This is the story I told at a Moth StorySLAM event in Washington, DC on April 15, 2019. The theme of the night was blunders. This story won that evening.
I remember feeling my ears and throat vibrating. I was covered in tree bark. And I was trying to figure out who was screaming.
It was me. I was screaming because I had just snowboarded into a tree. And I didn’t know it yet, but that was the beginning of my life changing forever.
We were in Breckenridge, Colorado on our last day of snowboarding. I was with my wife, Brooke, and our friends. And I was alone racing down a fast black diamond on my second run of the morning.
My snowboarding style is all-gas-no-brake. I love pushing myself out of my comfort zone. And that day I was riding switch. I was leading with my other leg because I wasn’t comfortable doing it and I needed the practice.
The bottom of the American merges with a green trail called the Lower American. I saw ahead a skier to my right hugging the tree line, some wide open space in the middle, and a large tree to my left. I chose a line down the middle close to the tree.
As I approached, the skier took a hard left ahead of me and crossed my line, so I decided to cut around to the left of the tree. On any other day this would have been fine, but I’d forgotten I was riding switch. I didn’t have enough control of my board.
Once I realized I was going to hit the tree, I fell down to take the impact with my snowboard. I hit the tree at about 30 MPH over my right foot. The impact shot my foot up through my tibia and shattered it into a thousand pieces. My fibula snapped in half. My foot was dangling from my leg.
My snowboard was fine.
When Ski Patrol arrived, the first coherent words out of my mouth were, “My wife is going to kill me.” Earlier that morning, the last thing Brooke said to me was, “Tony, please be careful.” She knows me better than I do. And clearly, I had not been careful.
We took a bumpy toboggan ride down the mountain to the urgent care center where I met up with Brooke (she did not kill me). I remember telling her, “I’ll be fine. I’ve broken my ankle before and I’ll be back on my feet and snowboarding again in no time.”
The doctor heard us talking and interrupted me. “You need to understand something. This isn’t a normal injury. You may never walk on this foot ever again.”
I stubbornly refused to admit my life had changed. I was obsessed with the idea of snowboarding again. It was an urgent and focused dream.
But after years of surgeries, spending months at a time in external fixators with giant stainless steal screws drilled into my bones and protruding out of my skin, that dream was fading.
My focus shifted to worrying about less ambitious things. I suffered from debilitating ankle arthritis with no cartilage left in my ankle. I needed a cane to walk. If Brooke and I decided to have kids, would I be able to carry our child on my shoulders?
Three years after snowboarding into a tree, we decided to amputate my right leg below the knee.
Brooke organized a going away party for my leg. I got a pedicure to send it off in style. After I explained why the pedicure wasn’t for both feet, I was rewarded with the opportunity to listen to the pedicure professional try to convince me not to amputate it while she painted my toenails. She also charged me the full price instead of half off.
Cutting off my leg took no courage. I wasn’t afraid because of Brooke.
Brooke is a nurse practitioner. Her specialty is palliative medicine. She helps patients with serious and terminal illnesses pick from a devastatingly small list of terrible options. She helps them choose by starting a conversation about how they want to spend their remaining time on Earth.
I was Brooke’s patient. And because of it, I was excited about the amputation.
As I learned to walk again, something unexpected happened. We started meeting other people with severe ankle pain and new amputees beginning their journeys. We met them through a blog I started after the accident.
By sharing our story, I discovered we could help other people facing similar challenges. Through this process, I recognized the role hope and humor played in my own recovery and, in Brooke, what it meant to be a partner to someone in sickness and in health.
I thought when I snowboarded into that tree that my life had forked down this new and terrible path. But I’ve realized the worst mistake I’ve ever made in my life was the best gift I have ever received.
Five years after I snowboarded into a tree, through surgeries and focused obsession, I snowboarded again. The experience was incredible. I remember defiantly screaming to the trees as I flew by, “I’m back!”
But as good as achieving that goal felt, nothing beats being able to carry our three-year-old daughter on my shoulders.