Thirteen-year-old Olivia McLean had finished all of her races at Ski Wentworth and went with a friend to help tear down fences on the hill. When they found out they were too early to help, they decided to catch a free run, but Olivia was stopped by a coach because she didn’t have a helmet with her, and helmets are mandatory in Nova Scotia. She grabbed her brother’s new helmet and jumped onto the ski-lift, and that’s all she remembers from Feb 15, 2014, the day she skied into a tree and almost died.
“I don’t really know what happened,” Olivia says. “I was on a really icy trail that I’d never gone down before, and my friend was skiing right behind me. She watched me hit the tree and she got somebody to stay with me then went to get help.” Olivia was airlifted via LifeFlight to the IWK Health Centre in Halifax, and was put in a medically induced coma for her own safety.
Olivia’s mother Dawn was at Ski Wentworth, but was not allowed to go in the helicopter with her daughter, and had to drive two hours to the hospital. It was a terrifying situation, and she says that all kinds of thoughts were flying around her head.
“It was hard not to keep thinking about worst case scenarios and stay positive,” she says. Olivia’s father Brayden drove from their home in Penobsquis, NB, with her four siblings, as did other members of the family.
“When I got to the hospital there was someone standing at the door waiting to direct me to the room where Olivia was being seen. I was able to see her immediately, and the doctor said that their preliminary findings were that there was a contusion and swelling on her brain,” says Dawn. Olivia was then taken for a CT scan, and doctors discovered that she had also broken both her tibia and fibula in her left leg, and had several hairline fractures.
Seeing her daughter lying there in ICU with a breathing tube and monitors attached was scary, but Dawn knew that she was in the best possible hands at the IWK, and that hospital staff were doing what was needed for Olivia. “From the time I walked through that emergency room door, the IWK staff kept me informed and were just phenomenal, we can’t speak highly enough of the way we were treated and the care that we got,” she says. Brayden agrees, saying they felt like they were a part of the process at all times, although all they could really do was stand and watch.
The road to recovery
For nine long days Olivia was kept in the medically induced coma. Her parents stayed at the Ronald MacDonald House just across from the hospital, and Dawn’s sisters stayed too, taking over at Olivia’s bedside when her parents needed to take a walk or get some fresh air. Doctors warned Dawn and Brayden that when Olivia was brought out of her coma she could be violent or wake up cursing and screaming. “We didn’t know the state of her mind, cognitively. She might not have known who we were or anything,” says Dawn.
It was a Sunday night when they brought Olivia out of her coma for the first time. “When Olivia woke up, her eyes lit up and she smiled,” says Dawn. “That was probably one of the most amazing feelings of my life because I could see the registration on her face. She knew who we were.” As Olivia came round, she started to get upset and wanted the breathing tube out, but because she was having surgery on her leg the next day medical staff had to put her back under so that she wouldn’t have to get a tube put in a second time.
When Olivia was brought out of her coma after the surgery, her parents were again warned that she might be angry and uncontrollable. “But as soon as we saw Olivia, she was so kind and so loving,” says Dawn. “She was sitting there in the chair with the nurse braiding her hair, and Olivia quickly realized that there weren’t enough chairs and tried to stand up on her broken leg and said, ‘Here dad, you can have my chair.’”
Olivia’s recovery was remarkable. “The doctors kept saying ‘Make sure you don’t over stimulate her,’ but by Wednesday Olivia was saying that she didn’t even need Tylenol. She never had headaches or any pain at all,” says Dawn. The neurosurgeon who was on call when Olivia was admitted had been away and it was a week and a half before he saw her. “He couldn’t believe how well she was considering her condition when he admitted her on the 15,” says Dawn.
After three weeks at the IWK, Olivia was transferred to the Stan Cassidy Centre for Rehabilitation in Fredericton, where she received physiothereapy and occupational therapy to help her get back to being able to move around, and feel like her normal self. Although technically Olivia was an inpatient, she felt well enough that she was able to sleep at home with her family and was driven the 70 minutes there and back every day for the next 10 weeks. Now she has physiotherapy sessions closer to home once a week.
Olivia is doing better than anyone could have hoped for. At a recent visit back to the IWK to see the orthopedic surgeon, she was told that she could be up skiing again without her leg bothering her by November. “It was very encouraging to know that nothing is going to get in the way of my skiing,” says Olivia. And, despite missing 10 weeks of school, Olivia graduated Grade 8 with a 94 per cent average.
Grabbing her brother’s helmet may well have saved Olivia’s life. It was brand new and much better than the one that she usually wore. Doctors explained to Dawn that a lesser helmet would not have been able to withstand such a serious impact. “As a parent of multiple children you think about ways that you can save money, and Olivia had a hand-me-down helmet that had been through a couple of kids before it got to her,” says Dawn. “I had no idea that lots of times its not even a major fall or anything that damages the helmet, it could just be that you’re sitting in the cafeteria and the helmet rolls off the table and hits the floor. They’ve done research that proves that a few small impacts like that and the helmet is compromised. You think, ‘It’s a helmet, its designed to withstand impact,’ but I now know that you really have to know that the equipment that you get for your kids is up to the job.”
Dawn says that parents also need to ensure that their kids have the right equipment. “It doesn’t have to be the best of the best, but it has to be the appropriate equipment. A bike helmet is not a ski helmet. You have to have a ski helmet that fits properly,” she says.
Olivia knows that she was very lucky to come away from this experience not only in one piece, but able to continue pursuing a sport that she and her whole family love. “My accident didn’t put me off skiing at all,” she says. “I’m on the Canada Games Development Team for 2015, and the derby is in January, so I will be back training for that next season.”
Her parents aren’t worried about Olivia skiing again either. “It was a completely random accident and we still feel like skiing is very safe, and come December we will all be back on the hill,” says Dawn. “I’d recommend that parents should get involved and get a few lessons so you can enjoy the sport together. It’s a great family sport.”
Brayden says that there are situations that can cause injury everywhere, and part of letting your kids grow up is letting them learn how to take risks.
Feeling the love and giving thanks
Olivia had lots of people rooting for her through all this. Her family is very active in their local church, and credits the support of that community as contributing to her speedy recovery. The local ski community was also there for the family and organized an amazing surprise for the teen.
Olivia had her accident on the same day that Canadian skier Jan Hudec won a bronze medal in the Super-G at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
“My old ski coach, who was the person that stopped Olivia and told her to go back and put a helmet on, contacted Jan and asked him to sign a helmet for Olivia,” says Dawn. “The local ski community chipped in to buy helmets for both Olivia and her brother, whose helmet was destroyed in the accident. Jan signed it too, which was such a great thing for both kids.”
Olivia’s uncle was so impressed by the care the family received at the IWK that he organized a team to run a 5K for the IWK, and they raised more than $10,000. Olivia had only been off her crutches for a couple of weeks but was able to walk three kilometres of it.
More than just a survivor, Olivia McLean beat a traumatic brain injury and will continue to be the fearless and smart young woman she was before this happened.
“It’s been five months since Olivia’s accident, but she has recovered so well that it is almost like it never happened,” says Brayden. “It was a nightmare, but thankfully it is all over.”