Benefield: Santa Rosa's Andre Kajlich embarking on an expedition of endurance
To understand Andre Kajlich’s ”LowestHighest” project — in which he and a team of endurance athletes will bike and climb from the lowest point in South America to the highest, all under their own power — it makes sense to understand Kajlich’s own lowest moment. Except that he can’t remember it. What he does remember is waking up from a three-week coma in a hospital in Prague without both of his legs. He was 24.
He was a college student studying in Prague back in 2003. He’d been out all night drinking with friends. They stopped for breakfast. All of that he remembers.
“Probably around 7:30 a.m. I finally said goodbye to my last friend,” he said. “I had fallen asleep on the subway, missed a stop, got off to go the other way and ended up on the tracks.”
Was he mugged? Or pushed? Did he pass out? Kajlich doesn’t know but doesn’t assign blame to anyone but himself.
“I don’t think there is any other explanation than me being out of it,” he said.
He lost one leg at the hip, so he no longer had a femur. His other leg ends before the knee. He had broken ribs, a punctured lung, a compound fracture to the point of almost losing his left arm and he cracked almost every tooth in his mouth.
Infections — from the gasoline, grease and grime of the subterranean tracks — were a massive challenge for the doctors. Forty units of blood were pumped into him.
After three weeks, doctors took him out of his coma, and Kajlich said he was told “as gently as you can be told what happened.”
He spent two months in intensive care in Prague before he was flown back to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle near his family’s home in Edmonds.
There had been earlier signs. As a freshman at Washington State University, Kajlich drank until he couldn’t stand. When his friends carried him home, he hit his head on the fire escape and had to be taken to the hospital, where it was discovered his blood alcohol level was .465. The gash on his head was a flesh wound — the amount of alcohol coursing through his body could have killed him.
“My parents yanked me out” of college, Kajlich said. “It was definitely a foreshadowing.”
He wandered a while. He enrolled at community college. A natural athlete, he became a “damn near” scratch golfer. But as his high school friends started to graduate from college and he still didn’t have a degree, he decided to go back. But he wanted to study in the former Czechoslovakia, the country his father had fled decades earlier because of political oppression.
He had only been there a few months when the accident happened in December. His mom, Patti, who lives in Edmonds, called her son a “man interrupted” when the accident struck.
His family immediately rallied for him. Kajlich is the middle child of Patti and Aurel Jan, an anesthesiologist who died in 2010.
Patti Kajlich remembers family friends taking Andre duck hunting in those early days. It was an opportunity to be physical, to assert some independence.
But as the other hunters waited outside on the driveway in the early morning hours, Patti Kajlich remembers her son seeming kind of frantic as he packed up things at the last minute. He slipped and fell in the laundry room. He couldn’t find his guns.