Climbing to Recover

Kalispell woman continues fighting back from traumatic brain injury by continuing to topple obstacles

By Molly Priddy

It’s late in the evening on a Monday, but Emily Berner is still hard at work, clinging to a rock wall, moving with unexpected grace and strength toward the top.

Beside her, Jandy Cox points out her next foothold, helping her stay flush to the wall. Her hand slips, and she falls, swinging out from the wall. Her expression though, is familiar: She is determined, and decidedly unafraid.

“When she first started, she couldn’t keep her feet on the rocks,” Emily’s mom Inez Berner said, watching her daughter progress up the wall.

The last time the Beacon spoke with Emily and her family, she was just learning how to use her body again after a major car crash in December 2011 caused severe injuries to her brain, pelvis, hip, liver, and spleen.

Immediately following the crash, which occurred south of Kalispell on U.S. Highway 93, Emily was airlifted to Seattle, where she remained in a coma for months. The surgeons there were doubtful Emily would come out of her coma and, if she did, have a life outside of an institution.

By February 2012, Emily was able to communicate with her parents through opening and closing her hand, though the entire left side of her body was unresponsive. Yet, by March 2013, she was walking and talking, in physical therapy and working toward getting her life back.

These days, Emily, now 21, is a regular at The Summit in Kalispell. She spends three to four hours, six or seven days a week, walking the track or using machines that are safe for her.

Despite all the work she’s put into it, there are significant challenges yet to overcome. Emily still has double vision – her brain lost the ability to merge what her left and right eye see individually – and she is still trying to regain her balance.

There’s also the issue of her muscles working against each other. The situation is called tone, and it is attributed to neural damage; if her quadricep muscles in her thigh want to flex, her hamstring muscles will fight them.

Add all of these remaining issues together, and an outside observer might say such a person has no business dangling from a rope, 20 feet off the ground, finding footholds and pushing herself up the wall.

But Emily is all about pushing boundaries. Why, last November, did she want to climb the wall?

“Mostly because it’s a challenge,” she said. “I’m kind of competing against myself.”

The first time she decided to climb, she made it up perhaps a quarter of the wall, Jandy said. Along with managing Rocky Mountain Outfitters, Jandy also spends Monday evenings as the climbing wall instructor at The Summit.

“It was clear she was excited about it, and I definitely felt real positive about that first experience,” he said. “She gets a little further every time.”

Initially, Jandy let Emily tackle the wall by herself, while he stayed on the ground and belayed her line. When it became clear she had the strength to climb but not the balance to keep her body close to the wall, Jandy started climbing next to her, not supporting her weight or pulling her toward the top, but holding his hand near or on her back to keep her from falling away from the hand- and footholds.

By February, Emily and Jandy were making good time up the wall, and eventually, they made it to the top.

“Everybody else at the wall, they were really aware that wow, this is cool,” Jandy said. “There was a round of applause.”

Emily is also making literal strides in getting back to walking without support. Though she still uses a wheelchair, she hopes to use only a walker by her birthday in April.

“I want to get out of this darn thing,” she said, tapping her wheelchair. “I really want to use my walker all the time, then hopefully a cane, then hopefully nothing. By summer, I want to walk everywhere.”

But walking for Emily isn’t just putting one foot in front of the other – her brain has to manually remember each aspect of movement as she performs it. Walking is flexing the thigh to lift the knee, extending the leg, feeling the foot hit the ground, putting pressure on the foot, then moving the body weight with the leg, all while keeping track of her feet and posture.

Last July, Emily was walking around the track, but couldn’t speak and walk at the same time. If someone asked her a question, she had to sit down and answer, because it was too much for her brain to track a conversation as well as everything involved with walking.

Now, she’s walking and talking at the same time, and enjoys chatting with other Summit exercisers.

“I haven’t been your typical, by-the-book TBI (traumatic brain injury),” Emily said.

To help improve her walking and rebuild the neuro pathways that once allowed her to walk, run, dance, and swim with ease, Emily works on a machine called a GlideTrak at home. Placed over a treadmill, the apparatus holds Emily’s body weight and suspends her over the walkway, so her legs can move without pressure.

Medical bills for her injuries, surgeries, and recovery have exceeded $500,000, and insurance hasn’t covered everything. Her mother, Inez, works as her primary caregiver, but the family didn’t have the cash on hand to purchase the GlideTrak outright. Instead, they lease it, but have set up a Go Fund Me account allowing for donations to help with the cost.

Proceeds from the Go Fund Me account will also cover the cost of publishing the book Emily has written about her ordeal.

She has also gotten back into her art. Before the crash, Emily produced intricate drawings and bronze sculptures, usually of horses. She credits her horse therapy instructors for getting her back into art, and now builds horse sculptures out of wire, which she sells. She’s trying to get back to drawing, but her hands still shake.

With each successive climb up the wall and each lap around the track, Emily continues to defy the odds. Next on her list: swimming, kayaking, and using a hand-propelled bicycle.

“Her whole recovery, people have been second-guessing her and she’s been proving them wrong,” Jandy said. “I recognize that climbing is a really great metaphor for everything we do in life – the hardships, the struggles, the triumphs, the partnerships, the relationships, the community. Certainly working with Emily has been a real expression of that. It brings me to tears a lot just thinking about what she’s doing through climbing.”

To visit Emily Berner’s Go Fund Me page, go to www.gofundme.com/EmilyBerner.