My husband Preston is a great skier and grew up skiing from the time he was four years old. He spent many Christmas holidays and spring break vacations with his family in the mountains of Colorado. It was a tradition that we decided to carry on with our kids and a sport that the family could enjoy together. Growing up in Texas, I had only seen a few inches of snow at a time; Texas snow usually melts by noon. When you see snow in the mountains for the first time, it is magical, very picturesque and suggestive of all the Hallmark Christmas movies.
For many years, our family traveled to New Mexico to ski over Spring Break. My husband always insisted that my son and I take private lessons at the beginning of each trip, so that we learned how to ski properly. At age ten, our son Nathan easily picked up skiing and later snowboarding. I didn’t learn to ski until I was an adult, and still only ski the green trails, the easiest of the runs. Callie being younger, preferred to build snowmen or make snow angels at the cabin. When she was 5 years old, she skied alongside my husband, right between his skis, but never alone. It was her first experience.
In March of 2013, our family traveled with my husband’s parents to Breckenridge, Colorado. We enrolled Callie, now 7 years old, in two days of ski school. The first morning, the kids were sized, practiced getting in their gear, and skied down a bunny slope next to the building to learn how to stop. If you don’t know, stopping is referred to as ‘pizza,’ pointing your toes inward to create a wedge with your skis alongside the mountain. After a few hours, my daughter was ready for a break and the ski school called to let us know that she wanted us to pick her up early. Callie preferred to stay at the cabin, so we let her spend the next day with her grandparents.
On Thursday, the entire family planned to ski, but Callie wasn’t feeling it. She asked us several times that morning to not make her go to ski school. My husband and I went back and forth with one of us staying with her, both of us volunteering to stay. His parents reassured us that ski school is the best way for the kids to learn to ski. Honestly, I have wished a thousand times to go back and undo this decision. Instead, I walked her into the ski school, and Callie was still looking at me with those puppy dog eyes. One of the instructors could tell Callie was hesitant to be dropped off and walked over. I informed the instructor that Callie had not skied before, not wanting to overrate her skills. I remember the instructor telling me to not worry and that they ‘would take good care of her.’
Do you ever get the unmerited mom guilt when you leave your child at daycare or with a sitter? It was hitting me hard. But the instructor promised that they would take good care of her! We were doing the right thing by giving her lessons with professionals. For years, I heard stories of Preston and his brothers skiing at an early age. I tried to persuade myself that this was the right thing to do. I rode back to the cabin to get the rest of the family, and the anxiety, apprehension and guilt did not go away. My mother’s intuition was telling me that this was not a good idea and that I should stay with Callie, but I was convinced otherwise.
The family divided up into beginner and advanced skiers to head up the lift to ski. I got off the first lift to ski down a green with my mother in law. Getting off the lift is the hardest part. You must wrangle a long set of skis and poles next to someone else wrangling a pair of each. You jump off first or tend to get the elbow. There is usually a short, yet steep slope directly off the lift to keep the traffic moving. From there, it tends to flatten out and you can choose different levels of trails. Being a beginner skier, I like to take it slow downhill and ski the width of the trails. I made it down the hill within 30 minutes and headed back up the main lift.
Within a few minutes of getting off the top of the lift, my husband called to tell me that Callie was at the medical clinic. The ski school manager did not give Preston any further information. Preston didn’t sound upset, but got off the phone quickly to ski down as he was at the top of the mountain skiing the black trails. I assumed Callie probably fell on the snow and was ok, but I still needed to check on her.
As I began to ski down the hill at my normal rate, my mind began to wonder and my heart began to race. I needed to get to Callie faster so I headed straight down the mountain, pushing off with my poles to gain speed, tears now rolling down my face. I was probably one of the crazy skiers that experienced skiers complain about. By then, I knew in my heart that something awful happened to Callie. By the time, I neared the bottom of the main ski lift, I was in a near panic attack. I saw a ski patrol stand, near the buildings at the base of the mountain and skied over, dropping my skis without hesitation. Crying out loud, I could barely form my screams into words clear enough for directions. My mother in law was beside me and asked for the medical center.
Trudging with heavy ski boots through the snow, we ran into the front office. I don’t recall saying anything at the nurse’s desk, but I think the nurses knew, by the fear in my eyes, that I was the mother of the little girl in the accident. A nurse came over to take me to the emergency room, but she pulled me aside to tell me that it was going to be hard to look at Callie, and for her sake, I needed to pull myself together. The nurse told me that Callie had ran into a ski rack and cut her neck very deeply.
When I walked into the tiny room, I saw Callie very still, surrounded by medical staff, tubes connected to her small body, monitors lined up alongside the bed, bandages around her neck, while her head was being held straight forward by one of the attendants. Her eyes met mine, and she just looked at me. She could not speak. The doctors had warned her to not move. I literally had to grit my teeth to fight back the tears. I had to be strong for Callie as my worst fear as a mother was happening right before my eyes. My heart ached, and I just wanted to cry out, from fear, worry, guilt, but my daughter needed to hear that I loved her and that she would be ok.
The doctors did not know if the wound on Callie’s neck had pierced her carotid artery or spinal cord, but it was evident that she needed skilled trauma surgeons. She was careflighted from Breckenridge to Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora for surgery. There was no room in the helicopter for parents, so again, we had to let go of our little girl’s hand and rely on our faith.
We found out that Callie had been outfitted with skis with a group of kids in ski school. The kids were taken down a small hill next to the ski school a couple of times, but not on a lift. There were not practice lifts at this resort like you find in some smaller resorts. The instructor ‘assessed’ that Callie was ready to be taking on the lift over 600 vertical feet up the mountain, the same lift that I was using. Callie stood up to get off the lift and she continued downhill at a fast pace. Remember the hill is steep off the lift to keep the traffic of skiers going quickly. The instructor yelled ‘pizza,’ but Callie’s lack of experience caught up to her. She said she didn’t hear the instructor yell, but I believe that even if she heard him, she just froze and didn’t know how to stop. She ran into the ski rack.
My husband and I drove the 80 miles to Aurora, right outside Denver. It was the only time in 18 years that I didn’t tell my husband to ‘slow down’ when he was surpassed 90 mph. To add to the anxiety, the ski school manager gave us the wrong address of the hospital so we showed up at a small clinic where there was no sign of our daughter. The children’s hospital had moved to a new location. Navigating through a new town with the anxiety of not knowing the severities of our daughter’s injuries made it a very stressful drive. I spent a lot of time in prayer. Preston and I knew exactly what the other one was feeling and thinking, so having each other there made it bearable.
We made it to the children’s hospital to see Callie before she went into a four-hour surgery. I would have done anything to trade places with her and take the fear and pain away. The doctors determined that her jaw was broken in two places, and needed to be wired shut for three weeks. The deep cut missed any major arteries and was stitched by a plastic surgeon. I think that Callie was lucky to be treated by some of the nation’s top children’s surgeons. It is hard to appreciate when you are overcome with worry, but it was comforting to know that she was in good hands. I felt like God was listening to our prayers for Callie to be placed in a hospital that specifically treated trauma care.
After Callie woke up from surgery, she was taken into a recovery room. Since she couldn’t speak, she used a notepad to communicate. She asked if the surgery went well but told us that she was ‘annoyed by the wires.’ She later asked for a bunny from her grandmother and asked if she had any get-well cards. I posted on my Facebook page to ask friends and family to send cards to Callie upon our arrival home.
We stayed two nights in the hospital, before Callie was released home. She got up that next morning and slowly packed her things. I found her coat that she had worn when the accident occurred stuffed in a plastic bag from the ski resort. The bloodstained garment brought a flood of emotions. I cried knowing the pain and fear that our daughter endured, but felt blessed that she was alive. Although I knew that the coat could be washed, it was an awful reminder so I left it behind.
We headed home from Colorado to Texas, with an 18-hour drive ahead of us. Callie seemed so fragile. She was on a liquid food diet, which made stopping to eat difficult. She was hungry, but no soup in a can nor juice was filling. I bet we stopped ten times on the way home. No one wanted to eat real food in front of her, as we felt guilty that our choice that day was not the right one.
This was just the beginning of a long journey of the recovery process to emotionally and physically heal. There were days that Callie would wear a hoodie and a scarf around her neck to hide the bandages in public. I remember one sunny day that she wanted to ‘feel pretty,’ so she put on a sundress, went outside and flew a kite. I tried to let Callie lead, as she figured out what she was comfortable with doing, going, wearing or eating. Some days, she didn’t want to talk about it and that was okay. It was important to listen to Callie and let express herself in her own timing. Some days, she would get out her notepad and ask “why?’ ‘Why did this happen or why did we make her ski?” I had the same questions, but asking why did not give us the comfort that we needed. It helped me to ask Callie how I could help her to get through this tragic event. When friends asked me this, it helped tremendously, too. One of my friends brought us a homemade dinner, grandparents visited, family and friends flooded Callie with cards, coloring books and balloons. It was the highlight of Callie’s day to get mail and read cards as she lay on the couch in our living room. If family and friends offer to help, take them up on the offer. Feeling loved is very healing.
I realize that you cannot avoid all accidents from occurring and sometimes, they just happen. However, there is a factor of preventability with accidents that I think is important to consider too. That is why we make our kids wear helmets and teach them to look both ways when crossing a street. There is a fuzzy line between encouraging your kids to try something new and knowing their limits. It is important to listen to their fears and consider their abilities when making that choice. I regret not listening to my mother’s intuition that day, but we cannot change the past. This tragedy has brought us closer as a family, and reminded us that each day is not promised. The scars that we carry tell our story and this is just one of ours.