Whatever happened to Brittany Fisher, the former Utah State student-athlete who fell from a cliff in the middle of the night?
Glad you asked. The last 14 months have been a whirlwind of hospitals, rehab, student teaching, more rehab, school work and more rehab. None of this was lost on the audience that gathered for commencement exercises recently at Utah State University. Fisher, leaving her wheelchair behind, was given a standing ovation as she walked across the stage — with the aid of crutches — to receive her diploma.
"My family and friends were there," says Fisher, "but I didn't see them because I was looking at my feet. I didn't want to trip in front of thousands of people."
For a girl who used to run 5,000 meters in 18 minutes, it would've seemed a modest feat to walk a few yards across the stage, but that was before she fell off that cliff into the darkness.
"I'm planning on taking a break," she says. "It's been a really long year. Other than the 3½ months in the hospital, which I didn't consider a break, it's been nonstop. I want to take a year off and figure out my future."
Fisher, you might remember, was a runner on the USU cross country and track teams. She grew up in the Chicago area and came to Utah because she is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and because she has extended family living in the area and loved the outdoor recreation the state offered. She took up rock climbing a couple of years ago. During a spring break visit to St. George in 2012, she received a midnight call from her boyfriend at the time, asking her if she wanted to rock climb. "I have a hard time saying no to adventure," she says. They began rappelling down a cliff wall, side by side, at 3 a.m.
"I wasn't fully aware of how high the cliff was," she says. "I couldn't see over the cliff because it was dark. I figured it's a little rappel, not some 100-foot cliff. Otherwise, I would have been more hesitant."
Besides information, there was one more thing she lacked: She couldn't find her right-hand climbing glove.
Almost as soon as she began to rappel, Fisher started to lose control of her descent. She tried to check her slide down the rope with her free right hand — the one without the glove. "It definitely would've helped," she says. She continued to try to check her descent, but her right hand was being burned all the way through the skin, causing a searing pain. She finally let go and fell 50 feet into the rocks below.
"I don't remember willingly letting go of the rope. I just let go," she says. "It was instinct. If you touch a hot plate, you jump back. I was awake and alert the whole time during the fall. I've been cliff jumping before and it was the same feeling. You're thinking, 'When is the water going to come?' And then the water is there and you hit it. It was the same thing. 'When's the ground going to come?' And then, bam!"
She landed on her feet and toppled backward onto the rocks. There was extensive damage: multiple fractures in her feet and lower legs, her back broken in two places, a damaged spinal cord, paralysis in her legs, a severely burned hand. She was flown by helicopter to a Las Vegas hospital, where she spent nearly four months.
"I was not wearing a helmet," she says. "There's no reason I shouldn't be worse. It's a blessing to be able to talk and share my story and build relationships. It definitely could have been worse. I'm just so blessed to be alive."
Most people in Fisher's condition spend a year in therapy, but after four months she returned to school. She speculates that maybe a busy schedule was her way to avoid confronting the fall and her feelings about it. In high school she and her teammates began to keep daily journals, writing about experiences and people they encountered. The writing stopped after the accident, even after her hand was healed. With school finished, she plans to resume her journal.
"I have been so busy with everything," she says. "But also I wasn't ready to face everything that my injury entailed. If I didn't write about it, I didn't have to think about it. Now I'm ready to get on with it. It's my own therapy. I'll write about people I've met, the accident, the events and the tender mercies that followed. There's a lot in my brain. I want to have it all written down. It's been a year of a lot of growth, so I want to remember it."
She also plans to devote more time to physical therapy. She is still gaining strength and coordination, as evidenced by her ability to stand and walk with crutches. Her spine was not severed in the fall, but it is unknown how much it will heal. By the time she was released from the hospital, most of the feeling had returned to her legs and she has continued to progress. An active person, she had trouble sitting still before the accident, so being in a wheelchair is especially difficult. She has turned that energy loose in her rehabilitation. She swims a mile three times a week, rides a hand cycle for an hour, performs core exercises and walks as far as a mile on crutches. But she continues to get around largely in a wheelchair.
"I've come a long way already," she says. "If you work, you'll get results. Maybe not what you want, but you're going to get some results."
She spent last semester student teaching to complete her degree in elementary education, but she has decided she no longer wants to teach. She will spend the next year doing volunteer work, writing and pondering her future, which could include graduate studies that would enable her to work with injured athletes or spinal cord patients.
"I'm a firm believer that bad things happen," says Fisher. "You have to talk about them. You can't pretend life is perfect. But you have to have a good outlook."
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company