Newly elected Burlington school board member Ryan McLaren is unsure whether he will walk again in the wake of a March 17 ski accident that damaged his spinal cord.
Despite a tough prognosis, 30-year-old McLaren was upbeat Monday in a telephone interview from the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston where he is undergoing physical therapy.
“I am OK. I am as good as I possibly could be,” McLaren said in an interview with Seven Days.
He expressed gratitude for all the love and support he has received from family, friends and his fiancée, Burlington lawyer Adrienne Shea.
“I have a really amazing support network that is keeping me fairly motivated and positive,” said McLaren, who works as an outreach coordinator in the office of Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt).
The accident, at Mad River Glen in Fayston, was a fluke.
“It was a very, I think, freaky, unlucky thing,” he said.
McLaren sustained a “burst fracture” to his L1 vertebra, in his lower back.
Doctors have told him that he has incomplete motor function below the waist, and that it’s unclear whether he’ll get full function back, McLaren said.
The good news is that he’s not starting the battle from zero. McLaren said he has function and feeling in his thighs. Below the knees, his legs are less responsive — so far.
In the short term, he’s learning how to get in and out of a wheelchair. But he’s hoping his recovery will lead to walking.
“In terms of the end game, no one really knows,” he said. “There’s no telling where I could end up and when, in terms of ambulatory function and all that stuff.”
The accident happened on a beautiful day at Mad River Glen. The skies were blue, and there was plenty of fresh snow on the ground in the wake of Winter Storm Stella, which dumped 30 inches in Burlington.
McLaren was skiing with his brother, a doctor who had come up from Boston for the weekend. His brother’s wife was to attend Shea’s bachelorette party, planned for the next day, in advance of their wedding in late May.
McLaren skied off a ledge and into the air, but it wasn’t a daring maneuver, said the experienced skier. The drop was only three or four feet. He landed on both skis in what seemed to be plenty of snow. He quickly felt searing pain.
“Once I hit the snow, I immediately went to the ground basically,” McLaren said, and from “pain more than anything, I fell over to my side.”
“It was, yeah, pretty awful.”
He landed somewhat forward on his skis, which may have been a factor in the injury, he speculated. Or it’s possible there was rock beneath the snow and not as much padding on the ground as he thought.
“Nothing else on my body is bruised or scratched,” he said. “Didn’t hit my head; was conscious the entire time. It could have been a rock in the snow that I just landed on that made the impact a lot of harder than it should have been.”
McLaren isn’t sure he’ll ever know why it happened.
The Mad River Glen Ski Patrol put him on a backboard, and got him to the bottom of the ski area, McLaren said. “They were amazing. They were so great,” he said. “I was so blessed.”
He went to Central Vermont Medical Center by ambulance and then via helicopter to the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington, where he had surgery.
Kelly Brush Davisson, the former Middlebury College ski racer who was paralyzed from the chest down in a 2006 alpine race, visited McLaren in the hospital with her husband, Zeke Davisson, after McLaren’s family reached out to them.
The Kelly Brush Foundation provides adaptive sports equipment to people living with paralysis and also promotes safe ski racing.
They recommended McLaren do his rehab at Spaulding. “They were just so like super, super helpful,” McLaren said. “They made the whole process less scary.”
McLaren is an assistant boys lacrosse coach at Burlington High School. The North Avenue resident was elected to the Burlington School Board March 7 without opposition. New members have not officially been sworn in yet.
McLaren spoke with board president Mark Porter Monday morning and plans to serve by telephone initially.
“I think they are going to swear me in over the phone and I can attend meetings over the phone. That’s the plan,” McLaren said. “I’ll still be involved.”
Meanwhile, his fiancée has been sleeping on a futon at the rehab facility in Boston and helping out with all kinds of logistical tasks, as well as providing emotional support. “It’s a lot,” McLaren said. “I’m a very lucky man.”