Summit County overcomers: Inspirational stories of healing and hope
DILLON — Never give up. Don’t dwell. Have a sense of humor. And get a dog.
That’s advice for overcoming hardships from those who know how: Summit County’s overcomers — people who’ve experienced tragedy, injury or rare conditions and have persevered to live happy and healthy lives in the High Country.
The Summit Daily News asked readers to nominate community members who have overcome a challenge and continue to live life to its fullest. Nominations included everything from sustaining a traumatic brain injury and surviving sepsis to suddenly losing a spouse or overcoming alcoholism.
From 70 nominations, the Summit Daily chose three people to share their inspirational stories of recovery.
On July 3, 2015, the Flight for Life helicopter in which Dave Repsher was riding crashed shortly after takeoff at St. Anthony Summit Medical Center in Frisco. The crash caused the helicopter’s fuel tank to rupture, spilling fuel that burst into flames.
Pilot Patrick Mahany was killed, and Flight for Life nurses Repsher and Matt Bowe were severely injured. Repsher suffered full-thickness burns to 90% of his body and was not expected to survive.
His survival “defies all medical statistics,” Dave’s wife, Amanda, said.
What: The Longevity Project with speaker Sean Swarner, a two-time cancer survivor with one functioning lung who climbed Mount Everest
When: 6 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 30
Where: Virtual at SummitDaily.com
Tickets: Free registration with a suggested donation at SummitDaily.com/longevity
“Almost three years later, we finally were able to move back home, and that was our goal, just to get back into this wonderful community,” said Dave Repsher, who grew up in Summit County.
The Repshers have turned the tragedy into advocacy. The couple now work to support burn survivors and create awareness about organ donation. They’ve also partnered with Karen Mahany, the wife of the pilot who died in the crash, to advocate for stronger flight safety standards.
“Believe it or not, 85% of the fleet still doesn’t have a crash-resistant fuel system,” Dave Repsher said, adding that all newly manufactured helicopters are now required to come off the line with a crash-resistant fuel system.
More than five years after the crash, the couple said they couldn’t have done it without the help of the community.
“The community had our back,” Dave Repsher said. “… The support and love we got from this community was really what pulled us through.”
Through it all, he believes his mental strength helped in his recovery.
“For whatever reason, I just didn’t dwell on what occurred,” he said. “I just kept looking forward. I had goals, whether they were realistic or not. But it just gave me something to look forward instead of looking back. And it’s not always easy to do, but for me, I think that’s what got me through.”
Doris Spencer was 7 years old when she fell while ice skating and injured her back. Her injury was not diagnosed until her legs went numb and she collapsed while standing in line at a bank more than 25 years later.
Her orthopedic surgeon said she had severed her spinal cord and performed a 13 1/2-hour operation. Though her doctors said the surgery was successful, Spencer couldn’t walk.
“My legs didn’t know what to do,” she said. “… It was just very scary.”
She dragged her legs behind her walker for two weeks in the hospital before going home. There, she was assigned to walk around the block four times a day while trying to get her brain to tell her legs what to do.
“After eight months, my left foot actually moved one-half inch all by itself,” she said. “And I just could not believe it. And so I knew I would be able to walk again.”
A couple of months later, she said she was able to walk on a hard, flat surface with the help of two poles. About two years into her recovery, she moved to Summit County.
Her home was at the base of Quandary Peak, and the mountain served as the inspiration she needed. She slowly learned to walk on uneven surfaces and later succeeded in climbing the 14,000-foot peak.
“I fell down at the summit and just cried my heart out for about five or 10 minutes,” she said.
She and partner Kent Willoughby — whom she described as the “love of my life” — went on to climb all the 14ers in Colorado followed by summiting the 100 tallest mountains in the state. They then set their sights outside of Colorado, tackling the tallest peak in each of the 50 states — accomplishing all but Denali.
“We were successful in that except for one, and that was in Alaska,” Spencer said. “The weather wasn’t right, and you just can’t climb a big mountain like that unless the weather is right.”
For her recovery, Spencer thanks her doctors and God.
“I am so grateful for them allowing me to be able to do what I do after what I’ve been though,” she said. “Every day is a blessing for me.”
After being diagnosed with a rare joint disease in high school, Silverthorne resident Joe Pleban said thousands of tiny tumors ate away at the cartilage in his left ankle and left him with severe arthritis.
“I was slowly losing the ability to play all these sports like rugby, wakeboarding — but the one sport I could always still hold onto was snowboarding,” Pleban said. “And then eventually, I lost the ability to snowboard.
“And I was like 20 years old, walking with a cane.”
Doctors suggested fusing the bones in his ankle, but he would never be able to play sports again.
“Well in that case, you might as well just cut it off and give me an awesome robot leg that I can play sports on,” Pleban recalled thinking.
Pleban calls himself an “elective amputee,” meaning he chose to have his foot removed so he could pursue an active lifestyle.
After he made the “nerve-wracking” decision, he and his wife, Johnna, made a bucket list for his left foot’s final days. They went skydiving, scuba diving and paint balling. And before he went in for surgery, he completed one last bucket list item: getting a tattoo.
The scissors and dotted line around his left ankle and the note “please cut here” gave his doctors a chuckle.
“If it’s getting cut off anyways, might as well get a tattoo on it,” he joked.
But his amputation was just the beginning of another debilitating problem: phantom pain caused by sensory nerves.
Pleban said he was on “a ton of pain meds” until an experimental clinical trial surgery took away his pain. Now, that surgery — targeted motor reinnervation — is considered the first proven cure for phantom pain, he said.
“Overall, it was incredibly successful,” he said.
With his pain subsided, it was time to move onto the next goal: getting back on a snowboard.
“It’s always been my dream to represent the U.S. on an international stage,” Pleban said.
He said he got his “butt kicked” at one of his first competitions, the USASA nationals for adaptive snowboardcross at Copper Mountain Resort.
“If these guys are riding on a prosthetic at that level, I can do it, too,” he said he told himself at the time.
Last season, he was named to the U.S. Para Snowboard Team. He’s been named to the team again this season and is looking forward to competing in whatever form that takes during the pandemic.
Through the pain and difficult times, Pleban has relied on humor to lighten the mood, joking that he gets 50% off pedicures and only stubs his toe about half the time.
“It’s going to suck. It’s going to be serious to have to overcome something,” Pleban said about his advice for others who are struggling. “To introduce humor helps to take away the seriousness of it, even just for a short time.
“… It’s not going to be easy, but it helps.”
Editor’s note: Join the Summit Daily News at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 30, for The Longevity Project event featuring speaker Sean Swarner, a two-time cancer survivor with one functioning lung who climbed Mount Everest. The event is free to attend, but registration is required at SummitDaily.com/longevity. Those who register can also watch the Overcomers panel discussion.
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