A Commencement walk to remember
Tyler Gale has the education.
He even has the diploma.
But what he didn’t have was the walk.
And the walk—that stroll across the stage in his cap and gown to accept his biological sciences degree, magna cum laude, from Rowan University‑-means just about everything to Gale…and to the scores of people who love him.
After all, the story about Gale’s miraculous recovery from a near-fatal bicycle accident a year ago on Commencement Eve is as much about his own will to live as it is about the will of others—family members and friends, professors and police officers—who rallied around him.
“You never know how much you are loved until you need it,” says Gale, 23, of Blackwood. “I didn’t know I was that lucky at choosing people.”
Traumatic brain injury
On Thursday, May 16, 2013, at 1:42 a.m., Gale was celebrating the end of his undergraduate collegiate career when he hopped on his 10-speed mountain bike to go to a friend’s party. He was cruising at breakneck speed, about 15 miles per hour—“Everything I do is rushed,” he says—when his bike tire clipped a curb near Parking Lot X on Rowan’s campus.
Gale, who wasn’t wearing a helmet, landed face-first into the street.
“I put my head in the ground. You shouldn’t do that,” he deadpans.
Gale, who remembers nothing of the accident, suffered a traumatic brain injury and nearly died at the scene. Rowan Police Sgt. Joseph Barnett and Patrolmen Tom Redman and Ryan Hoffman, who witnessed the crash, turned him over so that he wouldn’t drown in his own blood.
“The blood was just pooling under him,” says Barnett. “We had to move him to keep him from aspirating. He went unconscious immediately. His accident was one of the worst things I’ve seen and I’ve seen many, many motor vehicle accidents.”
Gloucester County Emergency Medical Services transported Gale to the Trauma Unit at Cooper University Hospital in Camden, where he spent three full weeks in a coma. Doctors could not give his mother, Barbara, a prognosis.
“They told me, ‘He’s on the fence. He could go either way,’” says Barbara, a single mother who raised three children after the death of her husband, Owen, a Rowan alumnus, 17 years ago.
Gale’s face was crushed. His jaw was broken. His right eye looked like a tennis ball, his mother says.
So many people
With heavy hearts, his Class of 2013 classmates participated in the Commencement ceremony and then reported straight to Cooper. There, with their families in tow, they poured into the hospital, bringing along positive energy—and food. They did so for weeks and started a Facebook page to keep Gale’s many friends and family members updated on his progress.
“I had so many upbeat people around me. So many people. I can’t tell you how many kids and parents and grandparents came up on the day of graduation. I had 20-40 people with me at any one time,” Barbara says.
“They brought meals to the hospital. College kids did that. People I had never met before were there.”
Gale’s Rowan professors were there, too. During summer break, they returned to his bedside again and again, talking to him, imploring him to open his eyes and come out of the coma.
“I tried to connect with him,” says Biological Sciences Professor Alison Krufka, one of many of Gale’s professors who visited frequently. Gale was a research assistant in Krufka’s lab, where he studied zebrafish.
“I joked a little bit. It was mostly about me having to take care of the zebrafish all by myself, about changing the water and how much work it was. I kept saying, ‘I need you back.’ His accident was absolutely devastating.”
“I was shocked by their outpouring of kindness, their generosity,” Barbara says of the Rowan faculty members and staffers. “As big as Rowan is, it has a small town feel.”
Recovery and rehabilitation
After three weeks in a coma, during which he battled fevers that went up to 105 degrees, Gale opened his eyes. Altogether, he endured six surgeries, a full month at Cooper, and three-and-a-half weeks at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia. There, he had to learn to walk, talk and feed himself all over again.
“My doctors knew I could walk. I just had to get there. Magee is one of the best rehab hospitals in the world. It also helped that they had really, really cute therapists,” Gale says. “They knew I was becoming more like myself when I started to flirt with them in therapy.”
In August, Gale’s Rowan diploma came, unceremoniously, in the mail. In January, miraculously, he began his pursuit of a master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering in Rowan’s College of Engineering with a focus on biomedical engineering.
With Engineering Professor Linda Head and her team, Gale currently is working on a device that would help determine a patient’s level of pain by measuring their blood flow using functional near-infrared spectroscopy.
“I want to get into rehab medicine,” he says. “That’s a direct result of my accident. It has the potential to really make a difference.”
“He knows the necessity of being able to provide a characterization of how people are functioning,” says Head, who convinced Gale to pursue engineering. “This work completely jazzes him.”
Ultimately, Gale would like to earn his doctorate.
“I want to teach college students,” he says. “In doing that, you give the field something important.”
‘Her love willed me to live’
In March, Gale inquired about the possibility of accepting his bachelor’s degree—364 days late. He did so for the benefit of his mom, the woman who spent last Commencement Day simply hoping her son wouldn’t die.
“Her love willed me to live,” he says. “My mom has nothing to show that I graduated…no pictures in my cap and gown. So this is for her.”
Gale will make his Commencement walk as his family, friends, Class of 2013 classmates, and the cops who saved his life look on. He’s not sure how he can repay everyone for their support, for their love—for him and for his family.
“Everyone being there showed how many people cared about my life. They were there for me. But they were really there to help my mom.
“I don’t know how to thank them, other than making myself available to them. Just being as much a part of their lives as they’ve been in mine,” he says.