Nayla Tawa almost died in Kyrgyzstan, now she’s back to finish her film | VailDaily.com

Nayla Tawa almost died in Kyrgyzstan, now she’s back to finish her film

If someone had asked adventurer and filmmaker Nayla Tawa a few years ago about her most memorable travel experience, she might have mentioned walking on glaciers in Patagonia, maybe salsa dancing in Cuba.

Today, she'd tell you about the time she nearly died in a Kyrgyzstan car crash, but didn't. There were tears, screams and utter terror, but also smiles, laughter and love, she said.

"It might seem strange to view my near-death experience as memorable. Yet, I would not trade it for anything," Tawa said. "It truly was a unique opportunity to grow and learn in a way that few will experience."

She's back in Kyrgyzstan this month to deliver ski gear and medical supplies and make a documentary film about the place she almost died.

But before we can tell you that story, we have to tell you this story.

Life and near death

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Tawa, a Boulder native, was studying film and geography at UCLA when a friend in the Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan invited her over for a backcountry snowboarding trip in that country. One of her film professors told her to make a film while she was there.

Her Peace Corps pal told her about a local Kyrgyz man's vision to improve his country's economy through ski tourism.

"After hearing about this local man's story, I knew I had found my film," Tawa said.

On Feb. 3, 2012, two days after arriving in Kyrgyzstan, the cab in which she and some friends were riding was traveling at 60 mph on a remote road. It hit ice, skidded and hit three trees.

Anyone who travels in a developing country can tell you that sometimes it's an adventure just to cross the street.

"I can assure you I was not thinking, 'It's just part of the adventure,'" Tawa said.

She was severely injured, crying, cold and scared. Her back was broken in three places, her sternum was snapped and her right knee was completely blown — and those are just the highlights, or lowlights.

Car accidents are never easy, but car accidents in developing countries are a whole different story, Tawa said. Instead of paramedics, local villagers took her to the nearest "hospital": no hygiene, no running water and a facility ill-equipped for serious trauma care.

She refused treatment and relied solely on her friends' medical knowledge, one of whom was a paramedic. Three days of pain and tears included being duct-taped to a snowboard as a backboard and screaming at local doctors to keep them from injecting her with intravenous pain medications.

She was soon on a medical plane bound for Dubai, but said she didn't feel all that good about it.

"By the sheer virtue of being an American citizen, I was about to go from one of the worst medical facilities in the world to hospitals that appeared to be made of gold," Tawa said.

Their local driver was being left behind.

"To this day, I have a hard time describing what I felt in that moment," she said. "I had to get on that plane, but why was I any different from my taxi driver? I chose to go there, yet when disaster struck I could escape to one of the richest countries. I felt guilty for my status in society."

MOVING TO Vail

Back in the U.S., Tawa received three medical opinions from three physicians, ranging from amputating her leg to never being able to snowboard again.

"All solutions I was not willing to settle for," Tawa said.

She moved to Vail two weeks after her accident to work with Dr. Robert LaPrade at the Steadman Philippon Research Institute.

"Dr. LaPrade was up front. He never sugarcoated how hard my recovery would be, but he also told me with absolute certainty that together we would get me back on my board," Tawa said.

LaPrade put her back together, and she spent the next year recovering with physical therapists Thomas Olsen and Eric Dube at the Howard Head Sports Medicine Center in Vail.

LaPrade had told her with hard work he could get her back on her snowboard in two years.

She had setbacks. She was in a wheelchair longer than planned and she was in her leg brace longer than planned, but she was snowboarding only one year after surgery, instead of two.

Return to Kyrgyzstan

Tawa returned to Kyrgyzstan last month to lead the appropriately named Return to Kyrgyzstan Project and to finish filming. She founded and owns Purple Nomad Films.

"My journey has become a part of the documentary, and I know that without Dr. LaPrade and his team, this would not have been possible. I am thankful each day for everything he has done for me," Tawa said.

The project is focused Arslanbob, Kyrgyzstan, and provides training and ski gear to the remote village.

It's all part of the Kyrgyzstan Community Based Tourism Association, Arslanbob group, which has been developing ski and snowshoe tours and a grassroots ski school.

Dozens of children and adults now ski in the fields above the village and are learning about tourism, environmental awareness and skiing as a means to support the local economy, Tawa said.

They'll spend a month in Arslanbob training with a local ski team and taking some day trips to test their skills.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and rwyrick@vaildaily.com.

Return to Kyrgyzstan

For information about Nayla Tawa’s Return to Kyrgyzstan project, and to help, go to http://www.returntokg.com.

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