Skye Barkschat lay in her hospital bed, clutching a syringe and sucking on a rubber tube. It was a simple form of stimulation, but a vital first step in relearning how to talk, communicate and return to the vibrant woman she was before an accident injured her brain.
It took both her boyfriend, Ben Blitch, and her aunt, Judy Chatham, to wrestle the syringe from her grip and replace it with a pen for her to write them a message.
“Hamsters,” she wrote, in tiny script.
“I’ll bring her 10 of them,” said her father, Neil Barkschat, bending low to kiss his daughter’s toes. Skye continued stringing words together into swirling sentences, eager to communicate.
“Take a deep breath, baby, I know you can do it,” Ben said. “You are awesome.”
Ben’s love and support for Skye have been strong since the day he watched her crash her bicycle, smashing her bare head against a cement curb. “She was in absolute bliss just before it happened,” Blitch says of the day that has led her friends and family down what they describe as an “incredible journey.”
After a year spent in Costa Rica, Skye, who is 26, returned to Asheville with a new set of goals. One of them was to live without a car. On March 26 of this year she got a bike trailer and tested it, pedaling around a parking lot as her dog Dakota rode inside. It worked.
With the trailer behind, Skye and Ben set off the grocery store. On the way home, though, something caused her to swerve and crash with her heavy, unfamiliar load. She wasn’t wearing a helmet at the time, and it was clear that her spill was a serious one. Ben rushed to a nearby house, dialed 911, and 40 minutes later Skye was in the operating room—well within what surgeons describe as “the golden hour,” the first 60 minutes after a major trauma.
Still, the prognosis was not good. In fact, according to Blitch, every day for the first week, doctors came in to say that this would be the day she would die. The family was told that her chance of recovery was only 20 percent. By the end of the week, nurses were encouraging Skye’s parents to consider organ donation.
“We were trying to figure out how to help as many people as possible with her organs and tissues,” her father says. “That’s how she lived her life. That was her driving force—to help people.”
Kate and Neil Barkschat were understandably devastated. They’d always considered Skye their greatest blessing. “We knew it could happen,” Neil says. “We knew that her lifestyle had those risks, and this was our worse possible nightmare. At the same time, it’s been one of the most uplifting things that has ever happened.
“At first, I just wanted my baby back,” he continues. “But then Katie and I realized that we needed to empower her just like we had her whole life. We needed to let her make the decision instead of wish for selfish reasons.”
At her bedside, the Barkschats told Skye that it was OK if she didn’t want to be here, and, if that were the case, that they would want her to pass peacefully. If she wanted to stay, though, they’d make sure she had every opportunity for recovery. “If you want to be 100 percent, you can do it,” her father told her.
Skye decided to come back. Each day, she stuns medical professionals with her physical feats and her brain recovery. Blitch, who has remained by her side day and night, was recently rewarded for his vigil when, as he was leaving her room, she reached out and pulled him close for a kiss goodbye.
Skye graduated from UNCA with a degree in community psychology and behavior therapy. Afterwards, she worked with autistic children, helping them with the challenges of daily living. She lived in New Zealand for two months and the next year worked with the International Mountain Bicycling Association building trails across the United States.
But in time, her passion for behavioral therapy and helping the community brought her back home. She hoped to one day work for a nonprofit. So Blitch and her family are starting one up for her to run when she’s ready for it.
They came up with the idea while trying to figure out how to raise money for her medical rehabilitation—she was uninsured at the time of the accident—and eventually help others. The nonprofit would provide financial help for medical costs surrounding traumatic-brain injury suffered by people doing what they love in the way of outdoor pursuits, be it kayaking, biking, rock climbing or other sports.
And so Reach for the Skye Inc. was born. A Web site (www.reachfortheskye.org) has been established, a string of fund-raising events will begin in August, and donations will be accepted beginning June 1.
“I just believe in her,” Blitch says. “If you’re negative, it’s so easy to lose yourself. I miss her. I’m sad sometimes, but never negative.”
[Bettina Freese lives in Asheville.]