The Now Told Story of Dave Sagal
How RMA helped to pull me from the depths of depression
The Now Told Story of Dave Sagal
It was January 4th 2019 and I was snowboarding at Sunshine Village in Banff. It was the first run of the day and there was 18 inches of freshly dumped vitamin P. Myself and my friends Mark, Brian, and Jesse, had decided to get one last day of boarding in before I left to play rugby in New Zealand professionally. With all the fresh powder and some great pals, the day seemed as though it was setting up for perfection.
We decided to start at the top of the mountain at Goats Eye and to take the south side chutes run. Mark, my best friend who is also a coach with the Canadian National Para-ski team, was excited to have a day of fun while not working on the mountain and we were all excited to rip it up with him. I had also recently run a surf camp in New Zealand before playing rugby, so I was particularly excited to take what I learned and apply it to my snowboarding skills.
Mark and Brian took off ahead of me from the top. I quickly followed, catching up and whistling by them in an effort to show off my newly acquired skills to Mark. I turned the corner and was traversing a level part of the mountain. I was soaking in the joy I felt in the winter wonderland that is Canada when I suddenly lost my balance on a flat spot. In an attempt to avoid injury and therefore put my Rugby career at risk, I gave into the fall trying to land as softly as possible. However, the momentum took me just outside a boundary fence. Brian and Jesse stopped to check on me and I told them to go on ahead, that I’d catch up. I didn’t realize that I was in such a dangerous spot.
As they boarded away, I tried to climb back within the boundary. That’s when a level two avalanche hit, sweeping me away. I was taken by the snow off a 100 foot ledge. I had no idea when I initially went over that it was so high and I still recall wondering in the air why I hadn’t yet landed.
My injuries were extensive. I had five broken ribs. My right lung was punctured; my left had completely collapsed, forming a blood clot in the vein to my heart. The blood clot required a stint to be inserted before the surgeon felt comfortable operating on my main injury – my T-12 vertebrae. I felt the moment that it shattered during that fall. You know that feeling when you hit your funny bone? It felt like that except it radiated throughout my entire lower body. The injury left me paralyzed from the waist down.
In addition, I suffered a massive concussion. I still look at my helmet with pride, glad I chose to wear it that day. I had called one of my friends out for not wearing one in the parking lot and he almost convinced me that I wouldn’t need one, either. To this day, I remember walking around the front of Mark’s truck and almost tossing that helmet in the cab. I’m so glad I didn’t.
I spent four and a half months in hospital after the accident. If I had not been wearing my helmet, I would have sustained a much more severe traumatic brain injury than the one I have today, which still affects my memory and mood stability.
I was released from the hospital in mid May, 2019, but the world that awaited me outside the hospital doors was different than when I went in. It was scary, uninviting to life in a wheelchair. I was also dealing with depression.
I have always been athletic, I loved sports. I was about to be off living my dream of playing sport abroad again, but a month before my flight was to leave, my accident happened. I was no longer able to enjoy the activities I had the previous summer, such as hiking, paddle boarding, mountain biking, or rugby. It took a long time to feel empowered again.
A large part of my healing was coming to terms with the words that were used to describe me after the injury; handicapped, disabled, traumatic brain injury.
I spent some time tracing the origin of the word ‘handicap’ recently. It’s a word that is used in golf, but I discovered its origin traces back to the strongest horse being referred to as “handicapped” as more weight was added to its back to keep the race fair. In golf, it is a way so that those in all skill levels can play against each other on a level playing field.
I was able to use that knowledge to better frame the situation I was in and accept the supports, such as AISH and AHS Access Mental Health. Starting the conversation around mental health is important and it’s important that the language used is authentic, positive and builds towards awareness. We see too often the consequences of those who don’t pay attention to their own mental health. A large part of that is first taking the step to reach out and start the conversation with someone who can help.
I was fortunate to have connections in the adaptive community that pointed me to Rocky Mountain Adaptive (RMA), a registered charity based out of Canmore, Alberta that aims to make the mountains accessible for all. Through RMA, I began to find a new peace in myself that spread to other areas of my life I felt were challenging and limiting me. Through RMA, I learned to ask for help when needing it. I didn’t realize how much of a difference feeling empowered again would make for me.
The depression I felt after my accident, after I left the hospital, remained throughout 2019, and most of 2020, until September. That’s the month I reached out to Rocky Mountain Adaptive. I booked a Bow Head Reach, an adapted bike, with Jamie McCulloch. He told me the bike was designed to go wherever a foot powered mountain bike went. I was desperate for something to bring me back to nature, so I eagerly signed up.
That day riding the Bowhead Reach was the day my life in a chair changed forever. I still get goose bumps down my shattered spine as I write this just thinking of the joy and freedom I felt ripping through the trees, feeling the wind on my face once again.
“I don’t even feel paralyzed in this thing,” I remember yelling to Jamie as I zipped off into the trails. From that moment, my eyes were opened to a world waiting for me to re-explore and enjoy in a whole new way. I was introduced to sit skiing just shy of my accident’s two-year anniversary. I was nervous to return to the same mountain where my life had changed so drastically. Those concerns quickly diminished thanks to Rocky Mountain Adaptive. RMA creates a safe, secure and independent world for all levels of ability and needs, adapting to each human situation.
It’s this organization that helped to pull me from depression, that helped me realize I could still access the mountains, and enjoy them, too.