On the morning of January 28, 2014, freezing rain and snow glazed the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, bringing chaos to a city unaccustomed to those conditions. Schools shut down, businesses closed and residents frantically tried to make their way home, leading to gridlock on the roads.
Kelly Garner set out that afternoon to assist motorists and get as many people as he could to safety. As night approached, Garner began to walk home to his wife and two sons.
One hour turned into two and two into three. It was 8 degrees outside and his family hadn’t heard from him. Word began to spread as his photo was shared on Facebook and Twitter. His friends and neighbors feared the worst: He could be frozen. He’s a Type 1 diabetic, and hadn’t had his medication. There’s no way he would be found alive, some worried.
The morning after he disappeared, after a community-wide search, his neighbor found Garner, bloody and barely responsive, in a ravine 40 feet deep.
The city’s only ambulance with snow chains rushed him to St. Vincent’s Hospital. He was later transported to UAB Hospital’s Level 1 trauma unit.
By the time Garner was found, he had not had food or drink for nearly 22 hours. He had been fasting for an arthritis-related hand surgery that was canceled due to the weather. He had a traumatic brain injury, brain bleed, seven broken ribs, broken scapula, shattered vertebrae, a broken toe and many scrapes and scratches.
It wasn’t until about four days in the ICU that Garner began to realize what was going on and where he was. Garner remembers nothing of the accident.
“I could easily have been taken off the face of this earth. You know that could have been it,” said Garner, then 48-years-old. “It could have come that quickly.”
Inspiration on the tube
During his 23-day recovery in the hospital, Garner was watching the 2014 Mercedes Marathon, an annual race through Birmingham.
He had trained for it 10 years prior, but a serious car accident disrupted his plans to run. Stuck inside, he once again felt inspired to try it.
“People were saying, ‘You’re so inspiring,’ but I felt like I hadn’t done anything yet,” Garner said. His hometown deemed him a hero and local media referred to him as the Good Samaritan.
Sitting in bed crying, Kelly said, “I will pull myself up out of this hospital bed, put those feet on the ground, and start this rehabilitation and run in the 2015 Mercedes Marathon,” he writes in his book, “The Night That Changed Our Lives.”
Around late August during his rehabilitation process, Garner began to pursue his goal. His doctors gave him the OK and he began training for the Mercedes Half Marathon with the help of certified running coach Danny Haralson.
“One breath. One step. One mile,” Haralson said to motivate Garner. “It’s a different way of saying ‘Be in the moment.'”
Haralson describes his experience training Garner as a complete joy. “If I said for today’s training we’re climbing Mount Everest, Kelly’s response would be ‘What time?'” Haralson said.
Despite his extensive list of injuries, 364 days after being released from the hospital, Garner was at the starting line with his surgical team, ready to run his first half-marathon.
“Mr. Garner, do you need some oil?” one of his doctors asked.
“Huh?” Garner thought to himself, as his surgical team began to laugh.
“You’re the tin man,” another one of his doctors said jokingly.
“Oh! All the metal in my back!” he realized.
Garner notes it was all the laughs along the way that made his race enjoyable.
Even after crossing the finish line in a respectable time, Garner feels disappointed he didn’t run a full marathon.
“When I was running the half and I was at that finish line, I really believe I could have done another half, a complete marathon,” Garner said. “That’s how cloud nine I was.”
He said he felt very little pain or discomfort during the race, just pure excitement, especially because his surgical team was so inspired by him that they chose to run alongside him the entire 13.1 miles.
“Running was the one sport that I felt I could still accomplish despite my diabetes. Plus, if I let anyone down, it would only be me, since it isn’t a team sport,” Garner, a diabetic since age 9, writes in his book.
Digging deep to persevere
It’s been two years since Garner’s long, cold night trapped in the ravine, and he still suffers. Hearing aids are now a must and his constant back pain plagues him daily, along with the effects of his brain injury.
“I’m getting pretty forgetful and don’t remember some basic things, like adding and subtracting, or names of TV shows and actors and actresses,” Garner said. “Some things I’m okay with, but a lot of other things I’m not.”
The 50-year-old credits his miraculous recovery to his faith. Nowadays, when Garner finds himself passing by the site of his fall, he stops for a moment to take it all in. He walks over, kneels down, looks at the ravine and says a little prayer.
“Thank you, God, for providing me with the blessings you’ve given me. And the inspiration you provided helped me to provide for other people,” Garner said.
After all Garner has been through, he hopes to inspire people to have more perseverance in themselves, and to “dig deep and find that.”
“I wish everybody had a little bit of Kelly in them,” Haralson said.
By Janissa Delzo
Special to CNN