Asit Rathod knows Mount Hood.
The pretty young woman with the pink hair and the bright blue baseball hat is taking great pleasure in teasing her mom.
“Hey I’m the one with a brain injury,” she says. “What’s your problem?”
Her mother laughs. All jokes from her sassy daughter are welcome to Candy Barnard-Davidson these days, because jokes are a sign of brain activity, and brain activity is a very good thing when your daughter is recovering from severe traumatic brain injury. Maya Barnard-Davidson’s pre-injury personality was goofy and fun and full of humor and sarcasm, and when that old self resurfaces and Maya’s face lights up with mischief, Candy’s face lights up too.
Maya and Candy are enjoying the simple pleasures of chocolate cake and laughter at an outdoor cafe, at the end of the latest day of therapy in what has been an epic ordeal for both of them. Since nearly dying in a ski accident last winter on Mount Hood, Maya has fought her way back from coma to consciousness to steadily improving health, and her mother has been with her the entire way.
“Maya has come a long way,” says Candy Barnard-Davidson. “The trajectory of her recovery has been incredible.”
Maya, now 20, was 19 years old when she moved to Mount Hood to work at Timberline. She was young, free, fun-loving, and quite the athlete: winner of Oregon’s “Skimeister” Award in 2013 for excellence in racing and freeskiing: second-place finisher in her age group nationally for halfpipe skiing.
She was skiing at Skibowl with her boyfriend Taylor Jackson last New Year’s Eve when she announced that she wanted to race him down Reynolds Run. Ripping down the fast snow, she lost control at high speed and fell hard near the lower cat track that leads to Multorpor. She was not wearing a helmet.
Two snowboarders, Jordan and Nate Burnell, witnessed the crash and immediately recognized its severity. When they reached Maya she was not breathing. Fortunately, Jordan Burnell is a medical assistant, and she was able to clear Maya’s breathing passage while Nate raced off to alert Skibowl’s patrol. Taylor Jackson, a trained EMT, also helped stabilize Maya as the patrollers strapped her into a backboard to transport her for care.
Within an hour, Maya was being life-flighted to Oregon Health Sciences University hospital, and Candy and her husband Mark were driving from The Dalles to Portland after getting the terrifying phone call about their daughter’s accident. Hours passed before they were finally able to see Maya at OHSU at around 3 am New Year’s Day. She was unconscious and breathing with a ventilator, with a probe inserted into her brain to monitor pressure.
Maya remained in a coma with severe traumatic brain injury for three weeks, and Candy and her family knew that there was a chance she might never wake up.
“She just looked so young in that hospital bed, so lost,” recalls Candy. “They would sit her up, and she couldn’t move. She had no facial expressions…
“When she was finally able to look at me and track my voice, it was like the first time your baby looks at you and tracks your voice. That was absolutely a high point. It was also a big moment when she spoke her first words since the accident, because we didn’t know whether she was going to be able to talk or not.”
Only patients who are responding to therapy are admitted into the Rehabilitation Institute of Oregon, the rehabilitation facility that was recommended for Maya. So when Maya finally began to show improvement, her family was thrilled and relieved. She moved from OHSU to RIO about a month after her accident, and there her recovery finally began to accelerate. She took two steps on Day One at RIO, 40 steps on Day Two, and too many steps to count on Day Three.
Traumatic Brain Injury is a complicated malady because the human brain is so vastly complex. All the things Maya knew before her accident, she has had to relearn, though at an accelerated rate. All of the neural connections that were disrupted by the trauma of her crash have needed to repair themselves. It is a process that requires time, patience, outside expertise, focus and serious effort. Maya has had to relearn how to speak, how to listen, how to multiply numbers, how to tie knots, how to laugh, how to cry, how to recognize whether someone is being serious or using sarcasm, and much, much more.
“The hard part is communicating with people,” Maya says. “Not being too repetitive. Telling people, please slow down because I’m writing this down.”
To better understand people, Maya says she works with a memory device with the acronym WRAP:
Maya does not suffer from PTSD following her accident, because she does not remember the traumatic event at all, a phenomenon called Post Traumatic Amnesia. In fact, she still cannot remember anything from the year 2014. Seeing pictures of herself doing things from the year leading up to her crash is a little like seeing pictures of a long-lost twin doing things — and wondering what those experiences might have been like.
Maya’s ordeal has been very hard on her close family and friends: her boyfriend Taylor, her father Mark, her older sister Sage, a student at Oregon State University, her younger brother Ian, a competitive snowboarder who recently got to train with gold medalist Sage Kotsenburg at High Cascade Snowboard Camp on Mount Hood.
For a while Maya couldn’t even recognize her father. She once told her mom, “I sure miss my mom.”
She also has struggled with remembering her age, consistently believing she was younger than people kept telling her she was.
But with time and therapy, many of the connections that were damaged in Maya’s brain have been repaired. Maya now recognizes friends and family and remembers many of their shared experiences. She no longer needs to wear a helmet around the clock. She can ride a horse, read a 300-page book in a few days, write in her journal, create art from henna and beads, knit, hang out with friends, tease her mom. She does therapy three days a week and hopes to increase that to five days a week in August. She says she particularly enjoys intense physical therapy, working so hard that she loses her breath and her muscles hurt. She would like to try to run a marathon someday, to go back to school and study biology, to return to the mountains to ski. She has applied through Project Athena to join a group adventure of mountain biking and sea kayaking in the Florida Keys, part of a program for women recovering from life-altering medical setbacks.
Candy has understandable hesitations about her daughter’s goal to return to skiing, but she says she will respect her daughter’s choices and continue to support Maya any way she can. Her Facebook posts about Maya’s recovery have inspired many followers and generated an outpouring of support from The Dalles to Mount Hood and beyond. In a typically touching post from July 13 that drew 146 likes, 16 comments and 14 shares, Candy wrote:
At times [Maya] is feeling discouraged and a little hopeless thinking about how long her recovery may take. I remind her that life is a journey with many twist, turns and detours. We won’t always know what direction to go, however we must go forward with confidence and certainty that the road we’re on is the one God put before us. We talk about this being a new beginning of the rest of her life. Yes she will have challenges, we all do. We can make our day a good day or a bad day depending on our attitude, and we alone are the only ones that can change that.
As Maya’s recovery has progressed and her memory has improved, Candy has brought her around to visit with people connected to her accident. They traveled to Ashland together to attend a memorial service for Brian Fletcher, the young man who crashed on the same portion of the same trail at Skibowl on New Year’s Eve, and tragically died just hours before Maya’s accident.
Candy and Maya stopped in to visit the specialists at OHSU, who were amazed by Maya’s improvement. They recently met with Jordan and Nate Burnell, the couple that first witnessed Maya's crash and responded to help her.
Throughout all their triumphs and setbacks, they have received support from their church, their local community, and the wider community of people willing to pitch in to help Maya. Taylor Jackson and his firefighting colleagues threw a fund-raiser for her. Life Flight is also planning a benefit. Those fund-raising efforts are welcome because Candy and her family are battling their insurance company to cover Maya’s therapy, which costs $450 per day.
Major challenges remain for Maya, Candy and their family and friends. Maya continues to work on her executive functioning and attention to detail, and even the seemingly simple task of watching a movie can be taxing for her, between the intricacy of plot lines and the intense sensory experience of film.
Candy beams with happiness when she sees evidence of her old Maya returning — even when the reappearance comes in the form of sassy back-talk. She sometimes refers to her daughter as “Miracle Maya,” a nickname that makes sense when you consider than only about 10 to 30 percent of people who suffer severe traumatic brain injuries are able to recover. Relief and gratitude are two big emotions that she experiences regularly as she looks back at Maya’s six-plus months of trauma and recovery. But the raw shock of what happened to her daughter also remains painfully fresh in her mind.
“Sometimes I’ll just be driving along or out in the garden, and my mind will wander back to that moment, getting the call,” Candy says. “And it’s hard. That’s when I have to redirect that feeling, and remind myself of just how incredibly fortunate and blessed we are, that Maya has done as well as she has. She still has a lot more recovery ahead, but it is just incredible how far she has come.”