Man vs. Mountain: Graham McFadden’s Survival Story

Gateway Garden Center

by Sasha Reddy

Triathlete, snowboarder, lifeguard, devout Star Wars lover, and craft beer connoisseur – Graham McFadden is known and loved as many things. He’s perpetually easy-going – the guy that everyone knows and gets along with – and he always makes an effort to stop and say hello. You’ve probably seen him if you’ve ever wandered around the pool deck. However, earlier this year, Graham disappeared from the guard stand completely, and his absence was felt by members and staff club-wide.

Graham charging out of the water at a triathlon event

For several years now, Graham has taken a five-day annual vacation with some friends – most of whom are other HAC employees – to Okemo Ski Resort in Vermont. Traditionally, they would pick a Wednesday toward the end of January to make the eight-hour trek north, spend all of Thursday, Friday, and Saturday on the slopes, then pack up and drive back home on Sunday. This year happened to be my first time tagging along for the trip.

It was before 11:00am on Thursday, January 23rd, our first day on the mountain. Our party of eight decided to split into two groups. Graham tagged along with the larger group to head to the south side of Okemo, located on the opposite side from where we had entered at Jackson Gore Inn. While the weather that day was gorgeous and visibility was high, the blanket of snow on the ground was thin and icy, creating some extra challenges for riders to be wary of.

Graham snowboarding

Graham’s group got in a great first few runs as they moved from lift to lift across the mountain. When they reached the summit, Graham pulled to the side of the trail to strap in and set up his GoPro for the ride down; meanwhile, the rest of the group hastily set up and started shredding their way down the mountainside. When Graham was set, he got up and promptly began boarding down the slope after them. His friends had skied down a trail that diverged into two paths close to the top of the mountain, and there were some small dips in the snow there. Plowing down the slope at high-speed to try and catch up with the pack, Graham suddenly felt his board hit an edge in the snow; before he knew it, he was suddenly airborne. With his left arm out in front of him holding his GoPro, his body began to twist right, and his left arm jolted forward and down. In that fraction of a second, while flying through mid-air, he thought to himself, “this is not going to end well.” He slammed down face forward into the snow.

Graham was unconscious for about 90 seconds. He doesn’t remember the impact, and his friends had gotten too far ahead to see the fall. Thankfully, other skiers came to Graham’s aid immediately. “Don’t move, help is on the way,” they instructed him, calm but stern. Not that Graham had a real choice anyway. “I could move my forearm, but I couldn’t lift my entire left shoulder,” he says. More shocked than fearful, Graham could do nothing but lie there and follow his rescuers’ instructions. Ski patrol quickly arrived at the scene and propped Graham onto his side to nudge a spinal board underneath him. “That’s when that sharp pain kicked in,” he says.

The accident took place only a few hundred feet from the top of the mountain, so Graham had to be hauled down thousands of feet to the bottom. He was taken to Springfield Hospital in Ludlow, about a 20-minute drive away. It wasn’t until hours later that the rest of us caught wind of what had happened. After lunchtime passed and there was still no sign of Graham, Clayton Emory, a former HAC Personal Trainer and friend of Graham’s on the trip, took a few of the others to go check with resort staff, who filled them in about the incident. By 2pm, the seven of us packed everything back into the cars and were on our way to Springfield.

When we arrived, Graham was lying in a medical bed wearing a neck brace.

“Dude, Graham, what happened!?” someone asked.

“The mountain happened,” he replied, nonchalant as ever.

Everyone chuckled, relieved to see Graham still joking and in good spirits, but it wasn’t difficult to see how exhausted he was. His first set of x-rays had been taken by the time we arrived, but it couldn’t yet be determined exactly which and how many bones were broken. The nurses’ biggest concern was for his head; while Graham had thankfully been wearing a helmet at the time of the fall, there was now a four-inch crack down the left side and all the way through it.

Close-up of the crack down the side of Graham's snowboarding helmet

At around 3:30pm, Graham was transferred from Springfield to Dartmouth–Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire. There he received a CAT scan, more extensive x-rays, and other tests. His final diagnosis included a minor concussion, two broken ribs, a broken left shoulder blade, and seven fractured and broken spinal bones, including part of his neck. Fortunately, there was no internal bleeding, nor had any nerves been cut during the fall. Similar injuries usually result in paralysis for life, and several of the doctors attending to Graham expressed how lucky he was to still be able to move on his own. Back surgery, however, was still a possibility.

Graham laying in a hospital bed at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center

The accident had occurred early on Thursday, and by Monday, Graham was finally released and ready to head back to Delaware. He rode home with his dad, who had driven up to New Hampshire as soon as he heard about the accident. Thanks to the painkillers Graham had been prescribed, the drive back to Delaware was bearable; getting in and out of the car for pit stops, however, was now a challenging task. Before he had even arrived home, he’d gotten his first taste of what difficulties he’d face in his next few months of recuperating.

There was a lot for Graham to adjust to while in recovery. For the first five weeks, he wasn’t able to sleep in his own bed; his mom and dad bought him a recliner to keep him from rolling in his sleep. And at first, he spent a lot of time in that recliner. “My whole sleeping routine was messed up. I’d go to sleep at twelve and wake up at eight at night,” he says. Between sleeping, playing video games, and streaming shows, Graham spent an exorbitant amount of time sitting. He was also walker-bound for the minimal walking he did. As someone so used to running, swimming laps, and cycling in his daily life, this was a huge change of pace for Graham. But it was all part of the healing process.

Graham posing in teal neck brace leaning against walker

News of Graham’s accident hit HAC very quickly. “I heard within 24 hours,” says Andy Morris, HAC’s Aquatics Director. “I was very fearful of what Graham was going through…but after speaking with Graham and his father, I got a better picture of what was going on. It was still serious, but it was not life-threatening.” Questions about his health and recovery were asked regularly on the pool deck, and any time one of Graham’s friends at HAC got in touch, they shared any news about his well-being through the grapevine to keep others up to date. Peers on the guard stand, regular aqua fitness class attendees, and so many others reached out to send cards, puzzle games, and other gifts. Graham’s family in Aquatics even gave him a particularly special hand-made, poster-size Star Wars card, signed by dozens of his co-workers and friends at the club. For Graham, that card is an important reminder of the hefty network of friends and advocates that have been there for him, rooting for him as he bounced back from the accident; he plans on hanging onto it for quite a while.

Hand-made Star Wars-themed get-well card for Graham

Several weeks into his recovery, Graham was back at the doctor to determine whether he would need surgery on his back. The first doctor he met with took only a few short moments to evaluate the mobility in Graham’s fingers before determining that he’d need an operation. Graham and his mom were concerned that this first evaluation wasn’t comprehensive enough for the diagnosis the doctor had given. They were worried that he’d passed judgment too quickly, so they sought a second opinion. They met with a physician’s assistant at Christiana. “She was really thorough checking my movements,” Graham reports. She asked him to remove his neck brace so that she could better evaluate his range of motion – something his first doctor had not done. Graham’s neck still felt quite stiff. He was anxious that he might crack his neck again or agitate his injuries while she was evaluating him. “I was so nervous, I actually started laughing.” Their attendant concluded that his vertebrae were stable enough, and he wouldn’t need neck surgery after all. Any time surgery is conducted to repair an injury, it can double or triple the recovery time required, so the news felt like a bullet dodged. Graham had finally gotten over the biggest hurdle.

“In late March, I started to get better with my movements,” Graham says. By this point, he had gotten back to sleeping in his own room, and he was able to get in and out of bed by himself. “I had gotten used to the neck brace, and everything was slowly getting back to normal,” Graham remembers. But then, the country fell into crisis.

It was just when he began walking on his own without the help of a walker that the coronavirus hit America hard, and states across the country shut down in waves. Andy Morris had offered Graham the chance to come back to work as a lifeguard supervisor, but when the club closed down along with most everything else in Delaware, that opportunity became moot. The pandemic also threw off Graham’s plans to attend doctor-recommended physical therapy for his back and neck. While these were disappointing roadblocks, Graham was optimistic. He decided to use the stay-at-home orders as an opportunity to leverage his recovery on his own. After all, he wasn’t the only one missing out on a lot of opportunities during this unprecedented time. Though he had a more significant setback to recover from than most of those around him, there was a strange comfort to knowing that the world was on pause alongside him.

As they say, a rolling stone gathers no moss. During quarantine, Graham began spending a lot of time going for walks around his local park. At first, he’d only walk for a mile, then he worked up to two, then three. Aside from the strange looks he got from fellow walkers intrigued by his neck brace and the discomfort of sweat accumulating underneath it, he was glad to be moving after so long.

Graham giving a thumbs-up, posing with neck-brace in hand

Finally, in late April, Graham got the OK to remove his neck brace. “My neck was a lot skinnier from the compression,” Graham remembers. Having passed this vital milestone in his recovery, he soon decided to try and reincorporate running into his routine for the first time in months. He started by walking a mile in one direction, then jogging his way back to the starting point. “Nothing was hurting me at all; I was just really out of shape,” Graham admits. Between his neck and back injuries, his asthma, and the months of inactivity he’d spent recovering, his progress with running was slow and challenging. For weeks, he progressively worked and added more distance to each run until soon enough, he was running twice a week and covering two to four miles each time.

Come May, Graham began to revisit bike-riding. Using a stationary bike mount parked on his back porch, he’d go through endurance training, sometimes pedaling for over an hour at a time. Due to the strain put on his neck, he found that maintaining an aero position for more than a few minutes was not doable. Other little maneuvers like turning to check his blind spots proved difficult as well, but this didn’t stop him from training. After some time riding exclusively on the stationary trainer, Graham began riding around his area. Just like he did with running, he slowly started adding miles and working his way up to longer distances along low-traffic roads.

Graham posing with stationary bike, decorated with T3 Philly Triathlon Club stickers

By June, less than five months after his snowboarding accident, Graham’s life has mostly returned to normal. He’s been back on the guard stand at HAC since the club reopened June 10th (to the delight of his fellow staff and members), and he’s started swim training in the lap pool, too. Given the opportunity, he feels that he could even complete a short triathlon race in his current condition; for a half-Ironman or other long race, he’d definitely have to go through more training. But the incident that put him out of commission and almost left him paralyzed has hardly left his mind. “When you have a fight against a mountain, the mountain always wins,” Graham’s learned.

Graham sitting on a lifeguard stand at HAC's Outdoor Pool

Since he had his Go-Pro in hand at the time of the accident, there’s actually a video of the whole thing. He watched it the day after returning home from the hospital, taking time to pause and rewind the footage to study the mechanics of the fall; for now, he doesn’t have any desire to watch it again. “I didn’t delete it yet. I’ll probably watch it again sometime. It was just nerve-racking watching it.” Regardless of the tension that Graham holds around that video, he hasn’t lost his snowboarding passion. In fact, during next year’s excursion to Okemo, he plans to go back and visit the scene of the accident. He knows the level of risk that comes with snow sports and, more than anything, he’s thankful for having worn his helmet when things went wrong for him, but he hasn’t lost any enthusiasm for the sport. It’s an understatement to say that HAC wouldn’t be the same place without Graham. We’re thankful and proud of the incredible comeback he’s made, and we’re thrilled to have him back.

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