The Outsider: How I lost a few brain cells on a snowboard
October 15, 2016
"I'll bet you won't ever text and drive again."
It's one of the few things I remember from my time laid up in clinical white, paired with the fuzzy, blown-out parade of family and friends and nurses, like something from a faded photo album, or maybe an old book you vaguely remember reading. One of the nurses made that comment — it's not an exact quote, just something about texting and driving — and it has stuck with me ever since.
So, as I drifted in and out of consciousness for two days in March 2014, I wondered why she said that. Something just didn't make sense: Who was driving? Who was texting? It definitely wasn't me. The last thing I remember was taking beautiful, spring-day park laps through the Rodeo terrain park at Beaver Creek. Winter is well and good for powder, but spring is the season of the park rat, and earlier that week, cat crew had redesigned two snow spines below the jump line with snowmaking pipes, single-barrels and a massive, brand-new elbow rail — an adult playground. I'd been lapping and filming with one of my co-workers from park crew when bam. Black. Nothing.
But again, what happened? My recall process turned into a scene from "Memento," the 2000 Christopher Nolan film about a guy (Guy Pierce, actually) who suffers from a rare form of memory loss. Where am I? I thought and edged my eyes around the room. I'm in a hospital, obviously. No home has beds like this. How am I? Not sure, I thought, and started moving body parts. My right arm and right leg hurt in a hazy kind of way, but everything else was fine. Numb, but fine. Who was she? A nurse, I knew that much, but I couldn't remember her name to save my life, even though I swore she introduced herself.
Yet again, I got lucky. I don’t remember at least 24 hours after the hit and barely remember the next four or five days, but the X-rays and CAT scan came back negative for hemorrhaging.
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Why am I here? That one was still tough. All I had to fall back on was that pristine spring day in the park, with Sam and a snowboard and a GoPro. I drifted in and out another time or two — could've been an hour, could've been five — and then a doctor came in. He introduced himself and I might have said hello. I eventually learned it was Dr. William Sterett, a U.S. Ski Team surgeon with Vail Summit Orthopedics.
"How's your leg today, Phil?"
In my life, I've been lucky enough to escape serious injury more than a few times. I probably just jinxed myself by saying that — and in ink, of all things — but it's the honest-to-god truth. My first concussion might have been a drop on the head (mom denies it all), but the first I remember was snowboarding in middle school. I got bucked off a double-kink rail at Keystone and went black for a split-second before someone asked if I was OK. Being a stubborn s***, I nodded yes and slowly, slowly slid away. I adjusted my beanie, no helmet, and was done for the day.
My next concussion was the most serious. During a high school soccer game, I was playing goalkeeper when a high, floating corner kick started curving into the net. I jumped to punch it away, caught my legs on a player and flipped backward. My head connected first with the goal post, then the ground, and I went unconscious for about five minutes. The next day I was back in the net at practice, and two days after that I was playing in a game — a far cry from the evolving traumatic brain injury protocol now in place for Colorado athletes.
The third concussion was snowboarding again, this time on a cliff drop at Arapahoe Basin. I flatted the landing, nailed my chin on my knee and bit hard enough to split my molar in half. No helmet again. The fourth was also snowboarding, when I overshot a landing at Beaver Creek. It happened in uniform (oops), but at least there we're required to wear helmets.
Again, like I said, I've been lucky, and unbelievably so. My synapses were still firing on all circuits when I hit my head the fifth time.
Back in bed
I eventually pieced the story together with help from Sam, my co-worker on park crew, friends, ski patrol and Dr. Sterett. Over time, bits and pieces of what I'm sure are memories come back to me, and the pieces seem to more-or-less fit.
We'd been lapping the park and filming, just as I remembered. I ended the run with the GoPro and started reviewing footage through the app when we bombed down steep, fast Buckboard — switch. As Sam remembers, I didn't make the turn onto the cat track and rode straight into a stand of aspen trees going whatever straightline speed is, so 30 or 35 miles per hour.
The kicker: It all happened within 500 yards of the road where ski patrol takes people to load the ambulance. At least I made it easy on them, and because we'd been riding park that day, I was wearing a helmet. It still wasn't a mandatory part of my gear.
Yet again, I got lucky. I don't remember at least 24 hours after the hit and barely remember the next four or five days, but the X-rays and CAT scan came back negative for hemorrhaging. There was a patch of pooled blood immediately after, but it soon disappeared. The neurologist was pleased, and so was Dr. Sterett, the master surgeon who pieced together my tibia-fibula with a five-inch rod and my forearm with a 3.5-inch plate. Both breaks were clean — lucky once more.
On the third day I left the hospital in a wheelchair (I think) after a physical therapist had me try to walk. That didn't work too well — I was in a walking boot for the next three months — but, being a stubborn s***, I didn't take the wheelchair home.
These days, after the fifth big blow, my synapses don't fire on all circuits. It's hard to explain, so I'll again look to a film: "The Crash Reel," an HBO documentary about former pro snowboarder Kevin Pierce, who nearly died from a TBI when he missed the transition in the superpipe and fell from 35 feet onto his head.
In the film, Pierce spends two full years relearning to walk, eat, speak and interact with people. When he finally gets back on a board, you can tell he's jonesing to ride immediately at a world-class level, but you can also tell that might never be in the cards. At an ollie contest, he struggles just to time his jump right, let alone clear the bar as his pro buddies move it higher and higher and, eventually, start flipping over it.
I'm no world-class athlete, but like Pierce, I was determined to ride as soon as I could walk again. I missed opening day at Arapahoe Basin in October 2014 but made the trip from EagleVail to Keystone for opening day there. I was strangely nervous on the gondola ride up — not because I was worried about hitting my head, but because I was terrified that I'd lost it like Pierce.
Whatever "it" is, I didn't lose it completely, but I wasn't comfortable on my board that morning, or the next week or even most of that season. I slid out on tail butters and 180s, and then even struggled to make sharp turns at speed. I blamed the screws in my ankle, but something still wasn't right, like my vision was just barely off. The coordination I took for granted just wasn't there.
And it still isn't back to normal. I don't notice it as much on the hill, but my memory for places, people and nouns isn't the same. I like to joke that I'm the only journalist in the world who can't remember a name or face to save his life. Has it always been this way? Is it a side effect of that fifth hit? Is it because I'm getting older?
I honestly don't know, but one thing is for sure: I now understand what the nurse was talking about. I won't be texting and driving in any form ever again.
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