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Too stubborn to die

Daily file photo/Shane Macomber
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Jim Popeck always knew that every day you wake up and aren’t wearing a toe tag is a good day.Now he gets to live it.A staph infection almost killed him last winter. He was being loaded onto a Flight for Life jet headed to Denver, and doctors told his wife that if she had anything to say to him, she’d better say it right then. They told her that by the time the plane touched down, he’d might be dead.But you just can’t keep a good man down.Jim Popeck spent Super Bowl Sunday in an airplane on a ventilator, then in the Denver Health trauma unit on a ventilator with tubes sticking into every part of his body except his belly button.”I don’t remember the flight,” Popeck wisecracked. “I’d like to have some recollection because I’m afraid to fly.”Popeck runs the Mountain Pedaler bike shops in Minturn and Eagle. He’s one of the great characters in the Vail Valley’s short history, and some friends are hosting a fundraiser to help him hammer away at the mountain of medical bills that piled up while he was stubbornly refusing to die.”I don’t like to be in this situation, but this community is not like any other,” Popeck said. “I’m usually one of the ones donating for someone else’s cause. They’ll rally to help someone who needs it.”Life, says Jim Popeck, is not cheap.”But it’s worth it,” he says, throwing his head back with the laugh of terminally alive. “It takes a lifetime to build a life, but no time at all to lose it.”

It may not be the exact clinical diagnosis, but Popeck was “sick as stink.””That’s as sick as you can be without dying,” he said. “Of the time between Feb. 4 and Feb. 18, I have no recollection.”He was in the hospital during that time, mostly unconscious.”My wife had the tough part, she had to see me. I was out cold for most of it.” Popeck said.It happened, more or less, this way.Popeck was through with his morning workout on Jan. 29 and was experiencing back pain, which he thought was odd because it was a cardiovascular workout and he hadn’t involved his back much. The next morning he couldn’t move.He thought it was back spasms, so he checked himself in at the hospital where the doctors made him lie quietly and gave him a morphine drip to ease the pain. Popeck thought it might be back spasms, so they sent him home with orders not to pick up anything heavier than a television remote control.The next day, Saturday afternoon, he was having trouble breathing. His wife took him to the hospital emergency room where they ran some more tests. About 2:30 a.m., he says, he crashed – his body’s systems began shutting down.It turns out he’d had the staph infection in his body for two weeks before that weekend’s attack. He says he had no visible cuts or means on entry.”Everyone has staph on their bodies. It hardly ever gets inside,” said Popeck.This one did.The infection had spread throughout his entire body – especially attacking bloodstream and digestive system. Staph infections that aggressive want you dead, and they generally get their way.The local doctors stabilized him, put him on the jet and he took off for Denver – his life literally riding on a wing and a prayer.His wife drove to Denver and after what the doctors told her, was expecting to bring back a body.It’s not like wasn’t close several times. His lungs collapsed; his left lung collapsed twice. He bloated up to 372 pounds. When he left the hospital he was back down to his fighting weight, 270 pounds. Miraculously, there is no permanent damage to his heart, kidneys or liver.He had to learn to walk again – it took him 20 minutes to climb the 16 steps in his home.The first question he asked when he could finally leave the hospital? “Where’s the Harley?””My friends ask me if it changed me, but I’m the same bonehead I’ve always been – except I’ve never felt more alive,” Popeck said.


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