When it came to medical care, Jim Fee usually was on the giving end.
After a 40-year career as an executive in the medical technology industry — during which he led an outreach program that provided equipment for medical missions — Fee spent his retirement years helping friend Julius Achon, a former child soldier for Joseph Kony, build much-needed health care facilities in the Ugandan village where he was born.
Athletic and fit, the 67-year-old Portland, Ore., resident also was an accomplished competitive runner and, over the last five years, had approached bicycling with the same level of passion.
It was the latter pastime Fee was enjoying on the afternoon of Oct. 4 when he was involved in a solo accident on the bike path between Davis and Winters, causing him to suffer a severe spinal cord injury.
He was lying on the path when a motorist came upon him and called 911, attracting the attention of another passerby who administered CPR until an ambulance arrived on scene.
Fee’s family says that, because of those good Samaritans’ lifesaving efforts, they were able to share five precious days with the beloved father, grandfather, husband and brother before he passed away at the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, four days shy of his 68th birthday.
“He let us know he was at peace,” said daughter-in-law Karen Fee, whose family Jim and his wife Angela had been visiting at the time of the accident. Karen, her husband Mike and their three children had moved to Davis from Oakland over the summer, and it was the elder Fees’ first time here.
“He loved it here. He thought Davis was a really great community,” Mike Fee said of his father. Jim Fee wasted no time in engaging in the city’s favorite pastime, exploring the popular Davis-to-Winters bike path on the first day he arrived in town.
‘It became clear’
By that Friday, Fee was practically a local — biking his grandchildren to school, getting his morning coffee at Peet’s and picking up paint from Davis Ace Hardware before heading back out on the bike trail in the afternoon. He was traveling along Russell Boulevard when, for reasons that remain unclear, he was involved in an accident at about 3 p.m. near Three Palms Nursery.
That’s where local cattle rancher Pete Craig, who lives nearby, spotted him from his vehicle. Fee was lying on the ground, his badly damaged bicycle nearby.
“I jumped out, ran over there, saw he wasn’t moving and called 911,” said Craig, who also phoned a friend who volunteers for the West Plainfield Fire Department.
As Craig summoned help by phone, he was spotted by Steven Kelleher, a fifth-grade teacher at Korematsu Elementary School who along with another teacher, Karen Luke, was returning to Davis from an overnight field trip in the Marin County redwoods.
They were on Russell Boulevard by happenstance, having taken the rural route at Luke’s suggestion to avoid heavy traffic on Interstate 80.
“There was a fellow on the phone, standing over a guy,” Kelleher said of the scene he encountered. He pulled over to see if first aid was needed, though at first glance he believed that Jim Fee had already died.
Instinctively, Kelleher felt for a heartbeat.
“He had a really strong pulse,” Kelleher said. While another passerby covered Fee with a blanket, Kelleher began administering CPR.
“I gave him breathing for about 10 or 15 minutes,” he recalled. “He wasn’t picking up the breathing on his own, but I checked his pulse a number of times and it was still going strong.”
It marked the first time Kelleher used his CPR skills, learned decades ago as a member of Army’s 101st Airborne Division, and regularly updated throughout his teaching career.
Soon, an ambulance arrived and took Fee to the UC Davis Medical Center, where doctors discovered he had severed his spinal cord at his second vertebra, a devastating injury for the man who had led such an active, high-energy life.
Doctors stabilized Fee and placed him on a ventilator, “but it became clear that was as much as he was going to improve,” Karen Fee said.
‘We would continue his work’
The family quickly mobilized, calling in Jim Fee’s eight younger brothers and sisters from across the country, as well as his two other children and five grandchildren, to gather at Fee’s hospital bedside. Other relatives, friends and former work colleagues also gravitated toward Sacramento upon learning of Fee’s condition.
About 30 visitors in all came and went through Fee’s hospital room, sometimes numbering 15 at a time. No longer able to feel his hands, Fee asked that his loved ones touch him on his head.
When they did, “you could just see him relax, right until the end,” Karen Fee said.
Though unable to breathe on his own, Fee was conscious and, because of his background in the medical industry, well aware of the gravity of his injuries.
So Fee began to pass along critical information, such as his computer password, so that his family could gain access to Fee’s work as executive director of the Achon Uganda Children’s Fund. Julius Achon launched the organization in 2004, years after escaping from Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, and later representing Uganda as a middle-distance runner in the 1996 and 2000 Olympic games.
Achon was working for the Nike Oregon Project in Portland when he befriended Fee, a well-known figure in the running community, who became Achon’s mentor and business adviser. Together, they spearheaded the construction of a health center in the war-torn Uganda village of Awake (pronounced ah-WAH-kay) that has provided much-needed health care to thousands of villagers since opening last year. It’s the only clinic in a 40-mile radius.
At the time of his death, Fee was working with Achon on the building of an adjacent patients’ ward, which will bear his name when it opens in February. Mike Fee and his mother Angela plan to travel to Uganda for the dedication.
“He really spent his last five years improving the lives of others,” Karen Fee said. “He wasn’t done, unfortunately, but we assured him that we would continue his work.”
‘They gave us five days’
Meanwhile, the identities of Jim Fee’s rescuers remained unknown to the family. Kelleher said he tried calling area hospitals for information, but, without the name of the man he had aided, came up empty.
That changed the week after the accident, when Karen Fee arrived at North Davis Elementary School to make arrangements for her children to miss school for hospital visits and impending services.
As she relayed her family’s circumstances to a school secretary, a look of recognition soon dawned on the secretary’s face.
“Was your father-in-law in a bike accident?” she asked. “I know who helped him.”
The secretary, it turned out, had heard the story from Karen Luke, the fifth-grade NDE teacher who had been riding in Kelleher’s car on the day of the crash. Connections were made, and before long Kelleher and Mike Fee were talking by phone.
Kelleher, Craig and the Fees all met in person for the first time on Wednesday, gathering in the Fees’ living room to talk about the events that brought them all together. They parted ways with handshakes and hugs, newfound friends who promised to stay in touch.
“It was really, really comforting for my husband to be able to thank them. They gave us five days,” Karen Fee said. “It wouldn’t have been that way if Steve hadn’t been there. It was a true gift to us.”
Jim Fee died on the evening of Oct. 9, shortly after being taken off life support — a decision made with his input, according to his son.
“He communicated to all of us, ‘I’m at peace, it’s OK. I’ll see you in heaven,’ ” Mike Fee said.
‘A very well-loved man’
That Jim Fee died surrounded by family bore special meaning for Kelleher, who was able to reach his own father’s side in Wisconsin a day before cancer took his life in 1999.
“I’m deeply grieved that (Jim) didn’t make it, but the fact that they had a few more days with him, I’m so happy he was able to do that,” Kelleher said. “He obviously was a very well-loved man.”
Kelleher said the incident also underscores the importance of learning CPR, “knowing that you’re ready when something like this comes around.”
Pete Craig said he plans to take a class to learn the lifesaving techniques, and has asked his ranch employees whether they’re certified as well.
Six days after Jim Fee’s passing, his grandson Mack returned to his former Boy Scout troop in Oakland to receive Star rank honors. Many of his fellow scouts earned their CPR badges that night, compelling Karen Fee to share the story of her father-in-law — who was well-known to the troop — and of the two kind strangers who ensured he died neither alone nor in pain.
“Never underestimate when you could be called upon to serve someone else,” Karen Fee said she told the young Scouts. “There comes a time when all of us need someone to help.”
— Reach Lauren Keene at [email protected] or 530-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter at @laurenkeene