Traverse City Record-Eagle

April 19, 2013

Blind boarder hopes to be inspiration

By JAMES COOK
jcook@record-eagle.com

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — In a matter of weeks, everything changed for Nick Mullins.

An on-the-rise professional skateboarder one minute. In a coma, the next.

Now, he's totally blind in one eye and 90 percent in the other.

And he's cool with that.

"I didn't get to have my chance with all the fame and glory, which I don't really mind," the 21-year-old said. "I was just doing it for the fun. It was something I just did. A lot of the kids I meet nowadays, they have the same mentality I did. Those kids are the kids I'd like to highlight and get them known, because they deserve it.

"I've seen kids watch me at the skate park and go, 'Wow, that guy is good. And he can't even see.' And I get glimpses of kids seeing me throw down a bit. And then these kids would try to throw down just as hard as I was."

The Ohio native and Traverse City resident will speak about his experiences Saturday as part of Springenfesten at Right Brain Brewery. The discussion is presented by the Northern Michigan Disability Network and the local story-telling group Weathered Beard.

"I just really would like to push people to keep going," Mullins said. "I wasn't supposed to live. I see a reason to keep going. And I really would like to see other people keep going."

Mullins still skates as much as he can, even with his vision limitations.

"He doesn't just skate," said Lifer Skateboard Shop owner Billy Wood. "He really actually rips pretty hard. Everyone is amazed by what he does and what he can still do."

Wood knew of Mullins even before he moved to Traverse City. A skater website — www.theberrics.com — featured Mullins' videos, and after a MRSA incident started a campaign to raise funds for his medical bills.

"He's amazing," Wood said. "He was going pro. It was happening. And then that stuff happened to him."

Mullins came down with a severe case of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus — commonly known as MRSA — as the result of a skating accident at an abandoned building.

Things were falling into place quickly for the teenager. A Toledo skate shop sponsored him, and his Internet videos were taking off.

"Our videos that he made blew up," Mullins said. "After that, it was all going up until I was 18 and I was a couple weeks from going out to California and starting a completely different life — money and everything. My whole life was going to change."

But before he was able to go, he had a fall while filming a trick for video.

"Everything just went to a screeching halt just as I turned 18," Mullins said.

"We were filming at this old, abandoned building that a lot of the people from my skate shop used to skate in," Mullins said. "Nobody touched it for years. Then me and my filmer found it one day."

"There was a loading dock with a flat bank with a guardrail on the top. I was trying to drop into the first bank, go up the second one, grind the rail, flip trick back into the bank. But the place was just a wreck. There was wood, broken planks and rusted nails all over the ground. And the dirt was a bright rusty orange. I didn't even think anything of it."

At the bottom of the bank, there was a crack in the concrete that he didn't notice. Mullins said he hit it at speed and flew up in the air and slid about 10 feet right at the camera. He was left with a large patch of road rash on his left hip — a common enough occurrence for a skater.

"I didn't really think anything of it," he said. "I went home later that day after I got the trick. I looked at it and thought, 'Whatever. I get thousands of these a year' and washed it up with soap."

Within a few weeks, he started developing blisters on his leg. They got bigger and bigger — the size of a quarter. And he developed cramps and flu-like symptoms or soreness, but nothing like a runny nose. He says he went to the hospital twice, and was told it was ingrown hair and sent home with pain killers.

"I was laying in bed a couple days after I got back from the hospital, just laying in bed, staring at the ceiling because I couldn't move. It was like the flu on steroids. My body was sore, it hurt to walk, it hurt to breathe. My legs were just big cramps."

"After I got to the hospital, all I can really remember is they looked at the bumps and I heard a doctor go, 'Oh, no.' He disappeared, came back in, gave me a spinal tap and I was out."

He woke up a month and a half later.

"The dreams were extremely intense," he said. "Some of the dreams I was having were like Fred Flintstone and crazy stuff was happening. And I'd get stuck in this one area. And no one would help me. I'd be screaming and screaming and screaming in these dreams. Eventually, in my dream, I would die. And then I would wake up in a completely different area, same situation. Me screaming, no one helping. And then I would die and die and scream and scream and die and die. No one would ever help me."

Now he wants to be the one helping.

First, he had to recuperate. When he finally woke up, he couldn't see.

"The MRSA was eating my entire body inside and out," Mullins said. "It shut down my kidneys, my liver. The only thing actually going was my heart and brain. Three weeks into my coma, I blew up from 165 pounds of pure muscle to 245 in a week and then back down to 90 pounds — just all water weight.

"They gave me a 1 percent chance to live. They told my dad five days in a row, 'We don't know if he's going to make it through the night. Go in and say your last words.' August 4 was the last day I was supposed to be alive. They told my dad, 'Go say your last words, because even if he comes out of this, he's going to mentally handicapped.' I don't know what happened, but the next morning, I started coming around. The medicine took to my body and my body just started working again."

The MRSA chewed holes in his lungs, resulting in chest tubes on either side and a trachea tube. He had multiple surgeries to remove pieces of decaying flesh from his body.

"I don't know what really got me going or kept me alive," Mullins said.

Two weeks of rehab later, he was discharged.

"I couldn't see," Mullins said. "I was starting my life a completely different way. I just really didn't know what to do. Going from 20-20 eyesight to 10 percent just in my left eye, it was a really big life shock. I didn't really realize what happened to me. I was like, 'Well, geez, I'm just glad to be alive.'"

Everything was improving. Except his eyes.

"The doctors said, 'This is the best description we can give you: You have a perfectly good camera, a perfectly good camera lens, but the film is crushed and ripped.'"

He describes his retina as a piece of wallpaper that slowly peels off the wall and gets put back on, then peels off again. This happened from the time he was out of the hospital until about a year ago. Now it's staying in place on its own.

He moved to Traverse City in late 2010 because "people took advantage of the fact I couldn't see" and stayed with local tattoo artist Ram Lee, who he knew from the Toledo area.

"He sheltered me and showed me what real family is really like," Mullins said. "And how life should really be. His wife December and his son Dakota, they were just a good family to be in. I didn't have any money at the time and wasn't collecting Social Security yet and they opened their home to me."

Now his girlfriend Whitney Davis has to do a lot for him. But he still skates.

"Now I just drop in and don't even look at it," Mullins said. "It's just all feeling. I drop right in and go for it and do what feels natural. If I try to look at something, that's when I mess up the most. I'm better now on quarter pipes and transition now than when I could see. It's a weird concept."

He had glasses at one point that helped, but those weren't conducive to skateboarding and got broken.

"I don't really care if I stay sponsored. I've always been doing it for the love of skateboarding. I'm just going to keep doing it for the love and the fun. I don't see skateboarding as competitive at all. It's a thing that's always kept me from bad times in my life. It's kept me happy. It's always been a way to clear my mind. I see it as poetry in motion."

After the coma nightmares of no one helping, Mullins wants to start a skateboard clothing line to aid other young boarders.

"There's a lot of kids that have a lot of talent here, and I'd like to highlight those kids," he said. "If that means sponsoring them with my clothing company and throwing out videos or whatever it takes."