Dennis said. “Iana and Denny the bad ones.”
Dennis, a journalist and writer, kept a daily log of events and the teams shared their experiences in diary form to keep the doctor informed and establish that Kenny was able to follow instructions, proof that he was moving from deep coma into a state called “minimal consciousness,” which is recognized by specialists when a person is able to follow simple commands like “squeeze my hand,” or “open the throttle with your throttle hand.”
The work went on for days: Old friends from Miraflores sent recordings of recapitulations of adventures in the Guadarrama Mountains, a childhood playground for Kenny and his friends. Iana annoyed him by ticking his face with her hair, something that he had always hated. When he got mad, that was big progress.
One day, Dennis handed Kenny, who had been a pitcher, a baseball and asked him to throw a curve. Kenny’s hand “remembered” the grip. “The feeling of a familiar object, like a baseball, seemed to stimulate memories,” Dennis observed.
During this first stage of recuperation, Iana said, “The nurses play a key role along with the family because they are the ones who are with the patient the most.”
After that the family—wife Iana, younger brother Denny, and parents Heidi and Dennis—decided on a “super-intensive” program of sensory stimulation. Exceptions were made to hospital rules, and the family was given permission for virtually unlimited visits of two persons at a time. The “team” organized into shifts, and after a single weekend of intense stimulation, Noyes voluntarily opened his eyes for the first time.
After several days on this “intensive stimulation,” Dr. Luque decided the time had come to move Kenny into the Guttmann Institute in Barcelona, 200 miles east, where emphasis gradually shifted from stabilization to recovery and rehabilitation.
Denny advises others who might find themselves in the same situation that to ensure recovery goes well they must also take care of themselves. “If you want to help,” he said, “you have to get enough rest and stay active.
“Ask the nurses what you can do to help but also ask other families in the ward who are going through the same process with a loved one. And when you have time read up on the type of injury, how it is treated, and what to expect, but don’t accept limits.”
The next phases of recuperation took place in the Guttmann Institute and StepByStep Foundation in Barcelona, both specialized centers in medullary (spinal) and brain injuries. The Guttmann Institute is a fully equipped and staffed specialized hospital while StebByStep concentrates on more aggressive physical rehabilitation using methods developed in the US working with injured soldiers.
When Noyes entered the Guttmann at the beginning of August, the family supplemented his short daily specialist rehabilitation. “Nobody knows the patient like the family,” Iana said, “and you need to know your loved one’s limits and then push those limits more than most doctors would advise. The doctors are always conservative, but the family often knows best.”
Eight months after the accident, for example, Iana believed Kenny was ready to try his hand at a driving/riding simulator, but the doctors felt it was too soon. The very next weekend, however, Iana and Denny took Kenny to the Noyes Camp at Motorland Aragon, where he demanded to climb on a Suzuki GSX-R1000 “wheelie machine.”
Later, Noyes was encouraged to drive a car, ride a motorcycle, drive a tractor to water the dirt track, and operate heavy earth-moving equipment for track maintenance. Those tasks couldn’t have been better for his recovery. Soon afterward, Noyes was reclassified as an outpatient.
Noyes now attends daily sessions at both and also at ReSport, a Barcelona sports injury rehabilitation center. His goal is to eventually get back on the Palmeto Kawasaki ZX-10R, but only if and when he is ready.
Before he was able to leave the Guttmann, Noyes went through a period of recovering his memory. For a while, he thought he was 16 years old and refused to believe that Denny was his brother. As Denny said, “My 16-year-old big brother refused to believe his little brother had a beard.”
At that point, Noyes was experiencing post-traumatic amnesia, and the family had to constantly remind him where he was and why. Iana explained over and over the crash with all details and aftermath. He was shown photo albums and videos, which were indispensable tools that brought him into real time and filled in holes in his memory.
Doctors and nurses finally determined that Noyes had gone beyond post-traumatic amnesia—a big step in recovery from coma—when he was able to remember their names and faces, was oriented in time and place, and knew what had happened on July 5 at Motorland. Doctors say Noyes will probably never remember the crash, but there are continual improvements in short- and long-term memory.
Dennis had to return periodically to the Grand Prix paddock to do his job as a TV commentator for Spain’s Tele5. Because of periods of absence, he was the one who most clearly saw the improvements.
The First Smile
The family watched as Noyes moved up the Glasgow coma scale from the dreaded Glasgow 3 all the way to the top—level 15. There were long, troubled times of bad news and no apparent improvement, but one day when Noyes smiled. His brother produced that smile, singing and dancing in the hospital room at the Guttmann Institute, a moment that the family will always remember in the form of a video. Denny sums it up well: “It’s the best thing I’ve done in my life, coming up with a dance that made my brother smile.”