LUCKY

In 2012, Sally Francklyn nearly lost her life in a horrific accident, here are the harrowing details of her story and her long, hard road to recovery from traumatic brain injury (TBI).

This is how that day went. Three of my friends and I head towards Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, the shuttle-bus drops us off at the base of the resort and we jump right in line for the tram. We are excited, alive. It’s a sunny March Saturday, and the springtime snow looks surprisingly good. When we get to the top, we decide to make the most of it and head to a zone called the Martini Chutes. We hike out past the resort gates along the ridge of Cody Peak to a steep couloir called Once Is Enough.

One of my friends drops in first to see how the snow is.  I see him wave. All good. I drop in next. I take a bad turn … or my ski falls off—I confess I do not remember any of that day due to the extent of my injuries. I have to rely on details from my friends who saw it happen. They tell me I slid down that chute for 1,000 feet, bouncing along the way. I come to a stop. Motionless. I am unconscious, which they learn when they reach me.

Then there is my first stroke of luck. One ski patroller who rescued me was a paramedic. He stablizes me and I am transported to a Flight for Life helicopter, picked up, taken to the hospital.

They take me to Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center. I learn later that this was the closet place where they can provide me the best care. My former life is shattered. I have broken my neck, my right ankle and my back. Worse, I have sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI). My brain is swelling. They have to shave off my hair so they can insert a Licox in my skull. It’s a device that releases pressure from my swelling brain and provides all important oxygen to the tissues.

After three weeks in the intensive care unit, I am deemed safe to travel by the doctors. I am flown in an air ambulance to my family in Colorado Springs, where I grew up.  First, I am in the ICU at Penrose Hospital, then I spend three weeks at Long Term Acute Care hospital, then I return to Penrose for back surgery. This sounds bad, but again, I was lucky: I am not paralyzed—my doctor at Penrose tells me that I broke my back right above where there would have been irrevocable damage.

All this is just the beginning of my recovery process. The road ahead will difficult. but I am ready. I am lucky, right?

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I start to come out of the darkness. I have to learn how to do even the most basic human functions all over again—I have to learn how to eat, how to swallow, how to walk, how to talk. My physical therapist at Penrose performs exercises with me over and over and over trying to help my body relearn how to walk.

Before my accident, I had a quote by Helen Keller in a painting that hung on my wall. It read: “Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing at all.” I bought it a year or two before I moved to Jackson Hole, thinking that quote defined my life at that time. I had just embarked on a career as a jounalist. I traveled for work to Canada, New Zealand and Chile. I skied at the world’s greatest resorts: Whistler/Blackcomb, Snowbird, Heavenly. I had moved to Jackson for a job at Denny, ink, where our clients included Arc’teryx, Dynafit and Nordica. My life—summer and winter—revolved around skiing. Life was nothing but a daring adventure, everywhere I went.

After a TBI, there’s no questioning that life is an adventure—but it’s different and it’s hard. But that is better than nothing at all. Much better. I learn that you have to adapt to these changes by staying positive and persistent.

Once I am released from the hospital, I have to learn how to get some of myself back. I begin Learning Rx, which is a “brain training program,” plus outpatient therapy at Penrose. When I am first at home, I use a walker. It helps with my mobility. Again I am lucky. I’m pretty fortunate that I can still use my legs and feet. I can move. It takes me a couple months after I am home, but eventually walking the 100 yards to the end of our suburban cul-de-sac is a huge milestone. I learn that I no longer have enough balance to ride a bike on my own, but my parents still have the tandem that they bought 20 years ago for Ride Around Wyoming. I get on it with my dad. We ride.

I spend a year-and-a-half at home with my parents in Colorado Springs, before I decide that I wanted to move back to where I’d gone to college in Boulder. I want to get some of my independence back. The University of Colorado has a Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences program on campus, so I can continue physical therapy. One of my former coworkers in Jackson is now at the Boulder-based ski company Dynafit. He offers me an internship volunteering with them. I am making my way back.

I stumble upon TBIAlive, a support group that meets every Wednesday in Boulder at Barnes and Noble. It is very difficult to find others who can truly know what you’re going through, but these people understand. These men and women have been hurt in car accidents or slipped while ice-skating and they are also trying to continue on with their lives—like me. We drink coffee and talk about our challenges, but also our successes. I can say what I am going through, and they don’t ask me to explain.

But I don’t have the same job and group friends here that I had before my accident. I have trouble fitting in in Boulder again. Finding groups of people or a suitable workplace is tough. I feel stressed, alone, discouraged. I come to the realization that Boulder doesn’t have a place for me anymore. So I move back to Colorado Springs and when I home I am overwhelmed by a wave of relief. I don’t have to worry about anything here. My parents support me, give me strength. Home feels right.

In order to stay occupied during the day, I apply to more than 30 jobs. I want to bring home a paycheck. But I don’t have any work experience for the past three years. I don’t suit employers’ needs. There is no job that can give me the joy of the skiing and travel that was my career before the accident,

I realize now that it’s very important to be close to those you love. After my time in Jackson Hole, I thought I’d keep moving on, always finding somewhere new and exciting. But my family and many of my friends live here. Colorado Springs is where I am going to stay, want to stay. I am lucky to be here.

I went downhill skiing again a year and a half after my accident. My right side is weaker now. It causes me to fall often, and sometimes I hit my head (I always wear a helmet, which most likely saved my life in the accident). No more couloirs for me, though. I’ve “graduated” to easier blue runs. But my body still remembers how I used to ski, and having that muscle memory is a huge benefit.

I have also taken on public speaking enagagements. I find it extremely important to talk about how wearing that helmet saved my life, and encouraging others to do the same. The 5Point Film Festival showed my movie called “The Sally Francklyn Story” that ESPN and The High Fives Foundation made about my accident and recovery. I was able to speak in Aspen and Carbondale, and then a Summit County medical presentation.

Helen Keller’s words mean more to me now than they did before my accident. At 23 years old, I had to begin my life over again. Things are hard for me now, but that doesn’t mean I don’t try. I’ve also discovered that often your world view changes after a TBI. My family has said that even though things have changed so much for me now, I’m still the same person at heart—I’m just as stubborn and bullheaded, but I’m also still just as creative, disciplined, and loyal as I used to be, maybe more so.

My dreams haven’t changed. I still want to find a challenging job that I love. I still want to get married, have kids. I’m lucky to say that I can still keep chasing those dreams.

I often think about my doctor when I was at Penrose Hospital. He was also injured in a ski accident, at Snowbird when he was 20 years old. It left him an incomplete quadriplegic. After his injury, he put himself through medical school, got married and had two kids. We are all lucky if we look at it the right way. Anything is possible. And life, no matter what hurdles you hit along the way, never stops being a daring adventure for all of us.