Pia Pearce on Being Kevin's Mother -- Before and After Brain Injury

Victoria Tilney McDonough, BrainLine
Pia Pearce on Being Kevin’s Mother — Before and After Brain Injury

At the age of 18, Kevin Pearce soared onto the professional snowboarding stage, quickly becoming the athlete to watch in this ever-evolving sport. While training for the Olympic trials, Kevin sustained a traumatic brain injury. His ongoing rehabilitation and training remain an inspiration to countless people.

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When Pia Pearce thinks about her fourth son, Kevin, as a toddler, she sees him in action, a blur of color, a blast of movement. “I feel like he was born with perseverance … born into action,” she says. “He was always moving and climbing and jumping off stuff.” That never changed.

Coming from a family of eight children, Pia reveled in the constant motion of Kevin and his brothers, Andrew, Adam, and David. And living in Vermont, the Pearce boys thrived in the outdoors, the snow, and the sports. As Kevin got a little older, he followed his brother Adam to ski academies where they balanced academics with training and competitive snowboarding. “There is always a certain level of anxiety when your kids are participating in high-risk sports like snowboarding, but my husband, Simon, and I are firm believers in letting kids do what they love,” says Pia. “And I always felt that Adam and Kevin were thoughtful, never reckless. As they got better, they would try more difficult tricks, but they worked up to them realistically.”

Like most people, Pia says she didn’t know much about brain injury until Kevin was hurt. Her kids played other sports like soccer and lacrosse and she says that the risk of concussion — or brain injury — rarely crossed their radar.

It was on the last day of 2009 when Kevin took the devastating hit that resulted in his severe brain injury. He was attempting a trick called a cab double cork and he just missed the landing. He plummeted headfirst, slamming his forehead into the hard halfpipe. “Obviously, it was a shocking thing to have something horrible happen to Kevin and to see him in such a precarious way,” says Pia. Kevin, 22 at the time, spent six weeks in critical care in Park City, Utah then three months in rehab at Craig Hospital in Denver, Colorado. “Our family pulled together; that’s what got us through,” says Pia. In the early stages, she says, it was sometimes difficult to have to turn friends away, but the focus was on helping Kevin get better. He needed to rest his brain first and foremost. Kevin and the whole Pearce family received an outpouring of love and support from extended family, friends, and from the thousands of people around the world who sent cards and gifts and who wrote words of encouragement on Kevin’s website. It all provided a buoy of positivity for Kevin, his parents, and his brothers.

Adam, the second oldest brother, was the most hands-on during Kevin’s day-to-day in-patient rehabilitation at Craig Hospital. “Adam knew how to push Kevin, how to help him and inspire him since they knew each other so well,” says Pia. And Craig Hospital, she says, was very inclusive of the family in the recovery process. “They understood the value of family and I believe that had a large influence on Kevin’s outcome.” But of course, Kevin was the person steering the boat of his recovery. In the early stages, once he woke from his coma, Kevin still slept a lot of the time. His eyes didn’t track and he didn’t remember much. The journey to recovery after a brain injury is incredibly hard physically and emotionally. “It’s painful to see your child struggle, but Kevin always had this internal strength and will. And he’s so good-natured. He was unwilling to give up and he worked incredibly hard to get better,” says Pia. “We were blessed in his recovery that he kept making progress every day, even if those steps were tiny. We never felt as if we were at a standstill or that there were big setbacks. That made an enormous difference for Kevin, and for all of us.”

When Kevin was able to return home to Vermont, everyone rallied around him for the next stage of his recovery. He continued to do occupational and speech therapies at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center and he did physical therapy at the local gym. “He was so excited to get back to working out at a gym instead of at a rehab hospital,” says Pia. “That was a big milestone for Kevin and it boosted his spirits.”

When Kevin started talking about returning to the halfpipe and to competition, his family did what they did best: they pulled together and shared their thoughts with love and honesty. They knew that brain injury can impair a person’s judgment and that Kevin probably didn’t understand fully the risk of hitting his head again … even an innocuous hit could fully disable him or even kill him. “It took Kevin a long time to come to terms with what he had lost. The brain doesn’t give you all the information you need when you have a brain injury. The people around him needed to help him understand this, and to be patient with him in the process,” says Pia.

“I honestly believe that one of the great gifts of having David — who has Down syndrome — is that I learned patience. And with Kevin’s recovery, I have become even more patient,” Pia says. With love and concern, the family was able to convince Kevin to wait a full two years before he returned to snowboarding. They had to help him develop a deeper awareness of what it means to have a severe traumatic brain injury. In fact, it was often from David that Kevin heard why his family was worried about his safety and that they were encouraging caution out of love. 

David and Kevin had always been close, but the dynamic altered after Kevin’s brain injury. Both have intellectual challenges and, at times, get frustrated by them, but neither is by any means defined by them. Often, they challenge each other and help the other take steps toward acceptance of what is reality. Pia says she always made it clear to David that everyone has his own challenges in life but that finding ways around them is what matters. His father, for example, has dyslexia but it never got in the way of his becoming a well-known entrepreneur in glassblowing and pottery.

Kevin has returned to snowboarding, but only recreationally. He rides in powder, he doesn’t do tricks on the halfpipe, and he rides for the sheer fun of it in the safest way possible. Having to give up snowboarding competitively was a big loss for Kevin, but he has parlayed his passion into educating others to “love your brain.” Pia recounts an appointment Kevin had with a doctor when he was talking about how frustrated he was, how clumsy and forgetful he felt. The doctor told him that saying mean things to and about yourself actually harms your brain. The “Love Your Brain” campaign — an outreach campaign born from the documentary, “The Crash Reel,” and his inspiring story — emerged from that conversation. Now, Kevin and Adam are traveling across the country taking the film to schools and educating kids about concussions, what to do if they or someone they love sustains a hit to the head, how to love your brain — and how to persevere no matter what. “The response has been fantastic,” says Pia. “The kids really relate to Kevin and Adam and what they are teaching.”

Pia still worries about Kevin. She worries about all her kids. What mother doesn’t? “I can’t bug Kevin too much, or he won’t listen to his mom,” she says. What does give her comfort is the closeness of their family. When Kevin was in the first major stages of recovery, she says that the family made a collective choice not to ask “why me?” or to dwell on the tragedy. They decided, instead, to stay positive and look forward. “We tried to hold onto that no matter how challenging a day seemed,” she says. “We’re a team. We support each other, there’s lots of love and fun,” she says. “That cannot be broken.”

Posted on BrainLine March 18, 2014.

Comments (17)

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Thank you for sharing your beautiful and inspiring story. Thank you for "Love Your Brain Your Brain" movement. You blessed so many people's lives with your kindness and positive spirit.


Pia, Thank you for your words of encouragement. My son (29yrs) suffered a TBI less than 2 months ago and is in acute rehab here in Raleigh, NC at the moment. He will be going to a step down rehab center in a week or two. Your words, as well as the movie, has helped ground me in the positive. Looking for the daily bright side and relying on my family will help keep me focused on my son's recovery and what is best for him.

Thank you for sharing your story Pia. You are a great role model on parenting, compassion, and love. Sharing your family's difficult times has helped so many dealing with TBI's the challenges. Thank you and keep up the great work.
thank you for this. Wow. Staying positive is the key for each situation in our life :)
Watching 'The Crash Reel' was an emotional roller coaster for me. As an athlete (roller derby) I understood the desire to participate in a sport regardless of the risk of injury. As a mother of two VERY active, fearless little girls I understand the desire to want to encourage your children to do what they love but also want to keep them safe. I think your family is an inspiration and thank you for allowing us a glimpse into your world to make a difference!
This is what family is for

THE CRASH REEL has had the most influence on me in all my research regarding my condition. There was definitely one pivotal "light bulb" moment for me that I'll never forget. I look forward to continuing to follow the inspirational Pearce family.

Jan (TBI 2012) http://tbi-woman.blogspot.com/

As the mother of a son who sustained a TBI at the age of 20, I can relate very much to our story. Details are much different of course, but the emotional strength needed to help our children comes from faith, family and friends.

Thanks for sharing.

I feel comfort in your shares. Thank you for empowering Kevin to "find his words" and for educating people on the struggles of an invisible injury. Much love to you and your family

Hi Mrs Pearce,
Thanks for your sincere story and experience with Kevin! I like snowboarding like your son and a lot of people. Now I am 47 year and I restarted to ride a board since October 2014. I like it, but now I want to learn freestyle and to do it with helmet, even it will take time I want to take time for learning tricks.The Film of Kevin opened me the eyes,not alone for snowboarding, but also for my addiction in alcohol.

I am lucky to have an 8 year old son and a nice wife! I like what Kevin said, to be cool and to love our brain! He's right! For me not to drink by partys> or specials event is a challenge and not easy to fight. It's in my mind! But since I saw the film I discovered that it's possible not to depend of alcohol even alcohol is not far away from me,and that's great!

Thanks to you all and to Kevin!!!!

I thoroughly enjoyed watching the documentary about your son Kevin's accident and the road to recovery for both him and the family. Each time your family is around the table Simon rang a bell and the family held hands and prayed. Is this part of your faith practice? What is your faith?
Thank you for telling your story. I believe that Kevin's recovery was a direct result of a loving and supportive family.

Ms. Pearce-

Thank you for sharing this and for your contributions to the movie.  What a service by you and your family to the rest of us...

It was not the point of the movie, obviously, but your family's communication style, how you hash things out and name feelings, is so admirable. I would love to read something written by you and/or your husband on your parenting philosophy and how you raised your sons to be such articulate, communicative people.

All the best to you and your family,

A Chicago Mom

I sustained a TBI 7 years ago, I am just now relearning to walk. I have been lucky enough to have the continued love patience and encouragement of my husband and now my 6 year old son! It has been a long hard road but my faith in God and the love of my husband and son has guided me through and continues to do so everyday! I appreciate your story thank you for sharing!
Watching Crash Reel changed me. I wanted my whole community to watch it. I cared for my (former) spouse who sustained a similar injury in 2007 and carefully watched your son's story and progress. Thank you for fighting the good fight and influencing our country's awareness around the life long challenges TBI can carry. We have a long ways to go with legislation, rehab, etc, but it's foundations like yours they are carving the path. Thank you! -Sarah
Watched this over the weekend and came away full of admiration for David - he was the one who really got through to Kevin when the consultants and the parents failed. Sometimes we just need to say things very simply and from the heart to really make an impact.

Watched Crash Reel many, many time, because I love your family so much.