Reaching the summit: Pikes Peak Challenge helps brain injured

Memorial Hospital neurosciences program behind the effort
Aug. 30, 2016

There are times when Heather Mazzola, a nurse practitioner at UCHealth Memorial Hospital’s Cardiology Department, will share her personal story if she thinks it will inspire a struggling patient.

Mazzola relays how she suffered a traumatic brain injury about 16 years ago when her car was hit by a train while she was driving home from her shift as an ICU/CCU nurse.

“I survived it,’’ she said. “It was a very traumatic brain injury, and I was out of work for six months because I had to learn to walk and talk and eat – everything – all over again.’’

Mazzola tells patients that the TBI did not stop her from her dream of becoming a nurse practitioner – she graduated in 2010 with her NP degree from Colorado State University – Pueblo. The injury has, in part, shaped how she cares for patients.

Heather Mazzola, a nurse practitioner at UCHealth Memorial Hospital’s Cardiology Department, (left), stands with Dana Wehde, Rick Weaver, Cassie Tannehill, and Boone Creech at the summit of Pikes Peak after completing the Pikes Peak Challenge in 2014.

“I’m empathetic with patients. I really listen to what they tell me and, if it helps them, I’ll share my story with them. I will call to follow up with them more often, perhaps, than other providers. I want to make sure they are doing okay,’’ Mazzola said.

Mazzola knows first-hand what it is like to struggle to regain abilities, and she has teamed up with Kristine Pacheco, a physician assistant in Memorial Hospital’s Neurosciences program, to serve as co-chair and chair, respectively, of a Memorial team hiking in the Pikes Peak Challenge – an event that is sponsored by UCHealth.

During the Sept. 10 community event, participants will climb 13 miles to the summit of 14,114-foot Pikes Peak or opt to trek to Barr Camp, about 6.5 miles from the trailhead of Barr Trail in Manitou Springs. Many of the hikers who participate have suffered a brain injury.

UCHealth is sponsoring the event, which benefits the Brain Injury Alliance of Colorado Springs, because Memorial plays a crucial role in caring for people who have suffered brain injuries.

“We see a large number of trauma-related brain injury patients at Memorial, so I think it is important that we are involved,’’ Pacheco said.

In recent years, Dr. John McVicker, neurosurgeon and director of Neurosciences at UCHealth Memorial Hospital and his colleagues at Colorado Health Medical Group have built a comprehensive Neurosciences program at Memorial.

The Neuro-trauma program includes cutting-edge protocols for the care of brain-injured patients. The team at Memorial includes neurosurgeons, trauma surgeons, surgical critical care physicians, neuro-intensivist physicians and nurses who practice in a community hospital setting.

For years, Pacheco has been helping brain-injured patients and knows the challenges are considerable and the resources are sparse.

“Once their hospital journey is done, there is a whole life ahead of them,’’ she said.

Pacheco said that she often suggests that patients seek additional resources from the Brain Injury Alliance of Colorado for patients, family members and providers. The non-profit organization offers support groups, education, recreation, art and music therapy, utility assistance, crisis support and opportunities to participate in research.

Mazzola climbs Pikes Peak with friends to show support for the Pikes Peak Challenge, which benefits people who have had brain injuries.

“Those folks go on to achieve so many things but it is a struggle and a fight and they do everything they can to keep themselves healthy,’’ Pacheco said. “The Brain Injury Alliance has support groups, and people can sit down with other people and hear what works and what doesn’t. They can network with others and find some answers.’’

Memorial is building a team to participate and those interested in joining Mazzola and Pacheco can register here. If you cannot participate, consider sponsoring a team member or volunteering the day of the event.

Mazzola, who is in great shape thanks to training for half and full marathons, said it takes her about six hours to hike the Peak. Pacheco has been increasing her walking routine to prepare for the ascent on Sept. 10. This will be her first ascent.

Mazzola said that there are “great support staff and medics and EMTs along the way who are checking to make sure everyone is feeling okay. There’s always someone there if you need anything, which is one of the great things about this hike.

“It’s just a great cause and it’s well-run,’’ Mazzola said.

About the author

Erin Emery is editor of UCHealth Today, a hub for medical news, inspiring patient stories and tips for healthy living. Erin spent years as a reporter for The Denver Post, Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado Springs Sun. She was part of a team of Denver Post reporters who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting.

Erin joined UCHealth in 2008, and she is awed by the strength of patients and their stories.