By KATHRYN FLAGG
BRISTOL — Four weeks after a catastrophic, 40-foot fall from the roof of a Middlebury Main Street business, Robert Demic — the patient doctors are calling the “miracle man” — is looking forward to dancing his way back onto Addison County stages in a year’s time.
“I’ll be tap dancing in a year,” said 54-year-old Demic. “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”
Demic tumbled over 40 feet from the roof of Wild Mountain Thyme on June 9 after being knocked from his feet by what he believes was some sort of electrical shock. He was on the roof taking photographs of work he had completed for the business’s owner, Paula Israel. The camera dropped to the roof approximately 15 feet from the roof’s edge — exactly where Demic was standing at the time of what he believes was a massive shock.
“My memory is of being totally surprised, that I got blown backwards,” Demic said.
Israel, who was in her shop at the time, said she felt the building shake and heard “a big thump” — a sound she and Demic believe to have been his body hitting the roof, after which his body continued over the building’s edge.
Demic landed feet-first in a small patch of mud on the bank of Otter Creek behind the building close to the falls. When he came to, he said, he was disoriented but soon noticed his right leg was badly mangled and bleeding. He recalled struggling into the Otter Creek, which runs alongside the building, to wash away the blood from his leg — still dazed and partially incoherent.
The fall shattered Demic’s right heel, thrust the bones of his lower leg up past the kneecap into the upper leg, and caused a compound fracture of the femur. At the same time, he cleanly severed an artery in the leg, suffered a broken collarbone and hand, had burns on his palms, fractured bones throughout his body and had what doctors diagnosed as a traumatic brain injury.
Darren Curler, a friend of Demic’s and a Burlington resident, stopped by Wild Mountain Thyme to say hello to Demic just moments after the accident happened. After spotting Demic in the river, Israel called 911 and Curler dashed around the back of the building.
Curler, a personal trainer and a carpenter who had worked with Demic, jumped into the river and grabbed his friend, who was still close to the shoreline but also just a few yards from the edge of the Otter Creek Falls.
“I would not be here if it weren’t for Darren,” Demic said.
“He’s an absolute hero,” Israel said of Curler.
Curler stayed with Demic in the water among some tree branches, helping to bandage Demic’s leg before rescue workers cut a path though the surrounding brush and moved him up the steep slope behind the building and into an ambulance. In all, Curler hung with his friend for close to an hour.
“I didn’t really think about anything,” said Curler. “I just jumped in and grabbed him.”
Demic was in and out of consciousness, he said, because of severe blood loss — but Curler did his best to keep him awake while they waited for the rescue.
Demic was initially treated at Porter Hospital before being taken to Fletcher Allen Health Care. The massive trauma to his right leg made Demic a strong candidate for amputation — but Demic and his wife, Barbara, both avid dancers, were adamant that doctors attempt the long surgery necessary to keep the limb.
“I said, ‘I don’t care how much pain I may have to go through, or whatever, but if I don’t go through the pain then there’s no chance that I get to save my leg,’” Demic recalled. “‘So, you’re going to take four hours, doc, or you’re going to take six hours, or you’re going to take however long it takes to do this, and you’re going to do a great job.’”
This same determination that kept his leg from being amputated in those early hours, prompted Demic to start declining heavy dosages of pain medication in the days after that first surgery when doctors and nurses asked about his condition.
“When they asked me what my pain level was, something outside of me … said that the pain level was irrelevant, that you needed to focus on what you could do to maximize your chances and talk to the right people,” said Demic.
After several days in the Fletcher Allen Intensive Care Unit — where Barbara was able to bring fresh food and Nikken magnetic alternative medicine to her husband’s bedside — Demic was moved to the Fanny Allen Rehabilitation Center, where his recovery greatly improved.
The huge and unexpected support of the Bristol and Middlebury communities, he said, made a tremendous difference in the early days of his recovery.
“I actually believe that collective consciousness makes a big difference,” Demic said. “I was totally shocked, totally shocked, because I really think I’ve made as many enemies in life as I have friends.”
Now at home in Bristol, Demic is managing his construction business from his dining room (his former office upstairs is still inaccessible for him), a business that he has owned since 1983. He started the business in roofing, then branched into home inspections, building and home additions.
But he found his real passion at 35, when he started taking dance lessons for the first time. He performed in his first musical in 1989 — and was stage struck from then on.
“It’s a true love,” said Demic, who is now a fixture on local stages and has starred in such local productions as “Oliver” in the role of Fagan, the devil in “Damn Yankees,” and he performed a memorable rendition of the song Cellophane Man in “Chicago.”
He met his wife — one of his dance teachers — when he was 40. He performs frequently with the Middlebury Community Players and Burlington’s Lyric Theater, and has also helped with musical theater performances at Vergennes Union High School.
“You want to know what my biggest heartbreak is? The fact that (the Community Players) are auditioning for ‘Music Man’ right now,” said Demic with a laugh, then admitted his yearning to play the lead role and acknowledged his audition would have to wait for another day.
Joking aside, he said, his perspective has been radically changed since the accident.
“I don’t know why I didn’t die,” he said, recalling his fall and the fact that he landed in the one 3-foot-square muddy spot on the riverbank, with bare rocks inches away on one side and a sharp tree trunk poking up inches away on the other. “I can’t explain it. That one’s a miracle.”
Demic’s recovery will come with the support of his friends in the community — some of whom have already organized benefits to help Demic pay for mounting medical expenses.
Members of the cast of “Cyrano,” the Middlebury Community Players production this week at Town Hall Theater, will stage an after-performance cabaret benefit on July 11 at 10 p.m. in the 51 Main space. The evening — titled “A Salute to Rob Demic” — will feature love songs inspired by “Cyrano” performed by local musical celebrities, including performers like Francois Clemmons and Maiden Vermont. Tickets can be purchased at the door for $20 a person.
On Aug. 6, the Bobcat Café in Bristol will host a benefit dinner with local musicians. The restaurant has agreed to donate 20 percent of the night’s proceeds to help pay for Demic’s medical expenses.
After his transfer to Fanny Allen, Demic said he met a doctor who told him, “I just want to meet the miracle man.” The doctor told him he had been certain that, in light of the fall, Demic would be severely brain-injured, paralyzed or dead.
Now, doctors tell him he’d be up and about in a year’s time.
Demic, for one, hopes to be dancing even sooner.
“It’s going to be a long, slow process with physical therapy,” said Demic, who is currently bound to a wheelchair, “but I think I’m going to beat that prognosis.”