Back in the swing of things: Guitarist Alex Marklund moves forward after 2017 car crash

Alex Marklund plays guitar at the Left Bank Cafe in Saranac Lake Easter morning. Nine months after being severely injured in a car crash and suffering brain damage, Marklund is back to playing the Gypsy jazz music he loves so much. (Enterprise photo — Griffin Kelly)

SARANAC LAKE — Alex Marklund lay in his hospital bed at the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington surrounded by family members, friends and his girlfriend Stephanie Sears. He opened his eyes and saw all of his loved ones. A doctor asked Marklund to say his name.

In a groggy voice, he managed, “Alex.”

Everybody burst into a cheer. Sears hugged one of Marklund’s relatives, fell to the ground and cried tears of joy.

In the summer of 2017, Marklund was in a car crash. He was traveling east on Franklin County Route 55 between Bloomingdale and Gabriels in a 2006 Honda Civic around 3:01 a.m. Sunday, July 16. He passed Sears, who was also traveling east in a 2013 Toyota Prius. The two were returning from a party where they’d been drinking alcohol. Marklund lost control of his car, careened off the north shoulder of the road and hit a tree.

Sears reported the accident, and within 15 minutes Members of the Bloomingdale Volunteer Fire Department arrived, ripped open the top of Marklund’s car and dragged his body to safety.

Alex Marklund and his girlfriend Stephanie Sears pose for a photo nine months after Marklund was severely injured in a car crash. (Enterprise photo — Griffin Kelly)

“I’m so thankful and amazed by how fast they worked,” Marklund said. “If I was stuck in there any longer and not getting treatment, I could be in much worse shape.”

Marklund suffered injuries such as a punctured lung and a subdural hematoma, which is a highly deadly condition in which blood pools in the brain. After he received preliminary treatment at the Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake, LifeNet of New York airlifted him to UVM Medical Center, where he was listed in critical condition.

The accident hit Sears hard.

“I didn’t realize what an energy suck it was to walk into a hospital every day,” she said.

Sears said she and Marklund were fortunate enough to a have a great support system of family and friends. Only a few days after the crash, dozens of loved ones and well-wishers gathered at the Berkeley Green in Saranac Lake for a prayer vigil led by High Peaks Church Pastor Bruce McCulley.

“How many people showed up after just two hours of planning was crazy,” Sears said. “Seeing the giant circle of everyone who cared about Alex was definitely one of the more profound experiences of my life.”

Marklund’s family started a GoFundMe webpage to raise money for his medical bill. People donated over $30,000.

One time Marklund’s boss Chris Tissot of Tissot Construction and his wife Jen showed up at the hospital with a basket full of snacks.

“That was so meaningful,” Sears said. “Bringing or mailing a box of snacks to someone in the hospital is probably the best thing a person can do.”

Marklund’s chances of returning to a normal life seemed slim.

“The doctors told us, ‘Be prepared to bring home a vegetable,'” Sears said.

But that’s just not what happened.

Marklund is well known in the North Country for his Gypsy jazz guitar playing. Different from New York and New Orleans jazz, which often utilize drums and piano, Gypsy jazz originated in France and focuses a lot on guitar and violin. Marklund plays his nylon-stringed guitar in groups such as Crackin’ Foxy and the ADK Hot Club.

Playing music together is how Marklund and Sears met. Their mutual friend and singer in Crackin’ Foxy, Sarah Curtis, got the two together.

“If you like music and you might want to get into a relationship,” Marklund said, “you should meet Sarah Curtis. She’ll set you up.”

Originally more of a bluegrass player, Marklund learned jazz guitar from one of his mentors, Bobby Davis. After building up his Gypsy chops, Marklund and Davis backpacked and busked their way through Europe one year.

Music and the need to play aided Marklund in his healing.

“The day he woke up,” Sears said, “we were all like, ‘Give him a banjo.’ He was able to make a movable six chord on the banjo before he could even make full sentences. He couldn’t exactly strum, but still, it was insane for only a few hours after waking up.”

One day, an old guitar teacher, Denis Chang, visited Marklund in the hospital. He brought a full band and played a mini concert.

“Alex even joined in,” Sears said. “At the time he could only play, like, two songs before he’d get exhausted.”

Once he reached a stable enough condition, Marklund was transferred to Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital in Malvern, Pennsylvania, where his mother is a nurse and his grandfather is a surgeon. There he spent plenty of time relearning how to play guitar.

“A lot of the therapy work they do there is art focused,” Marklund said, “which is great because music is really stimulating. It uses both the left and the right sides of the brain, making it really helpful in the recovery process.”

Soon enough, everything started coming back to him.

“It was like watching the animal lizard brain go to the fully evolved human,” Sears said.

Looking at and talking to Marklund nine months after the car crash, it’s hard to tell he suffered brain damage. On Easter Sunday, he, Sears and few friends performed at the Left Bank Cafe in Saranac Lake. Marklund’s dexterity on his guitar looked effortless. He likes to say his “strong Viking blood” had something to do with his recovery.

“Alex is not the norm at all,” Sears said.

To list all the basic functions Marklund is capable of again almost seems insulting, but he’s grown an immense appreciation for the most straightforward human activities.

“I think the whole experience has made me more grateful for the simple things,” Marklund said. “A working brain is something a lot of people take for granted. Just being able to walk and drive is amazing. I’m also so thankful for those who had been praying for me and stood by me: family, friends, the Tissots, Zach Carpenter [one of Marklund’s co-workers] and all the people who donated to the GoFundMe page.”

As far as Marklund and Sears can tell, the only lingering effects of his injuries is that he will occasionally get tired and have to take naps.

Laughing, Sears said, “We go to bed a little bit earlier now, and I don’t mind that at all.”

Marklund held two thumbs up and said, “Neither do I.”

Because Marklund has made a good recovery, he and Sears approach what was once a more scary and emotional topic with a light-hearted attitude.

“There were a lot of horrifying moments,” Sears said, “but also a lot of funny ones.”

She remembers sitting in the hospital with Marklund, watching a TV broadcast of a concert in Spain, at a time where Marklund’s sense of reality was a little skewed.

“Someone calls him on the phone to ask how he’s doing,” Sears said, “and he goes, ‘Great. Stephanie is here, and we’re in Spain right now.”

There was also a period of time where Marklund kept thinking he was on a boat.

“When can I leave?” Marklund would ask every so often.

“I’d tell him he could leave when he stopped thinking he was on a boat,” Sears said.

Marklund hesitates from using the term “full recovery” to describe his current condition.

“I’ve heard that when people think they’ve made a full recovery,” Marklund said, “they’ve actually still got 15 percent to go. I’m thinking there’s still room to go up. Given the chance to have a fresh start with a stronger sense of gratefulness and responsibility, I would like to choose a path of excellence and find out what the best version of myself is capable of. “

“What is 100 percent anyways?” Sears added. “After something like this, you’re changed forever.”