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A year after snowboarding accident, Nisley returns to mountain

Exactly one year after her wreck, Brooke Nisley snowboards at Red Lodge, Mont. A Powell High School junior, Nisley volunteers with Eagle Mount, a program that helps skiers with disabilities. She was participating in a Eagle Mount training day on Feb. 9.  Exactly one year after her wreck, Brooke Nisley snowboards at Red Lodge, Mont. A Powell High School junior, Nisley volunteers with Eagle Mount, a program that helps skiers with disabilities. She was participating in a Eagle Mount training day on Feb. 9. Tribune photos by Kevin Kinzley

In the moments of early dawn, Brooke Nisley runs around the track at Powell High School. She runs alone, in the stillness of wintry mornings, watching as the world around her awakens.

“The sunrises are beautiful in the morning — oh my goodness,” she says.

February days have provided Nisley time to reflect on where she was last year at this time.

Last year, when she broke her back while snowboarding. Last year, when her family, friends and doctors feared she might never walk again. Last year, when she could have died.

On Feb. 9, 2011, Nisley crashed into 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 Feb. 9, 2012, Nisley returned to Red Lodge Mountain and snowboarded again. She stood at that place where her life changed forever.

“It’s just such an amazing miracle — I guess that’s really the word for it,” Nisley said.

Nine out of 10 people who crush the T12 vertebrae in their back, like Nisley did, never walk again — much less run.

When Nisley sees her doctor in Billings for routine check-ups, he reminds her of those odds.

“Every time, my amazing doctor, Dr. Morone, will say, ‘Do you know how impossible this was?’” He tells her how lucky she is.

“But the thing is, I’m not lucky. I was just blessed,” she said.

Snowboarding on the one-year anniversary of her wreck reminded Nisley just how far she has come. It was an emotional day for Nisley and her parents, Bruce and Sonja, yet they were not worried about her returning to the mountain.

Like riding a horse and getting bucked off, “My dad always taught me, ‘You get back on.’ That’s how you conquer that.”

“It would be easy to make that tree, that run, that area, a big deal, but that’s not the point. I shouldn’t hold on to that tangible thing — I should just be more focused on where I am now,” Nisley said.

Seasons of healing

Since her accident last February, Nisley has experienced distinct seasons of restoration and growth.

Initially, it was all about physical healing and rest.

“Those first four months were just very frail,” Nisley said.

She couldn’t return to school yet and wore a torso brace that she jokingly called “my turtle shell.”

“That time was really up and down emotionally — and a lot of pain, physically,” she said. “But at the same time, it was a really good rejuvenating time.”

She experienced an outpouring of support from family, friends, classmates, teachers, coaches, even strangers.

“I felt so, so loved during that time,” she recalled.

“I’ll never feel like I can thank people enough. They’re more a part of my healing than anything,” she said.

Just as warm summer days began in June, Nisley headed to Montana, where she worked at Clydehurst Christian Ranch. There, she experienced spiritual growth and began processing what she’d been through.

“It was a good time to start dwelling on what it all had meant to me,” Nisley said.

Meeting new people and giving her testimony in the church camp setting, “I found myself sharing my story over and over and over again,” she said.

Part of her healing and her joy has been sharing what she went through and what God has done, she said.

“It’s not even my story. I feel like it’s God’s story, but also my family’s story, my school’s story — I feel like it’s our community’s story, because so many people played a part in it,” Nisley said.

Nisley added another chapter to the story last summer when she ran again. On a July evening while at camp, Nisley decided she needed to run.

“I just had to go out and see if I could do it,” Nisley said. “I just cried, I cried so hard the entire time. Not because I was in pain, but because I was so amazed — I was just like, ‘God you are so good. Here I am today.’”

Back to school,

but not life as usual

In August, Nisley returned to Powell High School, where she’s a junior.

“That was like starting over,” she said. “People hadn’t seen me for six months, and I feel like I had changed so much … I had just grown a lot and matured a lot.”

Nisley couldn’t compete in cross country, as she had in previous seasons, but she went out for the basketball team last fall.

“When I started doing sports again, it made me realize that I wasn’t the same anymore,” Nisley said.

She played basketball about halfway through the season, but she experienced constant pain after practice. Eventually, she and her parents decided it would be best to stop playing.

“That word ‘quit’ is such a gross word, I don’t even like saying it,” Nisley said. “It was hard to not be able to play anymore, but at the same time it (playing with the team) was such a positive experience — not at all negative.”

Nisley continues to exercise and runs three to five miles during an early-morning physical education class.

Her doctor said she needs to strengthen her core muscles as her body continues to heal.

“Like he said, I got ripped in half — all my muscles were completely ripped apart, so now as they’re forming back together, they’re not forming regularly. They won’t ever be the same again, so now my body has to figure out how to use that and work with that,” Nisley said.

She also has one less rib.

“I’m like Adam,” she laughed.

Doctors removed a rib and used the bone 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.

While her body won’t be the same, Nisley said she’s amazed at all the things she’s still able to do.

“God designed our bodies so incredibly,” Nisley said.

On Christmas Eve, Nisley snowboarded for the first time following her accident. She gave the Red Lodge ski patrol the dented helmet that saved her life — the helmet she had received as a Christmas gift the year before.

Life lessons

Nisley has learned things about life that many teenagers — or adults for that matter — never stop to consider.

“I don’t think very often do we come to the point where we totally grasp how frail life can be,” she said. “Sometimes we don’t get that chance.”

Even though she’s dealt with pain and struggles over the last year, Nisley said she’s never questioned why.

“I never get angry at unfortunate things in my life. I always feel at peace about it,” she said. “It was never, ‘God why did you do this?’”

Her positive outlook on life and constant faith have influenced those around her.

“My favorite ‘Brooke saying,’ is: ‘I’m just trying to have a good attitude about it,’” said Emily Kath, a close friend. “To me, it seems like she is far past trying; she has beyond succeeded in having a good attitude about nearly everything thrown her way. Sometimes, I even want to say to her, ‘Brooke, you broke your back and almost killed yourself. It’s OK to be upset sometimes.’”

Nisley said her mom also has to remind her that healing from her extensive injuries takes time.

“There’s a verse that talks about taking joy in the trials of life, and that has become so real to me. I can be 100 percent honest and say that I can feel joy in the things that I’ve gone through, because my world has so expanded, and I’m really grateful for that,” she said. “Ultimately, it’s just asking, what is your purpose? What is my purpose?”

Nisley said she’s learned life’s not just about sports or academics or anything like that.

“Those things can be taken away from you so quickly, I’ve learned,” she said.

Rather, Nisley described her purpose as “to serve God in every breath, word, action. But that can be broken down in so many ways — the talents God has given me and the relationships. I love loving people … I have such a heart for third-world people.”

Nisley will travel to Mozambique, Africa, in June to serve for 10 weeks with Children’s Relief International alongside missionaries Pam and Phil Johnson of Powell.

She’ll return as a senior at Powell High School next fall. She plans to attend college and study international development. From there, Nisley’s not sure what the future holds. But she knows that what happened last February always will shape her life.

“There’s this song — ‘I still struggle with my fear, but I always know that God has me here for a reason,’ and I guess I just know that. He has me here for a reason,” she said.

1 comment

  • posted by Joyce Puhl

    March 08, 2012 10:50 am

    Brooke, Your strength is such an inspiration. I can't believe how far you've come in just a year. God bless you and continue to be a roll model for us all. With love, great Aunt Joyce Uncle Dave and all our family (mostly Nebraskans).

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