My Son Fell While Skiing. Then His Mind Went Blank.
The phone rang and it was our 18-year-old, Hatcher, who apparently took a hard spill while ripping laps on Eldora Mountain. Or so we think: he’s OK now, but he still has no idea what really happened.
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The log on my son Hatcher’s phone says he tried my number eight times on the afternoon of March 15, yet the calls never came through. As I found out later, he’d suffered a head injury while skiing at Colorado’s Eldora Mountain Resort, was completely confused and disoriented, and was trying to reach me. The calls that didn’t connect were probably made from somewhere on the mountain. He didn’t get a good signal until he reached the parking lot.
Three of us—my husband, Shawn, our nine-year-old daughter, Hollis, and I—had been skiing at Eldora earlier in the day, and we were driving home. Hatcher, 18, had come up later than we did; to my surprise, he’d texted me saying that he’d gotten over the upset stomach that had kept him home when we left, that he’d scored one of the parking passes the resort required because of COVID-19, and that he’d “probably see you soon!”
“I’m so glad!” I texted back, but I actually was hoping he’d ditch his family and hook up with friends. It had been a bad year for Hatcher—a combination of pandemic disruptions and losses in our family—and he was overdue for some fun.
The log shows that after the eight attempts, he tried texting. But I was driving, so I missed those as well. Finally, he called Shawn, and when they connected, what we heard was terrifying.
Hatcher was dissociating, on the verge of tears, and he had no idea what he was doing. He kept asking us how he’d gotten where he was and why he was there. He said he could see the car—the one we were in, about seven miles away from him—parked in the lot. He announced that he was going to walk over, start it up, and drive home.
With fear in his voice, Shawn said, “No, Hatcher, we have the car. We’re driving it. And we’ll come get you.” Hatcher repeated the same nonsensical plan, and we knew something was very wrong. We did a U-turn as soon as we could and floored it back to Eldora. We kept Hatcher on the line and reached a longtime family friend who runs the Eldora Nordic Center, which is perched low on the mountain’s east side, and where I’ve worked as a part-time Nordic instructor for several years. We asked her to run out, grab Hatcher, and bring him indoors. That helped ease our immediate panic, but we still had no idea what had happened to our son.
During the 15-minute drive back to Eldora, we discussed possibilities. Teens are teens, we live in Boulder County, and weed is legal—could Hatcher have gotten into a bad strain? Or was he suddenly having a psychotic episode? Not impossible, given that there’s some mental illness in the family tree. Oddly, the one thing that didn’t occur to us was that he’d hit his head.
We should have thought of that immediately. Where we live, concussions are very common. The kids start ski and mountain-bike racing in grade school. By high school, these young athletes are intimate with taking risks, and kids in many families we know have suffered concussions. According to the Micheli Center, head injuries account for up to 20 percent of the 600,000 annual skiing and snowboarding injuries in the United States (for children that figure is 22 percent), and 22 to 42 percent of all ski-related head injuries are severe enough to result in either loss of consciousness or clinical signs of concussion. But we’d been lucky—neither Hatcher nor our oldest son, Scout, had ever had one.
Arriving at Eldora, we ran to the Nordic Center and found Hatcher. He was visibly unscathed; even his helmet was free of scratches. But my middle kid, who likes to explore complicated topics like existentialism and the histories of both World Wars, couldn’t remember his sister’s age—“She’s seven and in fourth grade”—or his height and weight—“I’m five foot two, 185 pounds”—or why his family was staring at him with frightened faces. Well, maybe because he was wrong about Hollis’s age and he’s five foot six and weighs 130. He also thought Trump was still president.
Fortunately, ski-patrol personnel showed up soon after we arrived. They put a neck brace on him, loaded him into a sled, snowmobiled him across the base of the mountain, and unpacked him at their headquarters.
From the outside, Hatcher looked fine—minus his worried expression. Then his questions began: What day is it? What happened? Where am I? Why do I have this neck brace on? Patrol determined that he’d sustained a concussion; they didn’t know how, and we still don’t, but one possibility was that he was hitting jumps in the terrain park, biffed a landing, and smacked his head on solid snow. After an hour in the patrol room, he started to seem better, so a paramedic (assisted by a doctor reached by phone) decided it was OK for us to drive him to an emergency room 50 minutes away in Boulder, rather than wait for an ambulance.
Soon we were in the waiting room, with people staring because, as Shawn said, Hatcher seemed punch-drunk. Hatcher said he needed to use the restroom, so Shawn guided him to it. When he finished, Shawn needed to go, so he told Hatcher to return to the chair he’d been sitting in. But when Shawn came out, he found Hatcher wandering around aimlessly. When Hatcher saw him, he said, “Dad! Why are you here?”
Later, sitting inside a private room, Hatcher and I were waiting to hear the results of his CAT scan when his behavior started to get weirder. Dressed in an exam gown and lying in a hospital bed, he would lift his arm every 40 seconds or so, look at his watch, and ask, “Is today Monday? Do I work? Did I blow it off?”
“Yes, it’s Monday,” I’d say. “No, you don’t work, and no, you didn’t blow off your boss.”
Then, looking at his gown and pinching a bit of the fabric, he’d ask, “What’s this?” Later, when we finally left his room to head through the lobby, he shook his head and said, “Whoa! I’m in the emergency room?”
It was all so bizarre. But what really got me was when he tried to piece together how he’d ended up at the hospital.
“So patrol found me and called you?” he said.
“No, you called us, and we came to you.”
“Oh, man. I’m so sorry you had to do that.”
“Don’t worry about it, Hatch. It was no problem. We love you.”
“Well, thank you guys for rescuing me. I couldn’t have done it on my own.”
And that’s when I came within a forced smile of crying. Because what really happened was that Hatcher—with his rattled brain—rescued himself.
It appears (though we’ll never know) that no one saw him crash, hit his head, lose consciousness, or struggle back up. No one noticed a dazed kid moving from wherever he fell to the Nordic Center parking lot. And no one heard the fear in his voice as he called and recalled his parents.
I got stuck on the sadness of this for a few days, and then I decided to try and understand it better. While Hatcher recovered on the couch—doctor’s orders for him were to chill out and not move much or do much—I called the neurology department at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora. Dr. Christopher M. Filley, the department’s director of behavioral neurology, helped me grasp what might have happened.
“From what you told me, your son did not appear to be sufficiently injured to prompt someone on the slope to stop and see how he was doing,” he said. “Because it seems no observer can provide any information about the event, and because he does not remember what happened, it cannot be determined with certainty what actually took place. I emphasize that I defer to his doctor with respect to the diagnosis and treatment of this young man. But if I were to speculate, it is plausible that your son could have hit his head, sustained a concussion, and then been in an acute confusional state, meaning that he was awake but not fully lucid. A person in this condition could conceivably get down the mountain and call for help, because the brain will sometimes fall back on relatively automatic behaviors—what it knows to do well from repeated past experiences.”
Teens are teens, we live in Boulder County, and weed is legal—could Hatcher have gotten into a bad strain? Or was he suddenly having a psychotic episode? Not impossible, given that there’s some mental illness in the family tree. Oddly, the one thing that didn’t occur to us was that he’d hit his head.
A doctor in the ER had called Hatcher’s repeated questioning perseveration, which can be caused by damage to the frontal cortex, the region of the brain that controls a person’s self-awareness and inhibition. Without such control, someone who perseverates finds it difficult to stop a particular action and switch to another.
Filley described what was probably going on inside Hatcher’s head.
“The brain consists of about three pounds of soft, gelatinous tissue inside the skull,” he said. “It floats in cerebrospinal fluid to help protect it from injury, but when the head is subjected to a blow or jolt, the brain can still be damaged.” With traumatic brain injuries, including concussions, the damage typically occurs deep in the brain, where the connections between neurons are stretched, and this may have been what happened to Hatcher. In some people, Filley explained, the brain surface is also damaged, because the brain is thrust against the bones on the inside of the skull.
According to Hatcher’s CAT scan, he sustained no bleeding or bruising, only a concussion, perhaps because he had a helmet on. Head injuries from skiing or other impact sports can be much worse. A friend suffered a severe concussion after hitting a tree while skiing, and the resulting injury caused such intense vertigo that, for a long time, he could only walk down a hallway with his head sliding against the wall. And after the last of multiple concussions, another friend’s son had to sit in a room with double-blackout blinds for a month to avoid crushing migraines. “He still struggles, had some lasting cognitive deficits, and has to take daily medication that causes weight loss, so he can’t gain weight,” his mom says. “It changed his whole identity. He went from identifying as an honors student and athlete to a struggling student with a brain injury and no longer an athlete.” The good news is that he recently went on a two-week skiing road trip with another of Hatcher’s friends and sent his mom videos of himself skiing powder and loving life. “He’ll be OK,” she says, “but that journey is rough.”
As for Hatcher, after 24 hours, he stopped perseverating, although he still can’t remember anything from two days prior to his injury, only flashes from the day it happened and not much from the day after.
On doctor’s orders, for two weeks he had to lay low, avoid mental stimuli (screens and books), and make sure he didn’t do anything that could cause him to fall and sustain a second brain injury. If this happens while a person is still symptomatic, it can result in “second impact syndrome,” which can cause death. So we’re urging Hatcher to use extra caution even after his full recovery time is complete.
What I’m happy to report now is that Hatcher is up and about, as seemingly healthy as ever. Some friends have warned that new symptoms can emerge weeks after the original injury. I’m crossing my fingers and watching him closely. And I’m endlessly grateful that when he crashed he was wearing his helmet. But we’ve also had some long conversations about the importance of doing any outdoor activity with a friend. If Hatcher had, there would have been an account of his injury, and I wouldn’t still be lying awake at night, imagining the worst-case scenario.