Skiing accident leaves Ex-Husky with big hurdle

Scott Swanson

Nearly five years after suffering a major head injury while pole vaulting, former Sweet Home athlete Keegan Burnett is in a hospital bed once again, this time with a crushed spine after a skiing accident that doctors say will likely leave him paralyzed for life.

“It will be a miracle if he walks again,” said his grandmother, Jessie Johnson Burnett.

Burnett, 27, went skiing – for what his mother Alice Burnett said was the second time in his life – with friends at Hoodoo on Jan. 28.

“He was doing a jump and fell and landed on his head,” she said. “They say he hit his forehead.”

She said a surgeon at St. Charles Regional Medical Center in Bend, where he was transported, said her son’s body “apparently folded completely in two.”

The accident “destroyed” the T-12 disc in Keegan Burnett’s lower spine, his mother said, and created bulges around the C-5 and C-6 cervical discs in his neck. His family said he has no feeling in his legs. He also broke his right shoulder blade and suffered a concussion. Doctors say it will take six or eight weeks for the swelling to subside in his spinal column.

“The spinal cord was severely crushed but not severed,” Alice Burnett said. “There is a possibility that he could regain feeling in his legs, but they say pretty much that it will take a miracle. A lot of that is up to him, how hard he wants to work. We all know Keegan can work really hard.”

Burnett was a pole vaulter at Sweet Home High School, where he has served as an assistant coach in that event. After graduating in 2002, he jumped for Lane Community College, setting a school record of 16 feet 5 inches. He later transferred to Idaho State University and, while vaulting at a meet at Weber State in Utah, landed awkwardly on a mat and fell off, striking his head on concrete, causing his brain to swell to the point that surgeons removed a 9-inch piece of his skull to make room for his brain. The frozen bone was later reattached, and he made as full a recovery as possible.

That earlier injury makes this one more worrisome, Alice Burnett said.

“Because he suffered a traumatic brain injury five years ago, that is much more serious,” she said. “They told him five years ago that any bump to the head may not recover the same.”

She said the concussion seems to have subsided, which has made it easier to treat his other injuries.

“The first few days were difficult,” she said. “He wouldn’t take his pain medication. He rambled on and on. When they started physical therapy, then he discovered that pain medication was maybe a good idea.”

Keegan Burnett graduated in 2008 from the University of Oregon with a bachelor’s degree in human physiology and had applied to master’s degree programs in that field at both Oregon and Oregon State University before his most recent accident occurred.

He had just landed a “good-paying” temporary job at Entek in Lebanon, his mother and grandmother said.

“It was kind of perfect because it was only supposed to last a few months,” Alice Burnett said. “By then he would have known about grad school.”

Keegan Burnett had worked one day before the trip to Hoodoo. He has no medical insurance.

Family members are hoping for the best.

“The doctor said that even if he doesn’t get feeling back in his legs, he is fully capable of leading an independent life,” Alice Burnett said. But she acknowledged that there will be challenges.

“I’m anticipating that he will be with us a while. We’ll see.”

One is that her and her husband Rick’s home is not set up for a wheelchair – doors are not wide enough and modifications will have to be made.

“We’re not set up for that,” she said. “That’s something we’ll have to figure out too.”

She said they jokingly suggested to his grandmother that she could take him to her residence at Wiley Creek Community “because she’s set up for that.”

On a more serious note, Alice Burnett said, doctors were talking on Monday about moving her son to a rehabilitation facility in Bend.

An account has been set up in Keegan Burnett’s name at Key Bank in Sweet Home for those who would like to help the family out.

“That would be wonderful,” Alice Burnett said. “I know he’d really appreciate it.”

She said the fact that her son is in Bend is a plus, compared to when he was in an Ogden, Utah hospital following his last accident.

Former Sweet Home residents John and Karen Mason live in the area and have helped the Burnetts a lot in the last week.

“He’s getting good care,” she said. “This is a great hospital. We have an RV and have good friends here, so that’s a big help.

“At least we’re closer to home than last time.”