One year ago today, Eva Twardokens was in a plane crash in her beloved Citabria, “Buttercup,” while on a check ride with her flight instructor. One year ago this evening, none of us knew if Eva would open her eyes again, let alone talk, walk and do any of the things she did as a World Class athlete who had never really downshifted. When I’m out in the ski world, I often run into people who ask how Eva is doing. The anniversary of her accident seems like a good time for an Eva update, so here it is.
I caught up with Eva on the phone today, at her home Aptos, CA. She was just home after a month in Squaw Valley, where she did daily therapy each morning at the Brain Health Restoration Clinic in Reno, and physical therapy each afternoon at High Fives in Truckee. Her time at High Fives, led by trainer Chris Cloyd and supported by other specialty therapists, has been nothing short of miraculous (read more about it here). All of it was made possible by High Fives founder Roy Tuscany, who also steered Eva to the Brain Health Restoration Clinic. There, she’s seeing real benefit from Magnetic e-Resonance Therapy (MeRT), which is used to map and then optimize brain function.
Today, Eva and her boyfriend Mitch—who has been with her at every step—recapped some of the journey of this past year. On one hand, it has been a long year, facing each day with so much change and uncertainty. On the other hand, when looking back, there has been an astounding transformation in just one year. This Tuesday, Eva will have her much-anticipated eye surgery to tighten up the muscles on either side of each eye, hopefully eliminating her double vision, as well as the eye patch she has worn throughout her recovery.
Mitch recounted some of the “firsts” from the early days and weeks: the first time he saw the white of one eye, which would later open; the first time she moved her hand and her entire left side, then later her right side; the first responses to commands; breathing on her own, then removing the ventilator; saying words, then her name, then sentences; eating real food, then removing the feeding tube. Each of these tiny victories was reason for hope and a gateway to more independence.
In all it would three months—one in the hospital and another two in rehab—before Eva was able to go home. The final hurdle was having her skull reconstructed, allowing her to live without the helmet that she’d worn whenever she was out of bed. By then she was taking tentative steps on her rebuilt ankle, assisted with a walker.
Back home, her Santa Cruz friends visited, helped around the house, and took her for walks, which got progressively longer, if still tentative. This is around when Jennifer came to Eva’s life, as her companion during the week. Jennifer is, quite simply, a rock star, and the two are devoted to each other. By the end of summer, Eva was off the walker, and in late September had her first experience with therapy at High Fives. That work has been truly life-changing, by connecting her to the elite athlete inside.
She has now spent a total of seven weeks at High Fives, and four weeks of daily MeRT treatment and the Brain Health Restoration Clinic. MeRT has shown huge success in recovery from PTSD, addiction, depression and brain trauma among other things. It’s outside the box, and it’s working! Over Christmas, she and Mitch went to her place in Mexico for the first time since the accident, and she swam in the ocean like she’d never left it.
Friends and former teammates have supported Eva in every way imaginable: with visits and calls, with meals and walks, and with generous donations for her therapy, expenses and ongoing care. It’s been a long journey and it is not over. But the main thing is, that Eva is….Eva. She’s got the same smile, the same focus on goals, the same gratitude for those around her, the same humor, and the same drive to get out there and crush it.
Little gains, and the hope they bring for the next day, have led to milestones that mark her progress. By now, “there are too many milestones to count,” Mitch concedes. The biggies, however, are the ones that inch her towards independence, which is still the goal. Liberty can be practical, like being left alone for short periods, or thrilling, like swimming in the Sea of Cortez, or, as she did yesterday for the first time, riding her Schwinn Sting Ray. She’s on one hand giddy about these firsts but also very Eva—reticent to overstate her progress.
“It was only for about 600 feet,” she explained.
“But that must have felt great, right?”
I could feel her smile from the other end of the phone when she said, “Yeahhhhhhh!”
Mitch has extraordinary patience, and is satisfied with progress, which he has seen at every stage. As he explains it, all the recent therapies and milestones have had a snowball effect. “What she’s proving to me is that everything she was, is inside of her, ready to come out.”
Eva has come a long way in a year. She will keep working towards all the things she wants to do again, like surfing, skiing, flying and, above all, living independently. She loves hearing from people, so don’t be shy about tuning in via call, text, email, Facebook, or regular old mail. If you want to support her recovery, please consider donating to her expenses and ongoing therapy at her gofundme page. Thanks for any support, be it moral, financial or cosmic. It all helps!