The Brazilian aerial skier training for the Olympics paralyzed in an accident in Park City was recreational skiing at the time of her injury, the doctors treating her at the University of Utah said in a press conference Thursday.
Lais da Silva Souza, 25, has been in critical condition at the University of Utah’s Neuro Critical Care Unit since hitting a tree while skiing Monday in Park City.
A two-time Olympic gymnast, Souza does not have an extensive history on the slopes and had only begun skiing in recent months. But Holly Ledyard, a neurointensivist who has been treating Souza, said the accident did not come in the course of her training for the Sochi Games.
“It could have been anybody,” Ledyard said. “It could have been you or me on the ski slopes. The 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 plays a part in her injury.”
Souza has had multiple operations since the accident to realign a dislocation near the top of her spinal cord that has left her without the use of her arms and legs. She remains critical, on a ventilator to help her breathe, and her doctors said the chances of a recovery are uncertain. A recovery could take anywhere from weeks to years.
“We need to give her some time for the spinal cord swelling to resolve and see how she does,” said Andrew Dailey, the neurosurgeon who performed the operations on Souza.
“People can recover but it simply takes time to know whether that’s going to happen. … Obviously this is just the early days.”
It’s unclear if Souza ever will be able to breathe on her own, causing the doctors to keep her condition classified as critical.
“That’s precisely what makes her injury potentially lethal and life-threatening,” Ledyard said, adding that Souza would have died if she had not received proper medical care on the mountain following the accident.
Unable to speak due to the ventilator, Souza is using a machine that tracks her eye movement and blinking to communicate. Ledyard said she remains in high spirits, despite her condition.
“She’s eager to work with our therapists,” Ledyard said. “You can tell that she’s a fighter and that she wants to get better.”
The doctors said it was unclear if or when Souza will be moved from the University of Utah to Brazil for further care.
Souza, who was training in aerial skiing, was attempting to become the first Olympic gymnast to compete in the Winter Olympics. She participated in both the 2004 and 2008 summer games before missing the 2012 Olympics with an injury.
It remained unclear exactly where Souza was skiing in Park City at the time of the accident, but the Brazilian Olympic Committee said she was wearing a helmet and that Canadian coach Ryan Snow was with her when it happened.
Souza’s was the third serious injury to an elite winter sport athlete in Utah in the last four years. Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke died in 2012 after crashing in the halfpipe at Park City Mountain Resort, where snowboarder Kevin Pearce was seriously injured in 2009 before recovering.