Healing Across the Sierra: Injured snowboarder returns to the slopes

Listen to the story

Healing Across the Sierra: Injured snowboarder returns to the slopes

Danny_toumarkine_high_fives_foundation

Professional Snowboarder Danny Toumarkine continues his recovery from a 2011 traumatic brain injury at the C.R. Johnson Healing Center run by the High Fives Foundation in Truckee.

Professional snowboarder Danny Toumarkine suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2011, leaving him with a ten percent chance of living. Danny was hospitalized for a month and has endured four brain surgeries.

For KUNR's series: Healing across the Sierra, Michelle Bliss reports that Danny is recovering with help from the High Fives Foundation in Truckee, a group offering grants to snow sports athletes with life-altering injuries.

Danny doesn't actually remember his accident--he just remembers waking up in a hospital bed after a snowboarding trip in Montana, covered in tubes and needles.

"Imagine being in a closet for a month--it's dark, there's not many noises," Danny explains. "I was getting fed through my stomach--I wasn't physically eating food. And then, when you get released from the hospital, it's like this whole new world."

Since leaving the hospital, Danny's recovery has been remarkable, but it hasn't been easy, physically or emotionally. More than half of people suffering from brain injuries become depressed as their medical bills pile up and they struggle to heal.

Danny has seen a therapist and taken antidepressants, but one of the best treatments has actually been the community he's built through the High Fives Foundation, which runs the C.R. Johnson Healing Center in Truckee.

Hear an extended interview with Danny about his recovery.

Danny drops his barbell after finishing an exercise known as the Bulgarian bear complex.

"That's a collection of five compound barbell movements," Danny's personal trainer Chris Cloyd explains. "It's a tremendously challenging, multi-plane muscular movement."

Danny and Chris have worked together for more than a year at the healing center, a private space where injured athletes can work out alongside their peers, instead of heading to a crowded, noisy gym. When the two first met, Danny was way too thin and their main goal was bulking up.

"Thirty-three days in the hospital--you lose a lot of mass," Chris says. "There's just no way to prevent that, particularly in the legs as your body's much more concerned with preserving muscle mass and fat mass above the waist to protect internal organs."

With Chris's help, Danny's packed on thirty pounds of muscle, allowing him to snowboard again, though he doesn't compete.

Another injured athlete who has returned to the slopes is Roy Tuscany. In 2006, Roy was an aspiring pro skier who suffered a spinal cord injury at Mammoth Mountain. Over the next two years, his friends rallied around him, raising $85,000 for his expenses.

"My medical bills topped out over a million dollars," Roy remembers. "And all the money that was raised for me went to all the things that insurance did not cover: the cost of acupuncture, massage, personal training. When you're on insurance plans, they give you about 24 visits in a year to recover from an injury, and with a spinal cord injury I was going to physical therapy four to six hours a day, every day of the week."

Roy's the founder of the High Fives Foundation, which runs the healing center and provides grants to injured athletes. The nonprofit has given out more than $550,000 to 55 athletes since 2009.

They've also launched a helmet safety campaign since many snow sports athletes don't wear them, including Danny before his accident. 

"Everyone knows they should, but the pros aren't wearing them," Danny says. "As dumb as that sounds, all these kids look up to the pros and if they were to have helmets on, you better believe that all the kids would."

Instead of dwelling on the past, Danny plants himself firmly in the present, approaching each personal training session as a new chance to restore what he's lost. 

For his final set of the day, Danny pumps a medicine ball against the gym wall.

His trainer Chris has played a major role in his success, but Chris says the High Fives Foundation doesn't rely on any one provider to treat such pervasive injuries:

"It's a network, a healing network of professionals that do communicate, which, as any athlete that's gone through any sort of injury will testify, that's a huge problem because people don't talk and you end up reliving this history with twenty different professionals that all have the same goal, but it's not efficient and it's clunky and the person who loses out is the athlete."

Despite how different each injury may be, Chris says they all have one thing in common: they can't be battled alone.