There’s not much “typical” about Olesya Prystayko. The 36-year-old Longmont resident speaks five languages. As a young woman, she routinely ran 10-kilometer (6.21-mile) races at a 5:50-mile pace. That was after swimming 1.5 kilometers (0.93 miles), and biking another 40 kilometers (about 25 miles). Add those distances up and you get an Olympic-distance triathlon, and her times were fast enough to land her on the Ukrainian national triathlon team.
She traveled the world competing with and, later, managing a German professional triathlon team. Along the way, she earned a master’s degree in exercise science. In 2013, she had saved up enough money to come to the United States to try her luck at going pro at the Ironman triathlon distance (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.2-mile run). She emigrated and, to support herself, she delivered phone books in Idaho and Montana and then, in Colorado, helped nurses trained overseas navigate the process of being certified here.
On the foggy night of Oct. 16, 2020, this atypical person became gravely injured in the most typical of ways. A car crash into a construction site on Colorado Highway 52 in Longmont added her to the roughly 4.5 million people injured in vehicle accidents each year.
Her car’s engine and part of a metal construction sign landed in her lap. She had facial injuries, cracked vertebrae, a broken elbow, and, perhaps most seriously, a badly damaged knee.
“My leg was completely upside-down,” Prystayko recalled.
Firefighters cut her out of her car; an ambulance raced her to UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus (UCH). There she was intubated and stabilized. A multidisciplinary team of surgeons, critical-care medicine physicians, and others conferred on the course of action for the repairs ahead. The next day, the first of many surgeries would commence.
Dr. William McMunn, a University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine oral and maxillofacial surgeon, started by fixing the broken nose. Four days later, On Oct. 21, McMunn reconstructed Prystayko’s broken left cheekbone. She later described the combination as “beautiful work.” On Oct. 22, CU School of Medicine and UCHealth orthopedic trauma surgeon Dr. Nicholas Alfonso repaired her right elbow, which had been broken in three places. Five days after that, the swelling on Prystayko’s right knee had subsided to the point that surgery could proceed.
While the elbow surgery was extensive, it was nothing an experienced orthopedic traumatologist such as Alfonso hadn’t seen before. The knee was a different matter. The top of the tibia had had a complex break, the repair involving titanium screws and plates. Alfonso was comfortable with that. But an MRI had picked up evidence of soft-tissue damage. Alfonso brought in fellow CU School of Medicine and UCHealth orthopedic surgeon Dr. Rachel Frank, a sports medicine specialist. While bones are also her domain, she has deep expertise in “soft” tissues such as ligaments and cartilage. The surgeons would collaborate during a single surgery.
Alfonso repaired the broken tibia first. “The key is, first and foremost, stable bone, then stable ligaments,” as Frank put it. Then it was Frank’s turn. In addition to a terrible injury to the lateral meniscus, all four knee ligaments – anterior cruciate, posterior cruciate, medial collateral, and lateral collateral (ACL, PCL, MCL, LCL) – had been damaged: complete tears of the PCL and LCL, partial tears of the ACL and MCL. Frank performed a repair on the LCL and left the rest be – they could, in her experience, scar in and functionally heal with the aid of increased blood flow from the recovering fracture. (The spine fractures, similarly, would heal on their own, the team had concluded.) A bigger concern was the meniscus – the knee’s thick cartilage padding – as it had torn from its moorings atop the tibia and flipped over entirely.
Here Frank’s experience as a sports medicine physician was crucial. While Prystayko was no longer a professional triathlete, she continued to ride and run faster than all but the fittest among us. While removing/trimming would be the easiest way forward, Frank wanted to preserve that meniscus by repairing it, and that’s exactly what she did.
“Considering her as an athlete was really important,” Frank said. “If we take out most of or all of the meniscus, we’re subjecting the knee to future dysfunction with near certainty.”
Triathlete grounded after car crash
Her first round of surgeries complete, Prystayko recovered in the hospital for a few days before returning to her apartment with a straight-leg brace on her leg and a cast on her elbow that precluded crutches. She was confined to a wheelchair and reliant on her roommate because she couldn’t get back up the building’s wheelchair ramp with power from just one arm.
“It was a challenge,” Prystayko said. “I’m an outside person, and here I was, stuck home for months.”
She was also grounded. Prystayko had been on her way home from Longmont’s Vance Brand Airport the night of her car accident. There she had learned to be a pilot and was working toward her flight-instructor’s certificate. Now that was all on hold.
You don’t become an elite athlete without dedication and determination, and those characteristics fueled her rehabilitation. By January 2021, Prystayko had regained enough movement in her knee that she could drive, though first she had to figure out how to transfer herself from the wheelchair and fold it up despite the elbow cast. She was back in the pool as soon as she was cleared for swimming. Prystayko had routinely raced a mile and more across open water; now she found herself lowered into the water in a chair. It took few strokes to recognize how weak she had become. But under the guidance of Altitude Physical Therapy staff in Longmont and Lafayette and German physical therapist Vadim Ruschmeyer, she pushed herself, and she grew stronger.
“Challenging myself through pain and discomfort is my comfort,” Prystayko said.
She was walking by March. There were more surgeries – five months in, Frank put her under anesthesia to perform an arthroscopy and scrape away scar tissue to improve range of motion. She also evaluated the meniscus, which, Frank said, “Looked beautiful and normal, like we had never even been in there.”
Triathlete on her feet (and her bike seat) after car crash
In July 2021, Prystayko returned to Russia to do more than just visit family. She hiked up nearly all of Mount Elbrus, stopping at 17,500 feet. In a YouTube video, she shouted out to the many caregivers who had put her back on her feet.
“I would like to say a big ‘thank you’ to all my doctors who participated in fixing this leg, and this elbow, and this face – so this butt could come and climb the tallest mountain in Europe,” she said.
Attempting as much just nine months after such grave injuries was impressive even for a triathlete whose comfort is discomfort. On the one-year anniversary of the accident, Prystayko rode more than 100 miles around Hawaiian island of Oahu. She named that Oct. 16 ride the “Antikona,” a reference to the Kona Ironman few qualify for.
“She’s doing things despite her injuries that most people without ever experiencing such injuries are not able to do,” Frank said.
On Nov. 2, Prystayko returned to UCH for Alfonso to remove the titanium hardware from her knee and, in a separate surgery, for CU School of Medicine and UCHealth orthopedic surgeon and shoulder and elbow specialist Dr. Adam Seidl to release scar tissue to improve the range of motion in her elbow.
Prystayko is back in the air, starting her multi-engine flight training even as she teaches her own students, having become a certified flight instructor with Aero-Sphere in August. She’s doing multi-engine training and amassing the hours she’ll need to fly commercial aircraft. She appreciates what her doctors, physical therapists, and others have done for her. Frank, she said, “was really thoughtful, and I felt this connection like she wants me to heal – and the same with Nick [Alfonso] and all my doctors.”
Frank says collaboration among a diverse group of specialized surgeons, the hard work of physical therapy and rehabilitation specialists, and Prystayko’s own drive to recover combined for a best-case outcome.
“I feel fortunate to be part of a team where I know we’re going to do our jobs, the therapists are going to do their jobs, and, particularly in this case, the patient’s going to do her job.” Frank said. “It’s all you can hope for in such a complex situation.”
Prystayko says the experience left her with greater appreciation of her own health – and greater empathy for those saddled with health problems.
“I wasn’t aware of the struggles of others,” she said.
That recognition – like the woman who noted it – is far from typical, too.