Eleven years ago, Mary Benson nearly died – and all she really wanted to do was quit smoking.
Seemingly out of the blue, at age 38, the previously healthy South Surrey woman suffered a major brain injury that doctors could not properly diagnose. They suspected it may have come as a result of a severe allergic reaction to a prescription medication that she had started taking in an attempt to quit her cigarette habit, but no conclusions were ever reached.
The injury primarily affected Benson’s right frontal lobe, and there was brain-stem damage as well. As a result, she lost previously learned motor skills – including the ability to walk and talk – and was hospitalized for three weeks.
Doctors sent blood work to the Mayo Clinic, to France – all over the world – in an attempt to figure out what was wrong.
Though confused, doctors were sure about one thing; the injury was serious. They advised her she may have only three years left to live.
The diagnosis upset her family tremendously, but failed to faze Benson. The day they received the news, partner Kathy Oxner spent much of it on the phone, relaying the situation while trying to hold back a flood of tears.
Late in the evening, with Oxner having just spoken to Benson’s brother, her partner entered the room and saw her crying.
“What’s the matter, Kath?” Benson asked.
“I’m just scared,” was Oxner’s reply.
“Don’t listen to them. Nothing’s going to happen to me,” Benson said matter-of-factly. “I’m not going to die. I still have things to do.”
Looking back on that moment, the now 49-year-old Benson laughs at the memory.
“With the brain injury, it’s affected my emotions in a lot of ways, and I don’t think dying ever really quite clicked with me. I just said, ‘Well, no, that’s not happening.’ And that was that – there was no emotion attached to it... Dying just didn’t seem to be an option for me, I guess.”
After her stay in hospital, Benson – who grew up in Manitoba, eventually moving to the Peninsula – was transferred to G.F. Strong Rehabilitation Clinic in Vancouver. For the next 2½ years she participated in an out-patient program, where she embarked on the painstaking process of relearning everything she’d ever known.
It was overwhelming. The injury had affected her senses, and made her extremely sensitive to noise. Sounds hurt her head. She couldn’t form proper sentences or read a book. Simple tasks, such as making coffee or buttering toast, were beyond her. And the outside world – with all its bright lights, commotion and loud noises – suddenly became a strange, scary place.
For the first year, she rarely left the house.
• • •
All her life, Benson had been an athlete.
Growing up, she was an avid cross-country skier, and lists making Team Manitoba for field hockey and ringette as two of her favourite sports memories.
Three years before the injury, Benson and Oxner had taken up cross-country skiing and instantly fell in love with the sport.
And though such pursuits seemed a long way off – impossible, even – Benson says that during the recovery process she would have vivid dreams of again being on skis, gliding through the North Shore Mountains, the trees creaking in the cold, and the cool wind whipping her face.
But it was only that – a dream.
“I never thought I’d be able to ski again. There were so many things I had to (overcome). They’d give me things to read, and I just... I just couldn’t do it. I could see letters, see that they were words, but couldn’t put them together, or didn’t know what they meant,” Benson says. “I just couldn’t understand why I couldn’t understand.”
And though the breakthroughs eventually came, Benson says there were setbacks, and many dark moments when she questioned whether the effort was worth it.
Occasionally, she thought of suicide.
“I just thought, ‘I can’t live like this...’ I kind of laugh about it now, but there were times where I thought of ending my life somehow. But the ironic part of the brain injury was that, even though I maybe wanted to do it, I didn’t have the mental capacity to actually plan it.”
After months of intense rehabilitation therapy at G.F. Strong, Benson steadily improved, and she began regaining many of her motor skills.
Then, one day, a G.F. Strong employee heard of a six-week learn-to cross-country-ski program at Cypress Mountain, and suggested Oxner and Benson give it a try.
“I was terrified, just terrified. I mean, I couldn’t walk all the way down the street, and you want me to ski?” Benson says.
Finally, she agreed to go, just to watch others.
Of course, Benson didn’t stay on the sidelines for long – “It was the first day,” laughs Oxner – and she soon found herself back on skis.
Though unsteady on her skis, and relying heavily on two poles to keep balanced, the moment was a turning point for Benson. For the first time since her injury, she saw progress – light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.
“That first stride... I just started gliding on the snow, and I thought, ‘Wow, I can do this.’ People have told me it was a body memory coming back, but I don’t know. I just knew I could move. “When it happened, it just brought me back to my life.”
• • •
In the five years since, cross-country skiing has become much more than a hobby – it’s become Benson’s primary focus.
She dedicated herself to her new sport, and improved to the point where she began representing Canada at events around the world. She’s trained and competed in Finland, France and Germany.
And, later this month – fresh off a best-ever eighth-place result in a World Cup event in Oberreid, Germany – she’ll compete in B.C. in her biggest competition to date: the 2010 Paralympic Games in Callaghan Valley, just outside Whistler. She’ll compete in the para-Nordic five-kilometre race, the 1.2-km sprint and the team relay.
She has her disadvantages at the competitive level, of course. She’s still hyper-sensitive to noise – in one of her first-ever races, in Quebec, the sound of the starter’s pistol caused her to fall over – and the Paralympic crowds, too, will be challenging to deal with.
And, unlike many of her fellow Paralympians, Benson is dealing with what Oxner calls a “dual-disability” – in addition to the physical challenges all athletes deal with, Benson also suffers from short-term memory loss. Many skiers, for example, will race a course the day before a competition and plan their race, but “that doesn’t do Mary much good, because she forgets,” Oxner explains.
Still, the challenges of racing – like her doctor’s prognosis years before – do little to rattle Benson.
And though she’d prefer to look ahead – perhaps to a podium finish at the March 12-21 Games – rather than back at her near-miraculous recovery, she concedes there are moments when she thinks about her path and wonders how she got here, all the way to the Paralympic stage.
“I know it’s cliché, but anything is possible, it really is. The brain is an amazing thing.”
A fundraiser is scheduled at Vancouver’s Elephant Walk Pub (41 Avenue and Knight Street) Saturday, beginning at 6 p.m., to help Benson compete on the world stage. Anyone interested in attending the event, or donating a silent auction item or door prize, can email firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information, or to follow Benson’s progress on the cross-country circuit, check out her website, www.skiwithmaryb.shawwebspace.ca