“Grateful doesn’t begin to describe it. There aren’t words to describe it.” –Erik Lemke, UMD grad and blood recipient

After Erik Lemke’s bicycle accident, life slowly returned to normal. He got back on his bike. He ran a half-marathon. He finished college. 

The blood of 12 strangers helped make that recovery possible. 

It was a warmer-than-average day in March of 2011 when Erik and his buddies sped their road bikes along Howard Gnesen Road near the outskirts of Duluth. “I was training with a bunch of guys I’ve known for years, riding a road I had ridden literally thousands of times before,” Erik said. Forming a pace line, Erik was second in the pack, awaiting his turn to relieve the leader. 

“The guy in front of me saw the car parked on the side of the road.” Parked, turned off, with no flashers blinking, the dark-green car was set against a dark-green landscape fading into a late-winter sunset. “That road is narrow, so my buddy moved aside to pass the car. I thought he was coming off the front of the line, so I pushed ahead to take his place. I hit the car square on.”

Erik broke through the car’s rear window. His clavicle shattered. Pieces of the window lacerated his neck. His jugular vein was cut open—lengthwise.

“So many fortunate things happened in those moments after the accident,” Erik shared. “The guy who had been at the front of the line was CPR trained, so he kept me from bleeding out. One of our other riders was a pizza delivery guy and knew the location really well. He called 911 and told them exactly where we were.”

Paramedics brought Erik to Essentia St. Mary’s in Duluth. “I’d lost 45% of my blood and was in stage four shock. My blood pressure was 60/40. During four hours of surgery, doctors removed 16 pieces of glass from my neck. The window had cut through the muscle that’s the prime mover of the neck. So I no longer have that on one side.” 

Erik was in the hospital for nearly six days. He received 12 units of blood, 42 staples in his neck, six screws in his clavicle, and developed Horner’s Syndrome from trauma to his eye socket. 

“I guess I recovered pretty quickly,” he said. “The sheriff who was on the scene of my accident came to visit me in the hospital a couple days later, and couldn’t believe I was sitting up in bed. I was back on a bike in eight weeks. I ran a half marathon 10 weeks later.”

Erik doesn’t remember anything about his bike ride for about eight miles prior to hitting the parked car. “Little pieces have come back to me on occasion, but six years later, I still don’t remember it all.”

But as years pass since Erik’s accident, he realizes how much effort it took to save his life. “My accident put things into focus and helped me understand what’s important in life. I was able to meet my first responders, to thank my buddies, to thank the doctors who helped me. Now I’m just wondering why 12 strangers donated that blood—the blood that was sitting in the hospital right when I needed it.”

Today, Erik works as a content strategist for an outdoor sports advertising firm—creating content for 21-year-old bicycle racers, just like his younger self. 

“Before my accident, I had never given donating blood a second thought. Today…” he paused. “Grateful doesn’t begin to describe it. There aren’t words to describe it. Blood donors are some of the most important players in trauma experiences. Now, seeing what blood donors do is so much more meaningful to me.”