A light at the end of the tunnel | VailDaily.com

A light at the end of the tunnel

Julie Imada-Howard
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Travis Hansbarger knows too well that life can throw some dangerous curve balls.

A little over 18 months ago, Hansbarger, 18, and friends Laura Sandoval and Skylar Hootman were on their way to Eagle Valley High School’s homecoming celebration when a car crash changed their lives forever. Hootman, 16, the driver, was killed in the accident. Sandoval, the homecoming queen, and Hansbarger were left fighting for their lives.

Sandoval was the first to move out of intensive care and onto recovery.

Hansbarger had an entirely different set of challenges. His multiple injuries included traumatic brain damage, a punctured and collapsed lung, multiple broken ribs, multiple fractures in his pelvis, the loss of his spleen, and extensive tears in his liver and one kidney.

He lay comatose for several weeks after the accident; then spent three months at Craig Hospital in Denver, a rehab facility that specializes in the care of catastrophic brain injuries.

Swooping down the slopes with Ski Club Vail these days, it’s clear Hansbarger has come a long way since that horrible night.

Worst nightmare

“It was like trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. At one point they told us he wasn’t going to live,” said Hansbarger’s mother, Debbie Stansell of Eagle.

The surgeon advised Stansell and her husband, Tim, that their son’s brain, which had been sheared by the impact of the accident, was injured at a microscopic level and could not be fixed. The doctor also warned that if Hansbarger did come out of his coma, he would have a long battle ahead of him.

Hansbarger suffered contusions on the frontal lobe, which is the orchestrator of the brain’s functions; as well as injuries in the back, near his brain stem.

The brain damage required Hansbarger to re-learn virtually everything, including how to feed himself and how to walk. His memory was also wiped out.

Prior to the accident, Hansbarger was a top student at Eagle Valley, intent on attending the University of Colorado at Boulder. He has had to relearn mathematics, reading and writing. Hansbarger hopes to re-take his ACT test and be ready for college, albeit a smaller college, in the next year or two.

“I didn’t know who I was after the accident,” recalled Hansbarger. He has virtually no memories of high school or of the accident and when he first came out of his coma, could not remember what happened from day to day.

His parents kept a daily log of Hansbarger’s set-backs and successes while he was in the hospital. Some notations reveal joy and thankfulness for small progress, such as the first time they knew he was coming out of his coma. There are also some humorous accounts of his short-term memory loss.

The family laughs now about how Hansbarger would point out the scar running length-wise down his abdomen and then shortly-thereafter forget he had it. Later, he would point it out again to his family, whispering.

Other times he would tell his parents that he saw sharks flying down the hallways of the hospital or voice a fear that people were trying to kill him at night. His parents explained to him that the people he was afraid of, the night-shift nurses, weren’t trying to hurt him and were only cleaning out the tracheal tube in his throat.

“The brain fills in the blanks with wild things,” said Debbie.

“(The brain) will take fact and fantasy and make a story to explain things. It’s called confabulation,” added Tim, likening his son’s short-term memory loss to scenes from the film ‘Ground Hog Day’ where a character played by Bill Murray relives the same day over and over.

Optimism and friendship

Debbie credits Craig Hospital in Englewood as one of the keys to her son’s survival and continued improvement.

The hospital is among America’s top 10 rehabilitation centers for spinal and brain injuries. The staff encouraged Debbie, Tim and Hansbarger’s friends to be a part of the medical and neurological treatment. Friends were allowed to visit as often as possible. Even the family’s 14-year-old yellow lab, Aggie, paid a visit.

Hansbarger’s friends came down every weekend and took classes in how to deal with seizures so they could help Travis, if the need arose. After his release from Craig, many of those friends drove him to therapy and doctor visits. Friends and family sometimes drove 250 mile per day for Travis.

Dr. Alan Weintraub, medical director of the hospital’s brain injury program for the past 19 years and a neuro-rehabilitation specialist, oversees Hansbarger’s treatment.

“People can generally see, feel and understand bodily injuries. It is the injury to the brain and what the brain is really responsible for, that is more complex, more abstract,” said Weintraub.

Company support

Weintraub credits strong community and family support for Hansbarger’s progress.

“It is important that the community understands and accommodates… so people can help make things positive for he and his family,” said Weintraub. He added that there are many surviving brain-injury patients in the valley and that it is important for the patients and their families to know they are not alone.

The doctors were brutally honest about the hurdles Hansbarger would have to face.

“Some people lose their sense of humor and their ability to laugh. Some get violent,” said Debbie. Luckily, that did not happen. Travis’ parents recalled reassuring the hospital staff that the boy wearing the afro wig and hamming it up was the same charmer he had been before.

They were also advised that he might lose some friends. At the time, that seemed impossible; but it turned out to be a reality.

“Some people are not comfortable. They want Travis the way he was before,” she said.

But the rest of the community rallied around the Stansell family. Help came from local churches, Vail Resorts (the Stansells’ employer), and in the form of enough get well cards to fill three plastic crates.

Both Debbie, director of product sales for Vail Resorts, and Tim, who works in safety and risk management for the resort company, credit their employer, Vail Resorts, for great support. The company continued to pay them in full while they stayed in Denver with their son; provided food and vehicles for out-of-town family members; and even helped pay for the travel costs of some family members who came to help.

“For something like this, Vail Resorts never asked for good press. It was amazing,” said Tim.

The Stansells also had to care for their youngest son, Coulter, now 12. Neighbors, Rosemary and David Brennan, took Coulter under their wing while his parents were with Travis. “It takes a very special family to take in a boy like that,” said Debbie.

Other friends who stepped up included Joanne Casey, Nicole Haugland, Kristan ‘Kow Girl’ Carey and many others. They helped to keep the family’s bills organized and paid and took care of the Stansell’s home as well as being available for moral support.

“We will always be thankful for what everyone did for us. Everyone in Denver wanted to know where we live and everyone wanted to live here,” said Debbie.

Skiing and driving

Today, Hansbarger doesn’t seem much different than other teens his age.

He debates with his parents over college plans, hangs out with friends, skis, mountain bikes and drives a car. The skiing and car driving have been hurdles for his parents more so, it seems, than for Travis.

Travis went through the rehabilitation driving program at Craig. After six months, he re-tested for his license, first through the hospital program and then with the state. His parents still fight their fears every time Travis gets into the car.

“The first time he drove (after the accident), I almost got sick,” said Debbie. “When he went to prom, he called me four times because he knew we’d be worried.”

A member of Ski Club Vail, Hansbarger has been ski racing his whole life. The skiing was an important part of who he was before the accident and has become an important part of who he is today. “The skiing was a tough decision. He needed to do it to get confidence; but I didn’t want him racing,” said Debbie.

“Dr. Weintraub said Travis would have to weigh risk versus dignity,” added Tim.

The risk is high. Because of the extent of his brain injuries, he is more susceptible to re-injury. To lessen his chances of re-injury, he works closely with his coaches and skis only slalom and giant slalom.

“Its not unusual for him to be active in sports again. He has gotten back a lot of his old knowledge and capabilities. The risk is how he uses those in safe ways in the new circumstances that come up,” says Weintraub. “He is a good person and his family knows his strengths and weaknesses.”

“It’s a balancing act with empowering people with their recovery, but not taking their rights away or overly controlling their lives,” he added.

‘Think First’

Hansbarger continues to deal with the lingering medical problems from the accident. He suffers from jaw, sight and foot problems. He’s also a participant in a clinical trial of a new memory and mental fatigue medication. Mental fatigue is one of the main problems stemming from a brain injury, said Tim.

The family is involved with a safety education program organized by Denver Health nurses and ambulance drivers. The hospital was where Flight for Life first took him after the accident.

The program features statements from family members and accident victims and has created video re-enactments. The video will be shown to high school students before prom season.

Hansbarger has a new commitment to educate others both about making safe decisions but, he says, he’s also hoping to spend his future a school teacher.

A speaker with the safety program, “Think First,” Hansbarger goes into classrooms and shares his story with elementary, middle or high school students. He talks about the importance of wearing seat belts and helmets, showing his scars and emphasizing the importance of brain and spine safety.

“I really realized how precious life is and how quickly it can go. I tell my story and instill that ‘It can happen to you, too,'” said Travis.

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