SALT LAKE CITY — It was a tricky maneuver, but nothing the up-and-coming snowboarder wasn't capable of.
Kevin Pearce had gone up for the double cork 1080 — an inverted triple spin performed blindly, 20 feet in the air and diagonally above the hard, cold surface of a halfpipe. It was a move he knew he had to perfect in order to make it through the upcoming 2010 Olympic trials.
The Dec. 31, 2009 attempt, however, ended in an unexpected face-plant that not only nearly ended Pearce's life, but stunted his career and signaled the beginning of a long road to recovery.
Pearce's crash and his motivation to recover are chronicled in "Crash Reel," a documentary playing at the Sundance Film Festival.
Utah doctors and nurses who first responded to his injuries and helped him through the initial phase of recovery were interviewed for the film, but didn't make the cut. A group of them viewed the film for the first time Friday and recounted the effort of Pearce to recovery and spoke about the impacts of brain injury.
To this day, the then fine-tuned athlete still struggles with coordination, short-term memory loss and occasionally seeing double, which multiple eye surgeries have attempted to fix, according to a team of physicians at the University of Utah Clinical Neurosciences Center, where Pearce, now 24, was initially treated following his Park City accident.
"It's an extremely frustrating process because the brain is a fairly unforgiving organ when you damage it and it takes a huge amount of work to get very small gains," said Dr. Holly Ledyard, a neurointensivist at the center. "It's really a lot of work."
She said brain injuries are no respecter of persons. But a young athlete may have a better chance at a quicker and more thorough recovery, at least the first time around.
"We like to tell our patients, if you hit your head once and you have a severe brain injury, a second injury could be potentially fatal, so don't do it again," Ledyard said. As far as she knows, Pearce still hasn't received medical clearance to ride again, even though he's participated in competitions since his accident.
In the film, Pearce, of Vermont, is introduced to another patient recovering from a second traumatic brain injury, the first of which the patient endured while snowboarding. His second time around has not been as good as the first, leaving him weak on one side and "very dis-inhibited and inappropriate in his thinking," Ledyard said. She said Pearce's reaction to the other patient's debilitated state is eye-opening and an example for anyone who participates in potentially risky or dangerous activities.
"It's Kevin realizing, 'I don't want to be like this,'" Ledyard said, adding that the film portrays his family struggling with the fact Pearce is snowboarding again.
"But it was his love for snowboarding that gave him the motivation to get up and work and to work hard," said nurse Liz Armour-Roth. "It is about how you want to live."
Family played a huge part in the athlete's recovery, as they were present every step of the way, said Karen Reimherr, nurse manager at the university center. Family and friends were also responsible for providing various clips and photographs used throughout the film, including the accident, which was also caught on tape.
"They're a big support to the patient, whether the patient is awake at the time or not," she said. The family was hands-on in his recovery, making it easier and more familiar for him by playing aloud his favorite Bob Dylan tunes throughout the intense ordeal and decorating his hospital room with photos of famous snowboarders and friends, as well as inspirational thoughts and posters he loved.
Some family members even slept in the waiting room on inflatable mattresses and a nearby conference room served as a makeshift lodge for the influx of dedicated friends for Pearce's nearly month-long stay at the Utah hospital.
"I don't think there was a single moment when he was in that room by himself," Ledyard said. "They were fantastic to work with."
Pearce, and anyone who suffers a brain injury, will likely have to continue physical and cognitive therapy throughout life to keep the brain engaged and improving. There really is no substitute, Ledyard said.
She encourages anyone who participates in activities involving high speeds and the potential for head injury to wear protective equipment, helmets especially. The recurring slogan of the film, she said, is "love your brain."
Pearce was wearing a helmet at the time of his accident and Ledyard said she believes it saved his life.
"It's all about what life means to you," Reimherr said. She said the only thing you can do is give people helpful information and they'll make decisions on their own. "In reality, life is what we make it and what we want it to be."
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