In his gut, Leon Michaelson knew something terrible had happened.
His son Alex had driven his Kawasaki motorcycle to Wading River to get gas in the early afternoon of Oct. 22. The inherent risk of riding a motorcycle was always prominent in Leon’s mind, so he’d track his son through an iPhone app to check when he arrived at a destination.
It gave him a sense of ease.
That afternoon, he saw Alex had arrived at the gas station, a short distance from their Shoreham home. Ten minutes passed and he checked again. Alex was still near the gas station. It seemed odd, but his father didn’t worry yet. After another 10 minutes, he checked again. Alex hadn’t moved.
“I knew he crashed,” Leon said. “I got on my bike and shot down North Country Road. I wasn’t even praying that he didn’t crash — I knew in my head he crashed — I was praying that he was alive.”
He approached Route 25A in Wading River and saw the flashing lights of police cars, fire trucks and ambulances. The road was closed, so Leon drove up onto the sidewalk.
“I ran and everybody’s like, ‘Where are you going?’ ” he said. “I said ‘That’s my son!’ ”
He could finally see his son’s motorcycle in the street, confirming his fears. But he still didn’t know whether Alex was alive.
The accident occurred just before 1:30 p.m., when Alex struck the driver’s side of a car that had pulled out of the King Kullen shopping center to head west, according to Riverhead police. Leon said his son was traveling an estimated 40 to 45 mph when he struck the car. The driver never saw the motorcycle until the moment of impact.
Alex was airlifted to Stony Brook University Medical Center, where he was listed in critical condition. The 20-year-old (he was incorrectly listed as 19 in the initial police report) remained in the ICU through Nov. 6. On Tuesday, he was released from Stony Brook, more than three weeks after the accident, his father said. He was transferred to a rehabilitation center where he’ll continue the long road to a full recovery.
Though he sustained a multitude of injuries, Alex avoided any paralysis. Bolts in his head measured the swelling, which needed to subside before doctors could perform an MRI on the brain. Nearly a week went by before they could know for sure.
He had broken an arm, both eye sockets, his jaw and two ribs, but the MRI ultimately relieved their fears about paralysis. He underwent one major surgery on his right arm and was left with a scar running from his wrist to his shoulder. When he left the ICU, he could motion a thumbs up, knew who people were and was smiling, his father said.
“It could have been a million times worse,” Leon said. “It could have been six months before we were even at this point. Alex happened to make an unbelievable recovery in order to get him into rehab.”
Leon said he’s since spoken to the driver of the car, who “feels horrible” about what happened. No charges were filed by police and Leon said it appeared to be a true accident.
Leon had driven motorcycles earlier in his life before giving it up at his wife’s request following an accident. But when his son expressed interest in riding, he decided he would get a bike as well so they could ride together. They purchased top-of-the-line helmets, which ultimately helped save Alex’s life.
Alex’s mom, Tammi, was understandably hesitant about her son riding a motorcycle. But Alex is “very strong-willed,” his father said. They got their motorcycles together and took a safety course through Suffolk County Community College.
“Alex was a phenomenal driver,” his father said.
Alex graduated from Shoreham-Wading River High School in 2015 and is a hip hop musician known as Joey Zan. (“I want to stay very versatile and have music of all different kinds, from R&B to pop to rap, and really hit all fan bases,” he said in a podcast interview earlier this year with WEMF Radio in Boston.) At times, his mom plays his music in the hospital room. He attended The College at Brockport for one year and then SCCC. He had planned to transfer to St. Joseph’s College. He also worked with his father at his Middle Island dental laboratory. He has two siblings, Kyle, 16, and Mya, who just turned 10 Sunday. Alex wrote “happy birthday” to his sister. They were the first words he’d written since the accident, his father said.
Leon said Alex’s friends have been a huge part of his recovery. One friend, Julia Pase, organized hundreds of photos on poster boards to decorate Alex’s hospital room so when he woke up, he’d be greeted by familiar faces.
“She sat at my house with my daughter cutting out all these pictures and they’re all over the hospital room right now,” Leon said. “It’s pretty amazing the support he has.”
Julia said she reached out on Facebook to have people send her photos. The hospital room didn’t have a homey feel to it and she wanted him to see the faces of everyone supporting him when he came out of his coma.
On Nov. 1, 10 days after the accident, Alex opened his eyes.
“He stares at them all the time, so I knew inside somewhere he was recognizing people and he was like, ‘Wow, look at all those people,’ ” Julia said.
A fellow SWR graduate who attends St. Joseph’s College, Julia visits Alex almost every day along with several other close friends, Sofia Clements, Rebecca Holter and Shannon Vigneux.
While Alex hasn’t been able to speak due to the breathing tube, he’s recently been able to mouth certain words like “I love you” and “Dad.” When Julia showed him a picture of his dog, he mouthed “Baxter.”
“His face lit up,” she said.
When Leon thinks back on the accident, he reflects on everything that came together to ensure Alex survived: from the first responders, to the Suffolk police medevac crew that transported him to Stony Brook, to the doctors and nurses who have attended to him since. It was a lucky break, he said, that everything aligned perfectly.
“There’s no doubt at all that he’ll be back,” Leon said.
Top photo caption: Alex Michaelson is expected to make a full recovery following the Oct. 22 accident. (courtesy photo)