AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy - The man was visibly nervous, but he lowered his helmet over his head, gave his wife a kiss and pedaled off down the mountain trail where he had nearly lost his life just one year before.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Alex Mace, a Parkersburg native stationed at Aviano Air Base, Italy, has overcame things over the past year that would have killed most people and nearly killed him.
While riding on a trail in Piancavallo, Italy, on June 24, 2012, Mace took a jump too fast and the resulting crash snapped his sternum, lacerated the upper quarter of his heart, dissected his aorta, caused him traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries that left him paralyzed, broke both elbows, his wrist and all the ribs on his left side, which in turn pierced both of his lungs, ruptured his liver and his kidneys.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Alex Mace, right, kisses his wife Leticia Mace before beginning his run down a mountain trail in Piancavallo, Italy.
Doctors told his wife, Leticia, that he was dead. He had flat-lined on the emergency helicopter enroute to the hospital.
"I said 'If I have to bury my husband, I want to bury him wholehearted, so please just put his heart back together,'" Leticia Mace said. "They thought I was crazy but they did it anyway."
During the surgery, the doctors worked to glue parts of the heart back together per Leticia's request. What happened next, she recalls, was "unbelievable."
"We waited what seemed like endless hours and when I saw the stern faces of the surgeons, I assumed the worst," she said. "But his bed came right behind them and he was full of tubes and wires and he was on life support but they had managed to put him back together. He was breathing, not on his own but he was definitely alive."
Leticia Mace was told before the surgery that her husband only had a 1 percent chance of living and even if he beat the odds and woke from his coma, he would be unable to function for the rest of his life.
The doctors predicted he would be in a coma for six months. He woke up three days later.
What followed over the next 12 months was "a pain and a blessing," said Mace.
"I remember thinking 'You're lucky just to be alive,' but I still pushed and whenever they left me alone in the room, I tried my hardest to make my feet and my legs move," Mace said. "Two weeks later, I got out of bed and I took my first two steps. And I have not slowed down ever since.
"The doctors were amazed by how it had gone from so bad, to so good in so short a time, against any data they had ever seen," he said.
The father of five credits the help of his family, friends and upbringing as the reason for his miraculous recovery.
"You need to have some stubbornness in you. But no matter how much of that you have, at some point that stubbornness is eventually going to give way," Mace said. "You need people to support you. Sometimes you'll want to (stop) and it's the people around you who will motivate you and sometimes even carry you over a part where you just can't make it on your own."
Last week, Mace returned to the mountain where he crashed and the hospital where he recovered to close this chapter of his life.
"In a matter of one year's time, he has managed to beat every obstacle that was against him," Leticia Mace said. "We returned to the hospital that saved his life. We met every doctor who helped with his recovery and who put him together. We brought it full circle today (Saturday) with the final step of going back up that mountain. We are getting over our fears and our anxiety."