Passion lives after brush with death
Rau returned to Grand Geneva snowmobile race year after accident
|Erika Rau sits on her snowmobile at Friday's ISOC National SnoCross series at the Grand Geneva Resort and Spa. (click for larger version)|
March 23, 2011 | 08:37 AMLyons Township — Friday almost never happened for Erika Rau.
It was the Nielsen Enterprise Finale of the ISOC National SnoCross snowmobile series at the Grand Geneva Resort and Spa, and the 18-year-old Lawton, Mich. native competed in the Women's Pro Am event, where she is currently ranked fifth. The bubbling, energetic young woman was all smiles and excited about this year's competition.
After her first heat, Rau was simply glad to finish. That's because about a year ago, tragedy struck for Rau on this same course, and she is simply happy to be walking, talking and returning to racing.
It was March 19, 2010, a seemingly normal Friday afternoon, but a day Rau and her family will never forget.
Rau jumped out to an early lead in her race that day, but she turned the corner at the top of Black Diamond ski hill and saw a red flag, meaning the race had to stop. It turned out her best friend, Lauren, had broken her hand during the start of the race. Rau was shaken up, but her dad's soothing words calmed her down.
So Rau had to start over, and what happened next almost ended her life. She took off on the first jump of a double jump at the top of the hill, but when she came down, her snowmobile hit its front end on the peak of the next jump, ejecting Rau from the sled. She slammed into the snow face first, and her snowmobile flipped and landed on her back, pinning her underneath. The impact of the blow shredded her aorta, the largest artery in the body. Also, she crushed the bottom part of her skull.
Medics requested Flight for Life to American Family Children's Hospital in Madison. However, with sleet conditions, flying wasn't an option. So, as Rau bled profusely, she took the hour-plus ride to Madison. Her parents were encouraged to make the trip because Erika's chances were grim.
When she arrived at the hospital, doctors began operating immediately.
"Ninety percent of the time, tearing the aorta is a fatal injury," said Dr. C.W. Acher, the vascular surgeon who worked on Erika's aorta. "She was unstable and had to be treated quickly. She would've bled to death without immediate action."
Doctors placed two tube-like stents through Rau's groin up to her heart to help with blood flow. While the two inner layers of her aorta had already burst, her outer layer was severely weakened.
"There was a thin layer between her and catastrophe," Acher said. "It could've ruptured at any time, and that would've been it."
After successful surgery, Erika was up and talking only hours after the operation. Acher hadn't seen anything like it before.
"To walk into the room and have a conversation with her the same night, that's pretty remarkable," Acher said. "It's miraculous that was she was up and alert so quickly. Erika is one tough, little cookie."
Rau almost required a blood transfusion and open-heart surgery, and she hardly remembers anything between Grand Geneva and Madison. But she remembers being scared of surgery and knew she could die. However, it was going to take a lot more than an accident to stop her.
"The first thing I said after surgery was, 'I want to go race, get me back on my sled,'" Rau said Friday in her trailer at the Grand Geneva event. "I was ranked first last year, and I wanted to defend my points. The doctors were like, 'No, you're not moving.'"
Lynne Sears, a pediatric critical care nurse, who was by Rau's side for her last CT scan before leaving the hospital, will never forget meeting her.
"I knew what happened to her before I met her and thought it must not be the right patient," Sears said of Rau. "She had good color, a good smile and an 'I can' attitude. It was a brief meeting, but I'll never forget it. A lot of times, people die at the scene. She had a bad neck injury and could've been a paraplegic. She even sent me a thank-you note this summer. Erika is the whole package."
The road to recovery
Rau had to wear a full-torso neck brace for two months after the accident. She even showered in it. Her parents had to roll her over and change the pads in it every so often. A senior in high school at the time, Erika said the brace was difficult.
"I was happy to be alive, but my senior trip to Orlando was really hot," she said. "I even had to wear my brace over my dress to prom, and I was a little bummed about that."
But the collar didn't stop her from being athletic. She ran two 10-mile races with it, and only seven months after that fateful day in March, she ran in a marathon in Detroit on Oct. 17. The brace was gone by early August.
"The first day without my brace, my mom and I went shopping," she said. "Nobody looked at me weird. It was weird to be normal again."
Rau felt accomplished to finish a marathon, but it was just an appetizer for the return to her true love — snowmobiling.
"I was sitting on my snowmobile in my garage all summer," Rau said. "There was no question in my mind to go back to it. It was a freak accident that could happen to anyone. It should've been fatal the first time. I'm lucky to be here, I understand that, but racing is addictive and it gets in your blood and you can't give it up."
Rau fell in love with snowmobile racing about five years ago after a trial race at one of her brother Kyle's races.
"My parents were always supportive of whatever we wanted to do," Rau said. "The adrenaline on the starting line is the best. My favorite part is jumping, there is nothing else like being in the air. And the people in it are extremely nice."
Friday morning's heat marked Rau's return to Grand Geneva, almost exactly a year after the accident. She admitted it was at the top of her mind.
"I was nervous coming into the weekend," Rau said. "But I had to block it out of my head. The sleds before weren't going all the way up the hill (where she saw the red flag last year), but then the bails were moved and I asked my friend, 'Do we have to go up there?' I mentally prepared myself to not go up there, so when I found out we were going back up (to the approximate site of my accident), I was like, 'Oh, my gosh.' I told myself to take it easy and go slow. There wasn't a jump at the top of the hill like last year, so it wasn't nearly as bad."
Rau said her main goal in the heat was simply keeping her snowmobile upright. She felt relieved knowing she finished it. On Sunday, in the Showdown at Sundown, the year's final race for the Pro Am Women's Super Stock, Rau grabbed fifth place out of nine in the finals. She finished sixth overall for the season.
But last weekend, points and places seemed trivial to Rau. She is simply happy to be back to doing what she loves, and she doesn't want to stop any time soon.
"This whole experience has given me a new outlook on life," she said. "Now I always have a smile on my face. I'm happy to be alive. I knew I was lucky. God has a plan for me and that's why I'm still here today. Do what you love, and whatever's supposed to happen will happen."