Sunday, February 23, 2014

"She still aint awake...but she is grinnin..."

"The brave don't live forever, but the cautious don't live at all."

Every once in awhile something crosses my path that truly speaks to me. It could be a quote, a song, a person, or an experience. This week it was a documentary called The Crash Reel. I stumbled upon this movie at a very interesting time. It has been haunting me and I just can't seem to shake when I can't escape something, the best thing I can do is write about it.

This documentary is about the life of U.S. snowboarding champion, Kevin Pearce. It documents the challenges he endures after a near-fatal accident in Park City, Utah. The film follows Kevin and his family as he suffers from a Traumatic Brain injury and recovers from the accident. This is not just another ski/snowboarding movie. It is a film about strength, the human spirit and family. Even if you have no interest in snow sports, I highly recommend The Crash Reel (plus the soundtrack is amazing.)

I just celebrated my 34th birthday up at Stevens Pass Ski Area. It was an amazing day of skiing with great friends. As I struggled to ski waste deep powder, I was reminded how lucky I was to be able to celebrate my birthday in such an exhilarating way. The day of my birthday also marks the two-year anniversary of an avalanche at Stevens Pass that deeply impacted people who mean a lot to me. New York Times writer, John Branch, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his article "Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek." As Stevens Pass received over 10 feet of snow in 10 days this past week, it also lost another member of it's team to an unfortunate accident. Ken Kelley fell and hit his head while snowboarding. My deepest sympathy to the friends and family of those lost.

The events of this last week and the documentary are just reminders of how lucky I am.

To date, I have suffered from one severe concussion, two moderate concussions and two mild concussions. Each concussion was such a freak accident. I am truly fortunate to be alive and well. However, each time I hit my head I can definitely tell that something changes and I am not the person I was before. My memory has drastically declined and I find it more difficult to make complete sentences and remember words (that I once knew). After a few of the hits, I couldn't clearly communicate or read for days. I also dealt with anger and depression during those times.

My first concussion happened back in April of 2009. The World's Toughest Cowboy was in Portland and that week I was doing PR/promotions with members of the tour. By the end of the week, I had become pretty good friends with Kenny the Rodeo Clown and Chuck-wagon Racer. He was eager to hit Mt. Hood while he was in town, so I offered to take him up on our day off. The conditions were good in the morning and we had a great half day of riding. Like most days on the mountain, we went in for lunch and enjoyed some local brew. During lunch the clouds moved in, but we decided to go up for a couple more runs before we headed down the mountain. When we got to the top of the chairlift the Ski Patroller told us it was the last run because they were closing due to heavy winds.

The wind was so strong that it knocked me over, so I sat by the top of the lift and waited for the gust to die down. The next thing I knew I was laying on the ground. When I opened my eyes I saw metal and a crowd of people standing around me. It was a freak accident. The wind was so strong that it picked up one of the Ski Patrol metal sleds, propelled it through the air and hit the back of my head. They walked me over to the Ski Patrol shack and put me on oxygen. I might have been a little bit tipsy form the beer, but I was definitely out of it. I remember being really angry at the Ski Patrollers for asking me so many questions.

"She still aint awake...but she is grinnin..." ~Facebook post on April 1, 2009 by Kenny

I was determined that I was going to snowboard down the mountain because I refused to "be wrapped up like a burrito in the sled that caused my injury." After awhile, I realized I wasn't going to win that one because I was in no shape to ride. So they wrapped me in the sled and started the trek down the mountain. As if things weren't bad enough, half way down the run the wind knocked over the Ski Patroller and the sled I was riding in flipped over. There I was laying face down in the snow...again! That night I miraculously made it home safely and went to bed. 

The next few days were rough. I was extremely nauseous, foggy and weak. I was in and out of doctor appointments and had to recruit friends to take me because I was too out of it to drive. I will never forget when I was waiting for my CT scan and the receptionist gasped. She turned to her co-worker and said, "Did you hear that Natasha Richardson just died? She was skiing and fell and hit her head." That was the last thing you want to hear as you wait to see how your own brain is doing. It took several months for me to get back to normal. 

Ever since that fateful day I have had a string of freak accidents. The hatch of a car fell on me, I got kicked in the side of the head while swing dancing, and I fell this summer while wakesurfing. My second worst concussion happened while I was in living in New Zealand. I was snowboarding out of bounds and it was extremely icy. I thought I was safe because I was skiing with friends who worked for Ski Patrol and the Medical Clinic. However, I quickly realized they were much faster than me and I was falling behind. While trying to keep up, I caught an edge and my head flew back and hit the ice. Luckily I was wearing a helmet because my head carved a 6" inch deep hole out of the ice. I didn't black out, but I definitely felt off after the crash. The concussion symptoms worsened over the next few days. I lost my speech, couldn't read, and I was extremely angry and tired. I remember going to work and trying to help a customer. They asked me a question about goggles and I couldn't answer because I couldn't remember the words and put a sentence together. 

Snowboarding at Mt Ruapehu in New Zealand in July 2012

In all honesty, I don't feel like I am the same person I was before each of the accidents. It is extremely frustrating at times. I find that I sometimes struggle to read children's books to Alta, I find it difficult to form sentences when I talk to my friends, and well, my memory is just shot. I am not comparing myself to Kevin Pearce in any way, but I do relate to his frustration as he tries to learn to adapt to his new brain. I also understand his desire to keep riding. Yes, I suppose I should sit home on the weekends and protect my head. However, I have such a passion for outdoor activities. What is a girl to do?

Life is short. Enjoy it, but be smart. Protect your brain. Say a prayer. And always tell the people you care about that you love them.

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