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January 25, 2013

Falling Toward Grace

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Hollekim doesn't remember actually hitting the ground, only coming to. She opened her eyes to see her legs twisted and splayed, bent up alongside her torso like they were someone else's. Is this what it feels like to be dead? Jagged pieces of bone had pierced through her shredded skin. The lower half of her body looked like it had been worked over with a sledgehammer. Just then, excruciating pain surged through her body. If I'm in pain, I must be alive. Dazed and anguished, she blacked out.

Airlifted to nearby Lausanne Hospital, Hollekim awoke two days later alone in a hospital room, disoriented and in agony. A stone-faced doctor delivered the news: Her right leg had suffered 21 open fractures, while the left leg had been shattered into four pieces. "You'll never walk again," he told her grimly. Hollekim was stunned and could summon no words. "It was unreal, incomprehensible," she recalls. "I used my body for everything. All of it was taken from me. I just lay there for hours by myself, crying."

Hollekim's father received the call about his daughter from one of her companions that day and caught the first flight he could to Switzerland. He knew his daughter was alive, but not much else, and didn't know what to expect. He was used to seeing her in the hospital — she'd been in and out of emergency rooms with ski injuries. But this, he knew, was different. Like many of her friends, he had been worried about her BASE jumping, that it would be just a matter of time before tragedy struck, and now the time had finally come. When he opened the door to her hospital room, his vivacious, beautiful daughter was barely recognizable. Her right leg was in an external fixation — a metal cage with pins running into the skin. She had tubes jutting out from her arms. Her face was pallid and gray from all the blood she'd lost. Remembers Sonsterud, "It was hard to see her. She was totally wasted."

Those first few nights, he stayed beside her, pushing the button that released morphine into her IV drip so she wouldn't wake from the pain. During the day, he did his best to hide his own fears, devising ways to keep her spirits up and his mind off the challenges to come. In the ensuing weeks, her friends trickled in for visits. Privately, Hollekim confided in her father that she was terrified of withering away in a wheelchair for the rest of her days. Sonsterud shared her fears but wouldn't allow either of them to entertain them, commanding her to focus on each day and only each day. "You have to eat the elephant step by step. If you look too far ahead, everything seems impossible," he told her. Hollekim was surprised at her father. She'd never thought of him as optimistic. "He's not wired like that at all," she says. But deep down he knew that she needed to think positively to survive what lay ahead.

Over the next four months, Hollekim underwent 14 surgeries on her legs. (Remarkably, she had suffered injuries nowhere else.) A rod had to be inserted in her left leg. On the right leg, surgeons removed 4 inches of femur, then harvested bone from both her hips and lower back to graft onto the pulverized leg bone. They severed her femur near the hip and rotated the leg 45 degrees. The bone was then attached to plates that were bolted at the knee and hip. Her thigh was cut open so that the layers of muscle that had fused together from months of inactivity could be separated. Long incisions in her leg were kept open for days at a time as her medical team went in and out for more surgeries. She was plagued by infections, one so bad it caused her wound to burst. Frustrated, her doctors were on the verge of amputating when one last surgery revealed a wad of grass and gravel buried deep in her leg. Once it was removed, the infections ceased.

By the time Hollekim was released from the hospital in December 2006, the 6-foot-tall dynamo was a gaunt 100 pounds. She and her father returned to Oslo, where she was admitted to an inpatient rehabilitation facility. Almost immobile and surrounded by paraplegics, quadriplegics, and amputees, Hollekim came face-to-face with her future. "It was a shock," she says, growing softer as she recounts the scene. "I realized that I was one of them. I'd never walk again. This was my life now."

Hollekim sank into depression. Her father knew that she was crying herself to sleep every night. He stayed close, visiting every day for the first few weeks. He tried pushing her, telling her that her job was simply to get stronger each day. But she grew increasingly despondent. Finally, when one of her physical therapists gave her a pair of boxing gloves and told her to start punching, it was as if a faucet had been opened and all of her fury poured into those gloves. Hollekim hit the therapist hard. Wild and unleashed, she hit him again. "I screamed out all of my frustration and sadness and depression," she says. She was so exhausted afterward that she was sick for two days. But Hollekim had finally found a way to use her body — and that gave her hope.

After that, Hollekim threw herself into rehab. The process was tortuously slow and exceedingly painful. It took a year for her to attempt her first steps. Wearing boxer shorts that hung off her skeletal frame, she grabbed hold of a chest-high walker, transferred her weight onto it, and inched across her room and down the hall on legs so atrophied that her knees bulged wider than her thighs. Her doctors stared in disbelief. One nurse started weeping.

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