Greenport man makes major strides in recovery after bicycle crash

04/06/2017 6:00 AM |

Three years ago, Bob Zimardo had a pair of 20-mile cycling routines.

Some days he’d leave his second home in Greenport and head east to Orient, taking in the sights along the way.

The fitness enthusiast’s other scenic route ran along Soundview Avenue in Southold, where he’d turn onto Hortons Lane to head back toward his home on Sixth Street.

The latter loop is the one Mr. Zimardo chose Sunday, May 25, 2014, when, shortly after the turn at Hortons, he lost control of his bike.

Three years later, the longtime medical supply salesman still isn’t quite sure what happened. At first, he thought he’d been hit by a car, but police told him there’s no evidence that actually happened. Instead, he likely lost control of the bike after narrowly avoiding being struck by a vehicle.

A Southold police account of the accident simply states that at around 8:20 a.m. Mr. Zimardo flipped over his bike’s handlebars after applying the brakes. He landed on his face and sustained severe facial injuries.

That account was repeated in that week’s issue of The Suffolk Times. No update was ever published.

But that’s not the end of the story. In fact, that day marked only the beginning for Mr. Zimardo. It’s the day he suffered a traumatic brain injury, one he’s spent every day since working back from.

A man and his saint

To tell the story of Bob Zimardo’s recovery, you first have to introduce his wife, Alex.

The couple met 50 years ago, during their sophomore year at the former St. Agnes High School in Rockville Centre. They had their first date senior year and, despite attending separate colleges, have been together ever since — marrying in 1973.

Naturally, it was Alex who got the call moments after Bob’s accident. The couple’s son, Bobby, was visiting the house in Greenport that weekend and they’d just left for a nearby park. Shaken, Bob Sr. managed to call his wife from his cell phone. There had been an accident, he’d explain. He was badly injured. Whatever his exact words were, they were among the last he’d speak for some time.

When doctors at Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport recognized the extent of Mr. Zimardo’s injuries, they had him airlifted to Stony Brook University Hospital. Yes, he had suffered the severe facial injuries police described.

“His face was mangled,” Ms. Zimardo said, describing it as resembling chopped meat. “He needed to have plastic surgery. We knew that right away.”

But Mr. Zimardo, who had just turned 64, was also experiencing swelling in his brain. Surgeons had to drill holes into his skull to relieve the pressure. He’d later have a craniotomy, as doctors removed an entire chunk of his skull.

Mr. Zimardo would spend most of the next month in a medically induced coma and suffered temporary paralysis on the right side of his body.

At the time of the accident, the couple was still working full-time and living most of their days in Huntington. Ms. Zimardo, however, was only two weeks away from teaching her final class at Long Island Lutheran High School.

When a partner suffers the type of injuries Mr. Zimardo endured, the spouse becomes a full-time caregiver. So his wife has been standing at his side every day since. After a month at Stony Brook, Mr. Zimardo began rehab at St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson, followed by several more weeks in the head injury rehabilitation center at St. Johnland Nursing Center in Kings Park.

After four months in the hospital or rehab, Mr. Zimardo was finally discharged. But six months later, he’d repeat the months-long hospitalization and rehab process after suffering a seizure.

Over the next year, medication and the injuries he suffered would render Mr. Zimardo non-verbal and unable to complete many of the tasks he might normally take for granted. He could no longer tie the ties he’d worn every day during his 40-year career — the last 12 of which he spent as director of sales at B. Braun Medical Inc. Something as simple as buttoning his shirt required his wife’s assistance.

This past Monday, the Zimardos were having their house painted. At one point, the contractor came to the door to ask a question. Ms. Zimardo briefly walked away from the couch where they were sitting together.

“She’s my saint,” Mr. Zimardo said, the words coming to him quicker than most these days. “She puts up with me.”

The turning point

Searching for a word to describe her husband’s fitness routine before his accident, Alex Zimardo settles on calling him “a nut.”

It might just be a fair assessment of a man who would spend two hours a day, seven days a week, at the gym and still find time for a 20-mile bike ride on Memorial Day weekend. Childhood friend Ed Albanesi said Mr. Zimardo’s routine bordered on “obsessive compulsive.”

Mr. Zimardo says calling him a competitor would also be accurate.

After working as a Spanish teacher in his 20s, the Freeport native left for a career in sales. He started his own medical supply company from the basement of his family home, a business he’d eventually grow to include six partners and 80 employees from around the country. They’d later sell a majority of the business to investors, who then voted to sell it altogether, necessitating one last job change, to B. Braun, for Mr. Zimardo.

As director of sales for a national company, he’d spend upwards of half his time on the road. Yet he still managed to find time to become certified as a personal trainer.

Fitness, Mr. Zimardo explained, was his passion beyond work and family.

It’s also something he had to put aside for 18 months after his injury. His gym routine turned into patterns of therapy. He saw a physical therapist, an occupational therapist and three different speech therapists.

In December 2015, occupational therapist Chrissy Berry of Southold convinced Mr. Zimardo to participate in the Cutchogue Fire Department’s Stuff the Sleigh 5K to raise money for Community Action Southold Town.

Mr. Zimardo had run the New York City marathon, the Long Island marathon and several triathlons in the past.

“I’ve done hundreds of races,” he estimated.

This one was different. An online results page for the 2015 Stuff the Sleigh race shows that Mr. Zimardo finished in 59:43.6, exactly one second ahead of the last place finisher, his co-pilot, Ms. Berry.

One month later, Mr. Zimardo returned to Fitness Advantage in Southold, where he’d been a member for several years. Now living in Southold full-time, he became a fixture there.

“Over the course of a few months he made tremendous strides in his strength, balance and coordination,” said gym owner Sarah Sirico. “After all the frustrations of not being able to do things quite the same as he used to, I have never seen Bob in the gym without a huge smile on his face.”

Mr. Zimardo credits Ms. Sirico with helping to change his life for the better.

“That was a big turning point,” he said of returning to the Route 48 gym.

But his old friends, Mr. Albanesi and John ‘Sol’ Solomita, say Mr. Zimardo also deserves a lot of the credit for his recovery.

“His recovery would not have happened, in my opinion, without the grit, determination and mettle that my good friend possesses,” Mr. Albanesi said.

“We always knew about his steel determination but his battle over the past three years probably somewhat still amazed us,” Mr. Solomita added.

Mr. Zimardo now has a new routine. He still has speech therapy on Thursdays, so that’s one morning he can’t visit the gym. And on Tuesdays this winter, the Zimardos volunteered at St. Agnes R.C. Church in Greenport, helping to set up the homeless shelter there.

He still manages to visit the gym at least five mornings, however, working out for his usual two hours. He does both crossfit and spin classes.

“He’s here for every single spin class,” said instructor Katelyn Browne. “He even comes to the ones he doesn’t teach.”

That’s right. Mr. Zimardo, now 66, is even teaching spin classes. When another instructor needed to take the winter off, Mr. Zimardo asked Ms. Sirico if she’d let him fill in, provided he completed his certification.

“She gave me a chance,” he said. “I love it. I like to teach and I think I’m good at it.”

Nearly three years later, he’s made so much progress in his recovery that he’s teaching spin classes at Fitness Advantage in Southold. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

Ms. Zimardo explains that, as with everything else he does, her husband has put his heart and soul into teaching the classes. He even arranged more than 40 music playlists for the speakers overhead as participants cycle.

On Monday morning, Mr. Zimardo was back on the other side of the spin room while Ms. Browne taught the class. Although he still has no feeling on much of the right side of his body, he completed the 45-minute workout along with everyone else. His legs moved just as fast, his breath was no heavier, no more sweat on his brow.

Asked if he thinks he’ll ever get back on the outdoor bicycle, he looks out the corner of his eye at his wife.

“He told me he wants to ride again,” Ms. Zimardo said. “I told him to get another wife.”

More work to do

Before his accident, Bob Zimardo had planned to keep working for two more years. It didn’t play out that way.

“I was at work one day,” he said. “It was over the next.”

But the folks at B. Braun, which is based in Bethlehem, Pa., never forgot about him. When the Zimardos sold their house in Huntington, a team of his former colleagues came to clean it out and help the couple move the remainder of their belongings to Greenport. They also held a fun run in his name. And, of course, the health insurance he retained after the accident saved him millions of dollars in medical expenses.

Now, nearly three years after he left the company, executives at B. Braun have invited him to their next annual meeting.

“They want to give me a chance to say goodbye,” he said, describing a sort of make-up retirement party. “I hope I’ll be able to say it.”

Speech is the last part of Mr. Zimardo’s recovery. He suffers from both apraxia and aphasia, a pair of motor speech disorders. Essentially, the messages from his brain to his mouth are disrupted when he attempts to speak.

The usual pleasantries — “Hey, how are you?” — come out fine. But when it’s time to answer a question or place an order, he struggles. This is, of course, common for someone who suffered a traumatic brain injury, but it still bothers Mr. Zimardo.

Socially, it’s been difficult.

After he leaves the gym each morning, he grabs a cup of coffee. He heads to either Aldo’s in Greenport or North Fork Roasting Co. in Southold, preferring the latter if only because the staff there is more familiar with his speech.

He knows he’s come a long way in the past year, having been unable to speak at all for nearly two years. But he sometimes wonders if he’ll ever reach the level of communication he yearns for.

“I don’t know how long it will take,” he said. “It takes time, but I don’t have the [patience].”

One place where his inability to speak as he wishes hasn’t mattered is the gym. Nancy Orientale of Southold has attended classes he’s taught and participated in them alongside him.

“He really has a wonderful story to tell,” she wrote in an email to The Suffolk Times.

Ms. Zimardo thinks her husband should take his story on the road, maybe teach a spin class to seniors at Peconic Landing or some other location nearby.

“He would be such an inspiration,” she said.

gparpan@timesreview.com

Top photo: Bob Zimardo suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2014 that left him partially paralyzed and unable to speak for two years. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

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