“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.”