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Fracture Friday: Recovering in mind and body

The beginning of an unexpectedly difficult path to recovery.
Carolyn Paletta/Vail Daily

The injury

Heading into the senior season of my Division I collegiate lacrosse career, I considered myself one of the luckiest athletes I knew. I had managed to play four years of a varsity sport without having incurred a single injury. All around me, I had watched teammates tear ACLs, suffer chronic and worsening back injuries, put in extra hours before and after practice every day just to maintain a functional level of pain and mobility.

Meanwhile, the worst pain that I had suffered on the field was a series of regular, but minor, ankle sprains. By senior year, they were just an annoying but expected nuisance, largely mitigated by the thick support braces I wore on each ankle and never requiring more than a few days of recovery to return to full strength.

This was the status quo, until a tough game on a stormy day against one of the best teams in the league. I had slightly sprained my left ankle at practice earlier in the week, and knew that it was weak, but my ankles were always weak — I’d grown used to ignoring the discomfort and trusting the ankle braces. Cutting hard to my right in an attempt to dodge a defender, I felt a sharp pain that was unlike any I’d experienced before. Walking off the field, I noticed that the mobility in my left ankle was completely wonky. It felt like something had come loose inside my ankle, like it couldn’t hold itself up.

Oddly enough, the pain subsided quickly, and I was left with this slippery, unfamiliar ankle. Walking up and down the side of the field, I noticed that there was a tendon moving back and forth over my bone, like it had broken free from the normal ankle structure and was just floating around, not doing its job.

A few feet away, the game continued, and though I knew this was no regular sprained ankle, with the pain subsiding I decided that whatever damage had been done couldn’t get much worse. So I had the trainer secure the wayward tendon to the bone with the most intricate tape job you’ve ever seen, got back on the field, and finished the game.

A few X-rays and MRIs later, I learned that I had torn my superior peroneal reticulum, which secures the peroneal tendons behind the fibula. In essence, the tendons had lost their anchor and were now free to move up and around my fibula without resistance. The doctor told me that the only way to fix it was surgery, and that if I proceeded with repairing it, I was done for the rest of the season — pass. Instead, my trainer perfected a monster of a tape job, I got stronger ankle braces, and I finished out my senior year on the field.

Showing off my ever present ankle braces on Senior Day.
Carolyn Paletta/Vail Daily

The recovery

It was nearly a year after graduating that I finally scheduled my surgery. My mobility had been limited due to the injury, but I was able to do most things by taping down the tendon like my trainer had, and building up the muscles around the weakness through yoga. Part of me wanted to just accept this as a new reality and move on, but I knew that compensating for my ankle could compromise other elements of my physical health over time. I needed to take care of it now.

I had surgery on March 19, 2019, at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. During the procedure, the surgeon found that the tendon was not only detached, but it had ripped down the middle. If I had continued walking on it without repair, it likely would have severed over time. I felt very good about my decision to get the surgery after that.

I was relieved to hear that the reattachment had been successful, and I looked ahead to the next two months on crutches without any trepidation. Little did I know, the most difficult part of this whole ordeal was about to hit me like a ton of bricks.

I have struggled with mental health issues since high school, but have developed a number of routines and coping mechanisms over the years to keep depressive episodes at bay. I’d learned to expect and accept the ebbs and flows that come with dysthymia, and by age 23 — the year I had my ankle surgery — I was confident in my ability to navigate my mood patterns and lead a healthy, happy and productive lifestyle.

I did not realize how essential activity and exercise were for managing my mental health until I was stuck on a couch, foot in the air, day in and day out for over two months straight. The first week or two were no big deal. The crutches were a new and interesting challenge, and getting to sit around on the couch all day had a sense of novelty.

But the novelty wore off fast, and the inability to move not only stayed, but worsened. When the stitches were removed about a month in, my skin had not fully sutured together, and within a day, was starting to split apart at the seams. Within a week, the wound was oozing, and I panicked about infection and headed to an urgent care facility, where I paid too much money for too little information.

A text exchange with my surgeon assured me that the wound was not infected, but it was recommended that I walk as little as possible until the scar closed up. Now almost a month and a half in, I was barely moving and constantly stressing about the gaping scar on my ankle, willing it to heal every day and scared to do anything that might rip it open again and start my waiting game from the beginning.

It was at this time that I felt the depression set in. The daily anxiety about my wound faded into exhaustion, then resentment, and ultimately hopelessness. Typically, when I sense a depressive episode coming on, I make it a priority to do the things that I know bring me joy and flood my body with much-needed endorphins: yoga, rock climbing, hiking, running. Unfortunately, all of these options were off the table, and as my depression deepened, my ability to come up with creative alternatives or ideas of any kind grew dimmer and dimmer.

My productivity at work dropped to the bare minimum. I spoke to as few people as possible, and I holed up in my room feeling time pass unbearably slowly. When my scar finally closed up and I was instructed to start physical therapy, I was too foggy and disoriented to remember my appointments. I missed three, which resulted in the PT provider kicking me out of the program, as was their policy. This led to more panic that my ankle would never fully heal, but I didn’t have the mental capacity to do anything proactive about it.

My first job out of college was a one-year fellowship, which ended on June 30. I crawled to that finish line with very little energy, outlook or self-respect left, and when it ended, I moved back to my parents’ house, completely depleted.

The redemption

Looking back, it is this injury that brought me to where I am today, living my best and healthiest life in the mountains of Colorado. That first fellowship was intended to be a stepping stone into a relatively straight career path, guided by prestige and resume building rather than by my own internal compass. Having a major depressive episode cloud the final four months of that job made it impossible for me to think about, never mind apply for, the next step in my career ladder, and forced me to abandon all pride to simply focus on getting better.

That summer, I started physical therapy again in my hometown, and with my parents’ support was able to gradually build back my physical and mental strength. Once I was mobile again, I decided to go live with my grandmother in the Bahamas for four months, a time that dramatically altered my perspective of the world and made me who I am today. I returned to the states in 2020 completely restored, with a scarred but fully functional ankle, just in time to face the craziest year of my (and many others’) adult life.

This experience also led me to diversify my coping mechanisms for depression. I took a virtual course on mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), where I learned how to use mindfulness and meditation to regulate my mood and gain greater control of my thought patterns. Meditation has now become an essential tool in my mental health toolbox, and one that cannot be taken away from me, no matter the injury or circumstance.

My injury has made me more resilient than I ever realized I could be prior to that ankle tear, and it has made me extremely grateful for the freedom of motion that I am blessed to take advantage of every day in the mountains and beyond. I would never want to go back to that place of darkness in 2019, but having come out the other side, I know it was all meant to be, and I am stronger forever because of it.


TELL US YOUR STORY

Injuries are a common topic in mountain communities. We tend to push ourselves to the point of having them. If you have an on-mountain or sports-related injury, we want you to share the story of your injury, recovery and redemption (and if you’re currently injured, we want to hear your plans for the last two).

To read more Fracture Friday stories and to share yours, visit VailDaily.com/FractureFridays. And be sure to check the paper every Friday for the latest Fracture Friday.

Fracture Friday: My Maine chapter

Happy to have finally gotten some pain meds before getting my shoulder put back into place.
Christie Sederquist/Courtesy photo

This tale pales in comparison to the gruesome injuries, arduous rehabs and heroic redemptions that have preceded it in other Fracture Friday stories, but my only on-snow injury — no matter how humble — is integral to one of the most important chapters in my life.

In August 2018, my wife and I packed our house and two puppies into a U-Haul and drove from Alamosa, Colorado — where we had just purchased a home, had great jobs, perfect friends and a bright future — to Presque Isle, Maine, a small community closer to Norway than our Minnesota-based extended family members. I had accepted — for half my teacher salary — a job at the University of Maine Presque Isle as their head Nordic ski coach. The once-proud program had eroded into a revolving door for coaches. In hindsight, I was the captain chosen to go down with the proverbial ship.

Of course, as we, 27-year-olds, drove through the Pennsylvania night in a crammed cab, our Border Collie mixes sprawled onto our laps, the exhilaration of “the dream” stoked a hot fire of anticipation. I envisioned sculpting my team’s culture like Coach K, incorporating workouts kids loved and creating training camp traditions that would grow to be 30 or 40 years old, like John Morton’s at Dartmouth. I pictured raising my own kids in a college town, where they could play basketball in the gym while I wrote recruiting letters, blessed to enjoy the perks of a small town and small university equipped with unique tools like a rollerski treadmill and research lab.

What would buy a 600-square foot apartment in Colorado could purchase a 74-acre Amish farm in Aroostook County. I imagined growing old in Maine.

My roster originally had 10-11 returning and new athletes, but when they discovered the school had hired an enthusiastic elementary music teacher who doubled as a sports science researcher and endurance athlete — and had raced his first Nordic ski race, ever, six months ago — many walked away before Coach Sederquist introduced himself. Speaking of that 2018 Alley Loop, my introduction to the sport, I remember two things: getting sworn at for stepping on someone’s poles going up a hill AND sending it into a drift at the bottom of said hill. Unable to step turn, I sat in the powder bank and watched 50-60 athletes (and I was already in the middle of the pack to begin with) go by me as I pondered my self-worth. I finished in under three hours that day … but not by much. To be honest, I probably could have run the course as fast as I skied it that day.

When my two senior team leaders announced their departure at our first September team meeting (you know, the one where I was going to explain my Coach K’ness), I was crestfallen. I was doing everything I could to support them, despite my obvious lack of coaching credibility. I had even signed on a two-time Olympic biathlete who lived in the area as my assistant coach. Those seniors ended up coming to one practice, only to quit again, jamming a second dagger right to the Bjorn Dahlie valve in my heart.

When snow finally arrived, our family’s Maine Experiment was headed south in other ways, too. Our two rescue puppies — basically our kids at that point — bit a police officer on the scene of my crashing and totaling a brand new car into a tree. We bought the vehicle with cash and had failed to properly insure it before driving home. Both pups had demonstrated an unpredictable aggressive streak, which had culminated in this moment.

Concerned it could lead to something even worse than this, we were advised to put the dog down, which we tearfully did. It was the first time I really cried — I mean really cried — in my life. To say that day was our lowest point — loss of athletes who distrusted you and a loss of pets who unquestionably trusted you (plus being out five grand for a car) — would be an understatement.

The injury

That week, we headed out to the Nordic Center for a ski. On one of the first turns I made, I slipped and fell on a small hill. The awkwardness of my fall ripped my left shoulder from its socket. In between panicky, hurried breaths and thoughts of inadequacy — (I really didn’t belong here, did I?) — I reached for my phone and called my wife. Luckily, the portion of the trail I had fallen on was by the road, and she parked our car (this one, a 2011 Equinox, literally fell apart when we moved back to Colorado … I guess Maine really hated me), scooped me off the trail, and drove me right to the hospital.

I left my skis in the snow. A few days later, one of the athletes who had quit told my wife he had seen them and kindly moved them to the side. Knowing that almost made me feel more embarrassed.

My skis at the site of the accident.
Christie Sederquist/Courtesy photo

The recovery

The hospital scene was a little comical, looking back. The receptionist obviously didn’t realize I was about to lose my life and forced me to sign papers and sit in the waiting room with the other 9-year-olds trying to get out of school the next day.

Eventually, I got in to see a doctor, and they put me under and slid my shoulder back in place. I was in a sling for the next several weeks. Our team would be headed to Quebec, where all the EISA powerhouses would be, for Thanksgiving training camp in a week. I had been looking forward to this since I walked away from normalcy in Colorado, and I wasn’t going to miss it.

My wife and I, and our now team of two athletes, loaded up into a van and headed north. If my developing technique and 10-year-old equipment setup didn’t give me away enough, my one-handed skate skiing and sling certainly did. “There was the new UMPI coach,” sighed the other coaches, equipped with Olympic resumes, as I plodded through the Canadian forest.

Traversing the trails at Thanksgiving camp as the University of Maine Presque Isle’s ski coach.
Christie Sederquist/Courtesy photo

As I went around the trails, I did my best sponge impersonation as I asked these coaches hundreds of basic questions. I also tried to coach my own athletes, who sometimes disappeared into the woods mid-interval, clearly questioning why they hadn’t quit, too. Finally, I tried to reassure my bride that things were going to be alright, as bleak as they looked.

In the end, I started the competitive season with just one athlete, a freshman. Because of some poor off-the-course decisions, she didn’t finish the carnival calendar. I spent all winter recruiting to the best of my ability, which as you can imagine, was fruitless. My athletic director, fellow coaches and the dean who had hired me and watched over Christie and me like family from the moment we arrived, were wonderful and supportive, but in the end, it was like we were all hiking a 14er in June: At some point, there is so much snow on the trail that you just have to turn around.

When we packed a smaller U-Haul and drove our dogless carriage back to Colorado that June — ⅓ of my salary now having been absorbed by truck rental and gas money — I surprisingly didn’t contemplate the meaning of everything as much as one might assume. I’ve always believed that God works things for my good and His glory, and this was no different.

A novel epiphany, however, was the introspective realization that I was not ready to be a coach. Primarily because I hadn’t finished being an athlete.

The redemption

When I returned to the greatest state of the union as Lake County’s band director, I started skiing again. I’d remembered how NCAA and World Cup coaches at clinics spoke of 1000 annual hours as if it were the benchmark for eliteness. I decided I’d see what that was like.

I didn’t train with anybody except occasionally Christie on afternoon shakeout sessions. I’d double-pole up egregiously steep mining roads near our rental house, almost an act of rebellion in itself against the closely-knit clique of the elitist Nordic ski community, an unfair stereotype my bitterness had attributed to the northeast quadrant of our country in general.

In 2020, I went back to the Alley Loop, on a pair of borrowed skis from Karl Remsen’s high school team’s clubhouse. I entered the classic race and won the overall 42-kilometer handily, the first real athletic thrill I’d had in a long time. The next year, I came back even stronger, having put in 1,100 training hours, and I raced to a 30-minute victory, winning the race in 2 hours, 19 minutes — almost 25 minutes faster than my very first pathetic circumnavigation of the Crested Butte system back in 2018, the one that started it all. An hour later, I skated in the 20-kilometer skate race, placing in the top five there, too, a sign of how far I’d come.

A few weeks ago, I was headed to the Snow Mountain Ranch for the 50-kilometer classic marathon, a race I had won the previous year. Riding a streak of three straight wins from other marathons in Colorado and Minnesota had me balancing feelings of confidence and apprehension. I almost didn’t want to make the long drive early that morning — it felt like something bad was bound to happen if I pressed my good fortune too much.

Cruising into Winter Park at 6:45 a.m., I pulled into a hole-in-the-wall gas station to use the restroom. It was one of those that was so small you’d flush the toilet, turn around, and the next guy would be in your grill. I opened the stall and the person in line was one of the two senior athletes who had left our team back in Maine. It was the one who had slid my skis off the trail when I dislocated my shoulder.

I knew instantly, and maybe he did, too, but he didn’t acknowledge it. I said casually, “Where you headed?”

He answered, “The Ranch.”

My stomach sort of flipped. I wondered if he would be in my race.

“You doing the race?” I inquired.

“Yes.”

I went back to my car, suddenly feeling as if my arms were worthless and my feet weighed 10,000 pounds.

The rest of the drive, I thought deep thoughts. Why did I even care? At this point, my enjoyment in skiing had thrived on the fact that I stopped worrying about what other people thought, the crippling characterization that probably undergirded most of my insecurities and issues in my short NCAA ski coach stint.

In the YMCA of the Rockies lodge, I prepped my skis and changed into my race suit, all the while ignoring the elephant in the tiny room — my former athlete sitting on a couch talking to his friend while his former coach, the one who essentially ruined his final year of college athletics by being a goon, bumbled around the room.

Finally, I walked up and shook his hand.

First, I apologized about the smell back at the rest stop. Then, I asked him where he’d been and where he was going. He smiled as he shared his life update. We talked about the course, and I told him there wasn’t “much New England to the downhills,” which made us both laugh. I wished him a good time and then I went out to warm up.

If I’ve been too coy in revealing the true redemption side of this story, I’ll be more direct now: Sports matter, but only because, well, people matter.

I ended up having the best race of my life that day, though in podunk citizens races, the beauty is mostly in the eye of the beholder, so to speak. It wasn’t the Vasaloppet or anything. But, it was my Vasaloppet.

What really mattered was that I had finally closed the Maine chapter. The most critical junctures often coincide with our most broken, battered and bruised selves. The turns along life’s trail where the skis come completely off.

That’s the beauty of a fracture. It doesn’t just reveal character.

It shapes it.


TELL US YOUR STORY

Injuries are a common topic in mountain communities. We tend to push ourselves to the point of having them. If you have an on-mountain or sports-related injury, we want you to share the story of your injury, recovery and redemption (and if you’re currently injured, we want to hear your plans for the last two).

To read more Fracture Friday stories and to share yours, visit VailDaily.com/FractureFridays. And be sure to check the paper every Friday for the latest Fracture Friday.

Fracture Friday: Blake Hanks the bootfitter refuses to cut boot

After-surgery x-ray of Hanks’ leg.
Blake Hanks/Courtesy image

The injury

On February 7, 2021, I was skiing in the trees in one of my favorite places headed across and going to another section. I came around a tree, wiped my goggles off – there was bad visibility and it was snowing hard – and smacked into the wall of a gully. My right ski came off, my left ski embedded and my leg twisted 180 degrees.

I yelled at my buddy to get me out of my binding. He did, and I jammed my leg in the snow to keep it from swelling. He called the patrol and two new patrollers found us in about 15 minutes.

We were in a deep ravine, and they loaded me in a sled and weren’t sure how to get me out. My buddies ski tracked a path out for them. They got me down to base area and had an ambulance there to take me to a hospital in McCall, Idaho.

They wanted to cut my boot off, and I told them I’m a professional bootfitter and with some help I can get it off. We did and it hurt! I was operated on that afternoon: 20 fractures, titanium rod, nine screws and plates.

Blake walks the dog, on crutches.
Blake Hanks/Courtesy photo

The recovery and redemption

After nine months of walking, 2,000 miles on my mountain bike and daily pool and lake workouts, I am back.

I hit day 50 on March 4, and I would say I’m about 90%. Not bad for a 71 year old crazy who has skied all of his life. I love this sport and don’t plan on quitting anytime soon.


TELL US YOUR STORY

Injuries are a common topic in mountain communities. We tend to push ourselves to the point of having them. If you have an on-mountain or sports-related injury, we want you to share the story of your injury, recovery and redemption (and if you’re currently injured, we want to hear your plans for the last two).

To read more Fracture Friday stories and to share yours, visit VailDaily.com/FractureFridays. And be sure to check the paper every Friday for the latest Fracture Friday.

Fracture Friday: David DiCicco’s unscheduled flight to Denver

There was no room in the helicopter for my wife, Vicki, so we decided she would stay at our hotel in Snowmass for the night, check out the next day, and drive to Denver.
David DiCicco/Courtesy photo

The injury

“What is your name? Who is the President? Where are you?“

“‘Why are you asking these questions,“ I thought as I was loaded onto the ski patrol sled. Unfortunately, I couldn’t answer any of them as we began our descent down the Naked Lady trail to the Snowmass clinic, where an ambulance was waiting.

There were more questions once I was in the ambulance. I almost got the one about “where you were“ when I answered, ”in a ski area.” The paramedic asked me which one, and I thought maybe Montana, but I remained silent.

By the time we reached Aspen Valley Community Hospital, I was beginning to remember things, but I had no idea what had happened to me. My wife Vicki was there, and she told me I had collided with another skier as I was skiing from the Alpine Springs chair to the beginning of Naked Lady Trail. I was unconscious for more than ten minutes.

The senior man who hit me (I am 81) was unhurt, and he volunteered to ski down with his wife and alert the ski patrol. We did not get his name or phone number in the heat of the moment, and he was gone.

In the emergency room, Dr. Frank ordered a brain scan. Looking at the results, which showed a severe brain bleed, she strongly recommended I fly to St. Anthony’s hospital in Denver, where there was a Neuro I.C.U. There was no room in the helicopter for my wife, Vicki, so we decided she would stay at our hotel in Snowmass for the night, check out the next day, and drive to Denver.

The ride over the Rockies only took about 45 minutes. I realized I could die from the injury during the ride, though it all seemed surreal. I was lying on the floor next to the pilot, and now and then, I would raise myself to look out the window. Things had been so confusing and happened so fast that I hadn’t been able to take stock of the situation.

At the hospital, I went straight to an I.C.U. room where they began monitoring my vitals. My Russian nurse Olga was very kind and attentive. Since surgery was a possibility, I couldn’t eat or drink water. Over the next five days, I had multiple scans to assess the bleeding in my brain. Vicki arrived on day two, and she was allowed in my room.

The recovery

The decision was made at some point to give me platelets to try to clot the bleeding. I was also on anti-seizure medications. These treatments worked, and the bleeding stopped.

After discharge, we took a rest day in a local hotel since I was exhausted. The hospital staff had been excellent, but hospitals are not a place to rest. After our rest day, Vicki drove home to San Diego. We spent two nights on the road.

For the first couple of weeks after arriving home, I was exhausted. I napped at least one time a day. I had no after-effects of the brain injury, as far as I could tell. A recent scan revealed significant healing.

David DiCicco and wife, Vicki.
David DiCicco/Courtesy photo

The redemption

Ironically, I am very cautious on the slopes. I always stop at the side of trails or behind trees. This was a fluke accident. I will never know exactly what happened. Vicki was skiing behind a tree when the collision occurred. We had three weeks of terrific skiing before the crash. We will be back next year.


TELL US YOUR STORY

Injuries are a common topic in mountain communities. We tend to push ourselves to the point of having them. If you have an on-mountain or sports-related injury, we want you to share the story of your injury, recovery and redemption (and if you’re currently injured, we want to hear your plans for the last two).

To read more Fracture Friday stories and to share yours, visit VailDaily.com/FractureFridays. And be sure to check the paper every Friday for the latest Fracture Friday.

 

Fracture Friday: Olympian Nina O’Brien recovering in Edwards, planning for redemption

Editor’s Note: Six weeks after Team USA alpine skier Nina O’Brien broke her left tibia and fibula in a high-speed crash during the women’s giant slalom event in Beijing, she returned to the Vail Valley to pursue her recovery with NexGen Hyperbaric at All Points North Lodge in the Cordillera in Edwards. The Vail Daily recently visited O’Brien to hear about her path to recovery and redemption. All words were spoken by O’Brien in an interview and then transcribed for this story.

The injury

On the day of the GS race in Beijing, I woke up feeling confident and was just trying to stay relaxed. I really believed that I was capable of having a great result. I was feeling all the emotions of being at the Olympics and the significance of that day— the first time of me racing at the Olympics. There was a lot of emotions there.

But I wanted to put aside any fear or pressure or expectations, and really go for it. And I think I was able to do that. I had a great first run, better than I even thought I was skiing. I was pleasantly surprised to see the result, but that even gave me even more confidence because I felt like I had a few mistakes on my first run, so there was room to improve.

I was sitting in sixth, and then we had this long break in between runs, which was like five hours. It was unusually long. But I felt very relaxed and was just trying to stay loose and not think too much about the results.

My mentality was to just go for it in the second run; in the very least, I can say I did that.

I’ve had races in the past where it felt like I didn’t give it my all, and that’s a pretty awful feeling when you had more that you didn’t show. So, I wanted to put it all out there, and unfortunately, I wasn’t skiing well. I vividly remember at the end of the course feeling like I was getting a little bit behind the line, but the tempo was stacking up on me.

I don’t actually remember what caused the crash. That part happened very quickly, but I remained pretty lucid and aware of everything that was going on through the fall and thereafter.

I went to a hospital in Beijing that was shut down just for Olympic athletes, so it was very empty, it was part of our COVID bubble. I was allowed to have one person from the US Ski team with me, so I wasn’t there completely alone, which was nice. I had surgery the night of my fall to stabilize. I had a compound fracture, so they basically lined everything back up, put me in an external fixator just to get me stabilized and from there after I was just recovering in the hospital for two days.

Olympian Nina O’Brien at the hospital in Beijing.
Ryan Mooney/Courtesy photo via Instagram

I then went to a hotel in Beijing where I was with US Ski team coaches and staff so it felt good to get out of the hospital and see my team again. And then I made the journey from Beijing to Tokyo to Dallas to Denver, which was a little bit uncomfortable. But I did fly with some teammates who carried all my bags, and they were great to me. Everyone on the airlines took wonderful care of me, and it felt awesome to get home.

The NexGen Hyperbaric facility at All Points North is the highest-altitude facility of this type in the country, boasting the added mental health benefit of being surrounded by serene nature while going through the recovery process.
TJ Romero/Architectural Storytelling

The recovery

Editor’s Note: Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is a form of treatment where a patient breaths 100% oxygen while in a chamber of varying atmospheric pressure to promote circulation and healing. The tech on site that day likened the sensation to “going up and down in an airplane.” O’Brien is scheduled for 60 days worth of hyperbaric treatments at NexGen, in addition to months of physical therapy.

It’s a lot of physical therapy sessions in the chamber here. I’m in the stages where I’m trying to get mobility back in my joints, and I still need my bones to heal. Before I can get back on snow and doing what I love, I really have to get strong again. So, it’s a long way to go, but I’m in the best of hands so I’m feeling pretty confident about the team I have around me and getting back on snow.

The redemption

Editor’s Note: As O’Brien takes the time she needs to heal, she is setting her sights on an Olympic return.

My goals haven’t changed at all. Certainly, this is a bump in the road and a challenge that I have to overcome, but the end goal is still the same. Hopefully in four years or whatever (at the next winter Olympics) I will be back in that starting gate, and I’m even better than I will have ever been. I’m hoping there’s a good redemption story.

To see the video of the full interview, visit YouTube.com/vaildaily. To learn more about NexGen Hyperbaric, visit NexGenHyperbaric.com.


TELL US YOUR STORY

Injuries are a common topic in mountain communities. We tend to push ourselves to the point of having them. If you have an on-mountain or sports-related injury, we want you to share the story of your injury, recovery and redemption (and if you’re currently injured, we want to hear your plans for the last two).

To read more Fracture Friday stories and to share yours, visit VailDaily.com/FractureFridays. And be sure to check the paper every Friday for the latest Fracture Friday.

Fracture Friday: Meghan Buchanan goes from broken femur to Mt. Everest

The injury

By the time Vail Ski Patrol reached me, it was a life-threatening situation.
Photo courtesy Meghan Buchanan

On Super Bowl Sunday 2011, I was snowboarding at high speeds, through a shoot on Windows, when I hit a fallen tree buried under four feet of new snow. I was thrown back off my feet, and unsure if I should throw up or pass out. Regardless, I could not move and knew this was bad.

By the time Vail Ski Patrol reached me, it was a life-threatening situation. I remember Brice May calling in all available patrol to witness and learn from “one of the worst accidents” he’d seen where the person lived.

When it came time to move me, the pain was unbearable. I skipped past crying and went straight into a haunting primal scream from the depths of my soul. Brice and Stevie G literally carried me, holding the sled, because the terrain was too steep and rough. A doctor met us at the nearest catwalk, but the liquid morphine did nothing. The 20-person entourage went up and over Chair 5 to meet an ambulance that actually drove up the ski catwalks as far as it could go. I was rushed to the Vail Health emergency room.

Dr. Richard Cunningham of Vail Summit Orthopedics was on call (thank you baby Jesus). I broke the head completely off my left femur, and the shaft had twisted so badly all the muscles, and everything attached was torn loose. Dr. Cunningham hadn’t seen an injury that severe in 10 years. What can I say? I leave an impression.

I woke from surgery, lucky to be alive, and with a 14-inch titanium rod inserted down my femur and attached into my hip and above the knee. I was told I’d likely have a cane or wheelchair the rest of my life. Dr. Cunningham miraculously put me back together again, but my journey had just begun.

My femoral fracture.
Image courtesy Meghan Buchanan

The Recovery

What started as a three-month medical leave from work in Denver, turned into quitting my job and moving full-time to the valley to focus on getting my life back.
Photo courtesy Meghan Buchanan

I am no stranger to struggle, so this was just another obstacle I was going to have to figure out. I was barely mobile, on a lot of pain killers and relied on friends and family to take care of me for months. I started rehab at Howard Head immediately. I requested the most demanding, hardcore PT they had. And I got him, Dr. Thomas Olson. I was in therapy 2-3 times a week, plus daily exercises.

But after months of dedicated therapy, my muscles would not strengthen and felt like they were being ripped off the bone 24/7. And a special bonus: My femur started overgrowing. The doctors had not seen this before (never a good sign). What started as a three-month medical leave from work in Denver, turned into quitting my job and moving full-time to the valley to focus on getting my life back. It became my only hobby and a medical mystery.

While learning to walk again, all I could think about was standing on the summit of a 14er, or hiking through Nepal, tea house to tea house, to Everest Base Camp. That high altitude carrot, and dreams of my favorite pastime, kept me driven and determined.

18 months passed, filled with therapy, dry needling, x-rays, injections, and endless pain. I could not walk up a flight of stairs without using the railing and cane. I have a ridiculous amount of positive energy, but the chronic pain was taking a toll on my mental health. But we kept fighting.

Dr. Cunningham stood by me, trying new solutions and consulting other experts on my behalf (others were just as puzzled). Dr. Olson refused to give up and continued to help even after insurance stopped paying. We became “Team Meghan.”

After ruling everything else out, Dr. Olson hypothesized a metal allergy. There was no test for titanium, so impossible to prove. However, Dr. Cunningham agreed removing the rod was the next logical step.

After 1.5 years of extreme pain and a stylish pink cane from City Market, Dr. C removed the rod. I literally felt relief that night. Within one month I could walk up a stairs unassisted. Within three months the bone marrow filled back in. I think I went from being a vegetarian to a carnivore during that time. Ha!

The redemption

Summiting one of many peaks.
Photo courtesy Meghan Buchanan

Six months later, I returned to Nepal and trekked to Everest Base Camp.

I was stronger than ever. Not just physically, but mentally. My tolerance for pain and endurance for suffering increased significantly. So, I returned to climb Kilimanjaro again. It was effortless, so I wanted to go higher. Aconcagua (22,800 feet) was the tipping point where I decided to go for the Seven Summits (highest peak on every continent). What I never thought possible before, now seemed attainable.

Elbrus (18,500 feet) was next, followed by Denali (20,300 feet). If that mountain doesn’t break you, then you’re ready for Everest. And why stop there? I decided to level up my goal to the Explorers Grand Slam (Seven Summits and last-degree ski to North/South Poles). Less than 15 women have ever completed this.

The COVID-19 pandemic canceled my 2020 Everest climb two weeks from leaving. I shook it off and trained another year to climb in 2021. After seven weeks on the mountain, I was mere hours from leaving for a summit bid when we received word the Delta variant had infected our entire climbing sherpa team. And just like that, my expedition was shut down.

Again, no crying, but no primal screams either. I’ve learned the difference between disappointment and devastation. This was disappointing, but before I could even get back to Kathmandu, I was already planning an expedition to Antarctica to finish the last Degree Ski to the South Pole and climbing Mt. Vinson (16,000 feet). I just returned mid- January.

Which brings us to current day. Everest training never stopped. Dr. Cunningham (knees/shoulder) and Dr. Dorf (frostbit fingers) have fixed me numerous stops along the way, but I return to finish Everest in a couple weeks on April 1.

That horrendous, painful, life altering, snowboard accident ended up being a glorious sequence of events that has defined who I am today. I developed tools of GGRIT (gratitude, growth, resilience, integrity and tenacity) and now teach others how to apply to reach their full potential.

Obstacles, adversity and strife will inevitably come. But you train for this by dealing with it head on, improving and hardening yourself each time challenge arises. Until one day it no longer phases you. Rather, it becomes yet another opportunity to improve. Every day we have a choice. GGRIT is a choice. Choose to rise!

I now teach others how to apply to reach their full potential.
Photo courtesy Meghan Buchanan

Join the journey and follow my entire climb to the top of Mt. Everest by visiting GGRIT.COM or following me on Instagram @GGRIT.


TELL US YOUR STORY

Injuries are a common topic in mountain communities. We tend to push ourselves to the point of having them. If you have an on-mountain or sports-related injury, we want you to share the story of your injury, recovery and redemption (and if you’re currently injured, we want to hear your plans for the last two).

To read more Fracture Friday stories and to share yours, visit VailDaily.com/FractureFridays. And be sure to check the paper every Friday for the latest Fracture Friday.

Fracture Fridays: Wayne Hobin’s duct tape splint job

Wayne Hobin, back on the hill.
Courtesy photo

There … a little gauze and some duct tape and I can get my fractured wrist into the glove. Now I’m good for several more days of skiing.

In the “days before there was air or helmets,” I was skiing down Northstar and had stopped to take a break. I was below the ridge where there is now a “No Jumping” sign near the trees.

It was a very cold and snowy February morning. I had come out to ski for two weeks and visit my Dartmouth buds. However, today, I was on my own.

As I stood there, a group came down and did some aerobatics over the jump. The last one over tried to grab his skis in mid-flight and missed. Of course that upset his balance and he turned perpendicular to the slope, wildly pin wheeling his arms. When he landed his edges caught and he was heading right for me. I didn’t have a prayer … SPLAT! I wound up “skiing” very rapidly backwards into the woods. I extended my left hand to stop the progress and it whacked right into a tree. My assailant mumbled something like: “You OK?” and then left me there lying in the woods.

As they say, you only remember exactly what happened the first time. After that, the memories are supposed to be modified from remembering the remembrances. In this case, my memory is extraordinarily clear.

I tired to get up but felt a fire in my left wrist and the hand was just dangling. Many obscenities later, I was able to upright and climb back to the trail. I had to ski the rest of the way down to the Northwoods chair.

I asked the lifties if there was anything they could do. They said they could call the patrol but they’d probably want to put me in a sled and take me to the ER. Nah, it’s only a broken wrist.

So, I continued down to the Village. Navigating Tourist Trap on Riva was a major challenge but somehow I got down. I went to a ski shop and asked if they had some duct tape (they all do). They also had some cotton material that I put on the wrist prior to taping. The issue was to keep my splint thin enough to get the glove over it.

Yes, it was painful but I managed to find an ice bucket for the next several days and continued skiing with my homemade splints. Somehow, it healed just fine over the next three months.

I’m still skiing many years later.

Tell us your story

Injuries are a common topic in mountain communities. We tend to push ourselves to the point of having them. If you have an on-mountain or sports-related injury, we want you to share the story of your injury, recovery and redemption (and if you’re currently injured, we want to hear your plans for the last two).

To read more Fracture Friday stories and to share yours, visit VailDaily.com/FractureFridays. And be sure to check the paper every Friday for the latest Fracture Friday.

 

Fracture Friday: Tom and Kristi’s matching shoulder slings

Tom and Kristi with their “souvenirs” from Big Sky.
Tom Sederquist/Courtesy photo

In 2011, 10 Concordia College track and field athletes utilized their Christmas break to depart the desolate plains of northwest Minnesota to the bright bowls of Big Sky, Montana. The resort had hosted my family’s annual ski trips from the time I was a boy, and I was eager to join my brother, the lead organizer, and his friends.

My brother ended our first day ripping down a mogul run like Johnny Moseley, when he was forced to bake his dinner roll (Moseley’s signature trick for those sad souls deprived of owning the 2002 gold medalist’s video game) across a miscalculated catwalk. Unable to completely clear the flat, Tom’s skis neatly settled on the traverse as his body immediately was ejected and proceeded to tumble head over heels “like a ragdoll in a washing machine” down the other side.

The inside of his lip was detached below his gums as a result of his shattered goggles sliding down his face upon impact, a wound requiring 13 stitches. In a strangely taken post-fall photo — an odd moment my shocked and possibly slightly concussed brother seemingly obliged for — most of the damages remain concealed.

He also dislocated his shoulder. Considering he had accomplished that several times before — including while flinging a bottle cap across a room — that injury was a given.

The infamous post-fall photo where Tom appears to be lecturing the photographer to make sure they “don’t try this at home.”
Tom Sederquist/Courtesy photo

My frugal brother eschewed pleas from the ski patrols to be taken in an ambulance to Bozeman. At the base of the hill, a doctor deftly put his shoulder back in place — a prescient protocol foreshadowing an impending drama.

Most normal people would have called it quits for the week and resigned themselves to daily aprés starting at first chair. Not my brother. He was waiting in line the next day for the first chair, which he took up to the top of Lone Peak with the rest of us ragamuffins.

The summit of the foreboding 11,000-foot face presents zero easy routes, and most are “slip-and-see-ya” type slopes. Wrapped in a shoulder sling, my brother shepherded us over to Marx, a relatively mogul-free double-black. Stopping at the top to admire the views, I remember being positioned behind a group member named Kristi. It escapes my memory as to why, but for some reason, she took the first step-turn down in the group.

She proceeded — to everyone’s horror — to catch an edge, skid backward, and start tumbling down Marx. Suddenly, my brother burst out from the frozen group, pointed both tips down-mountain and went full gas in hot pursuit. Undoubtedly, though unjustifiably, the overly empathetic team captain felt at least partially responsible for bringing his teammate up the challenging run in spite of her lack of experience.

Once at her side, Tom immediately comforted Kristi, who had dislocated her shoulder in the fall. Providence paid off, as he used the technique he had learned the previous day for himself to help Kristi pop it back in relatively painlessly.

There aren’t a lot of people who combine the athletic ability and compassion of my brother, and it took a fracture to marry the two unique qualities. A month later, he set three indoor track school records in three straight meets. Racing a mile, 3k and 5k in a 15-day span would destroy a lot of athletes, but those times stood untouched for a decade, even by his determined younger brother who transferred to the school the following season.

Since then, he’s popped his shoulder back in a few more times.

More importantly, he’s never said “no” to any line, no matter how steep — the mark of a truly ‘full’ recovery.

Tell us your story

Injuries are a common topic in mountain communities. We tend to push ourselves to the point of having them. If you have an on-mountain or sports-related injury, we want you to share the story of your injury, recovery and redemption (and if you’re currently injured, we want to hear your plans for the last two).

To read more Fracture Friday stories and to share yours, visit VailDaily.com/FractureFridays. And be sure to check the paper every Friday for the latest Fracture Friday.

Fracture Friday: Pro skier Chris Anthony’s injury, recovery and redemption

Chris Anthony is an award-winning documentary producer, director, writer, and editor. He has appeared in 28 Warren Miller films as a featured athlete.
Vail Daily archive

The injury

I had escaped most of my career free of knee injury.

Most of my injuries seemed to be more so in my back. This started when I hit a fence going 75 mph at U.S. Nationals when I was 16. Back then the fences did not move. They were fences, not nets.

That was my first fracturing of bones in my back. The back pain caused me to be a little more protective, so I relied on my lower body to take on the extra workload. Then in 2000, I got back on bump in the 24 Hours of Aspen, and air got under my skis while going over 80 mph and I was pushed back while flying through the air. The tail of my left ski hit first. That pair of skis out of the five pairs I had were mounted with an older binding that did not have a vertical toe release. So when the leverage of the ground hit the tail of my ski, the weakest link was the hinge between my lower and upper leg, the knee. And it blew badly.

It was Dec. 5, the beginning of the ski season and what was looking like would be a productive season in my career, but now this could be career-changing.

I choose to forgo surgery and skied the entire season on a blown knee, completing two Warren Miller Shoots (one of them training with the U.S. Marine Corps) as well a number of photo shoots and corporate ski engagements. I was having my knee drained once a week and injected with cortisone as much as they would allow me to.

Surgery came in May. From the surgery on for the next 20 years, I never had full extension of my knee and lived in complete pain. But I had to try to absorb it as well as hide it. I didn’t want anyone to know, especially sponsors. But the sport I loved had also become the most painful thing I did every day.

I did not know how much pain can destroy you as a person. You think you are hiding it, but it comes out negatively in other ways in your life, and how you deal with that is another story.

The recovery

Eventually, I was able to talk one doctor into looking into the right place of my knee for what I felt was the issue. Long story short, Dr. Millett became my hero and did a surgery where he pulled out a free-floating bone fragment that had not only destroyed a good portion of the joint but became tangled in the peroneal nerve. No wonder I was in so much pain.

Chris Anthony’s “knee nugget.”
Courtesy image

Oh, by the way, now that I had been favoring my right leg for years over my left, I was tearing apart my right knee. So, it needed several surgeries, and not to mention what this imbalance does on an already-damaged back.

But I continued.

The removal of the nugget along with years of working with a regenerative medicine doctor gave me at least another seven years of faking my way through my career. I still had to get it drained and injected twice a year. I changed up my lifestyle, and avoided a ton of activities but never skiing. I just faked my way through it.

Then both I and Dr. Millett were like “enough is enough,” I either need to quit or it was time to do something I was completely scared of: Get the replacement.

Dr. Millett referred me to Dr. Kim at the Steadman Clinic. We had a long talk. He made no guarantees, but he did describe in detail the mechanics of what he was going to do.

In April 2020, I went under the knife. Amid the COVID-19 shutdown, without any FOMO, I have to admit I went through the most painful weeks of my life, but also the most intense self-imposed rehab that would be two sessions, three hours each for five straight months.

The redemption

December 7, 2020, I put on a pair of skis.

I was by myself and scared to death. Getting off the lift, it didn’t feel right. “I’m done,” I thought.

But I proceeded to a green run and dropped into my first left-footed turn. My brain detected that some sort of feedback was missing in the joint; because now, it is metal. But there was no pain.

For the first time in 20 years, I put pressure on my left leg without pain. Halfway down the run, my brain adjusted and used other receptors in my left leg to figure out what was going on. By the bottom of the run I was arcing turns. Two runs later, I realized I was given a second life to my ski career. And here I am now, February 2022, and I can’t get out on my skis enough.

We are living during magical times. Thank you to my two doctors, Millett and Kim.

TELL US YOUR STORY

Injuries are a common topic in mountain communities. We tend to push ourselves to the point of having them. If you have an on-mountain or sports-related injury, we want you to share the story of your injury, recovery and redemption (and if you’re currently injured, we want to hear your plans for the last two).

To read more Fracture Friday stories and to share yours, visit VailDaily.com/FractureFridays. And be sure to check the paper every Friday for the latest Fracture Friday.

 

Fracture Friday: The injury, the recovery and the redemption

The metal rod in my left thigh will stand the test of time better than anything else in my body. It simply won’t let me forget December 4, 2016.

And maybe I shouldn’t. After all, I learned a lot about myself during that period of my life. And perhaps even came out of it with a pretty good story.

The injury

I was a fresh transplant to the valley with a full-time remote gig, and wanted to pay my dues to the local mountain by becoming a part-time snowboard instructor in Beaver Creek. I had just completed my last day of training, when my fiancée joined me for a closing time victory lap.

As we zoomed down the hill, I spotted a section of trees that had just opened, and it was all too tempting.

I went into my first tree run of the season with too much speed, and clipped a log that had been poking out from under the thin snow. This pushed my direction off by only a few degrees, just enough to redirect me into the nearest tree.

I was still standing after the impact, hugging the tree, thinking about hot tubs and massages in my near future … I was still under the impression that I could ride away from this.

But when I pushed off the tree with my arms, I learned my upper left leg was no longer communicating with the rest of my leg. I could move my hip, but nothing below it.

I fell to the ground and started shouting for help, and my fiancée came right over. We needed ski patrol, but the mountain was closing and both our phones were dead. “I have to go to the bottom and get them,” she said as she got up, assessed the location and pointed her board down the hill.

About 15 minutes later, a team of red jackets, and one yellow jacket, came into the woods. Upon arrival, they told me she had found them as they were doing their final sweeps. They loaded me on a toboggan and got me off the hill as the sun was setting. I remember it being dark outside when the ambulance doors closed.

The ride to Vail Health was a blur of emotions. On the outside, I was answering questions and even cracking jokes. On the inside, I was cursing myself with every “what if,” “why,” and “how could you?” The internal struggle had already begun.

X-rays later determined I had fractured my left femur. The longest and strongest bone in my body had a crack right in the middle, which, given the circumstances, is actually better than it sounds (things can get more complicated the closer they are to the knee or hip).

But perhaps the more important factor playing to my outcome was who was working that night. The last faces I saw that evening were Dr. Richard Cunningham, surgeon for Vail-Summit Orthopaedics and Physician for U.S. Ski and Snowboard, and his team of nurses and anesthesiologists. I could not imagine a better sight to see, before going under.

Post-surgery X-ray from the first follow-up appointment.
Courtesy image

The recovery

“The strangest part of your accident was it seemed like you were not in any pain. There was no pain,” Cunningham recalled in my first follow-up meeting.

He was right, whether it be a high pain tolerance or just low-level shock, I did not writhe all the way from the tree to the surgery table. But when I woke up the next morning, the stubborn pressure of a metal rod forcing its placement downwards against my knee and upwards against my hip, brought forth a very painful reality.

There were lots of thoughts racing through my head as I stared out my hospital room window, drugged up on that dark, snowy morning. I wasn’t ready to feel sorry for myself yet, so instead I felt sorry for her: The person who got me out of that forest and then put framed photos next to my hospital bed before being sent home on a snowy night; the person who said “yes” to someone who is now, by some misguided sense of medical math, a lesser deal; the person who is still counting on me for a very special first dance in October.

And then, I felt sorry for them: The brothers and friends who had just bought tickets to Europe in March; the people who let this idiot convince them to help chase his Alps dream under the guise of a bachelor party; the people I would be calling that morning with news of cancellation.

All these people would go on to show that they had more faith in me than I did. “Well, you better f—— heal up quick,” one brother said, summing up the overall feedback.

The search for a physical therapist began. The first one I went to estimated five months before getting back on a board. That wasn’t going to cut it, so I kept looking. My search ended with Mary Miller Witt, who runs Competitive Edge Physical Therapy & Fitness out of a home gym in Eagle.

Some locals may know Witt as the supermom of an esteemed military family, some might even know her as the lady who lost her leg to cancer in her 20s, and now uses old prosthetic legs as Halloween decorations. I know Witt as the first physical therapist who didn’t look at me like I was crazy when I shared my goal to go snowboarding in another country in less than three months. Our senses of humor aligned.

We got to work right away as repetition became ritual, and exercise my new religion. Once I could bear weight, I added to it. Pound by pound, I counted gains towards recovery against days left on the calendar.

Within six weeks, I took my first unassisted steps. Once I could walk, I started going to the Avon Rec Center every morning right as it opened (and right as the kid’s aquatics area was at its cleanest) to get into the lazy river and kick, walk and eventually run against the tide.

One week before takeoff, both Witt and Cunningham had given me the green light. But the green came with a shade of yellow.

“I think you’re ready,” Witt said. “But I want you to repeat after me: ‘No jumps.’”

The redemption

88 days after hugging that tree, I was strapping into my board atop the Alps.

I remember the endless, dramatic scenery surrounding Stubai Glacier cooling my nerves before pointing my board down the hill. As I gained speed I, with slight hesitation, dug my toeside edge into the snow and made my first turn since December. When I connected the heelside turn, the celebration began.

With my crew by my side, we hooted and hollered our way down to aprés. Not looking to push it any further and risk my bigger plans down the road, I only took one lap that day, and then another two on a powder day. Three total laps for the entire trip, but they were most satisfying.

The boys at the bottom of Stubai Glacier.
Courtesy photo

I returned to the States with a renewed sense of hope that I could get to 100%, and maybe more. By the next season, I had regained the opportunity to teach snowboarding, this time in Vail, where I taught from 2017-2021.

As for that fiancée, she is now my wife. And as for that first dance — it was, admittedly, a shoddy attempt at a waltz, not because of the injury but of my lacking talent in ballroom dancing. The dance was followed shortly after by circle pits to Misfits covers, which were much more our speed.

Later, during our honeymoon in Barcelona, Spain, I decided to commemorate my injury, recovery and redemption with a tattoo of Wolverine from X-Men over my scars. Because … metal.

Your narrator, having some fun with his scars.
Courtesy photo

TELL US YOUR STORY

Injuries are a common topic in mountain communities. We tend to push ourselves to the point of having them. If you have an on-mountain or sports-related injury, we want you to share the story of your injury, recovery and redemption (and if you’re currently injured, we want to hear your plans for the last two).

To read more Fracture Friday stories and to share yours, visit VailDaily.com/FractureFridays. And be sure to check the paper every Friday for the latest Fracture Friday.