'Those Guys Saved His Life'

At lunchtime on Thursday, Jason Priestley took his first bites of solid food since crashing his race car at Kentucky Speedway last weekend. After eight hours of surgery on Wednesday at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, the actor-driver's condition is improving. His father, Lorne Priestley, talked to NEWSWEEK's Daniel McGinn about his son's injuries, the long recovery ahead--and whether Jason should return to the racetrack.

NEWSWEEK: How's Jason doing?

Lorne Priestley: It's all good news--things seem to be moving in the right direction. If you'd heard me yesterday, you'd recognize that there's a huge change in my voice.

He's out of surgery, but what lies ahead?

He's still in trauma, intensive care, but the way things are looking right now, within 36 hours we'll get him out of intensive care. He'll stay in acute care--which is like a traditional hospital room--for 36 to 48 hours after that. Then he'll go to the rehab hospital. He'll be here at Methodist Hospital and the rehab hospital for anywhere from two to four weeks.

What will the rehabilitation be like?

He'll start rebuilding his muscle mass and working toward a full recovery. He can't get into the pool for a while because of the casts he's got on his feet. But as soon as those casts are removed--or can be changed to a waterproof cast so he can get into the water--they want to get him into the pool. Then they can begin building muscle mass around the spine and rebuilding all the systems. He's also going to have to learn to live in a wheelchair because between now and the end of October, he'll basically be in a wheelchair. He can't walk because of his broken feet, and he can't use crutches because of his broken back. So he'll have to learn how to get in and out of the wheelchair. He'll also be wearing a back brace--it's being custom-built--that will allow him to sit up comfortably.

Is he talking?

When he's not been sleeping. Today he's been having good conversations with me, his sister, his girlfriend. Because of the head trauma--he had a pretty good concussion, what the doctors call a moderate concussion--his memory of the accident is basically none at this time. So we've had to tell him what happened.

Have you talked about whether he'll race again?

Not yet.

Do you expect he will?

No comment. [Pause.] My desires and my expectations are two different things. That's a discussion we'll have to have in another six or seven weeks. He's in no position to make that decision right now.

It sounds like you'd prefer that he stop racing.

I'm a father. I've spent the last four days sitting next to his bed, and I don't like it. The chance of it ever happening again to any of my kids--not only Jason--I would hate to be doing this again with any of my family.

Tell us about his medical team.

They're fabulous ... [Jason was visited this morning by] one of the doctors who got him out of the car, the one actually working in the emergency vehicle at the track in Kentucky. In my estimation, those guys saved his life. Between the impact and some of the injuries, it was touch and go there for awhile. But they had him out of the car quickly, they stabilized him quickly, they got him to the University of Kentucky hospital within 35 minutes. I do think the emergency guys saved his life.