Story of skier, doctor’s connection sheds light on severe ski injury and the road to recovery
At the Beaver Run Conference Center in Breckenridge on Friday morning, former Canadian national ski team developmental coach Mike Shaw provided a glimpse into life after a major Summit County skiing accident.
“One year, four months and 17 days ago, they told me I’d never walk again,” Shaw told the crowd at the Summit Chamber of Commerce’s Chief Operating Officer Breakfast. “That’s just the challenge I needed.”
Shaw’s injury was a broken neck suffered at Keystone Resort on Dec. 16, 2013. On Friday, as he showed the COO breakfast attendees the raw footage of his injury, Shaw said it’s a moment in time difficult for him to relive.
“I felt my neck break before I even felt my feet hit the ground,” he said. “The sensation was cut so fast that while I was tumbling down the hill, there was briefly a sharp pain in my neck. And then, nothing.”
Considering the inherent risk of downhill skiing and snowboarding, injuries come with the territory for a destination ski community like Summit County. But for Dr. Tom Puschak of Denver-area Panorama Orthopedic, there are only five to 10 injuries per year he’d classify as Shaw’s level of seriousness.
Puschak was the on-call orthopedic surgeon the night of Dec. 16 for Centura Health. It’s the network of hospitals in Summit County and the Denver-area to which severely injured skiers like Shaw are transported via Flight For Life helicopters.
On the night of Dec. 16, Puschak was on-call for spine trauma at Centura Health’s St. Anthony Central. He received an automated call via the hospital’s alert system that explained Shaw’s injury while also providing Puschak with the raw footage from Keystone.
“I pulled up his film and was like, ‘Wow. This is a really scary looking injury,'” Puschak recalled. “So I called the OR, called my physician assistant that was on-call with me, and kind of mobilized our setup.”
The furthest thing from Shaw’s mind hours earlier was wondering if he’d ever be able to move his limbs again. The Canadian was in town with the national team preparing for the U.S. Grand Prix world cup event at Copper Mountain Resort. His duty was to coach up his young athletes enough to have them perform at the highest of their ability levels on Copper’s halfpipe. Shaw was with such future stars as Cassie Sharpe, the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic women’s halfpipe gold medalist.
While practicing at Copper, though, one of Shaw’s skiers began to express reservations that he’d actually be able to drop-in on competition day. To quell his fears, Shaw had an idea: Let’s go over to Keystone Resort and practice tricks not on an Olympic-sized halfpipe but, rather, more tame terrain park jumps.
The athlete was game and Shaw and his team headed over to Keystone, picking up a camera-wielding friend along the way. Once at Keystone, the team discovered the terrain park wasn’t open. With that, Shaw had the team practice on a large snow pile beneath the jumps. Not soon after, Shaw realized this man-made snow was “punchy,” meaning it wasn’t as smooth for riding as he’d hoped.
Shaw’s injury occurred shortly into the practice session when he took a line 10 feet to the left of the spot the team had been taking off from. This was due to the fact that the cameraman was in that central spot.
Just that 10 feet made all the difference, leading to Shaw landing on an unexpected spot of unforgiving snow. His head and neck snapped forward into the ground. The injury’s forceful flexion cracked through the back part of his spine, between the C4 and C5 vertebrae, instantly dislocating his neck and badly bruising his spinal cord.
Keystone’s ski patrol responded promptly, professionally and carefully.
“I need support,” the ski patroller said on the video. “I need the physician. I’ve got a code black.”
The Keystone ski patrol then wrapped Shaw up and transported him to Keystone’s on-mountain Summit Medical Clinic, where initial X-Rays were performed and IVs and catheters were adhered. The Flight For Life helicopter then took Shaw from Keystone to St. Anthony’s hospital in Denver. Over the next few hours, Puschak installed titanium rods and screw into Shaw’s neck to fix the shingle-like breaks. Shaw’s vertebrae were fused from C3 to C7.
Before the surgery, Shaw couldn’t feel his arms. Afterward, he could, which elicited a one-word thought once he woke up from the operation.
“Phew,” he recalled to the crowd at Beaver Run.
For the next 13 days, Shaw recovered in Colorado. He first sat up on day three. He first stood up on day eight. After six weeks, he took his first steps.
In the wake of the injury, Puschak lost touch with Shaw. Then, later in 2014, Shaw’s grandfather wrote a letter to Puschak thanking the doctor. With that, Puschak imagined Shaw was doing well, but he didn’t know how well.
In the summer of 2015, Shaw reconnected with the doctor by calling him while he was in Denver. Hours later, they shared drinks at a hotel bar by the airport, where Puschak was blown away by the story of how far Shaw had come.
For Puschak, it meant a lot, as the reconnection came at a personal point in his own life when other things weren’t going well. Afterward, the two became friends, keeping in contact to this day.
Which brings us to this weekend. At Beaver Run Resort on Friday, Shaw spoke into the microphone on stage, “I’m so grateful to you, my man,” pointing at Puschak. As part of his keynote presentation, Shaw outlined his post-injury journey of running 8 kilometers in May 2015 at the Wings for Life World Run in Niagra Falls, Ontario. He also showed footage of his recent helicopter ski trip at Whistler Blackcomb. It was a goal he had pre-injury.
This weekend, Shaw is staying with Puschak. They’ll spend time together, maybe going for a hike.
As for his return to Summit County at the COO breakfast, he connected with others who share similar stories. One was a local ski patroller who suffered a severe injury in a skiing crash. The man came up to Shaw after his speech to shake his hand and let him know how much Shaw’s presentation meant to him.
“You kind of band together, when you experience trauma,” Shaw said. “It’s like riding the chairlift with someone who’s passionate about skiing.”