Fracture Friday: Meghan Buchanan goes from broken femur to Mt. Everest
The journey from a horrendous snowboard accident to the top of Everest
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.
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!
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!
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.