When a teenage bicyclist was struck by a semi, a helmet saved her life
LAKE ELMO, Minn. — Rowan Malmberg was biking to her boyfriend’s house one morning this summer when she thought she could dash across Lake Elmo Avenue and beat a semi-tractor trailer that was headed north.
The truck driver slammed on his brakes before he dragged 14-year-old Rowan about 100 yards and ended up jackknifed in the ditch with Rowan’s right leg pinned between the truck and the ground.
Rowan, a freshman at Stillwater Area High School, remembers coming to and “feeling all the weight of the truck” on her leg, she said.
“I just kept telling myself, ‘This can’t be real. It must be a dream or something,’ ” Rowan said. “I was crying and yelling at them to get it off of me.” When she was in the ambulance, she recalls, she told herself to “just stay calm, relax. It’s not going to do any good to freak out.”
Rowan broke her femur, clavicle and pelvis in the July 9 accident. Her lung collapsed, and she suffered a concussion. She has scars on her back, legs, arms and hands.
But she says she’s alive today because she was wearing a helmet.
“There are two things you need if you get hit by a semi on a bike: a miracle and a helmet. She had both,” said Thomas Blee, the trauma and acute care surgeon who treated Rowan at Regions Hospital in St. Paul.
During a recent interview at her house in Stillwater’s Millbrook neighborhood, Rowan showed off the black Giro bike helmet she was wearing. It’s cracked in three places, and large chunks of its plastic shell are missing.
“I can’t imagine what her head would look like if she hadn’t been wearing it,” said her mother, Bonnie Malmberg.
After the accident, it took several days to fish pieces of helmet shell out of Rowan’s long, light-brown hair.
Doctors and nurses at Regions credited the helmet with saving Rowan’s life, Malmberg said.
“They said, ‘If she didn’t have her helmet on, we would be having a much different conversation right now,’ ” Malmberg said. “It was all such a shock and such a blur, but I remember that moment so significantly.”
Rowan said her mother, a nurse practitioner in the NICU at St. John’s Hospital in Maplewood, always stressed the importance of wearing a helmet.
“My mom said, ‘I don’t want you to end up brain dead in an accident or anything like that,’ ” she said.
Malmberg said she didn’t hesitate to use graphic photos and language to make her point to Rowan and her siblings, Tyler, 21, and Rayna, 11.
“I’d show them a picture and say, ‘Look at this, he didn’t wear a helmet, and now he’s drooling,’ ” she said. “This kid wears a diaper, and his mom has to wipe poop off his bottom … because he wasn’t wearing a helmet.”
Rowan started riding her mother’s white 18-speed Cannondale road bike with clip-on pedals in 2016 to condition her legs for soccer.
“I wanted to build up my cardiovascular endurance … so I wouldn’t get so tired,” she said.
Before the accident, she was riding about 10 miles a day.How it happened
On the morning of July 9, Rowan was bicycling west on 50th Street North about 9:30 a.m. when she came to the stop sign at Lake Elmo Avenue.
“I was standing up to see, and I didn’t see anything coming from that direction,” she said. “I started to cross into the street, and then I saw the truck. I tried to stop, but it was too late, so I just said, ‘Go.’ I tried to go as fast as I could. I didn’t realize how fast the truck was going.”
The driver of the 1997 International Industries tractor-trailer rig, Jason Mann, 27, of Harris, Minn., told police that he saw Rowan and applied his brakes, causing the tires of his rig to lock. They collided in the middle of the intersection, and the truck went into the northwest ditch.
“There were 100 feet of skid marks left by the truck, so he saw her; it was just too late,” said Washington County Sheriff Dan Starry. “Rescuers were able to dig her out before the tow truck got there.”
A man who was driving behind the truck stopped and ran to help, Malmberg said.
“He held her and told her it was going to be OK,” she said. “I was so grateful there was someone there, so she wouldn’t feel all alh4 class="">>The recovery
Rowan, using crutches to walk, was able to start school on Aug. 29. She is now off crutches but has an abbreviated school schedule, alternating between going mornings and afternoons. After school, she often comes home and takes a two-hour nap, she said.
Once a week, she meets with physical therapist Mitch Kary at Twin Cities Orthopedics in Stillwater and works on strength and balance exercises.
Kary said Wednesday that Rowan’s progress has been remarkable.
“She was in a wheelchair when I first saw her, and now the average person couldn’t tell that anything happened,” Kary said. “Ten weeks later, she’s doing single-leg squats.”
Rowan said she has always been interested in medicine, but is now considering specialAnother life saved by a helmet
Dorian Grilley, executive director of Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, reached out to Rowan after reading about her accident. Grilley, who lives in Mahtomedi, was struck by a car while biking in 2010. His helmet, he said, saved his life.
“I’m sure my head would have been broken in pieces,” Grilley told the Pioneer Press a few months after the accident. “It’s amazing how well this absorbs impact. I must have hit my head really hard, because bicycle helmets don’t just break.”
A well-fitted helmet likely saved Rowan’s life as well, he said.
“A helmet is a critical accessory whether riding on roads or trails. You never know when you’ll need it,” Grilley said. “Also, when crossing a road, everyone needs to know that the speed of large vehicles is harder to judge than that of smaller vehicles.”
Grilley gave Rowan a ticket to ride in next year’s St. Paul Classic Bike Tour, which he hopes will be an incentive for her recovery.
All riders are required to wear helmets, he said.
“You can fix a broken pelvis and a broken clavicle; all the bones you can fix. Your brain? It just can’t be fixed,” Bonnie Malmberg said.