Pro ski jumper Kyle Eade was lying facedown, motionless in the water. He wasn’t knocked out or even winded, for that matter, and his jump skis were still on. He tried to lift his head to take a breath, but he was unable to move, no matter how hard he tried. “I felt a weird buzz throughout my body; pins and needles, really,” Eade recalls. “I tried to use my arms to flip over, but they wouldn’t work. I remember thinking, ‘How weird is that?’” He turned his head just slightly to the side, but he couldn’t move enough to get a breath. As panic set in, he heard a boat getting closer. Within seconds of his crash, the boat crew jumped in the water and flipped him over.
Eade has pored over these memories too many times to count. His Feb. 11 crash at Lake Harwood in Ashburton, New Zealand, left him with a serious spinal cord injury and a lot of time to think. “I had an ‘out-the-back’ fall, where my skis slipped out in front of me off the top of the jump,” he says. “I did half of a back flip in the air, landing somewhere between my upper shoulder blades and neck.” As he flew through the air, Eade thought about protecting his knees and ankles, since they’re what is typically banged up in this kind of crash. “I never even thought about my neck,” Eade says.
Within a few hours of the crash, Eade was airlifted to Christchurch Hospital, where he underwent a series of X-rays and an MRI. He was introduced to Dr. Raj Singhal, chief consultant of the Burwood Spinal Unit (New Zealand’s top spinal rehabilitation center). Singhal also works weekly hours at the public hospital. He had some tough news to share: Eade’s C4/C5 vertebra was fractured, and the MRI showed swelling and damage to the spinal cord.
The good news? Eade’s spinal cord wasn’t completely severed. His particular diagnosis is called an incomplete tetraplegia. C4/C5 tetraplegia results in paralysis below the upper midchest level. Most patients have some feeling in their shoulders, limited arm movement and not much wrist, hand or finger movement. The “incomplete” portion of the diagnosis means no doctor can really say which, if any, nerves, muscles, tendons or ligaments a patient will regain use of below the injury site.
Singhal and a team of other top spinal doctors and nurses from the hospital met the night of Eade’s injury and the following morning. There was immediate talk of surgery, which would be a highly invasive procedure involving the removal of a piece of bone from Eade’s hip, which would be used to fuse the two vertebrae back together. The surgery causes swelling, which can diminish the return of feeling and muscle response. Fortunately, Eade’s neck is strong from many years of skiing, so the doctors ruled out the surgery.
Eade spent the next eight days in the Christchurch Hospital: three days in ICU stabilizing and five days in the trauma ward. He was transported to the Burwood Spinal Unit. When they first met, Eade remembers Singhal saying: “The plan is to leave you in this collar for six weeks completely immobilized. We hope the fractures will heal and the swelling will subside. We don’t know what will come back or what the extent of the damage will be. Only time will tell.”
After four weeks of staring at the ceiling, little things started to happen. Eade’s leg twitched. Every few days, something new would flicker or move. “Dr. Singhal and his team never told me how I would end up, but I could see a few positive reactions out of them with my small twitches,” Eade recalls. “I fed off this small bit of optimism.”
Five months later, 50 pounds lighter and after hours in a bed and at the gym, transitioning from an electric wheelchair to a pushchair to standing to walking on crutches, Eade literally walked out of Burwood. A few days later, he flew to his Clermont, Florida, home with his wife Karyn and his two children, Jaeden, 3, and Damian, 2.
Eade’s motto has been no matter what he feels, he keeps pushing. He won’t settle with a plateau or tell himself this is the best he’s going to get. His “use-it-or-lose-it” attitude and hard work is paying off. The team at Burwood advised Eade to go as hard as he can for the first two years, as this is the window of time where patients continue to make gains with movement, feeling and strength. After two years, the body will continue to learn to adjust, but gains are rarely made. The fact that he has come so far in these first six months is a great biological marker for where he can end up in two years’ time.
“I want to get back to normal,” Eade says. “I don’t want to live at 80 or 90 percent. I want to be 100 percent. Many people ask me if I have such drive because I am an athlete. That may be some small part of it, but having my wife and kids there in New Zealand going through this with me was motivation enough. I want to get back to our life quickly so I can be the kind of husband and father I want to be.”
Another important part of Eade’s life and recovery is water skiing. He and his family have been flooded with support from the worldwide water-ski community. Heartfelt messages to raise his spirits and fundraising efforts allowed Eade to focus completely on his recovery and have been a reminder of the significance of his extended water-ski family. The people and support around Eade are the reasons people fall in love with skiing in the first place.
“I’ve given it a lot of thought,” Eade explains. “One thing I know is I miss the people and the whole atmosphere of the sport a lot right now. I know I still want to be as involved as I can. Obviously, I had goals at the hospital and now I am looking to set some life goals. Coaching and riding in the boat at Fluid Ski & Sport (the ski school I operate with Scot Ellis) are high up on that list. I don’t believe I’m too far away from it now.”
In the hospital, being able to ski again seemed like just a dream. However, with Eade’s never-say-never attitude, it’s now a reality. At press time, we learned Eade finally skied again with the help of a boom this August. With such amazing success, who knows how far Eade’s recovery will eventually take him?
Donate To The Kyle Eade Fund
Kyle Eade still needs our help financially. He cannot work and needs to spend as much time as possible in rehabilitation. To donate to his fund, please make a check out to Kyle Eade. On the check’s memo line write “Gift — deposit to Kyle Eade’s bill account.” Send the check to:
Mail Code Fl-Clermont 0137
581 East Highway 50 Clermont, FL 34711