Skiing: Racer in 2009 crash recalls brain injury struggle
Grenoble, France • Daniel Albrecht counts himself among the lucky. The Swiss Alpine racer left spectators gasping in horror when he lost control during a training run in January 2009, landing on his back and sliding down the icy slope.
Then came three weeks in a medically induced coma and months of struggling for a simple word or phrase. Ultimately, while still in his 20s, the former world champion had to give up competing in the sport that he loved. But, viewing Michael Schumacher's critical brain injuries through the prism of his own, Albrecht knows his own luck held "when I came back as a nearly normal guy."
Doctors for the Formula One great affectionately known as Schumi are sober, saying that his condition remains too fragile to think beyond his immediate survival.
Those who recover from severe brain trauma are in the minority, according to one member of the team treating Schumacher at Grenoble University Hospital after he fell Sunday while skiing and struck a rock, cracking his helmet.
Dr. Jean-Francois Payen, the hospital's chief of intensive care, told BFM-TV that medical literature puts that recovery rate at 40-to-45 percent of patients.
"But, once again, these are statistics. And me, I don't work with statistics. I work with patients. So we're going to work" on Schumacher, he was quoted as saying.
Schumacher's doctors said Tuesday that the seven-time F1 champion remained gravely ill, although his condition improved slightly. He underwent surgery for a second time to remove bleeding in the left side of his brain.
"I know what it is and how serious the problem is," Albrecht told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "Now we know he has a brain injury so you never know what happens next. I think I was a little lucky when I came back as a nearly normal guy. But it needs a long, long time."
The Swiss ski team doctor who worked with Albrecht told the AP a key difference is that Schumacher's case is complicated by the bleeding.
"(Dani) had no bleeding, it was a concussion. When you have bleeding, the question there is 'Is it possible to do (treat) it fast so that you don't have too much damage?'" Dr. Hans Spring said.
Nearly five years ago, Albrecht was the 25-year-old rising star of an improving Swiss Alpine team. As reigning world champion in the super-combined, he was a potential medalist at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics in the event won by American Bode Miller.
On a sunny Thursday in Austria, while training for the storied downhill race at Kitzbuehel, Austria, Albrecht flew 40 feet in the air off the final jump, landed on his back and was thrust forward on his face before sliding to a halt.
Doctors in Innsbruck kept him in a medically induced coma for three weeks to help his brain and lungs heal.
"The vital signs are perfect but you never know something about brain function," Spring recalled Monday. "The real work begins when you wake up. Then it takes years, and not months and not weeks. Neurological deficits are really a complex story."
Albrecht spent a further two months in the hospital, including at a specialist clinic in the Swiss capital of Bern. Physically he was strong, but he had problems concentrating and finding the right words to describe objects or express thoughts.
"My wife was also there and she was patient. That was so important for me," Albrecht told the AP.
Albrecht was determined to resume his career. Both he and Spring believed that a professional athlete's competitive drive and dedication to training are important factors in a patient's chances of having a successful rehabilitation.
"If you are a sportsman, you have a goal and then you work for it," Albrecht said. "After an injury in the head, you lose so much and you have to work a lot."
Schumacher, the German driver, retired from F1 racing just 13 months ago. He will be 45 on Friday.
Albrecht's determination brought him back to top-level racing almost two years after his accident, though not as a contender to win. He never bettered a 21st-place finish in his comeback race in a World Cup giant slalom at Beaver Creek, Colorado.
"He was skiing at the World Cup level, and that is better than 99.9 percent of everyone else skiing today," Spring said. "That is fantastic, but even then there is a little gap (to the highest level). That was his problem."
Albrecht announced his retirement in October after sustaining a serious injury to his left knee last season in downhill training at Lake Louise, Alberta.
Today, the 30-year-old former racer has his own ski clothing brand named Albright and helps coach and mentor young skiers.
"I have my own business and I can do nearly all like before," Albrecht said. "Some things are not going as good as before, but it's not so big a problem for me. It works."
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