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Nisley's one in ten odds

Wearing a torso brace, Brooke Nisley holds the dented helmet that saved her life during a snowboarding accident at Red Lodge, Mont., last month. The Powell High School sophomore, an avid runner, faces a year-long recovery. Wearing a torso brace, Brooke Nisley holds the dented helmet that saved her life during a snowboarding accident at Red Lodge, Mont., last month. The Powell High School sophomore, an avid runner, faces a year-long recovery. Tribune photo by Carla Wensky

Beating them, Brooke walks again after snowboarding accident

A month after her sweet 16th birthday, Brooke Nisley’s life changed in an instant when she slammed into a tree while snowboarding.

In her six years snowboarding, it was only the second time Brooke wore a helmet on the slopes. She had received the pale-blue helmet for a Christmas present just weeks earlier — and it saved her life.

“I remember going down the slope, and that’s the last thing I remember,” Brooke said. When she awoke again, she was lying in the intensive care unit in Billings Clinic. “I don’t remember almost 24 hours.”

The Powell High School sophomore went on a Red Lodge trip to help skiers with disabilities through the Eagle Mount program, and she was snowboarding with a group of teachers when she lost control. Brooke hadn’t eaten breakfast that morning, and recalls feeling dizzy as she got off the chairlift in the early afternoon.

As she snowboarded past one of the teachers, he said Brooke looked like she was out of it.

“She began to veer off, and he called her name, but she didn’t respond,” said Sonja, Brooke’s mother.

Brooke believes she blacked out.

“There’s no way I’d just run into a tree,” Brooke said.

“Leaning back makes you go faster on a snowboard,” Sonja said. To stop or slow down on a snowboard, you sit down or swerve or intentionally wreck in the snow.

“She just never slowed down,” Sonja said.

Brooke struck a tree at full speed, smashing her helmet and leaving her with a broken vertebra, three broken ribs, bruised lungs, a severe concussion and lacerations to her liver and kidneys.

“On our drive to Red Lodge, we thought we were bringing home a girl with a concussion. When we got there, it quickly went downhill,” said Sonja, a registered nurse, who joined Brooke in the back of the ambulance as they headed to Billings Clinic. Brooke’s father, Bruce, followed the ambulance.

The impact crushed Brooke’s T-12 vertebra in her back. Miraculously, her spinal cord was not severed in the accident or as crews stabilized her and transported her off the snow-covered mountain.

“Somehow the spinal cord went right through that mess. It’s like God just held her spinal cord in place,” Sonja said.

Most people — 9 out of 10 — never walk again after breaking their T-12 vertebra.

“The doctors and surgeons said, ‘We see this all the time, but they don’t walk away,’” Sonja said.

As she laid in ICU awaiting surgery, with various tubes sticking in and out of her, Brooke had her dad write on her Facebook: “1 in 10 chance, praise God that I am going to be that one that will be walking. Thanks to all of my friends and family for caring and praying.”

On Valentine’s Day, five days after the wreck, Brooke underwent an extensive surgery that lasted nearly 10 hours.

Doctors took out one of her ribs and used the bone, along with pieces of the broken vertebra, to fill a cage that was then put in her back to replace the broken vertebra, kept in place with screws and a rod. The bone will fuse together.

On Feb. 16, exactly a week after her wreck, Brooke was walking again.

“Brooke walked 12 feet yesterday … one week ago her spine was in pieces and today she stands! Jesus, You get all our praise!” Sonja wrote on Facebook.

The Nisley family’s faith in God has carried them through the experience, from the afternoon of the wreck to the long recovery ahead. When asked what she’s learned from the experience, Brooke draws on her faith.

“God has given us bodies that are able to work — we should never take that for granted, because He could take it away in an instant,” Brooke said. “In high school, we can feel invincible … I’m not invincible. I’m not impenetrable.”

As an active 16-year-old who loves to run with the cross country and track teams, Brooke said it’s been emotional and difficult in addition to very painful at times. She has asked God why the wreck happened — but says in the same sentence that she knows he has a plan. Brooke already is looking at the bigger picture.

“We never really know the full extent of things we go through and the impact they have,” Brooke said. “Only in eternity will we know.”

Since the accident, Brooke and her family have felt encouraged by the community’s outpouring of prayer, support and acts of kindness.

“The cards and support got me through it,” Brooke said.

“She’s been well loved,” Sonja said.

Facebook also helped Brooke know how many people were supporting her.

Prayers came from as far as Australia, Africa, Singapore, Rome, England and all across the United States. Notes of encouragement came from hundreds of miles away, and friends in Powell have offered constant support.

“The community has been so supportive,” Sonja said. “We’re thankful to come from a town like Powell.”

Neighbors pitched in while the Nisleys were in Billings, collecting their mail, taking care of their dog, even cleaning out the fridge. Sonja’s employer, Powell Valley Healthcare, and Bruce’s instructors in the Northwest College nursing program have all been very understanding and supportive, she said.

“We felt very blessed,” Sonja said.

Sonja added the family is grateful for the medical care Brooke received on the mountain at Red Lodge and then in Billings.

“All the surgeons, all the doctors were so impressed with the care Brooke got on the mountain and in the ER,” Sonja said.

Brooke said while the scary part of surgery may be behind her, she knows the journey of recovery ahead is a long one. Brooke must wear a torso brace for another three months, but some of her friends offered to bedazzle the gray brace.

“It’s my turtle shell,” she joked. “It needs to be a bit more spunky — it needs to be a bit more me.”

Brooke hasn’t been able to start her homebound school work yet, due to the severity of her concussion. She has gone on a few excursions in the community, including a basketball game and a visit to First Baptist Church Sunday.

Doctors said it will likely take a year for Brooke to fully recover.

“I have a long time to recover,” Brooke said. “To me, that’s the hardest part now.”


  • posted by Tamara Christopher

    March 28, 2011 9:29 am

    Brooke, I am so sorry you had to go through this difficult journey. It is an inspiration and reaffirmation that God is near and involved in our lives even as the nation, economy, and world is going through such dark and troubling times.
    May God continue to bless you and heal you steadily in your physical and spiritual body. Blessings to you and your family.

  • posted by Sally

    March 15, 2011 2:12 pm

    Brooke, I am so glad to have found your story. I seldom poste but felt so complelled by your strength and faith I wanted to share my accident and how it has strengthed my faith in the Lord.

    On November 22, 2010 I was hit by a car while on my bicycle the car was traveling more than 40 mph. The motorist hit me from behind. I was thrown into a guard rail head first. My cycling helmet took the brundt of the impact. I suffered multple injuries the worse a T12 burst fracture. I don't remember the accident or much about the days that followed. Miraculously I did not have a spinal chord injury and I am able to walk. I believe with all my heart God wrapped himself around me to protect me from the impact. Like you I have a long road to recovery but keeping faith and the support of my family and friends is getting me through. I don't know why this happened but I try to tell my story and give God all the praise and credit for saving my life and saving me from a wheelchair.

    Take care.


  • posted by Ronda Cromwell

    March 11, 2011 5:58 pm

    We are so thankful thar Brooke is walking and on the road to recovery. My husband was in a snowmobile accident Feb. 8, 2009 he burst his T12 vertebra & had 2 1/2" of spinal cord injury, he had a 5% chance of walking!! Sonja came to Billings & we prayed over Kents bed (the same moving bed Brooke laid in) & within one hour Kent felt us touching his legs for the first time in three days!! The Power of Prayer was working a miracle with him just as it did for our dear Brooke!! They had the same surgeon, Dr Marone who is Awesome!! We feel that God has answered our MANY Prayers with these two special patients & are So Proud of their Will, Strength, Courage & Trust in God. You will be back doing what beautiful 16 year old do in no time Brooke!!! Just wear that "turtle shell" & be safe, listen to your body & you will do great!!

    Bruce & Sonja I truly know what you have been through & will pray for your strength as well =} Take one day at a time!!
    Gods Blessings,
    Ronda & Kent
    Cory & Brittni Cromwell
    Scobey, MT

  • posted by Ladd Heidi Paulson

    March 09, 2011 11:13 am

    Yeah God! Brooke, we've been praying for you and your family. God is going to use you in this, and the enemy will try to destract and defeat you. Hold strong in your faith. You are on the winning team!
    God bless!

  • posted by Martha Schroeder

    March 08, 2011 5:08 pm

    Great story, we used to live in Powell and knew the Nicely's and remember Brooke as a little girl! What a miracle & what a beautiful young lady she has become!

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