Save A Brain: Kelsey Boyer Launches Non-Profit Dedicated to Brain Health and Treatment of traumatic brain injuries and Concussions
Words and photos: Mary Walsh
In 2016, Kelsey Boyer was living in Colorado, riding in slopestyle competitions. She had a low-profile skate helmet that she wore when snowboarding, but it was beat up and didn’t meet the regulations for on hill use—still it was more than many of her peers were wearing. During a two-month window that winter, she sustained too many concussions for that length of time, minor ones, but concussions none the less. “I probably had 6-8 concussions,” Kelsey recalls, but in snowboarding in general, falls just seemed to come with the territory. “I didn’t care. I couldn’t see it,” she adds. “I didn’t know I was hurting.”
Then, during a contest at Winter Park, she took a particularly gnarly fall. “My nose ring ripped out. My lenses flew out. I remember getting myself up and I got on the chairlift and you know, stubborn me, I’m like, ‘Okay, I got another turn.’ I literally had a voice in my head that was like, ‘Your brain’s bleeding.’ It was the weirdest thing. So I went to ski patrol and they said, ‘Everything’s fine.’ I went to probably three doctors after that fall and they all said I was fine. Two weeks went by, I was in Jackson Hole filming and I don’t remember the whole week there. Everybody was saying that I was kind of having mood swings and I was gagging a lot. Micah [Anderson] forced me into the emergency room and they took a scan just in case. The doctors told me, ‘Your brain shifted 11 millimeters. You have a subdural hematoma. You need to go down to Denver for immediate brain surgery.’ I was like, ‘What the hell? You’re kidding.’ They sedated me right away. I was lucky to be alive, so they didn’t really want me awake that much. They monitored me for twenty-four hours and flew in one of the best brain surgeons. I was in the ICU for about a week, I think. Then, I went to recovery floor, had to pass some walking/talking tests, and then they pretty much just sent me on my way.”
After her initial recovery, from the outside, Kelsey seemed to be alright. She could walk, she could talk, she had emerged from the hospital relatively quickly. But inside, her brain was not okay. She was battling symptoms every day that deeply affected her quality of life. “My mood swings were the worst. I would throw a fit and I wouldn’t remember it. I would kind of just black out,” she remembers. “And it hurt a lot to move my eyes. I wasn’t really sleeping. I was maybe getting four hours a night, so that was getting pretty gnarly, as well. I experienced a lot of effects, but those were the worst. Of course, like everybody else, the memory, the cognitive functioning—that was all slowed down for me, as well. I just felt so sluggish.” This continued for years as Kelsey struggled to understand what was happening and to make it better, finding few answers in traditional medical options and little information outside of that. “I was three years down the road from my injury and I was bartending,” she says. “How in the world are you supposed to do a whole shift feeling like that? Late at night, trying to move your eyes, looking at a screens…I was like, ‘How am I supposed to pay my bills?’”
It wasn’t until a friend told Kelsey about Love Your Brain, Kevin Pearce’s non-profit, that she started exploring holistic treatment and seeing improvement in how she felt. Yoga and meditation became a staple of her routine. “That was the first step that I took where I was like, ‘Woah, this is helping.’” Going further, Kelsey started studying what foods were good for the brain and watching what she was eating and drinking. Everything changed. “Every brain injury is different,” she emphasizes, “but from my experience, it’s been a whole lifestyle change because the more I didn’t cater to my brain, the worse my effects were, which made me live this miserable life. When I don’t drink caffeine and I don’t drink alcohol, and I do eat good foods, then I feel good. I mean, it’s a big commitment for sure, and I still suck at it. I’ve got the biggest sweet tooth and I love my red wine. But it definitely just takes trying to do something for your brain because unfortunately from my experience, it wasn’t just going to heal and be done.”
Through avid research, she found treatment centers that were trying new techniques for healing brain injuries. There were really beneficial options, but the price—generally not covered by insurance—was often unapproachable. Because Kelsey was able to take advantage of some treatments through a grant from the High Fives Foundation, she was readily aware of how prohibitive the cost was and how much scholarships like the one she received can change someone’s life. She felt increasingly that even more opportunities to help people were needed, whether they have suffered a TBI or concussions. Additionally, those recovering from brain injuries should be able to find the information and options even more easily.
Overall, there was a dearth of resources communicating options for treatment and healing, and that ultimately led to Save A Brain’s humble beginnings as an Instagram account to share information about ways to keep your brain healthy. Kelsey had been through this—was still going through this—and wanted to help others who were experiencing similar things. “I decided to make an Instagram account and spread awareness, and then I was like, ‘I’m not doing enough. I want to do more.’” And so the process of making Save A Brain an non-profit organization designed to further spread awareness and raise money to help those in need of treatment began.
On Monday, May 4, 2020 the culmination of the past four years came into sharp focus as Save A Brain officially launched as a non-profit and began taking donations. “I couldn’t sleep last night because I knew I was going to launch. I woke up at 6am and just finally put it out there.” Kelsey put her phone away after that, unsure of what the reaction would be. In the twelve months leading up Monday, she had immersed herself in unfamiliar territory to form the non-profit, having had no business experience previous to the endeavor. “I’ve been preparing. How do you run a business? How do you do this? How do you do that? Google. Books. It’s been crazy. I studied the human body in college, I’ve just been a snowboarder my whole life, and here I am walking into an attorney’s office by myself, just like, ‘Hey I have this idea, I want to start a non-profit.’ My attorney, Scott Hansen, is amazing. I’m learning as I go. Now that I look back on it from a year, it’s like, jesus. I was stressing. How do I overcome this, how do I do that? Onto the next one. I’m making budgets and I’m reading bylaws. I’m just figuring it out as I go.”
The mission of Save A Brain is “to spread awareness of the long-lasting effects of traumatic brain injuries and concussions,” explains Kelsey. “We want to connect individuals with treatment centers and provide financial support so they have the opportunity to heal and treat their brain in order to live a life that they love and that’s fulfilled.” This has developed organically in response to what Kelsey has observed, personally. Last year, as Kelsey began to share her experience and what she had learned on social media, she started receiving more and more messages from people thanking her not only for the information, but also for making them feel like they were not alone—that they could also talk about what they were going through and tell their stories. This understanding and acceptance is often key to starting the process of healing, especially for those who may not have had one, specific, large injury, but are suffering from the accumulation of many smaller ones. The acknowledgement of these experiences is at the heart of Save A Brain’s community building. “The more I observed the world of traumatic brain injuries, I was like ‘Wow, this injury is invisible.’ It’s not like a broken leg where you can see there’s something wrong and you watch it heal. It’s almost an injury that develops over time. It can progressively get worse if you don’t take care of it. Yeah, we could walk around every day just ignoring the fact that we’re having these issues, but is that really a life that you want to choose to live? Or do you want to accept what has happened and try to do the best that you can because at the end of the day, we have two options, you know?” Kelsey is quick to emphasize that every situation is different, every injury unique, and people experience things at different levels. “I know a lot of people deal with vision issues. They see blurry or it looks like things are moving in slow motion,” she adds. “One of the most common symptoms in a lot of cases is obviously, depression—you feel like you’re in a hole.” While we are all aware in a general sense of the importance of our brain function, it’s easy to take for granted. “I don’t know, it’s like you just don’t realize that your brain really controls everything. Some people have to do physical therapy to regain balance, to walk and to talk—everything that seems natural to us.” Her hope is that Save A Brain can help as people navigate whatever road they face in their recovery, maintenance, and continued health through personal, informational, and financial support.
“Seriously, the brain is the most interesting organ in the body; it makes us who we are,” Kelsey continues, her passion even more amplified when talking about how brain health is relevant for snowboarders and other athletes. “Why do we not know anything about it? Even like what foods it likes? For the action sports world, for athletes, we’re never going to stop doing our sport and I’m not telling people to live in bubbles, but if you’re going to put your brain at risk, you should learn how to prevent a head injury, you should know things you can do to increase your brain health. I just felt like there wasn’t enough awareness being spread and I think increasing that information can go a long way. The financial aid side, that came from learning how expensive all of these treatments are. It’s so sad that you find a sense of hope in a treatment center that could maybe get your life back on track and as soon as you see that number, you’re like, ‘Well, nevermind, guess I’ll just keep living with it.’ It shouldn’t have to be like that. People should have an opportunity to have a second chance.”
Over the past year, as Save A Brain grew, Kelsey brought on friends to help her form the organization (she credits her family with providing an immense amount of support throughout the whole process). Melissa Riitano and Micah Anderson joined first. “They said, ‘What you can’t figure out, we can all figure out together,” says Kelsey. “And we just kept growing, creating this awesome team.” Morgan Scibetta provides art direction; she created the logo and website. Chelsie Moore, whose own journey with head injuries in outdoor sport has led her to a profession in Clinical Nutrition and Integrative Health, was a perfect addition to Save a Brain’s board of directors. She knows intimately how brain injuries can affect a person and now based in South Lake Tahoe, has committed her life to helping treat and heal the ailments of others. Jen Herman is a licensed massage therapist who is also certified in providing holistic medicine. Her passion for the human body and how to heal has been an integral part of Save A Brain’s evolution. Danika Duffy, who a few years ago traded in hitting street spots for hitting the books in order to become a lawyer, is also providing support with her unique skill set and understanding of the non-profit’s mission. Jennifer Chang was the final board addition, a passionate snowboarder and mountain biker whose business acumen has been essential to the formation of the organization.
By Monday afternoon on the day of the launch, Kelsey picked her phone back up, blown away by the immediate support, both in terms of shares, comments, and messages, and in early financial donations. While the current pandemic has limited the non-profit’s initial fundraising to digital outreach, future plans for in-person activations, snowboard events, and more are in the works. “This is where it gets fun: the events.” Kelsey lights up when talking about this, the logistical challenges of the past year creating the organization finally falling away. “We get to bring this to life and share it with everybody. My biggest thing with Save A Brain is that I really want to give back to our donors. I want people to know where the money is going. This is where we get to connect with the community that we want to create.”
That Kelsey has rallied to create Save A Brain, forming the basis for community and for education, is no surprise considering that she’s unflinchingly passionate and driven. Analytical, organized, and possessing plenty of grit, Kelsey easily sees the best in everyone and is quick to help you see the best in yourself—though she’s not one for doling out participation awards and wants to affect real change. She’s got vision, but she’s pragmatic—an ideal combination to make her non-profit succeed. And while in her new role as Save A Brain’s founder and most outspoken representative she takes center stage in moving the mission forward, for anyone who knows Kelsey, anyone who has ridden a chairlift with her and done their best to keep up with as she bolts downhill (she’s particularly fond of banked slaloms—see her second place finish at the Dirksen Derby in 2019), knows it’s her nature to be the one contributing from behind-the-scenes. She doesn’t like to take credit, preferring to shine the spotlight on others, though she herself is loaded with energetic charisma, thoughtful compassion, and sharp wit. In this way, Save A Brain is opportunity for Kelsey, too: In sharing what she has learned and helping others, she must recognize what she has accomplished thus far—something bigger than she’d like to admit—and that is only going to grow from here.