The minute Billy Davis was sent flying off his motorcycle, he knew it was going to end badly. Davis, 38, of Jersey City, was taking exit 17S off I-87 onto I-84. His bike, a custom-built, tricked-out 1997 Suzuki 750, hit a patch of gravel and spun out. Both he and the bike slid, at about 45 miles an hour, across the road and into a guardrail.
When he came to rest, amid the smoke and dust near the stillhumming motorcycle, he couldn’t see his left leg. Moments earlier, Staff Sgt. Matthew Pinkston and his family had been driving down I-87 as well, and he saw the blue motorcycle pass him. “That’s a very cool bike,” Pinkston, a rider himself, remembers thinking. The family was heading to West Point, where they are currently stationed. They also took exit 17S.
As they rounded the turn, Pinkston saw the smoke and dust. He knew there had been an accident, and he is not one to pass a scene where help is needed. He pulled over. There on the road was the blue motorcycle. Its driver was sitting up, with his left leg apparently under him. A pool of bright red blood was growing larger and larger on the pavement. Pinkston, 48, a Purple Heart–awarded veteran of three tours of duty in Iraq, knew right away what he was seeing. The motorcyclist was rapidly bleeding to death.
The tale of how these two men arrived at the same place at the same time will test the firmest skeptic among us. Whether you believe in God, fate, karma or nothing at all, you have to marvel at what happened on May 19, 2012, at the intersection of two Hudson Valley highways—and two strangers’ lives. A leaky tire Davis, a personal trainer originally from Kansas, had been camping in the Catskills and was on his way to Orange County to take a ride with the motorcycle club he belongs to. On the way, he ran over some debris in the road. He stopped to check for damage but found nothing.
About an hour later, he noticed his cell phone was missing, so he turned around and headed back to look for it, adding two unintended hours to his trip. By the time he got to Exit 17S, his front tire, which had developed a slow leak, was nearly flat. It couldn’t hold the turn, and he slid feet first, on his belly, into the guardrail, which caught his left leg and nearly severed it just below the knee. “Pain doesn’t even begin to describe it,” says Davis. “It was the most intense, horrifying thing ever.”
His first thought was that he was going to get run over by another car. “I couldn’t get off the road,” he says. “But then Matt was on the scene.” Pinkston, an Ohio native who currently works in patient administration at West Point’s Keller Army Community Hospital, was hauling a camper back from a camping trip of his own, with his wife, Alexandra, and the two youngest of their three children. An hour or so earlier, they had pulled over at a rest stop to eat and discuss their trip plans. The timing put them just a few car lengths behind Davis.
A few moments earlier, they would have been ahead of him and would never have seen the crash. A few moments later, they would have been stuck in the traffic that backed up after the accident. Pinkston has been doing medically related work in the Army for 12 years, helping field doctors with triage and lending a hand whenever needed. He also had the gruesome job of sorting through, identifying and bagging body parts. He had taken combat lifesaving training and was given a combat field kit, which he calls “a first-aid kit on steroids.” And he always carried his kit with him on trips.
“I tend to stop at every accident I come across unless the authorities are there,” he says. Indeed, he had already saved the life of a man in Germany after a car crash and earned the Kavalier de Strasse, the highest German civilian award, as well as an Army commendation medal. “I guess you could say I was hardened,” he says. “I’d seen blood and mangled body parts on a daily basis.”
Keeping him conscious while his wife called 911 and then directed traffic away from the accident scene, Pinkston assessed the damage to Davis’s leg, which was folded under him. Davis was thrashing about, trying to get up. Pinkston saw the widening three-foot circle of blood, and when he tried to move the leg more blood squirted out. “It was bright red, so I knew he had severed his femoral artery,” he says. “He was bleeding out. I knew he could die in 45 seconds.”
Pinkston pulled a tourniquet out of his medical kit. “This was not the first tourniquet I ever applied,” he says. Once the bleeding stopped, he had to put his knee on Davis to hold him still. “I kept telling him ‘You’re gonna be fine, you just broke your ankle,’” Pinkston says. “And he said, ‘Bull—, dude, I lost my leg!’ I slapped him to keep him conscious because if he passed out he might not survive. If he was going to go, I decided, it would be while holding my hand, not while alone.” But in a part of his mind Pinkston vowed, “He’s not going to go while I’m here.”
Knowing he was in mortal danger, Davis grabbed Pinkston’s arm so tightly he left bruises and desperately tried to stay conscious. “I remember thinking it was a beautiful day, but really quiet,” Davis says. “I couldn’t hear anything and got nervous. I wanted to go to sleep and thought I was going to die. I heard nothing but his voice. He stayed calm, but he yelled, ‘Keep your eyes on me! Keep your eyes on me!’” About six minutes after the accident—“it seemed like six hours,” Pinkston says—the ambulance arrived.
Then a helicopter came to whisk Davis to Westchester Medical Center. “After it left, the paramedics asked me what hospital I was at,” Pinkston says. “I told them I’m not a doctor; I just push papers all day. Their jaws dropped. They said I had saved Billy’s life.”
A WILL TO RECOVER
Davis’s vital signs “crashed” several times during the ride to the hospital and he had to be revived. He had less than 15 percent of his blood volume in him when he arrived, and he was in the hospital for almost eight weeks. “The Good Samaritan’s intervention made treatment possible, but it was still a long course,” says David Asprinio, M.D., Director of Orthopedic Surgery at Westchester Medical Center.
Davis required a two-stage amputation and “a series of procedures to get the tissues healed while maintaining leg length.” Doctors and patient faced a tough decision at one point: whether to try to preserve enough of Davis’s femur (thigh bone) to make it possible for him to be fitted for an artificial leg. The downside was a greater risk of infections.
“He was immediately on board that he wanted to be as functional as he could possibly be,” Dr. Asprinio recalls. “If he’d been a more infirm individual, we would likely not have been able to attempt the more risky procedure,” says the doctor. The risk paid off. Competitive by nature, Davis turned his rehab into a personal test.
“I woke up swinging because, when I was in the dream state from medications, all I dreamed about was how I’d get back to competition. I am not wired to sit and think, ‘Why me?’ Why not me? If anyone can take this positively, it’s me.” By October, Davis was being fitted for a prosthetic leg and had returned to his personal training job part-time. Pinkston himself had some recovering to do. “It took me a while to get over Billy,” he says. “It sent me back to my time in Iraq.”
But since the accident, the two have developed a friendship. Davis’s girlfriend, Nikki Kimbrough, 37, a personal trainer and actress, served as a communications intermediary to help reunite the two. Through her, Pinkston was able to track Davis down and meet him in the hospital. “When I went in, no words were exchanged,” Pinkston recalls. “We started bawling like school kids, had a great big hug for about five minutes, held hands.”
And when the Army honored him with another commendation medal, he said he wouldn’t accept it until Davis could be at the ceremony. The day after Davis’ release from the Medical Center, he went to West Point for the presentation. The soldiers showered them with spontaneous chants of “Hoo-rah!”, sending chills through the audience. Pinkston and Davis stay in touch by email and text and hope to get together again soon.
Pinkston downplays his heroism, of course. “I wake up and walk through life like everyone else,” he says, “but it seems like weird stuff just happens to me.” “It’s miraculous that, of all the people in the world, Matt was the one who came by,” says Davis. “He knew what to do, had the equipment and was there before the bike stopped moving. And he did it at the drop of a hat, without hesitation.
“As far as I’m concerned we’re linked for rest of our lives,” adds Davis, who has made Pinkston a permanent addition to his Christmas-card list. “I wouldn’t be here today if it hadn’t been for him, and I can’t ever thank him enough.”
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