Reno teen kayaker Jason Craig recovering from injury
Written by Bob Brundage Reno Gazette Journal March 29, 2011
On March 20, world-champion kayaker Jason Craig suffered a horrific injury when he hit a rock at the base of a 25-foot waterfall while “creeking” — descending very steep, low-volume whitewater — on Dry Creek near Marysville, Calif. The 17-year-old from Reno underwent six hours of surgery at Sutter Roseville Medical Center in Roseville, Calif. to rebuild the middle of his body. He’s in pain, though it’s lessening. But he can walk.
The Craig family received “awesome news” Monday when Jason was accepted into a specialty rehab program for spinal cord injuries at Shriners Hospital for Children in Sacramento. His mother, Karen, said he will be in rehabilitation for two weeks to a month. “He has paralysis, but not permanent, like severed paralysis, for his legs and arms” Karen said from the hospital. “He was walking this morning (Saturday). He’s bound up in a corset and uses a walker, but they want him back on his feet to make sure that all those muscles and nerves are working. He has a lot of numbness down his calf and into his heels, so it kind of feels likes he’s walking on Jello.”
To his mother, the fact that Jason can walk, is just one miracle. “Frankly, the fact that he’s alive at all ... He ended up under a waterfall, under water with no legs to use,” Karen Craig said. Jason has been involved in the sport of kayaking since he was 10. He is the 2009 Junior World Freestyle Kayak Champion, he placed second at the USA National Point Series Men’s Pro 2010, was the 2009 Junior National Champion, finished second at World Cup 2008 and was the 2006 Junior National Champion. Then came that fateful evening nine days ago.When Jason hit the bottom of the waterfall, his kayak struck a submerged rock.
The guys he was kayaking with had all landed in nearly the same spot, only without incident. “The thing about it is, I went in the same spot pretty much as the two people who went before me, I just happened to hit a rock,” Jason said. “I wanted to go farther right than I did, but I still got pushed left but I boofed,” he said, referring to the kayaking term for pulling the bow up to land flat. “Looking at the video, I was in virtually the same spot, but I was the one to hit the rock,” he said.
The damage to Jason’s body was substantial. X-rays and CT scans showed Jason basically separated his pelvis, split a body part at the base of his spine virtually in half and ripped a membranous sac that encases the spinal cord within the bony structure of the vertebral column about 5 inches. “In a sense, his two legs were independent of each other so they weren’t on the same structure anymore,” Karen said. “These doctors had to figure out how to get his nerves to work, keep him walking and keep him feeling, and rebuild a structure that was strong enough to hold the kid together. They were amazing, absolutely amazing.” His mother said it could be days, weeks, months or even a year before the nerves that were so badly damaged “find their way to work again.”
During the trip down Dry Creek, which runs into Beale Air Force Base outside Marysville, Jason wasn’t following his friends and fellow kayakers over every waterfall, sometimes choosing to walk around, including one waterfall about 60 feet high.“Jason said he’s run harder things, he’s run scarier things,” Karen said of the 25-foot-waterfall where he was injured. “This one (where he was injured) was not particularly complex, and it looked fun. He gave it a try.”
After impact, the waterfall that looked relatively tame held Jason under water and pushed him around.“I ran the waterfall and took a really big hit when I went under,” Jason said. “I might have gone unconscious, I’m not really sure. The next thing I remember I was out of my kayak and underwater. I tried to move my legs and couldn’t, and I tried to swim. That was pretty scarey being underwater and not being able to move.“Eventually I popped up by a rock and grabbed on and held on for awhile trying to move my legs. I couldn’t pull myself up. Every time I did it was super, intense pain, and I shook my head and told the guys I couldn’t get up. The guys paddled over and pulled me onto the shore.”
On shore, the kayakers evaluated Jason’s condition to see if he’d broken his back.“I could wiggle my toes,” Jason said. “That was a pretty amazing feeling. I was pretty scared that I had paralyzed myself.” The kayakers were well prepared for the emergency. “All the rivers are flooding so this was a rare occasion to get on this particular river,” said kayaker Cody Howard, who received combat medical training in the Marines. “Being that it was new and all, we were in expedition mode so we brought out quite a bit of safety gear and safety people so we could complete these rivers as safe as possible.”
One kayaker, Darrin McQuoid of Davis, Calif., used a spot emergency radio to call for medical help. A helicopter arrived, but couldn’t land so the five kayakers with Jason and one emergency medical responder got him out on a spine board.“They had to haul him up a cliff, over rocks, down a cliff, across a river and out of a canyon,” Karen said. “He was in shock, and he was hypothermic. It took them between four and five hours to get him to the road.”
Howard, who was taking video of the runs from below the waterfall, knew Jason was in trouble as soon as he hit bottom.“Right when he landed I said ‘uh-oh,’ because it was a audible impact, just a loud crushing sound from his boat landing on this outcropping at the base of the waterfall,” Howard said. “It was almost immediate. The telltale signs of carnage were there — an upside down boat and a kayaker not emerging. Jason’s a world-champion kayaker and when he wasn’t trying to roll it was pretty obvious he was in some pain.”McQuoid, Howard, Taylor Calvin from Coloma, Calif., Will Pruitt from Grass Valley, Calif., Robby Hogg from Sacramento and Gareth Tate from Yosemite, used advanced military and swiftwater-rescue tactics to help carry Jason out.
Jason was taken to a hospital in Marysville, but immediately was transferred to a level-one trauma unit in Roseville. Jason, the valedictorian of his class at WOLF — Washoe On-Line Learning for the Future — is facing a long recovery, and his family is facing “monsterous” medical bills. The family is finding help with the medical bills through Facebook.“This wonderful group of family friends, just amazing people, they’ve brought in his kayak sponsors and friends from around the world, and everyone is putting on fundraisers at different kayak festivals,” Karen said.Information about his injuries and updates on his condition also are posted on the recovery fund Facebook page.
The injury will keep Jason from defending his world championship in June in Germany, but he plans to eventually get be back on the water again.“I’m staying very positive and I’m very excited to go to rehab,” Jason said. “I’m excited to get back at it when I’m recovered and when I’m strong again. I can’t wait to go kayaking, I can’t wait to go rock climbing, I can’t wait to spend time with my friends, go to college.”