What one Jill learned from another: on Skiing and recovery from Spinal Cord Injury
“Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says, ‘I’ll try again tomorrow.’” Mary Anne Radmacher
When I was a teenager, I was looking through the TV Guide and saw that the Sunday Night Movie was about a teenager named Jill who suffered a ski accident. I’d never been skiing but I didn’t know too many other Jills so I thought I would watch the movie. It was a life changing experience. As some of you may guess, the movie was called “The Other Side of The Mountain” and it was about a skier name Jill Kinmont.
Jill Kinmont Boothe was the national women's slalom champion and on the cover of Sports Illustrated when she competed in a 1955 race to qualify for the U.S. Olympic ski team. Speeding down an icy Utah ski slope, she lost control, struck a spectator, crashed and hit a tree. She broke her neck and suffered high level quadriplegia.
I was transfixed by her story. She suffered multiple tragedies beyond her initial injury and yet her strength and resilience kept rebounding and she found ways to go on with a meaningful and productive life, although she never skied again. I read her books and watched the movie’s sequel. I thought she was amazing. Whenever I felt like I couldn’t do something because it was too hard, I imagined how she pushed herself and I pushed myself too. I also became fascinated with skiing, which I’d never tried. I learned to ski and fell in love with the sport.
In 1982, I was spending a research year at Stanford while getting my doctorate from USC. I was driving my car on El Camino Real in Mountain View California. The person driving the car behind me didn’t realize I was stopped at a red light. He slammed into me going 35 miles per hour. Initially, I thought I was fine and I went home. In the morning, I awakened with pain and numbness in my hands and arms. X-rays at Stanford University Hospital (this was pre-MRI) revealed a C-7 “clay-shovelers” fracture. I cried when I thought about skiing and the bike that I might never ride again. And then I remembered Jill Kinmont. If she could prevail I could too.
This sparked my lifelong interest in behavioral medicine and rehabilitation psychology. By the end of 1983, I was back on my bike and the following winter I was back on my skis. I chose to specialize in spinal cord injury psychology and chronic pain management during my psychology residency. In 1990, I took a job as the psychologist on the Spinal Cord Injury Unit at the VA Hospital in San Antonio, TX. In 1997, I spoke at the American Association of Spinal Cord Injury Psychologists and Social Workers conference. The speaker who followed my talk was Jill Kinmont Booth. After she finished, I walked up to her put out my hand to shake hers (she had learned a graceful way to do this, as many people with quadriplegia do). I said “Hi Jill, I’m Jill and I’ve been wanting to meet you since I was a young teenager.” I got to spend time with her and her husband, snapped some priceless photos and was able to share my story. It was a wonderful moment for us both.
Jill Kinmont Boothe (who sadly passed away this February at the age of 75) and I were both featured speakers at the American Association of Spinal Cord Injury Professionals conference in September 1997 in Las Vegas, NV
On Christmas Eve 2001, I suddenly experienced the spontaneous rupture of two discs in my cervical spine at C4-5 and C5-6. I had an emergency discectomy and fusion the first week in January and had to start my rehabilitation from scratch with significant weakness, some neurological symptoms and pain. I was able to see and read my MRIs so I knew what damage Dr. Swan had to fix. Little pieces of the ruptured discs had to be delicately extricated from my spinal cord before the fusion could take place. I adjusted my attitude in the positive direction and spent the time prior to my surgery visualizing the upcoming repair and restoration of my spinal cord.
Post-up, Dr. Swan came to check on me shaking his head. When he realized he’d frightened me he quickly clarified my misperception. He said “Its remarkable. What I saw when I went in bore only slight resemblance to what the MRI showed. I actually made them pull a fresh copy of the films to verify I had the right patients films and I did. The site I was operating on was much cleaner and easier to work with than I had been lead to believe from the imaging studies. As a result, a projected 4+ hour surgery was successfully completed in 90 minutes.”
When I had awakened from the anesthesia, I could move my arms and feel my fingers again. And Dr. Swan had (appropriately, given his name) appreciated the importance of a lovely neck so he brought in a top plastic surgeon to close my incision. Usually a dry pragmatic man, my neurosurgeon was floored by my amazing recovery. I went through extensive PT (at Health South where the San Antonio Spurs go) to overcome weakness in my arms and a drop foot on the right. Once again, I had been told “no more skiing”.
I finally got to test my compliance to the doctor’s order last year when we came to use our time share in Avon Colorado and ski at Beaver Creek. I was apprehensive. I relished the cold smoothness of my skis as I put them on and the satisfying snap as the boots locked into the bindings, I took it easy and only got a bunny slope ticket to give a nod to caution. I got to the top of the slope, pointed my skis in the right direction and ‘woosh', I was flying. For the first time in over 20 years I have my own equipment again and nothing except common sense will hold me back. I’m a skier again and I’m a skier who now lives in the Vail Valley. A dream come true!
Twitter: @drjsquyres Facebook: JillSquyresPhD
Not to be copied without written permission.
Text copyright 2012 by Jill Squyres, PhD. All Rights Reserved