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Black and Blue on a Black Diamond

Published March 2024 | In Spring 2024

After a serious injury, ski patrol transported Morgan Geppert down Terry Peak. After a year of healing, she can’t wait to hit the slopes.

Black and Blue on a Black Diamond Media

Like a lot of high school seniors, Morgan Geppert doesn’t have much to say about herself. “I like to work, and I like to read sometimes,” she said. “I love skiing.”

Her father, Travis, nodded his head, and added, “It’s pretty much always been her thing. She has two brothers and one sister, and they each have something that they’re passionate about. For Morgan, it has always been skiing. She was a natural, and just graceful and confident on her skis.”

Morgan is cool and calm — even a little aloof, in a fun way — despite not knowing exactly how to answer questions about herself. Sitting and talking with her, it’s unlikely that you’d have any idea that Morgan dealt with a devastating injury. In a cruel, poetic twist, she was hurt doing what she loves most — skiing.

The crash

Morgan and Travis were enjoying a morning at Terry Peak, getting in some runs down the mountain before celebrating a family birthday. They were headed down Ben Hur, one of the resort’s black diamond runs, when another skier cut Morgan off, leading her to veer left. “As I was turning, my skis got caught on one another,” Morgan explained. “I remember being super close to the ground and could feel myself flipping before I got knocked out, but honestly I don’t remember it in too much detail.”

For Travis, the crash — which he referred to as the worst moment in his life — was burnt into his memory. “When she got her skis crossed, one popped off right away and she cartwheeled, hitting her head. I was trying to get stopped, but was already farther down the hill at that point, and I didn’t realize at the time that she went off a 15-foot berm and hit a tree. I heard the impact, but even then I didn’t realize how bad it was,” he explained.

Getting himself stopped, Travis began yelling to his daughter, but received no response. As he was making his way back up to where she had crashed, a man yelled to him that she was unconscious. Morgan woke up face-to-face with that skier, and she vaguely recalls her dad approaching her.

“When I got to her, she had blood coming out of her nose, her face was scratched up and she had a pretty significant black eye,” Travis said. “I asked her, ‘are you okay?’ and she told me that her back hurt really bad.”

Travis asked her if she could move her feet, and she said that she couldn’t. “I could see that she actually was moving her feet when she answered, but the fact that she didn’t feel herself doing it, well, I knew that was bad,” he said.

Once Travis had reached Morgan, the skier that had first responded to Morgan’s accident and tried to wake her put his skis back on and rushed down the mountain, racing to the lodge to alert ski patrol.

Getting off the slope

Ski patrol arrived on the scene and got to work immediately. Because of how Morgan had landed, they had to take extra care to extract her — she wasn’t lying on flat snow, but in a depression that was full of undergrowth and branches. Over the next 15 minutes, ski patrollers used backboards to support and eventually lift Morgan while keeping her neck and spine protected. She was loaded onto a sled connected by fixed arms to a member of the ski patrol who brought her down the slope.

At the base of the mountain, an ambulance from Lead-Deadwood was waiting. EMTs loaded Morgan into the ambulance and ferried her to Monument Health Lead-Deadwood Hospital. “I don’t remember too much from the ambulance ride, but I know they gave me something for the pain and that was a relief,” Morgan said. “Everything got a little fuzzy, but I felt better knowing I was headed to the hospital.”

“Ski patrol are the people who are here to help you when you’re in trouble. Everybody has medical training — we’ve had EMTs, paramedics and even some nurses and physician assistants. There are some wilderness first responders that can help with some rescues,” said Chris Spellmeyer, SkiPatrol Director at Terry Peak. “We don’t just help with medical emergencies and evacuations though. We help when group members get separated or kids get lost, or even when people lose equipment or gear. We inspect the slopes to make sure they’re in good condition. The number one thing is that we’re here to help, no matter what the problem might be.”

Lead-Deadwood Hospital

Morgan may have been off the mountain and headed for a hospital bed, but as she soon learned, she wasn’t out of the woods yet.

“When we got to Lead-Deadwood Hospital, I felt a lot better about everything,” Travis said. “Everyone was putting me at ease, reassuring us that everything would be okay. The interactions were lighthearted.”

Morgan was given a CT scan to better assess her injuries, and when the results came back, the tone of conversation shifted dramatically. “Things went from light and jovial to all business. They told us this was out of their purview,” Travis said. “They said that there was a significant fracture along her spinal cord, and they weren’t equipped to handle it there.”

Morgan was loaded back onto an ambulance and transferred to Monument Health Rapid City Hospital where she was taken to a room in the ICU. “Based on what was visible on her CT scan, we knew that there was a serious fracture of the spine,” said Neurosurgeon Kyle Schmidt, M.D. “To get a more thorough picture of the injury, we ordered an MRI. This showed that while the vertebrae were fractured, they were still where they were supposed to be, and we saw no signs of damage to the spinal cord.”

The prognosis was good — Morgan’s spine could heal itself, she just needed time.

“She was only 17 years old — she was still growing. That’s why her spine could repair itself,” said Dr. Schmidt. “If a fully grown adult had these injuries, they would be in surgery immediately and have screws, pins and rods in their back for the remainder of their life. Because her bones weren’t fully formed, we rightly believed that a
custom brace could support her while she healed.”

It took two days to complete Morgan’s custom brace, and once fitted, Morgan was able to take her first literal steps toward recovery. “With the brace on, they had me walk down the hallway and walk up and down stairs to make sure I could handle it. And they said, ‘Oh you can do this, no problem, I guess you can go home tomorrow.’”

Home again, home again

Morgan was happy to return to the comfort of her home, but it came with its own challenges. There was very little she could do without putting the brace on. In fact, there was only one thing she could do — lie still. Any movement, from reaching for a drink of water or trying to sit up, required assistance putting the brace on.

“I think I’ve always been pretty independent,” she said. “And to be 17 and need help doing anything — even just getting out of bed — was pretty hard for me.” She was restricted from lifting anything over 10 pounds, as well as any heavy physical activity. “I couldn’t stand up, sit down or lie down for more than 30 minutes at a time,” she added. “So there was a lot of putting the brace on and taking it off to lie down and then getting back up again.”

She was also in a lot of pain, especially during the first few weeks back home. Muscle relaxers took the edge off, but they didn’t erase the pain. The only thing Morgan could do was bear it. In time, the pain lessened, although she still experiences some discomfort to this day.

For four long months, she wore her brace. Normally an active, independent teen, Morgan felt like the time dragged on and on, but Dr. Schmidt’s plan worked. Regular CT scans at Spearfish Hospital showed that her spinal fractures were healing and that her back was staying properly aligned.

“I was out of the brace, which felt so good. But I’m not free and clear to do whatever I want yet,” she said. Morgan’s activities are still restricted, but not for long. “Right now, I’m basically limited to walking. By April, I should be able to get back to doing what I like. I can even start skiing again if I want to. Whatever I want.”

She has enjoyed getting back to her normal life. She missed a semester of school while she was recovering in
her brace, so she’s been playing catch up since she returned. “It had been eight months since I had been in school. I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to get back to where I’m supposed to be, but I caught up and I’m on track to graduate on time,” she explained. She has also returned to her job at Blackbird Espresso, which she enjoys, although being on her feet for long periods of time causes back discomfort at times.

Morgan has also been thinking about getting back on her skis. When asked if she plans to hit the slopes again, Morgan didn’t hesitate. “I still love it and I want to go skiing. I’m sure I’ll get to the top of the hill and be afraid to go down, but I’ll do it anyway.”

“She doesn’t really have a lot of quit to her,” added her dad, Travis. “If she wants to ski, she’s not going to let this experience keep her from doing it. After all this, I think whatever she wants to do, in any aspect of life, she won’t let anything stop her.”

Story by Wade Ellett
Photos by Bob Slocum

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