It was supposed to be a fun day out on the trails for Ashley Gilbert and her boyfriend Hunter Brown. The couple had a rare opportunity to go snowmobiling Jan. 8 and headed up Canyon Creek in Columbia Falls.
But that’s where things get fuzzy for Gilbert.
Not more than 15 minutes after the couple and two others had taken off down the trail, tragedy struck. Gilbert and Brown rounded a sharp bend and the next they knew, the couple were flying through the air. Neither of them were wearing helmets at the time of the incident and Brown collided with a tree, but Gilbert, who landed head-first in the snow, was in much worse condition.
“I got flung from the snowmobile and basically just hit head-first into a snow pile,” Gilbert said.
Blood was flowing from where her lip was split deeply in two places, but that wasn’t the worst of her injuries. Her neck and face were severely swollen from a compression injury known as atlanto-occipital dislocation, or internal decapitation, equivalent to a death sentence in most cases.
The impact of her head hitting the hardened snow compressed her C1 vertebrae so much that it split in pieces, leaving her brain stem exposed and vulnerable. Seventy percent of people who incur internal decapitation die immediately, while 15 percent make it to the ER, only to die there at the hospital, leaving a survival rate of just 5 percent.
Gilbert was lucky to be alive, but she wasn’t out of the woods yet.
“Thank God that Hunter didn’t move me,” Gilbert said. “If he would have tried to pick me up to hold me … I probably wouldn’t have lived.”
Snowmobiler Brock Bolin and a party of seven or eight happened upon the scene and contacted ALERT air ambulance. Bolin said he first spotted Hunter a little over a mile up Canyon Creek trail; he was running out of the woods, bleeding from the face and yelling for help. Bolin got off his machine and ran to where Gilbert was lying in the snow.
“I then took one look at her and knew that she was in really bad shape,” he said.
Gilbert was between 100 and 125 feet off the trail. He deployed a Helios hypothermia kit — military-grade heat packs — to help restore her core heat, while they waited for ALERT to arrive. Bolin said from Gilbert’s positioning it appeared the pair had been traveling too fast for conditions and noted they were riding two-up on a single man machine — all possible factors in the crash.
“That’s what we deal with in the backcountry — you never know what you’re gonna come upon,” Bolin said. “We all try to be prepared and fortunately for her we came upon them when we did and had the things that helped her start recovery.”
Within 25 minutes of his call, ALERT was on the ground and transported Gilbert to Kalispell Regional Medical Center, where she was then flown to Seattle. She wasn’t stable enough for surgery until nearly a full day after the crash and she doesn’t remember much in the days after the procedure.
When she woke, there was pain. A feeding tube. A neck brace.
As time went on, other ailments became apparent — Gilbert had verbal dyslexia that persisted for months. She’d constantly switch the first and last letters of words around so “my legs ache” would come out “my eggs lake.”
“I had to stop and think about every word I was going to say in order to say it correctly,” she recalled. “I really had to relearn everything that a person does. It took a good week or two before I could even swallow on my own.”
She also couldn’t feel the left side of her body, making learning to walk again even more difficult. Even now, the feeling hasn’t been completely restored. She still has to dip her right hand into her son’s bath water to make sure it isn’t too hot or cold.
Compounding her recovery was double vision on her left side that doctors weren’t sure would ever go away, leaving her in a constant state of dizziness.
“They told me more than likely that I would never drive again, that I might not walk again,” she said. “In the beginning, I wasn’t sure if I would be like that forever or not so I kind of just said, ‘No. This doesn’t work for me. I’m not even 30. I have a 1-year-old baby. My life … it doesn’t end here.’”
And it didn’t — but it did change.
Gilbert couldn’t will her nerves to regrow or her vision to settle, but she could put her all into her recovery. She followed her doctor’s orders to a T, took extra supplements — whatever she could do to steer her recovery in the right direction.
After three weeks in Seattle, she returned home to Montana where she was a patient at Kalispell Regional Medical Center’s rehabilitation center and at Whitefish Therapy and Sports Center.
When she started, Gilbert could barely walk, and couldn’t balance on a single leg at all. But she worked her way up to single leg standing for one second and eventually, to the point where she balanced while simultaneously doing stretches with a resistance band.
Other achievements began piling up as the months went on: she drove her car for the first time since the crash and walked on her own, gaining her old life back, piece by piece.
Doctors initially limited her lifting to capacity to five pounds, rendering her unable to carry her 24-pound son Paxton, then 1 year old.
When she finally graduated to a 25 pound lift, Gilbert picked up her baby boy and sobbed.
“It was amazing the first time I was able to pick him up,” she said. “I bawled like a little baby.”
Physically, the reminders of Gilbert’s accident are minimal — a faded scar on her lip, a slight edge to her gait. The bigger scars sit below the surface — she deals with short-term memory loss and is more prone to letting her emotions take over, a side-effect of the injury to her brain.
“In all honesty, it’s kind of hardened me a little bit. I’m a little bit tougher, a little bit more to the point. I don’t have any tolerance for people that waste my time,” Gilbert said. “I wish I could be a little more compassionate, have a little more empathy, because that part of me, I think, died a little bit in the accident.”
Doctors told her the majority of her physical healing would take place in the first nine months following the accident, while her brain could continue improving for up to 18 months after.
She may not be her old self, and may never be that person again, but Gilbert is looking forward to the future, and to continued healing.
“I just hope that my story can be an inspiration to someone else. Don’t give up and don’t let people tell you what you will and won’t be able to do — just try,” Gilbert said. “They told me I would never be able to drive again and I drove. If I would have sat around feeling sorry for myself … I wouldn’t be where I am now.”
Reporter Mackenzie Reiss may be reached at 758-4433 or firstname.lastname@example.org.