After a devastating snowboarding accident that left him with a traumatic brain injury four years ago, Kevin Pearce is sure of two things: He rides differently and he has a new purpose in life.
“My biggest difficulty is my memory, my vision and my balance,” Pearce said during a phone interview from his home in California. “It affects everything I do. When I’m sitting still, I can see everything fine. When I’m snowboarding, I see double. When you see two of the jumps and have to pick which one to go off of, you have to be more cautious. With an impact to the brain, I can’t afford to be injured again.”
The 26-year-old champion snowboarder, who has endeared himself to fans not only for his skills but also for his close relationship with his brother, David, who has Down syndrome, will be the keynote speaker at the eighth annual Black Hills Brain Injury Conference May 8-9.
Pearce won three medals at the 2008 Winter X Games XII in Aspen, Colo., and was also the first athlete in X Games history to compete in three medal events in one day. He was in training in Park City, Utah, in 2009 for the Olympics when he attempted a new trick and fell on his head. He spent almost a month in a coma.
He has since been outspoken in his recovery, advocating for helmet use and education for traumatic brain injuries. The 2013 HBO documentary, “The Crash Reel,” chronicled his story of recovery.
“Now the purpose of my life is to help those who don’t have the means to find help after an injury or don’t know where to go to get help; that’s my new role,” he said.
He hopes to get that message across in Rapid City.
“I want it to be a message of hope and inspiration and possibility,” he said. “Whatever challenges you are faced with in life, you can overcome them. You can do a lot of good things with a bad situation.”
Traumatic brain injury is the second-most prevalent disability in America, said Ron Sasso, program director of the Brain Injury Rehabilitation Center. More than 10 million people have been diagnosed.
“The biggest problem is there’s a stigma,” he said. “People make the mistake of assuming the person isn’t as smart so the person doesn’t want to come out and say, ‘I’ve got a brain injury.’”
The truth, Sasso said, is that every brain injury is different because each person is different.
“They can be incredibly intelligent people,” he said. “They might have a genius IQ and have trouble retaining new information.”
The field is still progressing, he said, and they learn more every year. More wounded veterans are being properly diagnosed, as are students who have suffered injuries in sports like football.
“Concussions, just 10 years ago they were dismissed,” he said.
Melissa Johnson also will speak during the conference. Her husband, Sean, suffered a traumatic brain injury in Iraq in 2006 when he was struck with a mortar blast. He is now legally blind and struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder.
In the beginning, “We felt very alone and isolated,” she said.
Their lives changed drastically.
“I was very frustrated,” she said. “I didn’t know what was wrong. I was discouraged. I was brokenhearted for the things we were losing: careers, goals, plans. At the same time, I felt the need to advocate for his care.”
Johnson, who lives with Sean in Aberdeen, quit her teaching job to become a certified caregiver through the Department of Veterans Affairs. Her mission now is to help other families.
“We have wanted to be a voice, not so much for our family, but for other families so no one has to feel that isolation,” she said. “We’ve learned so much about ourselves, how to cope and keep moving forward.”
The couple have found a community of other families who have experienced the same thing. They travel and Sean rides a tandem cycle. One of the turning points, she said, was during a visit to a psychologist.
“She asked, ‘What if this is it for the rest of your life?’” Johnson recalled. “I panicked at first, but that’s when I started to let go of the anger. Do we want to live like this for 50 years or are we going to make the most of it?”
Melissa Johnson has been named a fellow for the Elizabeth Dole Foundation and was at the White House two weeks ago when Michelle Obama, Jill Biden and Rosalynn Carter partnered with the foundation to announce their support for military family caregivers.
“It was a high point,” she said. “So many caregivers weren’t there, but knowing they had a voice on Capitol Hill and at the White House was so incredibly empowering.”
Pearce said he is surprised more people don’t share about their struggles with traumatic brain injuries because it has been such a big part of his healing.
“It’s crazy to me because there’s so much good I can do,” he said. “I almost get more satisfaction out of that than I did out of snowboarding. It’s been better for my soul to help people.”