Barbara Espy opens her eyes in the morning and blinks. She exhales. For more than 70 days, the Hudson, Wisconsin, resident couldn’t get out of bed without help. She couldn’t turn onto her side without excruciating pain.
When Espy needs to, she will begin her morning routine. But first, she takes a second to appreciate the moment.
A blink. A breath. She’s here.
Espy was not supposed to survive the hit-and-run crash on July 2, 2023, when a motorist dragged her several feet through the parking lot near the boat launch in downtown Hudson. The crash kept her at Regions Hospital for 40 days, and at Prescott Nursing and Rehabilitation Center for another 30 days. Her list of severe injuries compounds itself: Traumatic brain injury. Broken pelvis. Several fractured vertebrae. Lacerated liver. Fractured hip. She lost pints of blood. Her ankle was, according to reports from the scene, left hanging by the skin.
She was not supposed to still have her left ankle. She was not supposed to be here at all.
“The first thing in the morning is that I am grateful,” Espy said. “Just being able to lay on my left side without being in pain. It is luxurious to lay in your bed without pain, and not be a prisoner of it.
“Maybe you wake up and grit your teeth. But then you say, ‘I can brush my own teeth today.’ You start with that, and you start to realize how lucky you are,” Espy said.
Due to ongoing unrelated medical issues, Espy, 61, went on disability in 2019, and has used an electric bike to get around town. That bike was totaled in the July crash. Excel Power Bikes, based in River Falls, Wisconsin, recently donated Espy a new electric bike, facilitated by the Hudson Police Department. She called the gesture a “lifeline.”
“To protect and serve, how rarely do we think about our police department in those words anymore in these times? I feel so served and protected.”Hudson, Wisconsin, resident Barbara Espy
Hudson’s Local Charity Fund also recently donated $1,000 to help defray her living expenses.
On Wednesday, December 6, Espy took her first bike ride since the hit and run. “This made me whole again,” Espy said. “This, for me, is everything. It’s just beyond my imagination.”
‘I Thought She Was Going to Die’
That July evening, as the downtown Hudson fireworks celebration wound down, Travis Lee Heffron of Hudson and Thaddeus John Smith, formerly of St. Paul, bumped into each other’s cars while driving out of the parking lot, according to police reports.
At that point, the two men began arguing and shouting at each other.
Espy, a bystander, was leaving her fireworks watching spot along the St. Croix River near the dike road and came across the scene. She remembers slowing down her bike, and as she stopped, her bike lurched a bit. She fell to the ground.
Meanwhile, the confrontation between the two men escalated. Police reports say that Smith peeled out in his Jeep Grand Cherokee, striking Espy on the ground and dragging her on the pavement. The driver fled the scene.
Smith, 34, was later arrested and charged with nine counts, including hit-and-run causing great bodily harm, operating a vehicle while intoxicated and causing injury, and first-degree recklessly endangering safety. The criminal hit-and-run case is still ongoing.
A civil case is also open, but as Espy’s attorney, Art Kosieradzki, noted, her hospital bills far outpace any type of possible insurance payment.
Back at the scene last summer, one of the first officers responding was Hudson Community Engagement Officer James Wildman. He was leaving the downtown area along with his 14-year-old daughter when the call came across the radio.
“I thought [Barbara] was going to die that night. I thought for sure she was going to lose her leg,” Wildman recalled.
This fall, Wildman was at Jonesy’s Local Bar & Grill in Hudson when Barbara came up behind him. He didn’t recognize her at first. She remembered him. And she began thanking him immediately.
“Barb said, ‘I just wanted to say thank you.’ We took a selfie and I sent it to my daughter; she has been really concerned about what happened,” Wildman said. “For me, it’s awesome to see an event so tragic turn into somewhat of a positive. Barb only wants to talk about the positive.”
‘I Am Going to Be Restored’
As the months passed, Hudson police officers heard more about Espy’s long recovery, her mounting medical bills, and how using a taxi service for appointments was proving too costly. For Wildman, he figured there had to be a way to help. He eventually came across Excel Power Bikes.
Once Wildman began asking Excel how they might be able to help and describing how much Espy’s previous e-bike had meant to her, Excel Power Bikes Operations Manager Sam Westby said the bike shop jumped all in and donated a well-outfitted Cityslicker model.
“She’s so resilient,” Westby said. “We just hope this bike can help her along on her rehabilitation journey.”
In therapy, Espy had to relearn how to walk. Once back at home, she had to teach herself how to move around her apartment. Her friend Katie Kitchner has helped out with everything from doctor appointments to watering Espy’s garden and being an emotional rock, Espy said.
A few steps from the refrigerator to the couch could be a fall risk. The small and mundane became nearly insurmountable. Getting dressed. Getting cleaned. Cooking with a right arm that needed to be lifted, rather than doing the lifting. Road rash made even sitting down incredibly painful.
Talking to Espy, it’s hard to believe the injuries she has sustained. Her attitude is upbeat. She is quick with a self-deprecating joke. She’s loath to spend too much time talking about lingering pain. She never borders on the negative.
Asked about the accused assailant? “He is a human being, and I hope he has a chance to heal.”
About her new bike? “This is a bad ass bike, man. Look at this!”
About the police officers, firefighters and EMS workers who have helped through her recovery? “All of these people saved my life and continue to save my life. There isn’t enough gratitude, there isn’t a word to describe the genuine care and concern for my well-being from the police department and the first responders.”
Walking the scene once again in early December, Espy talked about hoping to schedule an ice cream social in the summer, to allow those who saw the crash see her recovery, to allow healing for any witnesses who can’t shake the sight of what happened back in July. Healing, Espy said, starts with thanking the greater Hudson community members for their generosity.
“There’s the question of ‘Why me?’ Well, how about ‘Why not me?’ Bad things happen to good people, and they happen to us because we can survive them. I shouldn’t have survived. But I’m not a survivor, I’m an overcomer,” Espy said. “A survivor is existing and not dying, and learning to live with whatever your disabilities are. Overcoming it to me is about your body, mind and spirit. It’s your attitude.
“And I believe I am going to be restored,” she said.
A benefit for cyclist Barbara Espy, with a meat raffle and silent auction, will be held on Saturday, December 30, 2 to 4 p.m., at Jonesy’s Local Bar & Grill, 1801 Ward Ave., suite 240, Hudson, Wisconsin.