December 16, 2013, was meant to be no big deal. Not a big ski day. But for Canadian Mike Shaw, life had other plans.
“Skiing shaped who I am; it’s such a core part of me,” he said. “My parents told me I had to get good grades if I wanted to keep skiing. So I did. But I also coached at the weekends to get my ski pass when I was at university, and I went on to be development coach for the Canadian half pipe ski team.” His teen dreams of being a professional ski bum were working out nicely.
One run, though, and plans changed. Mike was out for a casual afternoon run with some of the team after a morning training session.
“Coming down the slope, I hit the roller and did a little nose butter 720 and landed badly on a bump of soft man-made snow. I pitched forward on to my face, scorpioned my neck. I knew instantly what I’d done. I was paralysed. I basically ‘Pez Dispenser’d’ myself.
“I couldn’t move or feel anything from the neck down. My body was taken away from me in a heartbeat, in an instant.”
Recounting the story, he choked up a bit: “I stayed conscious through the whole thing. I processed it right away: ‘This is going to be a long road. Today is my day to go down, and I’ve gone down pretty hard.’
“When I hit, it was strange, something was weird. Everything came together really fast. I knew I’d hit hard. I hit my face on the snow and felt a really sharp pain in my neck for a split second, and then I didn’t feel anything. It was like, I knew instantly I was paralysed from the neck down even while I was still tumbling.
“I was falling, and I started screaming. I started screaming ‘NO’, desperate screams because I knew what had happened, and I couldn’t stop crashing or tumbling. I couldn’t put my arms out to stop myself or get myself back up. Our natural reaction is to try to get up, right, even when we’ve had a bad injury, we try to get up. But I knew I couldn’t get up.
“When I slid to a stop, I couldn’t accept it was happening. I started screaming for help, which arrived really quickly. The athletes were put in the position of picking their coach up, which was really weird. Normally that’s my role – I’m the one who should be there for them, to take care of them when they’re hurt, and there I was, hurt, and it was very different.
“I had so much go through my head instantly. It was crazy. The first things that went through my mind were the most sobering thoughts I’ve had in my life. In those few milliseconds, I probably thought faster and my brain operated more clearly than ever before, processing the information of what had happened.
“First, I thought: Oh my god, I was having such a good day skiing, I want redemption on that trick. I was so close! Holy crap, this just happened. I’m going to have to find some new hobbies – I don’t even read! I need to have something new to do.
“Then I thought about my family, and I felt a heavy feeling of guilt for what I had just done.
“And next I decided I needed to talk to Josh Dueck – a really good friend of mine and my ski coach ten years before, who had a spinal cord injury. He’d just won a 2 medals at the Sochi Paralympics, and I knew he would be a pillar of strength in the whole situation.
“So, I was face down in the snow, I thought my arms were crossed under my body – that was the sensation I was getting – with my head tucked into my shoulder. Colin Sutherland, a close friend, held me in C-spine and one of the other athletes held my legs on the snow, so I wouldn’t shift, but I was still thinking like a coach: I asked the guys to go and close the take-off on the roller, so no-one else could come down on top of me, and then I told them to get patrol and get me off the mountain ASAP. Damage control, risk assessment: I was directing the guys. I was the most coherent and quick thinking than I had been in a very long time.
“I couldn’t see anything, though: my goggles had slipped half way down my face and my eyes were basically closed. I had music playing in one ear, which felt suffocating at the time.
“One of the guys popped off one of my skies and my body shifted like eight inches. I didn’t really know what had happened, but I felt my face drag on the snow, and I shouted, ‘Do not move me, I need to be held in C-spine; I need patrol as fast as possible.
“The Keystone ski patrol guys were amazing – they saved my body. I could have had way more damage. They efficiently accessed the situation, but there’s nothing more terrifying than hearing ‘Code Black’ going into the radio. Oh man. That was not good. I heard that and things started to sink in.
“I was scared. I was incredibly scared. I was saying ‘I screwed up boys, I’m not getting back from this one’. I’ve been 90% skiing and 10% everything else my whole life, and I knew that was going to switch.
“I kept asking patrol what they were going to do. I wanted to be part of the situation. When I asked them what they were going to do with my arms, they said that wasn’t a problem, that they’d just pop the pole straps off, so I trusted them, but in my head, my arms were under my body. I thought they had to roll me over. But, it turned out that my left arm was up over my face, which was actually why I couldn’t see anything – I had no idea it was my own arm – and my right arm was up over my back. So that was easier than I’d expected!
“It was the not being able to feel any of it that was most terrifying. It forced me to realise how serious it was, but when they back-boarded me on a sled down the hill, I couldn’t stop laughing.
“Anyone who has been in one of those sleds knows those things are bumpy and not very nice, but that ride was so nice because I couldn’t feel a thing. I’ve had far worse sled rides off the mountain. It was pretty funny, and I was laughing on the way down thinking about other rides.
“When I got to the amazing clinic at Keystone, they did initial tests. They cut away my outer layers and I was bummed – I’d just got some new pants and they cut them off; they cut off my ski boots, and I didn’t even notice. But then I had the worst best feeling ever: when they put the catheter in, I felt a burn. Oh my god, I was so happy. When they did the rectal probe to work out the level of paralysis, I was aware of it. I didn’t think I’d ever feel so happy to have someone put a finger up my butt! But it gave me hope, which was a very powerful thing, in the beginning, a flicker of light at the end of the tunnel. Like I said, best worst-feeling ever!
“Around that time, my team was racing to Denver, to be there for me when I arrived. I was transferred by helicopter to St Anthony’s Hospital in Denver, where they deal with these kinds of accidents all the time, so I was in great hands, but the bad thoughts had started to set in.
“This one lady was hanging around me, so I asked her what she was up to, and she said that some people like to pray in this sort of situation, but I wasn’t hugely into that, so I said to her, ‘The worst part of this is that I was going to go to the gym this afternoon,’ and a nurse started laughing. One of the doctors told her off and that this wasn’t a laughing situation, but it really lightened my mood, so I told him, ‘I’m not usually that good at telling jokes! It’s great that everyone is laughing!’ People were getting way too serious.
“The heaviest moment was after hours of scans and tests and MRIs, I was told I had permanent spinal cord damage, I’d dislocated my cervical vertebrae between C4 and C5, there was also a fracture in the C5 vertebrae. Life was going to be so different. Still it was going to be a wild ride; I was convinced I could still do great things. There are so many people who have SCI who have done so much and are so inspiring. I wanted to be one of those people.
“The surgeon, Dr Thomas Puschak, told me they needed to fuse my neck to stabilise the spinal cord, then break bones to make room around the spinal cord, so the cord could swell without being pinched by the bones and cause more nerve damage. Dr Puschak – he does, like, 90 fusions a year – saved my body, it’s his thing. He had me in surgery within 9 hours of the accident. It went like clockwork.
“When I woke up, I could move my arms. It was unbelievable. I went to give Colin, who’d arrived at the hospital, a thumbs up, but I didn’t have much control, so my arms just hinged back, and I ended up punching myself in the face. Man, it made me laugh! I was wheeled off down the hall, laughing.
“Of course I had hard and very very dark times, but you have to be able to accept what’s happened, because it’s happened, and there’s nothing you can do about it; you can’t change it. The more you dwell on it, the worse it’s going to be.
“I did this to myself. I can accept that. So many people with spinal cord injury don’t have that luxury; maybe they’re hit by a drunk driver, or they have an infection which ends up severing some of the nerves in the spinal cord. That, I guess, would be much harder to get through.
“I would have died for skiing, and I was putting myself in harm’s way every day. It’s too bad that this happened, but it happened. But if you’re going to do this kind of sport, you have to understand the risks; you need to accept it could happen. I wouldn’t change any of it, even though I’ve had the accident. The skiing that I did was worth it. No regrets. I will make the absolute best of the situation.”
On May 3, 2015, Mike was able to run an incredible 10km at Niagara Falls in Canada, his first run outside since his accident.