If you're an expert skier in Colorado, you know Pyramid Rock. It's a notorious 40-foot jump at Breckenridge Ski Resort. William "Ryder" Heuston, 17, was determined to do the jump. It was not out of his league. He's an expert skier, he was wearing his helmet and he was skiing in bounds. He planned the jump carefully, scouting where he would land and waiting for just the right snow conditions. That day was December 23, 2018.
"I said when it snowed 10 inches, I would do it. I hiked up and planned my landing. I was ready," says Ryder, who doesn't remember anything after missing his landing.
Ryder was airlifted to St. Anthony Hospital and diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury, three broken vertebrae and facial lacerations. Once stabilized, he came to Craig Hospital and approached rehab with the same gusto as he had approached Pyramid Rock. A born athlete, Ryder is also an all-state high school golfer.
He spent 18 days at Craig as an inpatient and three months as an outpatient. The school program and teen program were critical in helping this Fairview High School senior transition back into his teenage life in Boulder.
"As an athlete I knew hard work pays off, so I drew on that same work ethic and determination during rehab. I was lucky. I was able to finish my school year, and the school program at Craig made that possible," Ryder says.
The Craig Hospital School Program helps students stay on track academically after a spinal cord or traumatic brain injury. Long term patients work with teachers in a classroom-like setting to earn school credits. Once a student is ready, teachers work with their home school to create a school transition plan, making the return as seamless as possible.
"The school program took a huge burden off a completely exhausted mom. We were focused on Ryder living, walking and eating. We were not thinking about school, but it's such an important part of a 17-year-old's life," says mom, Chris Heuston.
His Craig teachers, Laura and Cory, initially focused on restoring Ryder's areas of cognition—his attention, memory, processing speed and language skills. While staying at the hospital, Ryder had an hour of school each day. In outpatient, he came to Craig's hospital school three times a week, spending the other two at his high school.
"Laura and Cory catered to Ryder in the moment, but also looked ahead to help him get back. They'd challenge him just the right amount, as in, 'Hey, let's try a calculus problem and see if it makes your head hurt,'" Chris says.
His school transition plan included learning accommodations—ways teachers could support Ryder. Laura developed a detailed 504 plan that included the difficulties brain injury patients typically face—overstimulation from lights, awkwardness in social situations, physical pain and blips in cognition. The plan was reviewed during a meeting with the school's team of teachers and counselors, led by Ryder.
"Laura helped the teachers really understand what happened and what I needed to be successful. I had headaches and I would have to leave the classroom. My teachers never questioned it. Having the plan in place really took the stress off. The hardest part was not the academics—that just felt like returning after summer break. It was the social part. The neuropsychologist and teachers at Craig gave me strategies to integrate back into my high school of 2400 kids," Ryder says.
Chris appreciates that Ryder owned his injury, not letting it define him but driving him to get better. She's grateful that his injuries were not worse and he's able to return to the life and sports he loves. Ryder says the experience showed him what is important. He now views a lot of teenage values as pointless.
"My accident put a lot in perspective. You don't get to pick your tragedy. Plus, it's not your highest point that defines you, it's how you recover from your lowest point," he says.
Ryder also found great support in the Teen Rehab at Craig (TRAC) program, which brings teens together to help empower each other during the rehab process. "We felt so connected, like we were all in this together. We joked about our struggles and we celebrated that we survived and we're still alive. It was amazing to share that common ground."
Ryder is back on the peak, looking down at his next big jump in life. He feels "98 percent" back and recently scored high marks on college placement exams. His smarts and strong language skills helped him recover quickly. He credits Craig for taking him "from 0 to 100." The question is, will he ski again?
"Yes. Definitely. I have skied since I was five, and I will be out there again next season. But we do have a one-year moratorium on jumps," he concludes.