Surviving a tragedy and getting back on your feet is a story worth telling. Dr. Peter Raisanen, a naturopathic doctor, shares his path towards the medical field, a traumatic near-death car accident, and what made him pursue helping others and treating illnesses. Having experienced a massive head injury, recovering, becoming depressed, and recovering again, Dr. Raisanen shares how he’s living a miracle and proves to us that perseverance, hope, and the people surrounding us are keys to our healing. He also talks about how he learned about integrative medicine and how meeting a naturopathic doctor satisfied his thirst for such knowledge. Be inspired by Dr. Raisanen’s one-of-a-kind enlightening experience that will make you believe in the power of hope.
We have Dr. Peter Raisanen. In the blink of an eye, for better or worse, life can change in an instant. Dr. Peter was coming home from a regular day of working out and class at the University of Arizona when a car hopped a curb, crashed into a traffic light pole and the pole ended up falling on the back of Dr. Peter’s head and neck, leaving him with a very serious traumatic brain injury. Despite what you have heard, it is entirely possible to recover from a serious brain injury. Dr. Peter is living proof of that. It is not easy but with extreme determination and an undenying will to get better, the body can heal from almost anything. You can get your life back. Dr. Peter discusses his long recovery process, his solo cross-country bike trip after the injury for charity and how it led him on the path of what he is now as a naturopathic doctor. His story is truly amazing and inspiring. It was an honor to talk with the life doc, Peter Raisanen. I hope you enjoy this episode as much as I did.
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The Life Doctor with Dr. Peter Raisanen
Pete, how are you doing?
I’m excellent. Thanks for having me on the show, Kevin.
It was so much fun being on your podcast and getting to know you a little better. I know you have an amazing life story and a great recovery story. It’s very inspiring. All the people you’re able to help with natural medicine remedies and getting people better. That’s what the podcast is all about. I would like to get started and ask you, where are you from originally?
I was born in Royal Oak, Michigan at Beaumont Hospital but I grew up mainly in Arizona almost my whole life. Probably about twenty-something years of my life, I’ve been here in Arizona and five years, we’re in Minnesota. We did live on a farm in Minnesota. It was two different farms and that was a neat experience. That’s where my dad grew up. It was interesting as a young kid to see that and go into the barn and help milk the cows and do all that stuff. There’s a huge contrast between living in the country and living in the city but I’ve lived in the city for most of my life.
I feel like there’s a big misperception about Arizona in general. When I moved out west to California, I visited a couple of times. It was not what I expected going from Phoenix, Scottsdale, Sedona and Lake Havasu. It’s all completely different areas in one state. Honestly, this is going to sound ridiculous. I had no idea. It gets freezing-cold in Arizona.
It gets so cold here in the winter.
Everybody thinks it is desert and it’s hot.
The desert’s cold in the winter. One of the survival tips that survival experts will give is if you get caught in the desert, one of the things you have to have with you is a pair of pants. You got to have long sleeves and a pair of pants because it gets so cold at night. It’s so dry, the temperature changes are drastic. You could have a 60-degree winter day and at night in the desert you could be 25 to 30-degree. You could be freezing.
I went camping in the Grand Canyon a week before Christmas and I didn’t check the weather. There was snow on the ground and it was freezing. It was the coldest night of my life.
This is coming from a guy who’s in New Jersey. It’s the level of preparation. We did stay there and we had 30 to 40-mile per hour winds howling through camp. It was absolutely frigid at the Grand Canyon.
Dr. Pete, what were you into growing up as a kid?
I loved golf and I loved hockey. Those years in Minnesota, there are lots of pond hockey. The town we grew up close to my grandparents and my dad grew up in is called Cokato, Minnesota. There are not many people in the town. I don’t even know the population. If I had to throw a wild guess, I’d probably say between 5,000 and 10,000 people in the area, pretty small town. The rink was right across from my grandma and grandpa’s house. We’d skate all the time.
There’s nothing better than playing pond hockey. That’s easily my favorite winter activity.
That was my major activity and I brought that to Arizona with me. I started playing roller hockey when I moved here. I played a lot of roller hockey, which is unique because it’s different from skates.
It’s still a lot of fun though.
I played a lot of golf. Starting in middle school, I played every summer because it was a junior membership and it was $25 for a year. I can play for $5 all day long. My mom would drop me off at the golf course and say, “Have fun,” and that was her way of getting rid of me for the day. It’s a win for everyone.
Did you always have a passion for becoming a doctor and healing and everything or was that something you found later on in life?
It was something I found later in life. I admired my grandpa growing up as well as my father but my grandpa stood out. He was such a smart guy and very analytical. He’s a lot more analytical than I am and I always admired his ability to be so. I thought I wanted to be an engineer until I got into high school and started getting into math. In junior or senior year in high school, I said, “Forget this. I’m going to go do something totally different.” I have no idea though I was going to go into medicine in any capacity until later on in life.
You had a pretty significant life-altering event happened to you and it changed the course of your life.
It was the best and the craziest thing that happened. It’s the reason I’m here.
It’s such a crazy, unexpected thing. I’m curious to ask you what were the previous days and weeks like for you before the event happened?
It’s a good question and not one that people ask but it frames the story in a unique way. I was training for a Half Ironman in Quarter Lane, Idaho and I was running and biking a lot. I had straight A’s at the University of Arizona. I was pre-med and I published a case report that was put in the Journal of Pediatric Surgery with a mentor of mine who is a pediatric surgeon. I was working on all these different projects and life was too easy. I remember lying in bed one night thinking, “If this is all it’s going to take to keep doing these things that I’m doing, there wasn’t much of a challenge in it.” I remembered from a sermon that I had heard at church that they had said, “Pray for trials in life.” That was about a week prior to the accident. I prayed for trials in life that my faith would be strengthened, which is crazy because I didn’t remember that until years later. Things come back to you over time and that was something I distinctly remember.
Walk us through that week, what was going on? Then we’ll get into what happened.
At the University of Arizona, I was studying Nutritional Science and a minor in Chemistry. On a week-to-week basis, I had classes and then I was a teaching assistant. They hired me as a graduate teaching assistant as an undergrad. I was teaching to a lot of first years and second years, the Intro to Nutrition course. I was doing that on Fridays and I made my own presentations to 100 undergrad students that I was helping learn the fundamentals of nutrition. I was also working on another research paper for the pediatric surgeon that I had published the original case report for and some research and doing IRB approvals and stuff.
I was also going to the gym. I would wake up at 5:00 in the morning and at 5:30, go for a bike ride up a mountain pass called Gate’s Pass in Tucson and that would be a 25-mile ride. I started getting into biking. I had bought a bike from the golf coach at the University of Arizona and dove right into it. I would go sometimes swimming to workout but I was studying during the day and my place where I lived was five blocks from the U of A. I lived off-campus but it was so close. It was relatively like on campus. I bike, walk to school or something like that. The daily activities were wake up, go and exercise, come back to the apartment, eat something, head to school, be there all day long studying and I had a lot of responsibilities at the time, too.
How did you feel? Did you feel pretty good? Were your energy levels good or were you like, “I’m spread too thin right now and this is too much?”
Looking back, even from what I remember, I felt that things were pretty good but I was missing something. Things were humming along and people from the outside looking in, it would be like, “Everything’s going great for him. He’s doing it and he’s taking care of business.” I would come home on the weekends. My home is in Scottsdale, Arizona and I was down at the University of Arizona, which is in Tucson. I’d come home on Friday night. I worked in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit when I was in college in town and then when I went to the U of A. I was in community college here and I was working at the hospital and I kept that job when I went down to Tucson. I would come back on the weekends and work a shift. Maybe it would be a Saturday or overnight. Something to keep my feet in the hospitals. It didn’t matter whether or not I kept hours up in the hospital. It was money coming in and it was a fun job. I enjoyed it.
What exactly happened with the accident? Let’s jump into it.
I was at the University of Arizona studying and I was at the Rec Center. I had gotten done with a swim workout. I had my Speedo backpack and I had a bunch of stuff in there, a kickboard and all my different equipment. I had finished the swim. I had dressed back into my gym clothes because I was biking, commuting to campus from where I was living. I had moved by this point. My whole college time at U of A, I live close to campus and then I had moved with a buddy of mine to his house, which was miles away from campus. I was in my gym clothes heading back to my bike so that I could bike home. I’m waiting right by the Rec Center, there’s a traffic light and there’s one busy intersection that goes between that. It’s called Sixth and Highland. It’s right between the Rec Center and the main campus. I’m waiting at the traffic light for the light to turn so that I could cross the street, get back to my bike and bike home.
That’s the last thing I remember. From the stories and the things that happened in the police reports and all the witnesses, a car jumped the curb to try to avoid hitting another car and he ended up hitting the traffic light pole. The traffic light pole is what ended up falling and landing on the back of my head and my neck. It pinned me to the ground. I don’t remember any of it because you wouldn’t. I think it was the crosswalk box that smashed me on the back of the head because the side of my head at the back, there was a lot of damage. People said the pole landed on me but I’m not exactly sure what happened. All I know is that I had a traumatic brain injury. On the scene, when paramedics arrived, I was resisting and I was combative.
Did you even know what you were doing?
No, I didn’t. I don’t remember any of this. They strapped me down to a stretcher, put me in a cervical collar, brought me to the trauma bay and I was taken care of at University Medical Center in Tucson. It was so happened to be lucky enough that I was able to remember my dad’s number of all numbers because I barely remember my dad’s number now. The chaplain ended up giving my mom and dad a call and said, “We’re not sure what’s going to happen with him. You’d better head down here.” It was a long two-hour drive from my mom and dad to come from Scottsdale to head down to Tucson to come to see me at the hospital.
What injuries were you sustaining at this point? Was there any internal bleeding or anything?
I had a midbrain bleed and I had lots of lacerations on my scalp. I had a pneumothorax and I broke a couple of ribs. They thought I had broken C7. There were compression fractures of T2 through T5. I was very lucky because one of my good friends, Adam, was an anesthesia resident at the time and he got a call from my sister saying, “Peter’s showed up in trauma.” He went down there and he was getting off work. The neurosurgical resident was sewing up my forehead. They had staples, lacerations and different things. They were full-thickness on the top of my head. It went all the way down to my scalp. He was sewing up my head and Adam had told him, “Take care of him. He’s my buddy.” He took an extra hour or two to do more of a plastic surgery type of a job on my forehead. I have a Harry Potter scar but you can’t tell from the injury.
Emergency medicine is fascinating. It’s unbelievable what they can do. You get a lot of natural doctors out there and everything has a place as pretty much what I’m trying to say. It’s amazing what that can do and there’s a place for every type of medical discipline.
There are a few crackpots out there of different people who are hedging everything on something, one modality or another. I believe every single drug even has its place. The biggest thing is to be understanding of these other things, to be open and be inquisitive about what they have to offer. The trauma was instrumental in helping put me back together, Humpty Dumpty after that accident. I’ve seen it many times having done mentorship and worked with the pediatric surgeons here in the Phoenix area. I am spending time with them, watching them put back together gunshot wounds and the different things that they put together. It’s insane the type of work that they can do. Everything has got its place and no place would I rather be than in our society with our current western medical model for trauma care, nowhere else in the world.
Pete, how long did it take you to come back in, come to and assess your state and what’s going on?
I start to remember random things from the second and third day. The third day, I remember more. The first and the second day, I don’t remember anything. People were saying I was saying interesting things like, “Put the sweet potato in the oven at 350 for an hour.” My mentor, the pediatric surgeon I was working within the Phoenix area, drove down to the hospital because she heard about the accident, took her girls with her and came down there and pretty much told the staff in the hospital, “He’s going to be under my care. Make sure that you give me all of his records. I’m going to be taking care of him. I’m going to be referring him out to everyone that I need to take care of. He’s my patient.” She also told me, “The one thing you’re going to want to do is to try to take as little to none of the pain medicine as possible. If you have to take anything, Ibuprofen or something like that but if you want to try to remember things, let’s probably get you off of the Hydrocodone and the different pain medicines you’re taking if you don’t need them.” At that point, I stopped taking any of those other pain medicines and took 600 or 800 strength Ibuprofen a few times a day for pain.
What was the language being told to you at this point? You are probably pretty freaked out as well.
The initial scare was probably the worst for everyone but being there, I was thankful to be able to be in that. I remember telling the first people that I saw that I was thankful to be alive and then I’d be the most grateful cripple. I was thankful to be there with four people and with people. I had cousins and my parents were there. The mentors that I had, came into the room. I had a different pediatric surgeon who was a mentor in Tucson. He came in and he was joking with me and telling me I didn’t have any height to lose. I was trying to walk as much as I could. I did have severe diplopia, double vision, as a pole hit me in the back of the head and in that occipital region right there. It’s what generates our vision.
I did have cranial nerve palsy and I saw double when I would look down and to the left. I remember the only thing is they had said, “The brain bleed stopped within 24 hours.” They didn’t have to do any intracranial monitoring or anything like that. We all breathe a big sigh of relief because that’s where the big problems come in if you keep bleeding in the brain. My back was sore and I had to learn what I could and couldn’t do to bring on severe pain. Lying down was hard because I was in this big thoracic and cervical combined brace. I couldn’t move my head at all and I was trying to move my head and they were like, “Don’t be moving your head. You can’t be doing that.”
Especially if you had a fracture on either C7, T1 or T2, they probably didn’t want too much rotation going on. Did you have any blaring headaches, brain fog, trouble concentrating or after a couple of weeks were you pretty sharp?
No, I had significant trouble concentrating, focusing and remembering anything was the biggest challenge. People came into my room and it was people that I knew even to which is interesting. I want to see their names because of my background, I enjoyed sales and I’ve been in sales before too. For me, remembering people’s names, I love that. That’s a key thing in life knowing someone’s name. I would want to say people’s names and I’d be like, “Mom, what’s their name again?” She would have to remind me of people’s names. People would tell me something, they would leave and it would be totally gone. I wanted to take notes all over the place but I couldn’t take notes. That was troubling for me more than the physical aspect.
On the fourth day, I was transferred to an in-patient rehabilitation hospital in Scottsdale, Arizona because I was going to go from there to home. We did PT stuff every day. There were all kinds of things that we were doing but nothing was focused on my mind and nothing that we were doing was focusing on my memory or trying to help me with my mind. I was like, “I don’t care if I’m physically crippled in some way but if I can’t use my mind.” Am I going to be stuck with not being able to remember things? How’s this going to go? Certainly, I can’t keep doing the route that I had planned if this is the case. I was stuck there and I tried not to get too hung up on it. I take naps as often as I could. I was irritable if I got tired and that’s where my mom started telling me I was a little kid again. She was like, “You’re getting irritable. It’s time for a nap.”
Pete, especially with everything your life prior to this accident, you were going all the time, you had a lot going on and you also said there was something missing. With any brain injury or any huge setback in life like this, you spend a lot of time on your back at night staring at the ceiling, thinking about what’s going on. What was that reanalysis of life like? What were you thinking about? What were you contemplating? Did you try to figure out what was missing in your life and did it steer you in a different direction?
The big thing that happened to me with all of this was that life was taken back to a very simple structure. On a day-to-day basis, the main things that I had to focus on were sleeping, I had to eat good food, I had to do the physical activity that I need to do, which was my PT and I needed to be around people. Relationships are important to me and then I wanted to be advancing myself in some way, shape or form. I’m a big disciple of the green, growing ripe and rotting mentality. You’ve got to be doing something every day. The big thing that became very evident to me was that I wasn’t missing anything all along is that I was brought back to what matters in life. Faith was where I realized that I was ready to go at that time but God didn’t take me.
I’m here for some other purpose than what I was serving at the time. Being home, I would sleep well. Mom would tell me to take naps if I got irritable or whatever else and then movement became an important thing. I was doing my PT but then about a couple of weeks into my rehab at home, I decided I was going to start pursuing the things I used to do when I was home on the weekends with my family. I would go for walks around a local golf course. In my big brace without my ability to bring my head down or up or have any cervical rotation, turned my head side to side. The big thing was I’m going to walk around the golf course.
I can’t look down but I’m going to have to be surer of my steps. I’m going to have to bend my whole body if I need to look down. I started walking and I’d walk anywhere between six and twelve miles a day. My memory was bad but I wanted to try to strengthen and see if I could get my memory back on my own. With this determination that I had, I was listening to a podcast and walk the golf course. I listened to it and I listened to it over again. It’s like I was trying to remember something and it was blank. I couldn’t remember anything.
How many months or weeks? What are we talking here after the incident right now?
It was pretty static. Initially, my memory was so much worse and I couldn’t even sustain five minutes of journaling because it was like, “This is what I’m doing right now. This is what I want to do today. This is what I ate now. This is what my physical activity plans are today. I want to read for five minutes.” If I could sustain five minutes of reading, I was lucky because I’d read back that same page and be like, “I didn’t remember any of that.” I’d read it over again and then I would fall asleep because reading made me super exhausted. I would read in bed to put myself to sleep as well.
The accident happened on the 10th day of the 10th month of the 10th year of the millennium. It was 10/10/2010. With that fall, it doesn’t cool off here until the end of October. We always say, “A Halloween hits and then it starts to cool off in Arizona.” You can have in the 90-degree range through October. Right after I’d been home for probably a couple of weeks and it started to cool off, walking was more of a reality for me and that’s when I put in more long days. I do twelve miles a day on that. I walk and I’d eat and then come home. I’d usually have friends over or somebody over in the evening to visit with and that boosted my spirits. Having friends that cared about, remembered what I was going through, were there to be able to share and make new memories with me.
Was anybody in your ear at this point that was like, “Pete, you might not get your memory back and you might have to live with this forever?”
At this point, I was too scared to talk about it. I was like, “There’s no way. I’m going to stay quiet about this because if people find out that this is what I’m like right now, this is a huge vulnerability.” From where I was, publishing papers and the straight-A pre-med student and this and that. I was like, “I’m going to keep quiet and hope that my memory comes back.” I don’t want this to be a severe disability going forward. People were like, “You look great. Things look great. It looks like your recovery is going awesome,” and inside I’m like, “Yeah, but,” that was the thing. At one point, I was probably a few months into my recovery process and I went in to start helping and looking at data for the pediatric surgeons I was working with. I was the research fellow. They were paying me to analyze data and to take it in and to put it into the spreadsheets.
That was later but I went in and my mentor was the one who was going to take over my care, with her in the office because she’s visiting. I’m trying to laugh and keep light of things and whatever and she says, “It looks like everything’s going great but to make sure that everything is good for you and you’ve got this highway to medical school as you’ve had before. Everything looks like it’s on par pretty much. Let’s get a neuropsychological evaluation to make sure everything’s good.” The way she said it was so sweet. I was onboard. If it had been any less gentle of a suggestion, it would have probably taken it the wrong way but she said it so nicely that I was like, “Okay.” I saw a neuropsychologist here in the valley and it was the hardest thing I had done in the longest time I couldn’t remember anything that I’d ever done that was harder.
They put different shapes in front of you and try all the different neurological cognitive tests. It’s probably draining, especially with someone that’s had a brain injury.
It’s probably about three to four months out and I was doing this testing. They tested every part of your brain. They look to see where there are correlations. Everything correlates with your brain function to a certain degree. They can draw and they can deduce what’s wrong based on the correlatives of all the different areas of brain function. Like your IQ and all these other things, they stack them and they line them up side by side and they go, “This is good.” For you, these are all lined up. It’s not either good or bad, it is what it is but it’s like, “Here’s all your numbers but this one is way off.” That’s the one for me was working memory, everything you do in school and everything you do in life. It’s like you interpret what comes at you, you make sense of it and you utilize that information in a new way. I went home from that test. I told my mom, “I definitely failed that test. Whatever it was, I did terribly.” It was so depressing.
Especially from being a straight-A student and mastering all tests that came your way before that had to be a pretty big letdown for you.
It was a super let down. I’m thinking about myself, “Now what?” When I went back to see her, she said, “We’re going to send you back. We’re going to send you to speech therapy. We’ll work on these different areas of the brain. That’s what they do to help you recover. They don’t just work with stroke victims or people who stutter or whatever. They work with people’s brains.” The neuropsychological evaluation gave the pointers as to what we needed to work on. I started seeing a speech therapist when I got back to school.
The accident happened in October and I went back to school in January. It was fast and honestly, it was probably a little soon. I know it was a little soon because even at school, the speech therapist I was working with, I told her I’m so distracted that she’s like, “You have to take everything in your room and put it in boxes and put it in the garage. You need your bed, your desk with a lamp on it and you need one dictionary.” She told me what I needed to do and it helped significantly. I took away the distractions. I dropped my course load from eighteen credits down to twelve to stay barely full-time at twelve units. I was significantly surprised at what I found was the mechanism for me to remember things, which was audio.
That was the best way for you to remember things.
I would start to use an audio recorder. I would speak my outlines and my notes for biochemistry class into that. That was how I could retain things. I need to speak it.
Was that the same as before the injury? Was that the best way you learned or were you more of a visual learner before the injury?
I don’t know if I ever even took it into account. I’m very auditory. I love listening to things. I’ve always loved that but I realized that this is a strength I have. I need to start utilizing this. The speech therapist said, “You’re going to compensate a lot but we need to focus on those areas in which you’re lacking and not pretend that everything is A-okay. We need to find and dig deep on these areas that are suffering.” That was the work that we did a couple of times a week and it was intense work. I’d get home from those speech therapy sessions and they were on my off days from school. I’d have to take a nap when I got home because it was exhausting.
Pete, listening to your story, it sounds like you’re always trying to find a way to overcome the obstacle where you’ve hit so many roadblocks. A lot of people would have been like, “I’m done. I’m going to wait it out and I’m not going to do anything. Maybe it will get better.” You were constantly trying to figure out how to get better. What do you think that is?
I had people that believed in me and I believed in myself. One of the things that changed my life dramatically was the summer after high school. At the end of high school, the last couple of years, I struggled with a substance-induced eating disorder. I was abusing Ephedra and I was taking it three times a day. It took away my appetite and I became anorexic. I went from 160 pounds down to 128 pounds. I’m not a tall guy but I was dinky. I was so small and I struggled with depression. I was stimulating myself all day long. If you’re stimulated all the time, where’s the time for repletion? I’d wake up at 5:00, I’d pop Ephedra, I’d go back to bed for half-an-hour and I’d wake up lit up for all day long. I would keep using that.
I struggled with depression at the end of high school and it was a sad time for me. What I did during that time was there was some reason I took and grabbed on. One of these things my cousin did in one of his summers, my cousin named Grant in Minnesota, I had heard that Grant had been doing a sales job all summer long. He was selling books to help out with his schoolwork, door-to-door. I was like, “That sounds sweet. Grant is an amazing person. I want to be more like him, sign me up.” I had no idea what it was going to entail except that it was probably going to be hard but I was game to do it. That summer, right after I graduated, I left the next morning for Nashville, Tennessee to the Southwestern company’s headquarters and we did sales training for a whole week. That was boots on the ground sales training for door-to door-sales and that was the most positive, optimistic and life-altering environment I have ever been in.
Taking that from sales training to head out to Brookfield, which is the town where I was going to be selling in, my cousin had already knocked on doors and found a place to live. That’s how we find a place to live. You knock on doors and you’ve got to know a certain thing that you ask people for. See if they know of anybody who has a place that they would rent out or something like that to a couple of college students that they’re not going to see much but that are going to be selling for $85 to $90 hours a week. That summer was what changed my life. There’s nothing like hard work boots on the ground for $85 hours a week. I knocked on over 4,000 doors.
What role did that play in the depression?
It kicked it and it was almost immediate. I don’t even remember what happened. I remember that I was focused on something else and not myself, not my body image, not this or that but everyone who I was around was a positive person. In the sales environment, I was like, “This is crazy. These people are like liquid sunshine.” This is who I need to be around and it disappeared almost immediately. That summer was the catalyst for me becoming a different person.
It rewired your brain and helps you with brain trauma.
It gave me that and having that in my background, I was like, “I’m capable of anything. If I can knock on doors all summer and sell to people who I don’t even know, then I can recover from this. I can do anything.” There was a quote by a guy named Roger and he was one of my sales training CDs. He had said, “If you can do this, you can do anything.” I thought to myself that I had always coursed through. Ever since then, maybe it was a little bit of an air of confidence I carried with me too. Always knowing that I could do whatever I wanted since I was able to do that. That was powerful.
That would explain why you kept searching for ways to get better. You finally found the audio and that was helping you stimulate your memory and retain things. Where did you go from there?
One thing I forgot to mention is before I got back to the university, there had been a TV crew that had probably documented the accident and they reached out to me.
Do you have video footage?
Not of the accident but they documented the trauma after in the scene and whatever else. They contacted me and said, “How are you doing now? We’d like to get in touch with you. We were there.” They reached out and I said, “Come on over. It would be great to have you guys over and you can see what’s going on.” They came over and they were videoing me walking and asking me what’s going on, “It looks like you’re doing great. What’s next?” They’re always looking for the what’s next story like, “What’s the next thing you’re going to do?” They asked me what I was going to do. My mom reminded me, “You’ve been talking about wanting to make this cross-country bike trip for a long time.” I said it in front of the TV camera. They said, “What’s next?” I look over at my mom and I look at the camera and I was like, “I’m going to bike across the country.” I committed to it in front of the camera. I was like, “Now I’ve got to do it.” I got back to school in the spring and this whole time I was going to speech therapy, I’d bike to speech therapy. The way I utilize my audio in recognition and my memory with that is I would go on these 80-mile long-distance rides to build my stamina. I would be listening to my notes while I was biking. I’d get back and ace my biochem exams.
Is this after the incident?
Yeah, this was after. Back in the university in the spring, I was starting to bike and I was still going to speech therapy. I was using my audio recorder to listen to my notes as I was on my bike rides.
I remember when I was able to start functioning again and exercise, I would tell people, “I’m going to go surfing and I’m going to do all this stuff.” They’re like, “Are you nuts? You had a brain injury. If you get the slightest bit hit again, you could be done. Aren’t you scared?” Was anybody in your ear, “You’re going to ride a bike on the road, you can easily get hit and have another brain injury?” Did that come up at all?
It came up with the pediatric orthopedic surgeon. I saw all pediatric specialists after my injury because my mentor is a pediatric surgeon. All of her referral partners were for pediatric guys. I got lollipops and stickers. I saw an orthopedic surgeon and he looked at my X-rays and he said, “You’re probably going to get arthritis in this area before other people and this and that. It looks like things are okay and they’re healing fine. You can take your brace off in a number of weeks and whatever.” This was in the wintertime and he had heard that I committed to this cross country. I think I brought it up or something like that. I can’t remember but they were definitely worried and the attorneys that were involved in the case, they were managing my insurance claims and all that stuff for me. They were like, “What are you thinking? What are you doing?” I definitely got looks and comments from people like, “You should not be riding a bike. If you rack that brain one more time, you’re done.”
That was probably something you needed. You probably needed to get back on the bike. At least, that’s what it was like for me. I needed to do the things I used to be able to do for me to be able to say I’m healed.
It was therapy and it was like my meditation. You don’t have to use your brain when you’re on a bike and you’re pedaling or when you’re surfing or doing whatever. You’re not all cognitive about it. You’re in the moment. You’re doing whatever it is and you’re acting. That was therapeutic. It opened up space for me to think and to be able to process things too because when you’re sitting on the bike for six hours at a time and going on a long-distance ride in the desert, what do you do? You think or you listen to something. If I wasn’t listening to my notes, I would be able to think and process things and solve all problems on my bike seat.
A cross country road trip in a car can be revolutionary. It’s got to be surreal on a bike. The open road, air hitting you and just going. How was that?
The cross-country bike trip was something that I dreamed up at the moment in front of that TV camera. Totally on the spot, I’m like, “Way to be spontaneous,” which is like the ax of my life after the traumatic brain injury. My spontaneity went through the roof and also being direct. I decided that I’m going to do the northern tier. Since I don’t like to do anything that’s easy, let’s take the longest route across the country. From Washington to Maine, Washington State the coast over to Bar Harbor, Maine was the longest route. It ended up being around 4,400 miles.
I started in the third week of May on the coast of Washington. For those of you who know Washington, it’s not very warm in May. I came from Arizona where in May, we’re already hitting 100. I was training with 100 degrees. I was sweating like crazy. I was wearing as minimal amount of gears as I could. I learned to pack the bike super light. I only had two pairs of on the bike clothes and two pairs of off the bike clothes, minimal necessities to get going. I need to bring a stove with me. If you’re training in a hot place, you’re like, “I don’t care about hot food. All I want is cold stuff.” You go to a cold environment, it’s like, “I could probably use something hot right now.”
What was your plan? Were you going to stop at motels and hotels? Were you going to camp? What was going on with that?
When I got back to school in the spring, I started planning and I bought the maps. The American Cycling Association has these pre-planned out maps for all these big routes. I got them and I started planning. I’m roughly going to bike these many miles a day. I’m assuming between 70 and 90 miles and start picking places where I’m going to stop and start planning a route to have a ballpark idea of what I was going to do. I decided to camp and this is a solo trip by myself after a brain injury. My mom was a little worried. I planned this thing. I was like, “I’m going to do this solo,” and I rode for a charity, the Children’s Heart Foundation. At the same time, when you’re biking, you don’t look like such a bum if you’re biking for charity.
I did decide to stay clean-shaven and all that. I planned out my route to go 80 to 90 miles a day and started on the coast of Washington. I wanted to be in Marquette, Michigan, which is in the UP of Michigan, Upper Peninsula. I wanted to be there by the 4th of July weekend because there were summer annual church services that were going to be held in Marquette. I was like, “It would be cool, it would be on the trip and stop there.” Another thing I wanted to do was stay with my great grandmother who was still alive at the time in Canada. I was like, “Bike up into Canada, come back in through New York and then finish up that way.” I could go in so many ways about that bike trip because it was so many things I learned.
Take your time with this because this is fascinating to me. This would definitely be a bucket list thing for me because I’ve been cross country in a car three times and that’s been amazing. I can’t imagine what it’s like on a bike.
You slow everything down by hours and hours and days. To highlight it quickly, I got to North Dakota and I was about to leave for my cousin’s place. I stayed with her over the night and my cousins from Washington had driven there. They left the previous night and I had been on the road for weeks and weeks. They got there and it was depressing. That’s a slap in the face. Going across the country, you see so much that you didn’t even see before. Nothing goes by in a blur. You get to look at the same time three or four times or you see stuff on the sides of the roads.
I probably could have started a bungee cord company with all the bungee cords that were all over the sides of the roads. It’s stuff you see that you don’t see but people were amazing. The biggest takeaways from the bike trip were people were so friendly. I would get into a conversation with someone. I’d be like, “I’m looking for a place to pitch my tent for the night. I’m going to be camping.” They’d be like, “Come to our house. You can pitch your tent at our place,” and then you get to visit with them at their house and they’re like, “You don’t need to stay outside, come in the house.”
They feel you out first and they realize you’re a good guy and then they invite you in.
That happened a lot and that was fun.
Where were you meeting these people? At rest stops or restaurants?
At grocery stores. My basic plan was to keep it simple and to stop at grocery stores on a daily basis instead of buying and getting fast food or doing any of that stuff. My goal is to load up each day. I had enough stuff for the entire day and made it through the day.
How much water did you have on you?
I only had four decent size water bottles. The longest I ever went between places typically would be between 15 and 30 miles. It would be another stop which isn’t that long. I think of the US as one big strip mall. There isn’t a place that you can’t go or you can’t get what you need. I realized quickly on the bike trip, I had too much stuff and I accumulate stuff. I send it home in a UPS box so that way I kept myself light. I’d stop at grocery stores and get all my foodstuff for the day. I had a handlebar bag and I’d put some food in there. I kept my sleeping bag, my tent, my sleeping pad, two pairs of on the bike clothes and two pairs of off the bike clothes.
A simple lock and it wasn’t even for securing the bike. It was more to hook it to my zipper to my tent at night. If someone tried to steal it and run away with it, they would pull the whole tent and it would alert me. I never had to worry about it though. I stopped locking the bike pretty soon into the trip because I felt like it was totally pointless. People are so friendly. I left my bike outside grocery stores all the time. No one took anything. I did have an iPad too so I could blog the trip and that was a lot of fun. I’d stop maybe every three to four days and I do a blog post on what I was up to and share.
What roads did you choose? Did you have to avoid some of the major highways and go more of a scenic route?
The ACA is pretty good about that with their bike maps and they take you where it’s bike-friendly. Highway 2 across on the northern part of the country is relatively remote. It’s a highway but it’s only a two-lane, sometimes four-lane. It was pretty basic and rural back roads. Starting off in Washington, I found my way to where I needed to go. I actually had to deviate them. Originally, I was planning to take the old cascades highway in Northern Washington and there were twenty feet of snow on the pass. I planned it for summer but to them, that’s not summer. It’s not summer until the 4th of July in Washington. I had to deviate right away. I went from Washington and deviated and went back up.
I made my way back to the root and then went through Idaho, stayed with some friends there. The mayor and his wife in Sandpoint, Idaho were my friends. They treated me like a king and I partially ruptured a tendon in Washington. It was so cold and my left foot I couldn’t really feel. I trained in Arizona, nice and warm out and got to Washington. I could barely feel my legs. It was so cold and so wet on some of these passes that I couldn’t feel my left foot. My legs were going through the motions. I couldn’t feel too much. One particular day, I was climbing up this mountain pass and it was straining. What they call grinding, mashing on the pedals and I heard a pop. I didn’t feel much. I was pretty numb still because I couldn’t feel my lower legs but that was bad. I don’t know what it was but that’s not good to hear a pop like that which wasn’t from my bike. That was from me.
I pulled into this little resort that was off the way, lick my wounds and assess it. I was like, “This is pretty bad.” I limped into a hotel that night. Ice packed it up and I was like, “Tomorrow I’m going to call some PT somewhere. I’m going to figure something out. I’m going to figure out how to do this.” I got into Sandpoint, Idaho on a song and a dance and a hope. I called a friend of mine who is a physical therapist in Minnesota and she said, “Ideally, you should stop and rest it. You should get an ultrasound and you should do all kinds of stuff to rehab that thing back up and assess the situation.” I was like, “The chances that I’m going to stop now are slim to none. There’s no chance that I’m stopping. What do I need to do to keep going?” She’s like, “See the PT in the town. See if they could see what they could do and see if you can get in with someone but otherwise, you can take Ibuprofen. It’s going to slow down the healing process and the remodeling and there’s going to be some detrimental effects of it but you can take it.”
I went to the first little grocery store I found and got some Ibuprofen. I wanted to use as little as possible and then I had that ice pack that I strapped around my legs. Some days you’d see me biking with this blue thing on my right ankle. I did meet a PT in the town. This is the spirit of people that I met on this bike trip. He came in on a Sunday. He wasn’t even in the office for a couple of more days. He’s like, “I’ll come in.” The mayor knew him. He wasn’t the mayor at the time. He had been the mayor and he was retired from his public service. He was like, “He’s a great PT. I’ll give you his number, text him and see what his availability is. If you need to stay in the town a few days where we can host you and keep you with us. They were feeding me good food and all that but I got ahold of this guy, this PT and he came in on his day off, he ultrasound my tendon.
It ended up being my flexor hallucis longus, which is that tendon that goes to my big toe on my left foot and it helps flex down. He ultrasound that and he taught me how to Kinesio tape it so that I could do one thing on a daily basis that would be not medically-related and not having to take medicines to help it. I did a tape job on it every day and from there on, that was the one thing that was a glaring setback immediately but I was like, “Whatever, this isn’t stopping me.” It’s a big mindset thing. I could have easily said, like you’re saying, “That was enough. Time to pack it in. It wasn’t meant to be,” but I was like, “No, I already told everyone I’m doing this and I’m committed to doing this. I’m going to figure out a way to get to the other side of the country. I started this trip with this ruptured tendon but let’s figure it out.” That was that and from there, the rest is history. I made it through Idaho in a breeze because I was in the panhandle of Idaho and then Montana was forever. I stayed with some friends in Whitefish, Montana.
That must have been beautiful riding a bike through Montana.
It was lovely. The western side of Montana is pretty. It’s mountainous and Glacier National Park. I biked around Glacier on US 2. I would have gone through it and I was right on the border. The highway is the border of it but I couldn’t go through it because Going-to-the-Sun Road was closed. They had too much snow and that was the original route that I planned but it’s okay. I went around that and then on the eastern side of Montana, it was like prairies. I didn’t realize that Montana was so flat. A lot of this, as you can tell, I jumped into it. I didn’t do all my researches to figure out what was what and where. I had a headwind. That year was rainy and there were lots of flooding. The headwinds were brutal. One day, I made 70 miles in seven hours. It took me forever and I was barely moving. I felt like I could have walked that fast but I was like, “I’m not getting off this bike. I’m going to keep going.”
I made it across Montana and into North Dakota. It was good. I had a solid day where the wind was at my back. I’m looking at the map because if I can turn that way the wind will be at my back and I could make a solid day. There was a route that cut from the northwest to southeast. I jumped on this route and I had probably fifteen to twenty miles per hour wind behind my back and I made 140 miles that day in no time whatsoever. I flew and that was my longest day. I made it into Fargo where I stayed with a cousin and in Minnesota where I stayed with friends.
I met a super inspiring young girl. I had known about her before my trip started. Her name was Olive and she was born with a brain tumor. They ended up operating on the tumor. Because of that, she’s partially blind or she is blind. She uses a walking stick and she has a Braille typewriter. I stayed with them at her grandparents’ home. For kids like her, I would have given everything. It was incredible. She was so inspiring to me. She was exactly what I was trying to do, which was not stop at anything and she was busy doing that. She’s a happy, healthy, young girl. She’s still got some results from that operation she had but she’s tumor-free and they monitor her. She doesn’t stop at anything. I met her in Minnesota and stayed with her family there.
I made it through. I stayed with some friends in Duluth and then I went over to Wisconsin. In Wisconsin, I sailed on a sailboat for the first time. I learned how to sail. On my way over there, I was like, “I’m going to learn how to sail.” I’m biking by these great lakes. I’m like, “This is great and this is so neat.” I got into this little town of Ashland, Wisconsin and I was hanging out by the docks and some guy comes over, he’s like, “It looks like you’re on a bike trip,” and then he goes, “I’m about to go sail for sunset. Do you want to come sailing with me and learn how to sail?” Just like that, the power of intention. From there, into Michigan and I stayed with friends in the copper country, the Upper Peninsula and then there were the annual church services.
I stayed for about five days in Marquette, Michigan. From Marquette, I left and went over the bridge into Canada and biked to my great grandma’s house and stayed with her for about four or five days. That was amazing to be able to be with her. This was not the last time but the second to the last time and we picked blueberries together. I mowed her lawn and she speaks Finnish. I had learned some Finnish having been in Finland before. We would communicate in Finn and she would speak simple English. She was 94 and still going strong. I had a buddy of mine who reached out to me and said, “One of my closest buddies said he’d love to bike with you for some of this trip. Is there any way that he could join you?” I said, “Sure, I’m going to be in New York next if you want to come. Fly out here and bring your bike and let’s finish this.”
Was he from Arizona too?
Yeah, he ended up flying to Albany and ended up having to bike up to meet me. We met in Ticonderoga, New York and we biked all the way from Ticonderoga. We stayed the night. This is the spirit of the people again. I’m going to give a quick little story. We’re in Ticonderoga and Ryan had met up with me. I had done my laundry and we had eaten. We’re relaxing for the evening and we get to this park. It’s a beautiful park and had this wonderful waterfall. There’s a sign that said no loitering in the park and this and that. You can’t stay there, no camping and whatnot. I was like, “It’s getting late. Let’s camp in the park and we’ll be out of here in the morning before anybody even sees us.”
We’re setting up our tents and stuff and it’s dark out. A four-wheeler rolls up and there’s a cop on it. He’s like, “What do you boys think you’re up to?” I’m like, “Sir, this is what I’m doing. I’m biking across the country and I’m raising money for the Children’s Heart Foundation.” I gave him this thing and I said, “We’re looking for a place to crash for the night.” He’s like, “I won’t let anybody bother you here tonight. You sleep here and I’ll make sure no one comes near you guys.” This was what happened on the trip. All you had to do is let people know what you were about and say it and whether people agreed or didn’t, whatever. Everyone was super accommodating. Ryan and I biked from New York, we went through Vermont, which we coined the term, elegantly backwoods because it was beautiful. I had never experienced anything like Vermont, although upstate New York, the Adirondack Mountains are probably the most beautiful place. Adirondack’s first then Vermont. New Hampshire was absolutely gorgeous and then getting into Maine. It was quick with Ryan. It was seven days and we were done.
Did you go faster with a buddy?
Yeah, he was pushing me and I was like, “I wanted to slow down and take it all in.” Finally, I did tell him, “You’ve got to get behind me. Let me set the pace here.” My cruising speed was probably fourteen miles an hour. It’s not super quick but I’m visiting with people, I’m stopping at roadside stands, buying green beans, eating them right there, stopping with the farmer and buying some strawberries on the side of the road. I’m in no hurry to get anywhere quick. I’m like, “I got all summer to do this.” Ryan pushed me in one day we did over 100 miles and we were flying. I told him at the end of that day, “That was way too fast and you need to get behind me because I’m going to burn out if we’re pushing this hard.”
I was still taking a little bit Ibuprofen at that point still. Recovery was impaired because of that. At the very end of the trip to Maine, a couple that I had met, they were in their 50s. They had gone for their 25th wedding anniversary, they biked across the country. They were in their 50s when they did it. It’s in the cards for you, I’m telling you. In the very beginning of my bike trip on the islands of Washington that I biked, they were at one of the islands and they said, “What are you doing? It looks like you’re going on a bike trip.” I was like, “I’m going to Maine.” They were like, “We live in Maine. When you get to Maine, give us a call, we’ll host you.”
I got to the other coast and gave them a call and they were like, “We were wondering when you were coming. We thought you had been through already a while ago.” We stayed with them and that was a good finale. I remember sharing stories all evening with them and another couple that they had biked together with. They went from B&B to B&B. They didn’t have tents and sleeping bags and all that. You could do it in a different way. We finished in Bar Harbor and the last day was depressing. When you get to something that you’ve worked so hard for and time’s almost up, the culmination of all that work for this, to roll down to the water and put my bike’s tires in the water. I said, “That’s it? Now I’ve done it.”
There was probably definitely a sense of accomplishment though.
I was high on the accomplishment and the fact that I could probably do anything I set my mind to. I was thinking, “What would I want to do next?” I bought books on sailing around the world and I had this adventure bug. I was like, “I’m not ready to go back and finish school right at this moment but I knew that was what I had to do.” It’s depressing to go back to school after doing something that exciting all summer.
What did that trip play in the healing process for you?
My double vision, which I was going to have surgery for it before I left, ended up healing. He was trying to talk me into it before I left. He’s like, “You’re going to have this double vision on the bike trip and you should probably get this operation done. If you haven’t healed by this time, it’s probably not going to heal. Stats say that.” I was like, “I’m going to heal it,” and left on the bike trip. I had said in my mind, “I’ll heal it,” but to him I said, “I can make the bike trip, right?” He’s like, “Yeah, you could, it wouldn’t hurt but I don’t think you’re going to get much recovery.” I attribute that to the good food, the good visits and all that circulation, all that good oxygen and movement. It was positive for everything. In the recovery process, I could say it was instrumental in my recovery.
Pete, what do you do? What are you up to? What are you doing? Who do you like to see in practice? What’s going on?
I came back from that trip and I took a change in plans. I lived a pretty holistic life. I didn’t know anything about naturopathic medicine but I had heard about integrative medicine. I found some doctors down the way that practice integrative medicine. I spent some time with them and I had spent all these hundreds of hours with the surgeons. I realized after two visits with the naturopathic doctor that he did everything that I wanted to do. He talked about nutrition, lifestyle and movement. He talked about their herbs and supplements and medications. You could adjust medications as needed. He could give them IVs and physical manipulation if you want. I was like, “Who does this?” To me, that was mind-altering. He spends 60 to 90 minutes with a client and he gets results. I like this and help people change their lives. In an instant, I decided in my impulsivity that I wanted to go to become a naturopathic doctor.
I could practice integrative medicine and naturopathic medicine. I went back to school and I applied to Bastyr University, which is in Seattle. After I graduated from school, I flew up to Washington and got going with that. Through that and the things I’ve done along the way, where my focus is on lifestyle medicine. It’s on the diet, mindset, growth in life, relationships, stress management and nutritional optimization and being the best of who you want to be. That’s my focus on people. I want to create a flourishing you. I don’t have any specific goals for you other than the goals that we work on together and the things that you line up for me. Being good referral partners are important things to me. I know the best physical therapists in Scottsdale, Arizona. I know amazing chiropractors that are both upper cervical and does general chiropractic work.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s in conventional medicine, natural medicine, chiropractic work, physical therapy or whatever. I want to be a good hub in the community for people to come when they’ve got something wrong. They know that I’ll be able to connect them with the resources that they need if I can’t provide them right here. Conditions I work with a lot are autoimmune diseases, ulcerative colitis, lupus, Sjogren’s, mixed connective tissue disease, Hashimoto’s, things like those are some of the common ones that I see. Crohn’s disease and digestive problems are pretty common in practice and I love working with them. I treat autoimmune disease. If we fix the gut, a lot of things are going to get fixed. We take care of people that way and then Type 2 diabetes is a slam dunk. I love working with people and it’s awesome to get people off their insulin in a few days.
I’m making waves with the new podcast I got started. Tune into The Rise Again Podcast. It’s got a big phoenix that’s sprouting from the ashes. Isn’t that the story of all of our lives? Even people whose miraculous stories you’ve got on your podcast. That’s what I’m doing and I’m loving life. I’m working in private practice. My wife and I, we have not been able to have our own children. Having been through this process for a little while, we’ve decided that we are going to foster and then through that process hopefully adopt and no limit to the number. We both grew up in big families. I’m the oldest of eight and she’s the second youngest of twelve. For us, it wouldn’t be out of the room to expect us adopting eight kids or something like that. We’re going to give it a go. We’re excited about life and what it has to offer.
Pete, are you ever on the East Coast at all in the New York area?
My mentor is in Flemington, New Jersey.
If you come out to see him, please come see me. I would love to get you under some upper cervical care and get you adjusted. I think you’d do well.
That would be awesome. I’d absolutely love it. There would probably be something there for me with that especially all I’ve been through. What if it’s the missing link?
It could be. Where can people find you online? Social media, websites, personal practice and all that stuff?
My practice is LifeDoc, all of my social media and my website are all going to be around that. My website is LifeDocAZ.com. I’m on Facebook at LifeDoc AZ and Instagram, @LifeDoc. That’s where people can find out what I’m up to and they can start tracking. The podcast episodes are going to start coming out. I’ll be sharing those on Instagram and Facebook as well. You’d be able to subscribe and do all that stuff and hear all these cool stories. A podcast is all about transformative living, whether it’s from health and financial ruin, kicking a life of mediocrity to the curb and pursuing what you’re passionate about most. That’s what I stand for in this world. I stand for people who want to transform their life.
Pete, at the end of every show, I like to ask my guests, what is one piece of advice that has resonated with you over the years that you would like to gift the audience? It could be absolutely anything.
You can have anything in life if you love people and seeking to understand. The biggest thing is we all listen with the intent to respond. If we can listen with the intent to understand what the other person is saying, that’s a game-changer. I’ve talked about that before with somebody else who said, “What’s the one nugget that I would leave?” I said, “If you can listen to people with the intent to understand what they’re saying instead of waiting to respond, you’ll come away with such a different perspective on life. Your life will never be the same.”
Thank you so much for coming on. This episode was everything I thought it would be and more. It was such an inspiring story. I love what you’re doing, you’re helping so many people and you’re going to continue to help so many people. I enjoyed this one.
Thanks, Kevin. When you come out to Arizona, please look me up. You’ve got a place to stay. The other thing too, I will support you in any way possible to get across the country on a bike.
You’ll hear it first if it’s happening.
When you commit to it, let me know and I’ll be behind you.
Thank you so much.
Thanks so much.
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