Snowboarding Accident

If I close my eyes, I can still feel the exhilarating sensations. With hands open wide and arms outspread like wings, I am an eagle soaring down the powdery slopes of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains above Santa Fe. Both of my feet are strapped into my son’s outgrown sleek white snowboard. I surf the moguls as cold, invigorating air rushes past my face and stings my bare cheeks. My body leans to the left and then to the right, making a string of graceful turns down the side of the mountain.

At 58, I was probably one of the oldest snowboarders on the mountain. At that time, mostly teenagers gravitated toward snowboarding.

For most of my adult life, one of my favorite activities had been backcountry skiing. I loved to climb up mountains on skis with skins—or on snowshoes with skis strapped to my backpack—and then ski down the side of the mountain to the bottom.

After my first year of medical school, I organized an all women’s ascent of Denali, formerly known as Mt. McKinley. We carried about 50 pounds on our backs and hauled close to 50 pounds of food and gear in our sleds. If you’d like to watch a short video of the expedition, here is the link:

Snowboarding held absolutely no interest for me. I thought of it as a sport exclusively for wild teenagers and young adults.

One day in the winter of 1999, my ten-year-old son, Barrett, convinced me to take him to Wolf Creek Pass, a ski area in Colorado where the snow is usually plentiful—even in times of scanty snowfall in New Mexico. He said that he wanted to take snowboarding lessons.

From afar, through gently falling snow, I watched my son learn how to snowboard. After crashing to the ground a few times, I could see that he caught on quickly. For the first time, I felt a desire to learn how to snowboard. I walked to the ticket office and hired my own private instructor to teach me how.

Snowboarding has a steep but short learning curve.  The young, bronze-skinned instructor gave me plenty of encouragement after each of the many falls I took.

“Can I give you a hand?” He reached out to help me after I had toppled over while simply standing in place with both feet strapped into the board—without any poles to lean on. “My mother is about your age. I can’t imagine her doing anything like this. You’re obviously very athletic. You just have to hang in there and not let yourself get discouraged.”

I left the slope bruised, banged up and discouraged, thinking what a crazy idea for a middle-aged woman to be doing this sort of thing. Yet, I came back the next day for another lesson. I persisted, in spite of repeatedly falling down and getting up again. Barrett found it amusing that I wanted to learn snowboarding and laughed as he watched my comical struggle to stay upright.

After just one lesson, Barrett managed to come down the beginner slope making several wobbly turns without falling. He offered me a few tips. “Mom, keep your focus ahead of you so you won’t tip over. Don’t look at your feet.” I took his advice, both literally and metaphorically.

By the third day of lessons, something clicked into place; my body got what it was supposed to do. I sailed down the beginner slope over and over until the lift closed. It wasn’t long before I got totally hooked on the sport.

Although I continued to cross country ski, I gave up downhill skiing for good. The feeling of surfing the mountain slopes on a single board, leaning into the turns with arms spread wide, filled me with sheer ecstasy. I went snowboarding every chance I could get.

For years I snowboarded each winter until one day in January of 2007, life as I had known it came to an abrupt end.

It was a Sunday, January 27th. My friend, Lenya Reese, had invited me to join her at noon on the mountain so we could snowboard together. We agreed to meet at the top of the Millennial Lift, on the summit of the mountain where the steep, expert slopes could be found. I decided I would go snowboarding early in the morning to get some runs in before meeting up with her.

When I woke up that Sunday morning, I had a very strong feeling that I should not go anywhere and just stay home. I talked myself out of those feelings, convinced that my mood would change once I was on the slopes—as it often had in the past.

After parking the car at the ski area, an inexplicable sense of foreboding washed over me. I forced myself to get out of the car and reluctantly walked through the parking area, lugging my gear toward the ticket window. A few feet from the window, I abruptly turned around and walked all the way back to the car in the lower parking lot. I sat in the car for a few minutes listening to an inner dialogue of ambivalence. Should I go back home or should I go back to the ski area?

Eventually a sense of duty convinced me that I absolutely had to meet Lenya at the top of the mountain because I had no cell reception to let her know I wouldn’t be able to meet her as planned. I resolutely walked back to the ticket counter, got my ticket and headed up the ski lift to start snowboarding.

I actually started to feel a bit better once I was on the slopes and snowboarding, but there was still a vague sense of wanting to go home. Just before noon, I approached the lift line at the Millennial Chairlift to meet Lenya at the designated time and place at the top of the mountain.

As I took my place at the end of the long lift line, I happened to look up the mountain and saw a teenager bombing down the slope above me at high velocity. He was heading right toward me. I assumed he would turn any second, but then I had the sickening realization that the snowboarder didn’t know how to turn. There was no time for me to get out of his trajectory. I crouched in a ball to mitigate the impact and protect my vital organs.

The teenager became airborne as he inadvertently sailed over a bump a couple of feet in front of me. His board struck me in the middle of my left leg with a powerful force that threw me backwards down the mountain. I heard my bones crunching and cracking on impact.

My body landed several yards downhill from where I had stood in line. I lay still for a moment trying to assess the situation. Surprisingly, I felt no pain, just pure adrenaline. In this pain-free, detached state of shock, I was able to slowly and painstakingly sit up and do a quick scan of my body to assess the damage. My lower left leg angled laterally 45 degrees at the knee, like a tortured doll whose joints had been pulled apart in an unnatural position.

For a few seconds, in my altered state of consciousness, I pondered how I was going to get down the mountain. I considered various options like snowboarding on one leg. It never occurred to me to ask for help. Just then the teenager, apparently unharmed, slid down to where I lay in the snow and asked if I was all right.

“Actually no, I’m not all right. I’m pretty badly injured,” I said. The boy had a frightened look on his face when he got a glimpse of my lower leg angled out to the side. In that instant, he turned his attention to getting into an upright position, and then fled down the mountain on his deadly board, never to be seen again.

Within minutes, people surrounded me, asking if they could help. The ski patrolmen arrived with a toboggan. They skillfully bundled me up and transferred me to the sled.

Before we took off down the mountain in the toboggan, a ski patrolman asked me to provide identifying information about the hit-and-run teenager. I only remembered the boy’s frightened face, the fear in his eyes, and his white wool hat; I guessed that he was about fifteen years old. As expected, the patrolman said that the information I gave was not sufficient to catch the suspect.

At the first aid station, the doctor on duty offered to give me a shot of morphine while I waited for the ambulance to come up the mountain. I declined the help because I was still in shock and feeling no pain.

The ambulance slowly descended the winding mountain road with its lights flashing. When we were halfway to the hospital, the pain started to hit in full force. It was gruesome. The EMT gave me the morphine shot but it did little to relieve the pain. By the time we reached the hospital at 2 pm, agonizing pain engulfed me. It felt like my leg was going to come off from where it was precariously attached.

The EMT, at my request, had called my sister to advise her of my situation and see if she could meet me at the hospital.

I recognized the emergency doctor on duty. He popped his head into the curtained holding area and said, “Erica, I’m really sorry that I can’t tend to you right away. In the room next door we’re dealing with a major car accident with three people, each with multiple serious injuries, and in the other room we have a man in the middle of an MI. I’m the only doc on duty at the moment. I’ll get the nurse in here right away to give you more morphine.”

As I moaned in pain while trying to straighten out my leg, my sister walked into the exam room. When she looked at my leg sticking out to the side, all the color left her face and I could see her eyes lose focus and her balance become unsteady. I urged her to sit down to avert a possible fainting episode. My moaning ceased instantly. I used all my will power to release the contortions on my face and act as if everything was under control. “The pain isn’t very bad. It’s really ok,” I lied in an artificially calm voice, trying to reassure her.

After x-rays, scans, and consultations, I received the obvious diagnosis—left leg shattered around the knee with a dislocated tibial plateau. My leg would need to be rebuilt surgically.

With my left leg securely splinted, crutches under each armpit, and a bag of narcotics for pain, my sister took me home at 2 am. We had been in the ER exactly twelve hours. The orthopedist said that I had to wait three days for the swelling to go down before the surgery could be performed.

After the three painful and sleepless days and nights were up, my neighbors escorted me to the hospital. My sister was not with us. She had contracted pneumonia and remained in bed recovering over the following two weeks.

The orthopedic surgeon did an excellent job of repairing the damage. Cadaver bone chips were used where my bone had been pulverized. A large metal plate secured with screws served to stabilize the bone fragments. I wondered if I would end up becoming a beer-drinking, football-watching gal, or some other character, as a result of having someone else’s DNA from the borrowed cadaver bones in me. The orthopedist reassured me that the cadaver bone chips came from a pool of donors and that the chips had been sterilized, then freeze dried.

I stayed in the hospital for four days. My friends brought me food during that time so I wouldn’t have to eat the hospital fare that barely resembled real food. The time passed quickly in my narcotic-induced fog.

The orthopedist said I would always walk with a limp, I would not be able to run, and in a few years I would need a knee replacement. As he was saying those words, I silently countered his pronouncements. “No. No way. You’re wrong. I’m not going to walk with a limp and I’m never going to need a knee replacement.” If I was Catholic, I might have made the sign of the cross with my fingers to protect me from the power of his words.

Two of my neighbors, Louise and Elise, agreed to spring me out of the hospital a day early after the orthopedist reluctantly agreed to the plan. In my haste to leave, I didn’t even get dressed, covered only in my hospital gown and underwear. Once I arrived home, I faced three months of prescribed immobility and recovery. Friends and neighbors set up a bed in the living room for me. A special machine cradled my injured leg, passively bending and straightening out the leg ever so slowly, night and day, non stop, in order to keep the bones in the knee joint from fusing together and turning me into a peg leg. Lying exclusively on my back, tethered to the perpetual motion machine, made sleep elusive. I gave myself shots in the belly every day to keep my blood from clotting, given my lack of mobility.

Neighbors and friends—including patients—brought dozen of plants and flowers, books to read, books on tape, inspirational DVD’s, and CD’s with dreamy music. They stocked my refrigerator and freezer with several weeks worth of food. A neighbor enlisted a team of friends to take turns cooking meals for me for the ensuing three months.

The outpouring of love and care from the Santa Fe community was mindboggling. At first I had a hard time accepting so much help and tended to turn down the generous offers.

One day, my 90-year-old English neighbor, Yvonne, straightened me out. During a visit to my sick bed, she asked me if there was anything she could do for me or get for me. I politely said that I didn’t need anything. She thought for a minute and then offered to get me a little hospital table to put over my supine body so that I could do paper work while in bed. I said, “Thank you, Yvonne, but I don’t need it. You really don’t need to go to any trouble for me. I’m fine.”

Yvonne looked annoyed and pursed her lips. She pointed her finger at me and said sternly in her crisp British accent, clearly enunciating each word as though speaking to a deaf person, “Now, Erica, you need to listen to something. You know perfectly well that you would benefit from a little bed table where you could put your laptop computer and your phone. Why do you say that you don’t need it? You know, it’s not fair that you do all the giving. The wheel of life is about giving AND receiving. If you don’t let people give to you, then you are depriving them of the pleasure that comes from giving. It’s not fair that you get to do all the giving.”

I got goose bumps on my forearms listening to Yvonne. I let the deep truth of her words sink into my soul. Yvonne had created a different interpretation of the words spoken by Jesus, “It is more blessed to give than receive” (Acts 20:35).

I certainly didn’t want to take more than my share of pleasure from doing all the giving. Yvonne helped me to understand that giving can also mean giving someone the opportunity to experience the joy of giving. For the first time, I realized that receiving can be a form of giving.

I learned my lesson well and stopped saying “no thank you” to offers of help, including Yvonne’s generous offer. The bed table became my “office” and turned out to be indispensable to my wellbeing.

News of the accident traveled rapidly through town by word of mouth and from an article that appeared in the local newspaper. Among the well wishers, there were close to 30 different practitioners who came to my make-shift bedroom in the living room to offer an assortment of treatments out of kindness and generosity, including acupuncture, massage, reiki, Feldenkreis, energy healing, lymphatic drainage, sound therapy, singing from the heart, chanting, crystal healing, craniosacral therapy, Chinese herbs, Ayurvedic treatment, homeopathy, electromagnetic pulsation therapy, myofascial treatment, osteopathy, hypnotherapy, drumming, shamanic sessions, EFT, EMDR, brain spotting, and more. Every treatment felt nurturing. My body was kneaded, stroked, rubbed, gently moved into different positions, infused with essential oils, and infused with energy from hands a few inches above the body. I received the full Santa Fe spectrum of healing modalities.

There was an endless stream of people who walked in and out of the front door; most of them entered without knocking because they knew I couldn’t move. I kept my clothes on at all times for that reason. About 300 cards of condolence arrived from my patients with words of love and encouragement. At some point I had to let go of the idea that I would ever be able to repay these people for their kindness. My friends reassured me that I had lots of credit on life’s balance sheet.

My son, Barrett, was 17 at the time, completing his freshman year of college at George Washington University in DC. He called home regularly, offering words of encouragement. “Mom, you’ve gotten through so many difficult times in your life. You’ll get through this just fine. You just have to be a patient patient.” He remembered a phrase I had said to him while he was growing up and facing the little bumps in the road that are part of life, and said it back to me, “This too shall pass, Mom. Don’t forget that.”

During this time, I closed my medical practice. But, after a month, I became restless and out of sorts, not able to move. I decided to schedule two or three patients a day, the ones who knew me well and had been part of my medical practice for many years. The patients came and sat by my bedside in consultation. A DO NOT DISTURB sign was placed on the front door during the three hours of daily consultation. It must have been a puzzling sight for an onlooker, wondering which one was the patient, but it fed my soul to be doing something useful.

Twice a week my sister drove me to physical therapy. My progress was rapid. The therapist said he couldn’t believe how fast I was recovering my strength and use of the leg. I told him it was from all the love and good food I was receiving from the community. He said it was from my determination. And the orthopedist commented that my progress was faster than he had anticipated, spoken in the understated way of a surgeon.

Before the three months were up, I began tentatively walking on my own. It was pure joy to be mobile and no longer helplessly dependent on the kindness of others. Awash with feelings of hope and optimism, I cautiously sauntered back into the world, back into the sunlight and back into the mountains. In my euphoria, I could not have imagined what awaited me down the road.

Skiing had been a passion of mine since I was four years old when my father put skis on me in the Swiss Alps. I sailed down the mountain and then crashed into the side of a dilapidated cow shed because I didn’t know how to turn. While in high school, my family lived in Germany which gave us the opportunity to ski in the Alps. In the photograph above, I’m standing with my father and my younger brother on the slopes in Bavaria.

Barrett began skiing when he was two years old. Here he is a year later, skiing the Aspen Vista trail.

Being on skis in the in the wilderness gave me pure joy.

Since Barrett was six years old, we skied several times every winter with friends into the backcountry in Colorado and stayed at a remote wilderness yurt. In the photo above, Bruce Gollub and his son Jonah are in the lead. Pilar Anllo is right behind, then Barrett, and me. The others are further down the mountain.

Eight-year-old Barrett is first to arrive at the yurt after a three mile trek from the trailhead.

Sometimes Barrett’s dad joined us on our winter expeditions to the backcountry. We were momentarily an intact family during those precious occasions.

As Barrett got older, his preference switched to snowboarding. He and his buddies snowshoed up the mountain with their boards or skis strapped to their backpacks. Here they pause during the long trek up to Vance Cabin in Colorado where we spent a few blissful days.

After Barrett switched to snowboarding, he and his buddies built jumps to practice their turns. Here they have piled snow up to the roof of the cabin where we stayed that winter

Barrett airborne on his first jump.

Being airborne gives the exhilarating sensation of flying.

Utter bliss comes with skiing or snowboarding fresh powder on the side of a mountain in the backcountry.

Snowboarding on Neff Mountain in Colorado.

The view from Vance Cabin in the Colorado Rockies.