A Woman With Mountains to Climb
Of all the world's aerospace engineers, Meghan Buchanan loves snowboarding the most.
She was laughing, smiling and loving the powder on Windows in Vail's Sunup Bowl on Feb. 6, 2011, an epic day.
“This is what life is about!” Buchanan, 38, shouted to her friends as they took another powder run.
Everything changed in an instant. Buchanan said she was snowboarding at about 35mph when she hit a fallen tree, buried under about four feet of new snow.
She broke the head off her left femur bone, twisting it so badly that the muscle and everything attached to it tore loose.
No one ever does that, but she did, said Dr. Rick Cunningham with Vail-Summit Orthopaedics, the surgeon who put her back together.
She'd never experienced pain like that. The ski patrollers who came to her rescue said they'd never heard those kinds of screams come out of a human.
There was so much snow that Super Bowl Sunday that they had trouble finding her. Eventually, they followed the screams.
“I was bleeding out,” Buchanan said.
Recovery took more than two years, and the toll was far more than physical.
She had to leave her job as an aerospace engineer at Lockheed Martin. Several relationships ended.
One of her friends studied her for a moment and asked, “How are you doing?”
Perspective is everything, she said. She's not in constant pain and she's not dying, so it's all good, she said.
“I'm so happy now because I'm not in pain,” she said. “It was trying and I'm an upbeat person, but it was beginning to take a toll. This has been my entire life for two years.”
Calling Dr. Cunningham
Cunningham was the surgeon on call that Super Bowl Sunday, and performed emergency surgery, placing a 14-inch titanium rod down her femur and securing it with a screw called a gamma nail into her hip.
“That was one of the worst fractures I've seen in 10 years,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham describes it as ice cream falling off the cone, or in this case, the bone.
“Years ago, someone suffering an injury might have been on crutches the rest of their life, or in a wheelchair,” Cunningham said.
To complicate matters, her body seemed to be rejecting the titanium rod holding her leg and her life together. They're not sure if it was a metal allergy, but she had many symptoms associated with the hardware, Cunningham said.
“Hers was complicated because the hardware was irritating her,” Cunningham said.
But it had to stay in for 18 months and not a day less. The femur is the biggest bone in your body and it's takes at least a year to heal, Cunningham said.
“People debate whether metal allergies exist. We know she felt better getting that hardware out of there,” Cunningham said.
About her recovery
Buchanan climbs mountains all over the world with Love Hope Strength, a Colorado-based organization.
She spent 19 long, painful months with all that hardware in her leg. She was not improving. She couldn't climb stairs, let alone join expeditions with Love Hope Strength, and a trip to Mount Everest base camp in Nepal was on the horizon in December.
“In the middle of July, I couldn't go up a flight of stairs without the railing,” Buchanan said. “It's been such a big part of my life and I didn't think I'd ever be able to climb a mountain again.”
Dr. Thomas Olsen at Howard Head was leading her recovery. He said a metal allergy might a possibility, but a titanium allergy is so very rare.
“Cunningham consulted with the other great orthos of the Vail Valley. No one had an answer, and my limited progress began to deteriorate. I was getting worse,” Buchanan said.
Weeks turned into months of physical therapy, dry needling, massage therapy, X-rays and pain — 24/7 “muscle-ripping-off-my-bone” pain, she said.
She wanted the rod taken out, so Cunningham consulted a specialist in Denver. Buchanan said the specialist's advice was to continue the current course of treatment, but if she could convince Cunningham to take it out, more power to her.
Buchanan is a force of nature, and you won't be surprised to learn that Cunningham removed the rod six days later —19 months after he put it in.
The pain that had been her constant tormentor immediately subsided.
“All my friends knew it was in there, but didn't know how big it is,” Buchanan said.
She was sore because the bone marrow was growing back, but that pain was gone.
“After 19 months of constant chronic debilitating pain, it was finally gone,” she said. “The life I once knew came rushing back.”
A month later, she could climb stairs unassisted. Four months after that, with her team's approval, she left for Nepal with Love Hope Strength to hike to Everest base camp (17,500 feet) and Kalapathar (18,500 feet), a 14-day trek.
It wasn't just a trek; it was a pilgrimage.
“I was able to spread my father's ashes at base camp, which made the almost two years of pain, loss and fight worth every moment,” she said. “I am now starting a running program, something I had prepared myself to never do again.”
She's back from Everest, and Cunningham said he's confident she'll be back on Vail Mountain soon.
“That's the last mountain to climb,” Cunningham said.