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Recovery, one step at a time

Mon., July 6, 2009, midnight

Ex-smokejumper running again after life-changing fall took a leg

OAKRIDGE, Ore. – The people in Oakridge remember the same thing: the running.

Sara Brown’s footsteps were a constant in high school, pounding out five miles, 10 miles, until it became a way of life.

Running these days isn’t as easy as it once was for the 30-year-old. It’s painful. Slow. She’s lost her rhythm.

Two years ago, the veteran smokejumper dove out of a plane into a wildfire and shattered all of the bones in her right leg.

The accident robbed her of a five-year career jumping with the U.S. Forest Service as part of an elite crew of firefighters who leap out of airplanes into small wildfires that otherwise would be too difficult to reach.

And as doctors considered surgical options to fix her ankles and leg, she realized it was about to rob her of the running as well.

Through the medical haze of choices – endure more surgeries and hang up her shoes or amputate her leg at the knee and keep going – Brown saw a clear one.

“She chose the running,” said her mother, Marcia Brown. “She has always been a runner.”

After a few summers working for the Forest Service in Oakridge, Brown made it through rookie training and was hired as a smokejumper out of Redmond, Ore.

The requirements to apply are demanding: Rookies must complete seven pull-ups, 24 push-ups, 60 sit-ups, run a 1.5-mile course in under 11 minutes and carry a 110-pound pack over a 3-mile flat course.

But the grueling days and intense physical requirements of her job didn’t seem to faze her. “It was hard work,” she says. “But it was fun.”

In June 2007, Brown’s last jump came quickly, without warning, over a fire in New Mexico.

She was working during the summer fire season while pursuing her master’s degree at Washington State University.

On that hot June day, Brown and her partner leapt, and a gust of wind tossed them both off course.

“I tried to get control of my chute, but he was coming right at me,” she said. “His body hit the material of my chute and it collapsed – it dropped me.”

The 100-foot fall shattered her right leg, snapped her wrist and injured her left leg.

After weeks of recovery, she returned to school full time in a wheelchair as a doctoral student and teaching assistant at Colorado State University.

Balancing office visits and physical therapy, she watched doctors try to piece the legs back together again.

For Brown, not being active wasn’t living, and after seven failed surgeries, doctors told her they could fuse or replace her ankle, which would limit her movement, or they could amputate.

Depending on her recovery, they said, amputation might give her a chance to run, bike and hike again.

“I spent about a month deciding,” she said. “But I kind of knew that’s what I was going to do from the beginning. I just decided I would take that risk.”

These days, it’s hard to catch Brown.

Last month, she was honored with the Smokejumper Courage Award from the National Smokejumpers Association, considered to be the equivalent of a Purple Heart for her bravery during her career and the accident.

She also received $4,500 as part of the award, which she says will help pay her father, who is spending the summer working as her research assistant.

The pair is spending the summer months trudging the hillsides of rural Wyoming and Colorado, conducting wildlife research on old wildfire sites for her Ph.D. program at the University of Wyoming, where she transferred this year after her adviser switched schools.

When she graduates, she says she’d like to work for the Forest Service as a scientist or work for a small, private university.

For now, she’s focused on the little things the next few steps, not the next few years.

She’s started running again, after close to two years of not being able to walk.

Working with a physical therapist, she says she hopes to smooth out her stride, and get to a place where she can run like she used to, all the while continuing to chase her dreams.

“You do what you can with what you’ve got,” she said. “Sometimes you don’t always get a choice.”


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