Over eight months into his recovery from last August's Alaska fishing plane crash that killed former Sen. Ted Stevens, ex-NASA boss Sean O'Keefe says he can finally sleep through the night, having junked his back and neck brace for good.
"Getting the neck brace off is like liberation!" he tells Whispers. "Instead of three two-hour naps, I'm actually sleeping through the night for the first time in eight months."
And for friends and coworkers at EADS North America, where he is CEO, who got used to seeing him in the brace and full white beard, another change. "I scrapped the beard. After one day's retention, it reminded me too much of life in the neck brace."
O'Keefe and his son Kevin were among the four survivors of the August 9 crash that killed Stevens and four others on a fishing trip through Alaska. They waited 15 hours in a cool drizzle for help, singing and telling jokes to keep each other awake and alive.
For weeks O'Keefe was kept still and quiet, suffering from a fractured neck, slowly returning to work last November. He kept the neck brace on as his top vertebra, the C-1, which connects the skull and the spine, healed.
"The best part is that I probably dodged the neck surgery. While the C-1 vertebra will never fuse the four broken parts, the fragments have stabilized by attaching elsewhere. That's what'll save me from surgery in the future—but the doc has banned bungy jumping, hockey, and bar fights. Not sure what I'll do with my weekends without those diversions," he says.
"The C-1 break, I've come to learn, is the most severe. Most don't survive and those that do, are paralyzed. The fact I've dodged both mystifies the docs," he adds. Still, his recovery isn't complete. "My legs are still lagging behind. The nerve regeneration in my left leg in particular is literally painfully slow. Feels like somebody is hitting me with a Taser gun all day," says O'Keefe, a long-time friend and former aide to Stevens.
But O'Keefe is convinced that he'll soon be fully repaired and healed and ready to travel back to Alaska for his next fishing trip.
"Once that challenge is conquered, and it's only a question of time, I'll be as fully recovered as could have ever been hoped for. Given the severity of the injuries at the very beginning, the pneumonia and generally torn up condition, the fact I'm alive is a miracle unparalleled to anything I've ever gone through. The randomness of all this convinces me of divine intervention—for purposes unknown to me," he says. "Life's good and every day is a bonus."