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Head Injury

Snowboarder’s traumatic brain injury inspires awareness for other survivors

In the run up to the 2010 Winter Olympics, 22-year-old Kevin Pearce was on the brink of snowboarding superstardom, poised to take on his rival and gold-medalist, Shaun White, in Vancouver.

But on New Year’s Eve 2009, Pearce’s dreams of going for gold came to a screeching halt when a tragic training accident left him fighting for his life.

“I was trying to learn this new trick that I really needed so I could make it to those Olympics in Vancouver,” Pearce told FoxNews.com. “It ended up going wrong, and I landed in the bottom of the half pipe on my head and … I ended up in a coma and was in critical care for 27 days.”

Although he was wearing a helmet at the time of his accident, Pearce sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI). In February 2010, he was transferred from the University of Utah Medical Center in Salt Lake City to a rehabilitation center in Denver, Colo. that specializes in TBI. There, he spent more than three months learning how to do everything all over again – from walking and talking to brushing his teeth and tying his shoes.

In the early days of his recovery, Pearce learned to live with his injury, but not necessarily to accept it. He never gave up on his dream of hitting the half-pipe again – even when his doctor told him that another blow to the head could kill him.  

“It was really hard to hear that from the doctor and to learn how fragile my brain is now,” Pearce said. “…It doesn't have the ability to take that kind of hit again, which means I have to be much more careful now in my daily life, and I can't do those things that I used to do that I loved so much … it just really kind of changes how I live now.”

Watching it all unfold

In 2013, filmmaker Lucy Walker released an HBO documentary called “The Crash Reel,” detailing Pearce’s pro-snowboarding rise and fall and his subsequent recovery as he learned to live life as a TBI survivor.

“It's really cool to be able to see that, because there's so much to that film that I don't remember, and there's so many of those things that … I didn't know happened,” Pearce said. “So to be able to go back and watch that and to see where I was and what happened to me is really powerful. And to be able to see how I've been able to recover and come back from this is really helpful for me.”

In the film, viewers get an inside look at the Pearce family’s heartache, as his parents and three older brothers try to balance their support with their fears when he talks about getting back out on the powder. But according to Pearce, it wasn’t until the first time he strapped on a board post-accident that he realized he would never snowboard competitively again.

“I still snowboard, and I still have a lot of fun snowboarding, but not like I used to. And I don't ride the half pipe or do the jumps or any of that stuff that I used to,” Pearce said. “…The effect that the injury had on my eyes and not being able to really see when I snowboard makes it pretty difficult—and then also kind of learning what will happen—and seeing kids that have suffered two traumatic brain injuries and have gone through this twice.”

On a mission

Through his own experience with TBI, Pearce has had the opportunity to meet other survivors – but not all are as lucky as him.

“I kind of learned how to rebuild my life and redo everything, and now I've found that I have a huge possibility and a huge awareness to be able to help people,” Pearce said. “…There's so many different things that [are] involved with the brain, and one of the big things is this disease called PBA.”

Pseudobulbar affect (PBA) is a neurological condition marked by sudden, uncontrollable episodes of crying or laughter that affects more than 50 percent of TBI patients. It can also occur in stroke patients and those with certain conditions like multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.

“It's hard if you go out into a situation, and maybe someone tells you a joke and it's funny, but you continue to keep laughing, and you can't stop laughing,” Pearce said. “It's really hard to be out in public and be with friends … if you don't really know what's going on and you're doing these really weird things.”

PBA is often misdiagnosed as depression or other mental disorders, so Pearce recently partnered with Avanir Pharmaceuticals to raise awareness about the condition and to let people know that there are treatments available.

“I was on that side of the 50 percent that didn't get diagnosed with this condition, and I was so extremely lucky with that,” he said.  “But it takes a lot, and you do need to get a lot of support and a lot of love and a lot of help, and if I can help somebody that's going through this, that would really kind of be amazing for me.”

And Pearce’s awareness efforts don’t end with TBI. He’s also a Down syndrome advocate, inspired by his brother David, who lives with the genetic disorder.

“…He is just the most amazing, most special brother in the world,” Pearce said. “So to be able to help him and help his cause and what he has—what he's living with—has been really cool.”

For more information about PBA, check out PBAInfo.org.

For more information on Kevin Pearce and his “Love Your Brain” awareness campaign, check out KevinPearce.com.