‘I’m just so thankful’
SARANAC LAKE – A Pennsylvania teenager returned to the Adirondacks this week for the first time since she suffered a traumatic brain injury in a skiing accident this winter at Whiteface Mountain Ski Center in Wilmington.
Nora Neely, 16, and her mom, Candy, made the trip from their home in Malvern, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia, to thank the doctors, nurses and first responders who helped save Nora’s life. They visited Monday with staff in the emergency room at Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake and planned to do the same later this week at Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington, Vermont.
“I’m very curious about everything that happened, and it’s important to me to come back and say thank you, and to have kind of come full circle,” Nora told the Enterprise during a Monday interview in the Saranac Lake hospital.
Due to her injuries, Nora has no memory of being in the hospital’s ER. Nor does she remember anything about the accident that took place March 23, the first day of a planned spring break ski trip to Lake Placid for the Neely family: Nora, her brother Beck, their parents and Rory, an Australian exchange student who was living with the family.
“We thought it would be a fun thing to do, so we drove up,” Nora said. “We’re not skiers. I’ve never really skied in my life – well, once or twice.”
The day started with a morning bobsled ride at the Olympic Sports Complex at Mount Van Hoevenburg. Nora says she remembers that. The Neelys then drove to Whiteface, where Nora, Beck and Rory geared up to go skiing, and Candy and Tim found a window seat in the mountain’s base lodge.
“I remember eating lunch and being in the ski shop renting skis, kind of vaguely,” Nora said. “I know it was the first run down the mountain, but I don’t remember it, so I can’t say what happened.”
No one in Nora’s family actually saw what happened.
“My husband and I were in the lodge, and we saw Beck and Rory down at the bottom waiting for Nora,” Candy Neely said. “They came in and found us, and we started texting Nora. Before long we saw the rescue (sled) coming down with the ski patrol, and I saw her white coat and green scarf, with her arm dragging along in the snow.
“It was frightening right away, seeing her at the bottom of the mountain. She was bloody and moaning my name, ‘Mom, Mom’ over and over again. I knew it was bad. It was just terrifying.”
State Olympic Regional Development Authority spokesman Jon Lundin said Neely had crashed on the Fox trail, a beginner run on the lower part of the mountain. She collided with a timing box for a ski racing course that was attached to a 4-foot-by-4-foot post on the side of the trail, Lundin said. He said the post, which was not padded, and was broken during the incident, is no longer there.
Nora suffered a traumatic brain injury, severe skull base fractures, a torn carotid artery, a broken right collarbone and a broken left arm, among other injuries. Her mom said Nora’s injuries would have been much worse if she wasn’t wearing a helmet.
At the base of the mountain, Nora was placed in an ambulance and rushed to the Saranac Lake ER, where doctors and nurses worked to stabilize her. Nora said Tuesday that she asked one of the hospital’s physician assistants, Roy “Skip” Parker, what he remembered about her brief stay there.
“He said I was just saying ‘Help me. Somebody help me,’ over and over again,” Nora said. “He said he didn’t think I was going to make it out of here while I was alive.”
Nora was airlifted to Fletcher Allen by North Country Life Flight. At the Vermont hospital, she underwent multiple surgeries and was in a drug-induced coma for nine days as doctors worked to reduce the buildup of fluid inside her skull. She eventually had a shunt placed in her head that allowed the excess fluid to be drained out.
“We just felt scared, but somehow embraced,” Candy said. “We knew that everybody was taking good care of her.”
The first day at Fletcher Allen, Candy found out about CaringBridge, a website that allows family members of people who’ve been hospitalized to post online updates to family and friends.
“We were able to share information and get so much support back,” she said. “We’d go out in the reading room and just read the messages from people and cry.”
Nora said the days after she was brought out of the coma are very foggy.
“I don’t know what the earliest thing I remember is,” she said. “It might be lying in my hospital bed. I watched ‘The Great Gatsby’ with my mom pretty early on. I don’t even think we got through the whole movie.”
Nora spent 39 days at Fletcher Allen before being transferred to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where she spent another 40 days before she was able go home. She’s had to deal with a lot of outpatient rehabilitation, but as of now, she said she’s almost back to normal.
“There’s really not anything I’m dealing with anymore, except trouble with my vision and a ringing in my ear, too,” she said.
“I think Nora’s recovery has been one miracle after another,” her mom said. “She is herself and happy and is heading right back to 11th grade, where she’s supposed to be going.”
Nora has also returned to one of her favorite pastimes, music. A singer and guitarist, she has many performances posted on YouTube and recently played an open mic night at a coffeehouse near her home, her first public performance since the accident.
“Something I’ve taken out of this is that you just really have to appreciate the small things in life,” Nora said. “After all of this, being able to breathe, being able to speak, being able to see, walk, everything. Just how important that is and how positive I see things now – I’m just so thankful.”
During Monday’s Enterprise interview, Nora said she wasn’t sure if she and her mom would revisit Whiteface Mountain, but they ultimately did. In a post Tuesday on Nora’s CaringBridge site, Candy said they met the mountain’s general manager, Aaron Kellett, and learned the name of the trail where the accident took place. She also extended her thanks to the mountain’s ski patrol for finding and rescuing her daughter.