SALT LAKE CITY — It wasn’t the high-flying, daredevil tricks required by her new sport of aerial skiing that left Brazil Olympian Lais da Silva Souza fighting for her life in a Salt Lake hospital.
It was, instead, an unfortunate recreational ski accident.
“It could have been anybody,” said Dr. Holly K. Ledyard, a neurointensivist, who is overseeing Souza’s recovery. “That fact that she’s an Olympic athlete doing what she’s doing, or that she’s from Brazil and is not used to snow, I don’t think played a part in her injury. She was just skiing, like people do.”
Souza was skiing with her coach at Park City Mountain Resort Monday when she hit a tree, said Dr. Antonio Marttos, Team Brazil’s physician and a trauma surgeon. The 25-year-old two-time Olympic gymnast was in Park City training while she awaited word as to whether or not she had earned a spot in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
After the accident Monday, she was flown to University of Utah Medical Center, where doctors diagnosed her with a dislocation of the third cervical vertebrae on the fourth cervical vertebrae. She cannot move her arms or legs, cannot swallow and cannot breathe on her own. Once she was diagnosed, surgeons spent nearly two days trying to realign and stabilize her neck.
“Our goal was to try and realign her spine,” said Dr. Andrew T. Dailey, the neurosurgeon who operated on Souza. He said they initially tried to realign her spine with weights attached to the top of her head, but eventually it took surgery to realign her spine. It’s an unusual injury, doctors said, and is usually seen when a swimmer dives head first into water and hits his or her head.
On Thursday morning, doctors performed a tracheotomy so that instead of having a breathing tube down her throat, it is now in her neck. She remains in critical condition, as she would be unable to breathe on her own.
“She’s on a machine that is basically doing all of the work of breathing for her,” Ledyard said. Moving the tube to the front of her neck “allows her to be more comfortable, and it allows us to care for her lungs a little better.”
Doctors also moved a feeding tube that was in her nose to her stomach. They said it's too early to give a prognosis regarding her recovery.
“It’s too early to say from a spinal cord injury standpoint,” Dailey said. “People can recover from something like this, but it simply takes time weeks to months to years. People can recover up to two years after a spinal cord injury.”
Ledyard said Souza was lucky that after the accident, her body was strong enough to keep breathing until she reached the U. of U. Medical Center.
“That doesn’t always happen,” she said. “She had excellent care on the slope from the moment the accident happened. They moved very quickly to get her here to us.”
Despite being unable to move or talk, Ledyard said Souza is in good spirits. Her mother was scheduled to arrive Thursday evening, and she’s been surrounded by friends at the hospital.
“She smiles,” she said. “She’s eager to work with therapists. You can tell she’s a fighter. She wants to get better.” Like so many other women in the sport of aerial skiing, Souza hoped to parlay her gymnastics skills into a successful aerials career. Both of the U.S. Olympic aerial skiers were gymnasts, and most of the dominant Chinese team comes from the ranks of elite gymnasts.
“These are great athletes, motivated athletes,” said Marttos, who in addition to being Team Brazil’s physician is a trauma surgeon with the University of Miami Health System. “They like a challenge. She was very happy doing this.”