5. A Conversation With Kevin Pearce: The Concussion That Precipitated His Traumatic Brain Injury and His Inspiring Response to the Life-Altering Event

Throughout my recovery, I’ve met a variety of people with a range of insight. At a brain rehab facility in Atlanta, I was lucky enough to meet Kevin Pearce, the founder of LoveYourBrain, a non-profit organization raising brain health awareness.

Kevin is a former professional snowboarder whose career was halted when he suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) in December of 2009. At the time, Kevin was training for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and was Shaun White’s biggest rival. 

Kevin, center, and Shaun White, left, on the podium at the burton european open in 2008

Kevin, center, and Shaun White, left, on the podium at the burton european open in 2008

Kevin and I became friends and I spoke with him recently about his journey to recovery and perseverance. He’s made an amazing impact within the community of brain injury survivors through his foundation, and his story emphasizes the importance of stepping back and following the right protocol following a concussion. 

Before I delve into our conversation, check out what Kevin had to say in the article, Reliving The Accident That Almost Killed Me, featured in The Cauldron this past summer:

"About ten days before my accident, I sustained a bad concussion while trying to land the cab double cork. (For the record, I never once successfully landed it.) I didn’t feel right after that, but I wasn’t aware of the danger of potentially hitting my head again so soon after legitimately injuring my brain. I wouldn’t have listened, anyway. I was that confident. I was that stupid.

Looking back on it nowand I talk about this all the time as a philanthropist and motivational speakermy brain was broken before I dropped into the pipe in Park City that morning. I just didn’t know it at the time; I guess I didn’t want to know. I can’t prove that the concussion I suffered before Park City ultimately caused my accident, but it certainly didn’t help matters.

When I under-rotated that morning, and slammed my head on the bottom of the pipe just above my left eye, my brain suffered a massive trauma, and the swelling almost killed me.  

Had I paid attention to the warning signs; had I been living in the present, everything that happened to me might have been avoided."

During our recent conversation, I asked Kevin about the concussion he got a week and a half before his TBI.  He told me that he felt very sick after he hit his head during a run in Colorado at the first qualifier for the Olympics.  His main symptoms were dizziness and fogginess, both of which lasted several days after his fall. 

However, instead of immediately reporting the injury to the medics, Kevin made the very same, all-too-common decision that I also made. 

He elected to hide his concussion. 

“I didn’t want to go and get checked out,” he divulged to me over the phone, “I knew how bad it was and I didn’t want anyone else to know so I kind of hid it.”

By the time Kevin took the slopes again on December 31, 2009 – the day he suffered his TBI – he said that he was feeling fine.  He believed he had recovered from his concussion because his symptoms had more or less dissipated. 

“I felt fine,” he explained, “but I wasn’t fine.”

It is common for athletes to assume that if they aren’t displaying symptoms then their concussion has resolved itself.  Nothing could be further from the truth, and Kevin’s experience is proof. 

This is why athletes are required to follow a strict, step-by-step protocol before returning to play post-injury, undergoing a series of tests and regulations to ensure their brain has fully recovered. 

Because your brain takes time to heal.  And an injured athlete’s pride is not a fit enough judge for determining whether or not they are ready to get back in the game.

When an athlete is first diagnosed with a concussion, they are meant to “cocoon,” immerse themselves in an extended period of cognitive rest following their diagnoses.  They must repeatedly take the Concussion IMPACT test until the doctor gives the okay, and even still, are closely monitored upon their return to full-contact play. If even the slightest bit of symptoms return during physical activity, it is import to step back and rest, reassess, and wait to be reevaluated and cleared by a licensed medical profession.

The reality is that just because your symptoms are gone one minute doesn’t mean they are gone permanently and it definitely doesn’t mean your brain has fully healed.  Kevin made the mistake of snowboarding when his brain hadn’t recovered, but he had no way of knowing this because a medical doctor never evaluated his concussion.

This nearly cost him his life; when Kevin hit his head ten days after his initial concussion, he suffered Second Impact Syndrome and almost died.  

The intense brain trauma left Kevin with permanent damage to the area influencing vision, balance and coordination, and memory.

Any long-standing hope for a Gold medal at the 2010 Winter Olympic games had dissipated.  Instead of training for the Olympics, Kevin now had to commit himself to retraining his brain to function properly.  

When Kevin first woke up in the hospital after six days in a coma he couldn’t even speak.  He would later have to see a speech therapist, relearning word by word a skill he once mastered as a toddler.  Even today, he can’t remember the first month of his injury.  

After a month in the critical care unit at the University of Utah Medical Center in Salt Lake City, Kevin was moved to a TBI rehabilitation center in Denver.  There he spent eight hours a day relearning how to do many of the everyday things too often taken for granted.  Daily work with a physical therapist, speech therapist and cognitive therapist were just a few of the many recovery protocols Kevin underwent in order to reteach his brain everything it had lost.  Three and a half months later, Kevin was able to move home to Vermont where he continued his intensive therapy for another year at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. 

Yet despite all the battle scars nestled intricately among the caverns of his brain and even, perhaps, the depths of his own soul, Kevin has made tremendous progress since that fateful winter day in 2009.  He has worked unbelievably hard to get well, and likely would not be where he is today if it weren’t for his unwavering optimism and fierce devotion to his message: 

Love your brain

Kevin and his brother, Adam Pearce, started the LoveYourBrain foundation in 2014, four years after his accident.  LoveYourBrain aims to improve the quality of life for those affected by TBIs, and through this foundation, his speaking engagements, and the HBO documentary "The Crash Reel", Kevin has made a positive difference for millions of people.

Kevin has done something you don’t see everyday.
He transformed his story of tragedy into one of inspiration. 
He turned something bad into something good. 

Kevin taught me, and so many others, to face hardship courageously and passionately, to embrace challenge rather than reject it, and to transform misfortune into positive change. 

From him, I’ve learned that we
always have a choice: 

We can let our misfortunes wear us down and fervently replay the events that altered the course of our path, fueling the fire of resentment and keeping us stuck hopelessly in the past.

Or we can wake up and start our day filled with gratitude for the fortunes we do have in our lives, hard as it may be to find.  We can embrace struggle, tackle adversity with our heads held high and look forward to a better and brighter future.

Kevin Pearce inspires me everyday, and I hope his story will not only inspire you, but also cause you to think twice about how you handle a brain injury if it ever occurs. 

I asked Kevin what would be the best piece of advice he could offer athletes, or anyone for that matter, if they get a concussion.  This is what he said:

“My best piece of advice would be to rest, relax and to not get back to your work too quickly.  Do not get back to your sport until you’re healed.  It’s so hard to know how long you need to take off but you go and talk to somebody to find out.  The hardest thing to do is to take that action to go and really get checked out by a doctor.  It’s what I didn’t do and it’s what you didn’t do.  As an athlete the last thing you want to do is to have someone tell you that you can’t participate in your sport.  I wish that I had taken the right steps.”

I couldn’t agree more.