Former professional snowboarder and traumatic brain injury survivor Kevin Pearce packed in a hurry before flying from his home in Southern California to the Colorado mountains. He planned to run a marathon later in his trip, and he forgot his running shoes.
He could’ve beat himself up, he said, getting mad about how four years after the accident that nearly killed him, he still forgets important things every day.
Instead, Pearce, the athlete who might have topped Shaun White at the 2010 Olypimcs, said this was a perfect example of a time he needed to “love his brain.”
Pearce, 26, promoted his “Love Your Brain” campaign as the keynote speaker at the Brain Injury Conference in Breckenridge Friday, May 16.
The event, held at Beaver Run Resort & Conference Center, was hosted by the Brain Injury Alliance of Colorado and St. Anthony Summit Medical Center. About 100 people attended, said Tina Ziwak, the alliance’s special events director.
In Summit County, where locals are desensitized to the risks associated with sports and outdoor recreation, raising awareness about brain injuries is important, said Melissa Chang, 32, at the event.
“We’re such a state-of-the-art orthopedic community,” said Chang, who works with Avalanche Physical Therapy in Frisco, “but we forget about the brain.”
When people think pain and injuries are just part of the sport, she said, they’re less likely to seek medical care for something like a headache. That can have serious life-changing, or -ending, consequences.
During his lunchtime presentation, Pearce described how he refused to believe doctors who told him he couldn’t compete in snowboarding again.
“I thought I knew better than them,” he said. “I was sure they were wrong.”
He was forced to accept it after his first day back on a board in 2011, when he realized how much his injury still affected him.
He was also forced to listen to his family members when they told him to take naps, something he did almost daily for the first few years after his injury.
“The brain wants sleep. It heals when it sleeps,” he said.
He promoted wearing helmets and taking time after a concussion or other brain injury because a repeat injury could prove much worse.
Though he has made a remarkable recovery, Pearce still has vision and memory problems. He said family support and his faith that he will keep improving helps him stay positive.
Maria Martinez, 59, of Pueblo, survived a traumatic brain injury from a motorcycle accident seven years ago. She said she could relate to Pearce’s attitude.
“I like his thinking,” she said.
Five other speakers presented information on brain injuries at the event.
Neurocritical care expert Dr. William Coplin talked about mild brain injuries. He emphasized playing it safe, stopping activity and seeking medical care after a possible brain injury, because sometimes people with serious injuries appear fine.
Occupational therapist Terri Cassidy discussed how survivors can determine whether they can drive again. People shouldn’t assume either way, she said, and everyone should be asking themselves, “Is this the best time for me to drive?”
After the driving talk, Barb Minden, a Denver physical therapist in the audience, said she was excited to learn about the new collision-avoidance technologies Cassidy talked about because they will improve safety for everyone. Minden said most brain injuries come from car accidents.
“We should all wear helmets in our cars,” she said, “but come on, really?”
Speaker Stacia Wilhelm said the medical community lacks reliable studies on traumatic brain injuries and the FDA hasn’t approved any drugs to treat them, so survivors have experienced some positive results with drugs for other conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Lawyer Peter Burg spoke about legal issues associated with brain injuries, like navigating compensation claims and discussing guardianship with survivors who aren’t fully aware of their limited decision-making abilities. Defining brain injuries as mild means something medically, he said, but the word might not mean anything in terms of affects on people’s jobs and relationships and could be a hindrance legally.
Clare DiCola with the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center wrapped up the conference by explaining the center’s programs and services for survivors and sharing stories of people who had improved drastically.
Afterward, Kristen Rubow, 47, who does kinesthetic integration in Boulder, said the talks drilled home the long-lasting effects of traumatic brain injuries on survivors, their family members and others involved in recovery and care.
“It continues to be a little sobering the number of TBIs that are walking around,” she said.
Her 16-year-old son, Charlie Rey, said he had a concussion three years ago and now he doesn’t notice any symptoms, except when he spins off a ski jump and loses his sense of direction.
The mother and son said they planned to stay for the screening of “The Crash Reel,” a documentary about Kevin Pearce, and Rubow hoped some of her son’s friends would attend.
“They’re all a little nuts on skis.”