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The Woman Who Fell to Earth

In 2001, my husband came home from an adaptive fitness class at Foothill College to tell me an astonishing story: One of his classmates had free-fallen thousands of feet in a skydiving accident and suffered massive injuries. And so began my friendship with Deborah Shurson, whose long struggle to recover from her life-shattering fall is recounted in the latest issue of Stanford Medicine magazine.

In seeing Deborah, one would never guess her history, for she has a radiant look about her, with her long blonde hair, pristine complexion and ready smile. But as I began talking with her, it became clear that her lingering brain injury from the accident still presented challenges. She would often halt mid-sentence, trying to recall words. She would search her mind for memories that she could not summon. She had trouble organizing the daily tasks of her life: She could not balance a checkbook, follow a book chapter or easily find her way around a shopping center. But she had a joie de vivre that was truly energizing.

I first met with Deborah and her partner, Gary Fairchild, several times at their home in downtown Los Altos, Calif., a charming, turreted building which they fondly call the "castle." Later my husband and I would go out to dinner with them, attend Deborah's 50th birthday party and even spend Christmas with them. They were both eager to share their stories. Gary also had suffered a brain injury and had met Deborah at Foothill in a class for disabled students. It was hard to believe that Gary could barely speak after his injury, for he was quite the talker; Deborah was a bit more reticent. I also met Deborah's parents when they came to visit, and they reminisced about her days as a synchronized swimmer, interior designer and organizer of family activities. Later, I would go to Half Moon Bay to meet Deborah's brother. He had never really come to terms with the personality changes in Deborah after the accident and clearly missed the sister he once had.

I was very moved by the story and intended to publish it back then but never did. In the meantime, I lost contact with Deborah. So I was delighted when Rosanne Spector, the editor of Stanford Medicine, suggested I write a version of the story for this issue of the publication, which is focused on survival. When I reconnected with Deborah again after a decade, I found her remarkably unchanged. She was as vibrant and upbeat as ever, relishing her days and looking forward to celebrating her 60th birthday later this year.

Previously: Surviving survival: The new Stanford Medicine magazine is out

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