“We have to take it easy today,” 32-year-old Vy Phan thought after seeing patches of ice on a routine day of skiing. She’d taken hundreds of ski trips and knew the runs in Big Bear like the back of her hand, but February 13, 2022, was a sunny 80-degree day that turned the snowy mountain to ice and left Phan with a severe pelvic injury.
“I remember coming down and seeing the netting at the cliff and thinking ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t stop,’” Phan said. “I saw the barriers, the edge, the trees and told myself, ‘This is it Vy.’”
It takes an experienced snow sporter to recognize dangerous patches and icy paths; Phan did but at an incredible speed and unable to slow down, she was launched off the side of the mountain during a warm-up run on a green-rated beginner’s slope. There was a fork in the path, and she chose to go one way because it looked less impacted.
“They say your life flashes before your eyes during near-death experiences — it 100% does,” she said. “I thought of my fiancé, family, friends and thought ‘You lived a good life. You did what you could.’ Then I blacked out.”
A few minutes later Phan regained consciousness while her fiancé was trying to hold her up by her armpits yelling for help from those on the ski lift above.
“There was immense pain and then there was the thought of ‘Oh my gosh I made it!’” she said.
Paramedics navigated Phan’s body out of the ravine and onto a stretcher. The local hospital assessed her injuries and ordered a helicopter to airlift Phan to Loma Linda University Health.
“The second we landed on the helipad there were like 15 people doing what they needed to do, and I was immediately reassured that these people were going to take care of me,” Phan said.
As a Level I trauma center, various disciplines band together for an on-arrival assessment to grasp the severity of polytraumatic injuries like Phan’s. Multiple specialty teams were recruited to treat Phan’s injuries, which included a lacerated kidney, lung, and broken jaw. Orthopaedic traumatologist Brian A. Schneiderman, MD was tasked in managing the multiple fractures about her pelvis and left acetabulum. This included a vertical shear pelvic ring injury, a dangerous and rare type of fracture that accounts for less than 1% of all fractures.
While Phan was feeling defeated that she may never walk again, Schneiderman was dedicated to returning Phan to function.
Head, chest, and abdominal injuries are life-threatening injuries the Emergency Department often sees. Schneiderman said there are few life-threatening orthopaedic injuries, but Vy’s pelvic ring fracture was one of them.
“He saved my life,” Phan said. “He was so human, treated me with a mutual level of respect, and was everything I needed logistically and emotionally through this.”
Because of the constellation of her injuries, he had to perform multiple open exposures to the back of her pelvis, techniques that Schneiderman says he only performs in 1 to 2% of these cases. A total of three metal plates and several screws were used to stabilize Phan’s pelvis, including 150-millimeter long screws through small incisions under radiographic imaging.
“The most difficult part of an injury is in rehabilitation because the patient must live it everyday. Vy completely embraced her recovery. Her particular injuries were exceptionally challenging, but the outcome she has been able to achieve is a direct result of her strength, resilience, and determination,” Schneiderman said. “Regardless of what our team did, she deserves all the credit.”
After 24 days in the hospital, Phan went home to Orange County where she began in-home physical therapy. Movements began extremely small and slowly built into functional movements. As an athlete, being unable to move in the way she once did caused frustrations to grow forcing Phan to become mentally strong while regaining physical strength.
“My family was in the hospital every single day, every second they were allowed to be there,” Phan said. “When I was learning to walk it was one step for me, one step for them.”
Phan is now a certified Pilates instructor specializing in prehab and rehab. With good days and difficult days, she moves with intention and seeks to experience life as much as possible. Since her recovery, Phan completed a half marathon, hiked the Grand Canyon, and traveled to Europe and Asia. She hopes to ski again just one more time to overcome the fear and prove to herself she is still capable.
“Time is precious. Health is precious,” Phan said. “The accident was horrible, but it gave me an incredibly beautiful perspective on life. To my family, Dr. Schneiderman, and myself, we did it!”
Loma Linda University Health orthopaedic providers offer a range of treatments to get you back to living a healthy, active life. Learn more about the services offered, here.