Rebecca Poirier wrote a message to her stepfather, Kevin Lemm, on the picture collage she made for him after he was killed in a motorcycle accident. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

POLAND — As motorcycle safety awareness month begins and bikers dust off their machines for summer use again, advocates are also starting up safety campaigns to raise awareness for motorcycle safety and what can happen when drivers are not looking out for those on a motorcycle.

The National Safety Council encourages drivers to share the road, which means be aware of bikers. It advises drivers to look out for motorcycles, focus on driving, avoid distractions, use turn signals, give bikers room and avoid speeding.

Consequences of not driving safely can be dire for those on a motorcycle: Some lose their lives while others have their lives forever altered.

Elisha Lemm does not remember much about the accident that took husband Kevin Lemm’s life, along with her left leg from the knee down. She also lives with a severe brain injury caused by being flung off the motorcycle.

On July 12, 2012, after 10 p.m., Lemm and her husband were on their way home from a friend’s house in Auburn when a car hit them after it drifted across the center line and threw them both off their motorcycle, just a mile from their Poland home. The two were not wearing helmets. The two car passengers, a brother and sister in their 20s, refused medical attention.

“I don’t remember any of it,” Lemm said. “The last thing I remember is leaving (a friend)’s house on Park Avenue.”

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Even a relatively small collision with a motorcycle can cause a serious accident, in which the operator is flung off the bike, according to Dr. Mackenna Murtagh, clinical director of the Lewiston and Scarborough Goodwill NeuroRehab Services. Often automobile operators do not notice bikers, which can increase the likelihood of an accident.

“We’re talking about an unrestrained individual,” he said. “… A very minor hit on a motorcycle could result in much more significant injury than a minor hit in a car where you’re not going to go anywhere.”

Automobile operators have seat belts that help to restrain them and they are usually not ejected in an accident because the car largely protects them, Murtagh said. Motorcycle drivers have no metal casing to protect them, which is why those accidents are more likely to result in severe injury or death.

In 2022, 15% of all traffic fatalities in the United States were motorcyclists, an overrepresented group in fatal traffic crashes, according to information on the United States Department of Transportation’s website.

There have already been at least 30 accidents involving a motorcycle resulting in injuries so far this year, according to the Maine Department of Transportation’s crash query. Injury accidents statewide involving motorcycles have remained in the 400s for all but one of the last six years.

It is also the reason why helmets are important, he said. They do not prevent a brain injury but they can reduce the severity of a brain injury and save a person’s life.

Natalie Howard was on the back of her former partner’s motorcycle when they were struck by a vehicle crossing through their lane of traffic July 21, 1997, just after 9 p.m. in Saco. A witness at the scene saw the two thrown high into the air and then land on the ground. Neither were wearing helmets.

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The driver of the vehicle fled, turning himself in to local law enforcement the next day. Howard was taken to the hospital where she lay in the intensive care unit for a week with neck and back injuries, along with a severe brain injury. Her partner at the time suffered injuries as well.

Howard was immobile for that week, strapped to a bed to keep her from moving so she could heal, she said. She remembers feeling claustrophobic. Over time, pieces of memories from the incident have come back but there is a lot she still cannot remember.

Lifelong injuries

For years Howard suffered from seizures, sometimes several a day, she said. She could not go to concerts, she avoided flash photography and largely tried to sequester herself from flashing lights that would cause episodes of seizures.

She was on and off different medications for many years after the accident attempting to control her seizures and other issues, she said. She felt like a lab experiment and the medications did not make her feel healthy.

“I became a chemical guinea pig on a roller coaster ride,” she said. “Up a dose, decrease a dose, add more to lessen the side effects of others.”

She made the difficult decision 17 years ago to have some of the dead brain tissue that was causing the seizures removed, a type of brain surgery, and has not had a seizure since, she said. She was able to wean herself from all the medications she was taking but she still deals with some ongoing damage from the medications she was taking.

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Natalie Howard of New Gloucester was a passenger on a motorcycle involved in an accident in Saco in 1997. Howard has a brain injury from the crash. “I have not been on a motorcycle since,” she says. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Through health-conscious practices, being active and eating healthy, she has been able to heal much of her body, she said.

Lemm’s husband, Kevin, had succumbed to his injuries from the accident after being flown by LifeFlight to Central Maine Medical Center. Lemm landed in the intensive care unit until she was able to be moved to RiverRidge Center in Kennebunk for rehabilitation. She stayed for the next year.

Lemm had to relearn verbal and motor skills, she said. She is still working on walking.

“I had to learn how to walk, I had to learn how to speak, I had to learn how to hold my fork and knives, I had to learn everything over again,” she said.

While dealing with serious physical and brain injuries caused by the accident, Lemm was also grieving the loss of her husband. When she was at RiverRidge, she would try to leave the hospital and insist that her husband was coming to pick her up — a symptom of her traumatic brain injury.

Moderate or severe traumatic brain injuries are one of the most common injuries in a motorcycle accident, according to Murtagh. “Most of the time, we’re talking about traumatic brain injuries.”

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People with a brain injury caused by a motorcycle commonly experience cognitive, memory, attention, processing and motor disruption impairments, he said. Some people experience lifelong impairments in their attention and memory or those symptoms could be short term. Over time, brain injuries will stabilize unless there is another strike or trauma to the brain.

Early identification and intervention of a brain injury leads to better outcomes, he said.

Learning to move on

Lemm now lives with her mother-in-law, Jackie Lemm, in the house overlooking Lower Range Pond in Poland that she and her husband bought just two years before the accident, she said.

Despite recovering from the worst of her brain and physical injuries, some symptoms still persist, she said. She is still working on learning how to walk independently, getting around mostly with a wheelchair, and she has a hard time with her memory and emotions.

Her husband is with her all the time, she feels. She talks to a large portrait of the two of them hanging in the hallway of their home, just like he was there.

Elisha Lemm of Poland lost her husband, Kevin, in a motorcycle accident in 2012. She talks to the large portrait of the two of them, telling him about her day as if he were still there. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

She hopes to be able to ride a motorcycle again but she is unsure if she will ever be able to, she said. She still faces tough days where she struggles to be active but she knows her husband would not want her to sit around being depressed, and the thought of him keeps her going.

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Howard still has not been able to get back on a motorcycle and does not engage in certain activities, such as skiing, for fear of further injuring herself, she said. Despite that, she stays active and does not spend a lot of time sitting, stating, “It’s when you stop moving you literally stop living.”

But she has learned not to let the hustle and bustle of daily life make her stressed, she said. She also thinks the accident has made her more empathetic, stating that she is more aware of what other people are feeling.

‘Be intentional about driving’

Lemm advises other bikers to wear protective leather, wear a helmet and drive with caution as if passenger car drivers cannot see you, because many times they cannot.

Howard thinks both bikers and passenger vehicle drivers need to watch out for each other, she said. She also encourages bikers to wear their leather, something she felt protected her from sustaining more injuries in her accident.

“Definitely wear your gear,” she said. “… The reason that I don’t have any bodily scars is because I had a leather jacket on and the chaps, they’re not just a fashion thing, they actually do save you for many reasons.”

Murtagh tells people to be aware of other drivers around them, and to double check mirrors and blind spots when driving, he said. He wants people to avoid distractions while driving as it is the cause of many accidents.

“Put your phone down. Don’t eat that Big Mac or that candy bar while you’re driving. Don’t drive with your knees. Really be intentional about driving,” he said, “because it could be only one or two seconds and either your life could dramatically change or the life of someone you love could dramatically change or somebody else, their life could dramatically change.”

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