Our patients’ stories: Sledding safety counts

By Leah Buckley


It was a few years ago, but I still remember that cold, grey February morning vividly. As I tugged on my boots and winter coat—and fought with my zipper through my thick gloves—I called out to my mother to let her know that I was heading out with friends to go sledding.

“Be careful,” she said from the other room, “I love you.”

Those were the last words my mother said to me on what would turn out to be one of the scariest days of my life.

As we pulled up to the Newton Commonwealth Golf Course and stepped outside, all we could see was our breath in the cold morning air and the glint of the sun reflecting off the icy hills sprawled in front of us. We were excited to hit the slopes, but the ground was so iced over it took us a good 15 minutes just to reach the top of the first hill. The ride down was much, much faster.

After a few fast runs, we decided to find the highest hill we could and take one last, wild ride. The climb was tougher than we thought and a couple of us lost our sleds half way up. Rather than go all the way down and start the long hike again we agreed to share the three-person sled we still had with us. Initially we argued about the seating order, but rather than make a big deal out it I agreed to take the first spot. My friends were clearly relieved, but as I starred down the huge in front of us I immediately felt anxiety.

As we sped down the hill we were pulled towards a large tree. We tried hard to steer away from it, but we ended up hitting it’s massive trunk head on. As the lead rider, the first contact we made with the tree was my head slamming against it.

(For tips on sledding safety, watch this video)

I remember very little of the next few minutes but my friends said I was screaming at the top of my lungs, like I was going to die. Fortunately, a very kind man who was there with his children ran over to help and immediately called 911. An ambulance arrived and the emergency medical technicians quickly put a neck brace on me, lifted me onto a stretcher and then sped off for Boston Children’s Hospital.

At the Emergency Department the Trauma Team cut through my multiple layers of winter clothing. A social worker found my cell phone and called my father to let him know I was in critical condition and needed emergency surgery. The last thing I remember before the anesthesia kicked in was my parents coming through the door and my soon-to-be neurosurgeon, Brenda Guarrdamara, MD, telling them she would do everything in her power to help. I later found out she was worried there might be a chance I wouldn’t survive.

Leah today

After examination I was diagnosed with subdural hematoma, which is a pooling of blood on the brain’s surface. The bleeding was caused by a severe in my temporal artery, which happened when pieces of my fractured skull cut through the artery during impact. The bleeding was just on the outside my brain and thankfully Guarrdamara and her team were able to stop it by putting a pin and four titanium screws in my skull.  Since then my stitches have dissolved and most of my scars have faded, but the pin, screws and lessons I learned that day will be with me forever.

Recovery was long and painful. Thankfully I had a lot of visitors to pass the time, and I’ll never forget what everyone did for me. I’m especially grateful to my parents and brother and sister who were by my bedside for days on end, praying and hoping for everything to end well. Their efforts paid off; despite the seriousness of my head injury I never experienced seizures, memory loss or headaches.

Looking back, I can say that my whole perspective on life changed that day. Every decision I make is now done with a greater appreciation for life. These days I’m more compassionate for others, thankful for I have been given and fully aware that I’m not invincible.

My accident was terrifying but life shaping. It convinced me that I wanted to major in nursing at Boston College and go on to provide quality clinical care to patients as an Emergency Department or intensive care nurse.  I thank God everyday for giving me the opportunity to live passionately, and I pray that I’ll honor Him by reaching my collegiate goals and go on to help others as a nurse.

In the meantime I try to advise as many people as possible about the importance of proper safety when sledding or doing any other outdoor activity. I push people to wear helmets, never double up on a sled and always bring a friend along in case of an emergency.

If I could I’d take back the poor decision I made that morning I would, but like the pins and screws in my skull, it’s a permanent part of my life. All I can do now is share my story and hope it can convince others to be safe and use better judgment when enjoying the winter.

For winter safety tips from Boston Children’s Hospital, please see these blogs:

Stay safe in the snow

Winter safety goes beyond ice and cold

Winter advisory: Never leave a child alone in a car


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