Nearly two years ago, Matt Potratz was caught in an avalanche in the mountains near McCall, Idaho. The avy caused severe injuries and put Potratz into a solid 21-day coma, with another three weeks of going back in and out of it. He left the hospital with a paralyzed left arm and severe phantom nerve pain, with a long road to recovery ahead of him.
Today, Potratz is back on the snow, riding the same sled that he got caught in the avy with back on March 1, 2009. He spends his time now doing riding clinics for riders with disabilities, giving motivational speeches and working on a book about his accident and life-changing experience, hoping to inspire others with his hard-fought recovery.
We caught up with Potratz in December to see how his recovery is going and to get the story on the avalanche.
SledHeads: What happened the day of the avalanche?
Matt Potratz: It started out just another day riding on my home turf in McCall Idaho. I was set up to ride and film with Phil Yribar from 208 Productions for a segment in the movie A Calculated Risk. We knew the avalanche danger was somewhat high, but we hear that often riding in the northern Rockies so we had decided to go ahead with the ride. As always, we did a beacon and gear check at the trailer before hitting the trail. We worked our way up to Twin Lakes to film me on my Arctic cat M 1000 Turbo climbing in the twin chutes. Phil set up the camera and I prepared to climb the upper finger, the most technical chute in the lineup. The chute breaks out into a big basin and on this day, I didn't feel good about it. I turned around and came back to the camera and suggested that we get off the big stuff and work our way to the Brundage side, which is a lot less open with trees and rocks to hold the snow on the mountain. That took us to Duck Lake which we call Box Canyon where I'd never seen a slide. I lined up on an average chute I had climbed a dozen times. With camera rolling, I rolled on the boost and broke out of the chute headed for the top. The snow on the mountain cracked off about 3 feet deep across the entire slope and took me with it. The tumble off the mountain left me buried, unconscious, and badly injured. The group used avalanche beacons to quickly locate me and dig me out, and someone called from the top of the ridge to get a helicopter on its way.
SH: What was the original prognosis when you got the first medical treatment?
MP: When life flight got me to St. Alphonsus Medical Center in Boise, ID, it was discovered that I had a broken neck with 3 crushed vertebrae in the spine, compound fractured left femur, crushed left rib cage, severe left arm nerve damage in the spine, brain damage, and I was unconscious. My family was originally told they were unsure whether to treat injuries as I may not live through the night. I lived through the night on life support but was declared to be in a state of coma.
SH: How was the initial recovery and rehab process?
MP: I was in a solid coma for 21 days, then in and out for another 20. Although my family was told twice that I was not going to live through it, at day 41 was declared to be officially out of coma.
I stayed hospitalized for another 55 days, going through hours of different surgeries and hours of physical, cognitive and occupational therapy. After 96 days behind hospital walls, I was released to go home for additional recovery. It was the week of Father’s Day, so I got to spend it with my three young sons, Connor, Ethan and Caleb.
My brother Jon works in the Wyoming natural gas fields 10 days on, five days off. For the entire time I was hospitalized, he made the 800-mile round trip to Boise to spend his days off with me.
SH: What was the recovery process after leaving the hospital?
MP: A ton of therapy and then I had to go back for two more major surgeries. In September 2009, I made a couple of trips to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, for a nerve and muscle transplant surgery to repair my left arm. They discovered that all five of the main nerves that run from the spinal cord to the arm had been damaged beyond repair. And so much time had gone by with no nerve activity in the arm that the bicep muscle had atrophied to where it was not usable to lift the arm.
In a 12-hour surgery, they first removed the gracilis muscle from my right thigh and transplanted it to essentially replace my bicep. Then for nerve activity, they borrowed three nerves from my rib cage that normally activate the muscles that inhale and exhale, left them live, and re-routed them to the arm. Today, I'm still waiting on those nerves to fully bond themselves, be re-trained and start to operate the arm. Everyday I do a breathing routine where I breath and expand the chest to fire those nerves. I can actually make the bicep area twitch by tightening the chest and I can squeeze the bicep with the sensation that I'm clamping my chest. Crazy stuff! The nerves are functioning in the arm but the brain thinks they should be in the chest. Over time, the brain can be retrained that those three nerves now do arm function.
I also left the hospital with severe phantom nerve pain in my left hand. The reason I could feel the pain with no nerve function was because it was phantom nerve pain. It wasn't coming from the hand. The spinal cord was sending the brain a false signal that the hand hurt. It was similar to the burning pain you feel when you go outside and your hand gets cold and come back inside and have it warm up too fast. That intense burning and then at times it would pulsate the feeling as if something was crushing your bones. Because it was phantom, it was nonstop 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I was on a pretty heavy daily dose of prescription pain medication.
After 14 months of fighting it, I finally got referred to a doctor in Chicago that could do something about it. I flew out there on June 14, 2010, for crazy surgery. To access the spinal cord, they first cut the muscle in my lower neck and upper shoulders essentially in half. Then they opened up the cord, even exposing spinal fluid, in order to access the nerve root zone. At that zone, they located the sensory nerves for the left-hand, took a hot needle and put lesions across the nerves that were sending the false signal. Then they sealed up my spinal cord and sewed me back up.
Today, I'm thankful to have minimal nerve pain in the hand and I'm off all medication.
SH: How did you get to the point where you could get back on a snowmobile and go for a ride?
MP: My first ride back on the seat was Jan 1, 2010, 10 months to the day from the avalanche. It was actually physically pretty painful but a victory for my heart and mind. I rode 16 miles that first day and was totally exhausted but smiling through it all. On March 7, 2010, I was back on the sled with the 208 Productions film crew. We went back to the avalanche site.
When I ride, I sling my up arm under my coat and strap it to my body. Ray Schoenfeld from Black Diamond set me up with a brake lever for the right side so the throttle and brake are operated with the same hand. We're working on designing a cradle for my left arm that cradles it up to the grip. My fingers function some and I can get my hand in the grip position. The cradle will attach around my body at the abdomen area so I can turn my body to help steer and with sled stability.
Hopefully you'll see me out this winter with this system. I plan someday to climb the mountain that got me and celebrate on top! My body is still rebuilding strength so I can't right to aggressively yet but I can still boondock some. The main thing is, I can still get out there, I can still enjoy it with friends, and I can still take in incredible backcountry that some never see in a lifetime. I ride through new set of eyes but I'm still taking it all in and it still my passion.
SH: How did the experience affect your outlook?
MP: After a total of eight visits to five hospitals in five different cities in the nation for five surgeries, five MRIs and four CT scans, I'm thankful that I've recovered more than I was ever expected to in my lifetime.
Despite almost no left arm use, I'm enjoying life and functioning nearly like an average man. My life has no doubt changed. But I'm still Matt, still able to be father to my boys, and even still able to share my passion for the sport of snowmobiling. And someday, I'll teach my boys to ride and spend quality time on the snow with them as my dad did with me and still does today.
I am writing a book and now do inspirational speaking with the avalanche story to share what the experience has taught me about life. Amber Holt and I have alxo been instructing clinics for riders with disabilities up at Bearcreek Lodge in McCall, ID.
I've reminded myself often during the recovery "Matt, focus on the things you can change." I can't change the avalanche, it's done. I can't change how bad it injured me or how long I was stuck in hospitals. I can't change how it affects me today.
What I can change is how I respond to what happened. I can change today, not yesterday.
I now challenge riders to be more prepared. Failing to prepare is preparing to fail. If we hadn't worn beacons and packed shovels and survival gear, you'd be reading an article about how Matt Potratz died in an avalanche. I don't want people to let something like what happened to me scare them away from the sport. Instead, let it to make us more aware of what can happen and invest in all the proper gear we need to ride the backcountry.
To track Matt’s recovery process and to follow his book release, go to www.mattpotratz.com.