The October ski started like any other for Scott Patterson and Alaska Pacific University (APU) teammate Erik Bjornsen. But as the two were traversing the Girdwood 5 k Bjornsen slid on a corner and caused the two to crash, altering Patterson’s season dramatically.
While Bjornsen escaped with a broken ski, Patterson was not so lucky – Bjornsen’s ski had punctured his leg, leaving shards of carbon protruding from his upper thigh. Patterson removed the largest pieces himself and was evacuated to a local hospital where he waited until 1 a.m. for the next available surgeon to extract the remaining slivers of ski in his leg.
Once the ski was completely removed, Patterson left the hospital focusing on recovery from the freak accident. However, he would return six days later when a strange back pain progressed from discomfort to shortness of breath and severe pain. By the time he made the decision to return to the Emergency Room, he could barely walk the 20 feet from the car to the hospital – and when he finally completed the trip it took him 15 minutes to regain controlled breathing.
A CT scan revealed Patterson was suffering from pulmonary embolism, or blood clot in the lungs. According his doctors, a combination of the surgery, trauma, and stasis caused a large blood clot to form in his leg and migrate to his right lung. Furthermore, a smaller clot had also formed in his left lung.
According to the Mayo Clinic, pulmonary embolism can be life threatening if not diagnosed and treated quickly. “About one-third of people with undiagnosed and untreated pulmonary embolism don’t survive. When the condition is diagnosed and treated promptly, however, that number drops dramatically,” their website says.
In Patterson’s case, quick action and doctors’ response led to a decrease in the severity of his condition.
Once his life was no longer in danger, Patterson’s main focus was returning to full health – which consisted of ample of downtime and continued work with many doctors.
“In order to ensure good recovery, my activity was limited to walking around the block for a month. This duration allowed the blood clots to stabilize for the first two weeks and then begin to dissolve,” he wrote in an email. “Over the course of the recovery, I worked with an orthopedic surgeon, several internists, primary care doctor, pulmonologist, and physical therapist. Coordinating all the ideas was crucial to my return.”
While the daily walks around the block were essential for his recovery, there was another thing on his mind: returning to skiing. But after facing such a serious condition, Patterson needed to be cautious, take his time, and listen to his doctors before hitting the tracks, let alone begin racing again.
“Everyone told me to be cautious. Thus even though I wanted to and was feeling up to going skiing right after I got out of the hospital, I had to postpone and build back gradually,” he said.
Little by little he built up his activity until his body was ready to take exertion and intensity once again. According to Patterson, he knew as long as the recovery process didn’t take too long he could rely on a strong summer of training to aid in his comeback.
As Patterson – whose 2015 season marks his first as a professional – strengthened throughout his recovery period, it became not a question of whether he would race in 2015 but when in the season he would next don a bib.
His first race back was the Dec. 14 Anchorage Cup Hickok duathlon, which Patterson saw a training and fitness-building opportunity.
“While just a local citizen’s race, with APU, UAA, and some former racers around, the field was quite competitive. I used it as a build back to fitness and casually raced,” Patterson wrote of the event, in which he placed 5th.
The subsequent weekend’s race, the Besh Cup, was a different story, as Patterson decided that he would graduate from “casual racing” to a full effort. While he sat out the Dec. 20 sprint, he participated in the following day’s 15 k freestyle individual start.
Patterson said he felt sluggish during his warmup, but the lethargy was no match for his excitement to be racing again. As he attacked the race course, a smile was plastered to the face of the 23-year-old. According to Patterson, APU head coach Erik Flora said he had “the biggest smile on my face of anyone where he was taking splits.”
Perhaps the smile came from the joy of skiing or because his splits had him leading the pack of strong skiers, but either way one thing was clear: Patterson was back. Further evidence was found on the result sheet, where Patterson earned his first victory since the October accident. Posting a time of 36:32:40, he bested APU teammate and second place finisher Eric Packer by 16.5 seconds.
Now that Patterson has more-or-less recovered from the pulmonary embolism, his focus is building fitness throughout the season. He is currently in Houghton, Mich,. readying for the 2015 U.S. Cross Country Championships where he will compete against the best American skiers in the nation starting Jan. 4 – just two months after his initial injury.
The rest of the season will depend on his results from the Championships.
“My plans for the rest of the season basically revolve around how well I can compete at nationals. Unlike past seasons where I have been tied down with school I have some flexibility still. After nationals I will return to Alaska to check in with a couple doctors then hopefully be off to U23s. Other than those races, I plan on attending the OPA cup trip assuming I make the qualification criteria then finish off the season at SuperTour finals,” he wrote.
While Patterson’s goals are nothing short of lofty – especially considering his recent health – the Alaskan skier said the events that have unfolded this year have given him perspective on the rest of the season.
“The early season injury forced me to reevaluate and prioritize. Mostly this season is just about racing, enjoying racing, and turning up good results at whatever races I attend,” he wrote.
Lander Karath is FasterSkier's Associate Editor from Bozeman, Montana and a Bridger Ski Foundation alumnus. Between his studies at Middlebury College in Vermont, he is an outdoor enthusiast and a political junkie.