Skiing accident revisited

Man who suffered severe injuries on opening day

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— Scott Fox said he thought his friend Eric Heffley would die on the mountain. Heffley returned home from Craig Hospital in Denver this past week, recovering from injuries after a ski accident on the opening day of the Steamboat Ski Area.

The two friends were talking in Heffley's living room on Friday in Steamboat Springs.

"I tell you what I was really thinking," Fox said to Heffley. "I was thinking that you were not going to make it down the mountain."

Heffley was silent and smiled at his friend. He wants to hear Fox's stories of Nov. 22, the day of the accident that left him with a severe brain injury and a jaw broken in five places.

Heffley, 30, has no memory of that day or much of the two weeks after.

"It's very unlikely that I'll remember anything of the time of the incident," he said. "It's like if your computer crashes and you haven't saved your document. That's the analogy they (doctors) gave me."

Heffley intently listened to Fox give details of the accident.

The accident

A little before 10 a.m., Heffley, Fox and Jay Bowman had come out of the trees in an area known as Sideburn, which is skied right of the Closets on Storm Mountain. They came to the Sunset ski run and stopped, Fox said.

"We sat there for a minute and talked about what a great day it was," he said.

To get back to the lift, the trio had to take Duster, a flat cat track just below them. Everything below Duster was closed that day, so skiers and riders were getting as much speed as they could coming off Sunset and onto Duster to keep from walking.

Heffley approached the cat track to the right of Fox with a lot of speed when the accident happened.

"All I saw was a blur of snow," he said. "It looked like snow falling from a tree."

The only person who saw Heffley fall was Timmy Wilson, a friend of Fox who just happened to be in the area.

"He was trying to carry his speed," Wilson said in a phone interview. "He hit that cat track and caught an edge. Then he just flew off the cat track, hit his head on a tree and started rag-dolling down a ravine.

"I thought he was dead. I absolutely thought he was dead."

Alive

Wilson said he yelled to Fox after seeing the accident, not realizing who he was.

"I looked and this guy, who ended up to be Timmy, saying someone just flew off the cat track," Fox said.

He directed two snowboarders in the area, as well as Bowman, to get Ski Patrol. Then both Wilson and Fox slid down to where Heffley was lying in the snow, some 85 feet below the cat track.

"When we got to you, you weren't moving," Fox said to Heffley. "We started screaming at you and yelling, then you started gurgling. You were just trying to get air."

Heffley was choking on his blood, which was all over his face and in his mouth from hitting a tree head first in his fall, Fox said.

Wilson tilted Heffley's head and cleared a pathway. Then they just held Heffley's hand and told him to remember his children and to hold on, Fox said.

"He was unconscious," Wilson said. "I thought he would just keep on fading away."

Steamboat Ski Patrol arrived not long after, he said.

"When patrol got there, we realized that he had a severe head injury," ski patroller Kyle Lawton said. "We needed to try to extricate him as quickly as possible and without compromising anything."

Five ski patrollers took Heffley down a closed and rocky run on two sleds.

"It was kind of a rowdy extrication," Lawton said.

To Heffley's benefit, Steamboat Ambulance Director Mel Stuart and Dr. Dave Cionni were on the mountain that day and met the party at Spur Run.

On the ski slope, they induced Heffley into a chemical paralyzed state to protect him from further brain injury, Heffley said.

He was rushed to Yampa Valley Medical Center and then transported to Denver Health Medical Center shortly after the accident.

Fox and Wilson said Ski Patrol and Stuart and Cionni probably saved Heffley's life.

"These gory details, which I didn't really know about, really brings me back," Heffley said after hearing Fox's story of the accident. "It makes me realize what the extent of my injury really was."

The injury

"The 10th night (after the accident) we were laying in bed together and he was like, 'Who are you.' I said, 'I'm your wife. We have two children together.' He just said, 'wow,'" Jeanne Heffley said.

She said that was hard, but by the next day, Eric Heffley had remembered his wife.

Though there was memory loss, he was fortunate.

He was accepted by Craig Hospital in Denver, which is world-renowned for spinal cord injury and traumatic brain injury rehabilitation.

Along with a jaw broken in five places, Heffley had a severe brain injury.

Basically, he explained, the brain collided with the skull from the impact of hitting the tree, damaging two temporal lobes.

"I just remember flashes of memory," Heffley said of the first couple of weeks after the accident.

He doesn't remember not recognizing his wife.

Though it seemed like a slow start, Heffley's recovery ended up being quick.

Doctors originally expected to keep him in the hospital for three months. He left after one. Today, except for some wiring in his mouth from the broken jaw (which was operated on), there are no obvious signs that Heffley had the accident. However, he still has some difficulties.

"It's been ordered by the doctor at Craig that I can't just jump back into life," he said.

Periods of fatigue will follow anytime his brain is stimulated. After talking with Fox, for example, Heffley said he probably would have to take a nap.

There's no driving, jumping or even turning his head fast. Things that Heffley loves, such as playing hockey and skiing, are out of question for at least a year.

"Now I'm an extreme father, instead of an extreme skier," he said.

On Tuesday, Heffley goes to Alabama for outpatient treatment at Craig's sister hospital to complete rehabilitation.

Community help

Even with the speedy recovery, Heffley hasn't been able to work at his Mountain Resorts job all winter, as well as the odd jobs around town he does on the side.

That made things difficult with a mortgage, a 2-year-old son and a 1-year-old daughter.

"When you go through something like this ... you don't want to have to think about the mortgage. You don't want to have to think about work. You just don't want to have to think about that stuff," Fox said.

Two weeks after the accident, Fox organized a small benefit party at Winona's restaurant, which he and his wife, Kristy, own.

Seventy people showed up.

"We basically prayed and talked about what these guys needed the next couple of months. We basically said that these are the 70 people who are going to help out," Fox said.

The Heffleys' home was being remodeled after being damaged by a fire last spring. Steve Buccino organized a group to finish the project.

Six people worked hard for two days to get it done, using material donated by area businesses, Fox said.

Along with help from Euzoa Bible Church, people covered Heffley's plow jobs, took over organizing a medical convention that Heffley does each winter and basically made sure the family would be supported in every way.

"It would not be fair for them to go through this alone," Kristy Fox said.

Now a silent auction and spaghetti dinner fund-raiser is being organized for Jan. 18 at the Steamboat Springs Community Center to help support the family while Heffley is in Alabama. Tickets are being sold at Winona's.

"It has been amazing just how many people have come together, just to surround us," Jeanne Heffley said.

Eric Heffley said the entire event has been laced with divine intervention -- from surviving the crash and recovering quickly to being helped out by the community.

"I really think that God paved the way through so many things," Heffley said.

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