One year, five months, six days, 17 hours.
On a cold, bright December morning, that’s how long it’s been since Ken Hopkins was in a bike accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down. The local radio personality has a countdown app on his cellphone so that he has an answer ready whenever he’s asked when it happened.
Hopkins says his recollection of that day – July 13, 2015 – is vivid up to a certain point. He went out for a late afternoon bike ride. It had become something of a regular activity for him, and he had plans to buy a new bike two days later. Hopkins’ last hazy memory before the accident was putting up his hand to signal a left turn. The next thing he remembers is his wife, Trish, speaking to him in the ambulance on the way to Sacred Heart Medical Center.
“They think that I probably braked and went over the handlebars and landed on my neck wrong,” Hopkins said. “There was all sorts of speculation that a car was involved, but there was no sign that I was hit. There could have been a car pulling in that didn’t see me.”
He was found by neighbors in the grass at the entrance of his suburban development. Despite wearing a helmet, he had suffered a concussion, a few broken ribs and a spinal injury. A few days later, he was told he would have to rely on the use of a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
In an instant, everything had changed.
Hopkins, 55, was born in Kellogg. The son of a minister, he moved around frequently in his youth, but his family settled in Pomeroy, when he was an adolescent. He graduated from Eastern Washington University in 1983 and almost immediately began an internship at KREM-FM, the station that turned into 92.9 FM KZZU. He’s been there ever since.
“I always had a fascination with radio, even as a kid,” Hopkins said. “My story’s completely different from most radio people, who bounce around to 20 different markets.”
Hopkins’ longtime radio partner, Dave Sposito, was one of those guys who bounced around – from Washington to New York to Texas to Colorado and back to Washington. He and Hopkins, who is also KZZU’s program director, were eventually paired up in 1992 for a morning radio program called “The Breakfast Boys,” and this July will mark their 25th year on the air together.
“I was originally teamed with (another) guy, and it was not going well,” Sposito said. “It was a deal where Ken would fill in until we found somebody, and it just worked really well.”
Molly Allen became the show’s third voice in 1998: She had been a part of the station’s annual Christmas Wish charity segment, and she eventually came on as a producer and co-host. The chemistry on the show, which now is simply called “Dave, Ken and Molly,” is obvious, although Allen says it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where it comes from.
“We’re all separate and different personalities that have a mutual respect and like each other,” Allen said. “We spend more time together and communicate more than we do with our families in a lot of ways, because it’s so concentrated.”
“It really is the best part of our day, those four hours together,” Sposito said. “When we start the show every morning, I think we’re all genuinely happy to see each other.”
After his accident, Hopkins recovered at Sacred Heart for 24 days, then transferred to St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute for about a month and a half. In the meantime, the Hopkins’ house had to be completely renovated: Wheelchair ramps had to be installed and the bathroom had to be gutted to make it accessible.
Trish Hopkins suddenly became what she calls a full-time “life manager”: She takes care of all of the household chores and is her husband’s full-time caregiver.
“Once we admitted that this is just going to be hard, then we could move forward,” Trish Hopkins said. “It helped us face our reality.”
Back at KZZU, Sposito and Allen went about discussing Hopkins’ accident with their listeners. They’d always been so open about their personal lives with their radio audience – about marriages and divorces and family deaths – that they knew they had to address it at some point.
“It was actually two weeks after Ken’s accident,” Sposito said. “I remember being on the air that day, and it was really emotional. We were both in tears, and I know our listeners were. But that’s kind of how the show is. We live our life there, and everybody knows all of our stuff.”
“The summer that he was gone, that was very difficult,” Allen said. “You now have two people trying to make a three-person show work, plus the fact that this person we adore has had a major, life-changing event. And on top of that, you have this spotlight put on us that we’re not used to. While we were trying to find this normalcy, the city was wanting to mourn with us and have information.”
Hopkins says Allen and Sposito were at the hospital nearly every day to check in on his recovery, and they learned workplace safety precautions if they ever needed to assist him. He returned to work about three months after the accident.
“The first time rolling out into the sunshine, you just never take that for granted again,” Hopkins said. “I easily could have died, I’m sure, or had a way worse injury or a brain injury. You’re thankful for what you have.”
“When he joined us that first day on the air, I could tell he was tired and he was winded,” Sposito said. “But if you listen to the show now and then grab a show from three years ago, there’d be no way you can tell any difference. His energy is there. He’s still the first person at the show to get there in the morning.”
“Once he was back in the studio, it’s crazy how quickly it felt like it was back to normal,” Allen said.
“I’m still going to talk about my life, like we all do,” Hopkins said. “I’m not going to make everything about my wheelchair and my injury, but obviously you can’t not talk about it sometimes. If it takes a little bit of the stigma away, of being disabled or being handicapped, that would totally be a good thing. It’s just interwoven with my life now.”
A year and a half after Hopkins’ accident, life has returned to some kind of normalcy.
Hopkins says he’s physically stronger now. He can get himself in and out of his wheelchair and can dress himself. He’s even driving himself to work every morning in a van that has hand controls and is compatible with his electric wheelchair.
Since returning home, he’s attended multiple sporting events, including a Mariners game at Safeco Field. He took his three kids (now ages 18 to 25) to see “The Force Awakens” in the theater. He’s even visited Silverwood. The next major hurdle to clear, Hopkins says, is air travel.
“You’re now so aware of all these things that never crossed your mind before,” Hopkins said. “It’s all part of the learning curve. … It takes a lot of time. When we got out of St. Luke’s, they said, ‘You’ll be amazed how far down the road you are in a year.’ Of course, at that time, I’m thinking, a year? I’m worried about this afternoon.”
Hopkins likens his experience to discovering new shortcuts on a computer keyboard: Every day, he finds a more efficient way to tackle something that had previously challenged him.
“I’m a year and few months into it, but I’m still extremely new to it,” Hopkins said. “I don’t want anybody to think we’ve figured everything out.”
“He makes it sound really easy,” Trish Hopkins said. “You have to have that drive every single day. You’ve got to be really tough to keep rolling through this process. He’s a really remarkable person.”
“He’s so normal about it ever since he came back,” Allen said. “He has this amazing ability to accept everything that’s been thrown at him without an ounce of wanting or needing any sort of special treatment or sympathy.”
Hopkins credits his co-workers and listeners with assisting in his recovery. KZZU set up a GoFundMe page in the days following the accident. The money raised – more than $50,000 reportedly – helped pay for the Hopkins’ home renovations. He says he’s also regularly contacted by folks he’s never met who simply want to send some personal support. After all the years on the air, Hopkins’ listeners feel like they know him.
“I think Ken is more socially active now than he ever has been,” Sposito said. “I know he appreciates what he’s helped build and the connections he has with our listeners.”
And while Hopkins is aware that his local fans have aided him in a time of need, he also hopes that his visibility will serve as an inspiration for someone else.
“We were the recipients of so much generosity and kindness,” Hopkins said. “Not everybody has that, and we were so humbled. Our goal is to be an encouragement for people with similar injuries. Nothing makes us happier than saying, ‘It’s going to be all right.’”
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