Martlet Miracle: Gabrielle Smith rebounds from traumatic accident

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“Almost everyone who gets run over by an 18-wheel truck is either dead or severely injured and not able to walk for a long time. Every doctor and nurse I saw was floored by the fact that I’m doing as well as I am.”

Gabrielle Smith waited four years for the chance to be the starting goaltender for the McGill Martlets women’s hockey team.

After serving patiently as a third string goaltender and then as the backup to Charline Labonté – arguably the best female netminder in the world – this season was Smith’s chance to prove herself as a starting goaltender while Labonté took a leave of absence to train with the Canadian Olympic team. And all went well for the first four games of the regular season: four wins, two shutouts, and a .946 save percentage.

Then, while riding her bike to McConnell Arena on November 14, Smith was hit by a truck.

“It happened so fast,” said Smith. “I remember my bike going under the truck, and not a lot else.”

At the corner of Avenue des Pins and St. Laurent, an 18-wheel semi-trailer truck made an illegal right turn on a straight-green arrow. The driver didn’t notice Smith, who was cycling straight through the intersection on the truck’s right-hand side.

Smith’s bike was sucked under the middle set of the truck’s wheels and completely destroyed. The last set of the truck’s wheels (a grouping of four on the back-right side) ran over Smith’s legs – with her right leg from the quadriceps muscle downwards bearing the full brunt of the truck’s weight. Smith’s quick reflexes – pushing the bike forward and throwing herself off – saved her from being pulled under the middle set of wheels, and put the upper half of her body out of harm’s way.

Incredibly, Smith suffered no broken bones or severe muscle damage from the accident.

“The doctors were floored by the fact that my legs weren’t broken,” said Smith. “They think it’s probably because I’m a goaltender.”

Smith’s left leg suffered only bruises and contusions from the accident. Her right leg was degloved – an injury where an extensive section of the skin is completely torn off the underlying tissue – from the hip to just below the knee.

“Basically the skin got peeled off, from my knee to my hip on the inside of my thigh,” said Smith. “It pulled open all the way to the right. You could see my muscles and my kneecap – it was all exposed.”

Because of the strength in Smith’s thigh, though, the muscle did not rip, as it usually would.

Doctors performed two surgeries on Smith during her two-week stay in the hospital: a cleaning and exploratory surgery that revealed no severe muscle damage, and a surgery to tighten and salvage the surrounding skin. She returned to the hospital for one additional procedure in early December – a graft to replace the skin torn from her right thigh.

Smith’s subsequent recovery has been extremely quick. Through two hours per day of intensive physiotherapy she has regained use of her right leg. She is now able to walk, climb stairs, and ride a stationary bicycle.

But Smith has a much more challenging goal in mind. She hopes to get back on the ice and play at least one more game for the Martlets before her CIS eligibility expires at the end of this year.

“If I play another game this season it will be a huge achievement; ‘mind-blowing’ according to my doctor,” said Smith. “The first thing I asked the doctors after the accident was ‘Am I going to play hockey again?’ so my goal has been pretty clear from the start.”

However, Smith’s optimism is tempered by some daunting challenges. Scar tissue from the accident has solidified over her muscle – creating damage that must be intensively rehabilitated before Smith can return to playing hockey. The physiotherapy is exhausting, and Smith is still having trouble getting enough sleep due to discomfort in the leg. Her doctors are also concerned that she may have damaged ligaments in her left ankle and right knee, and have scheduled an MRI for next week. If she has torn any ligaments, Smith will have to undergo more surgery and her season will be over.

“It’s frustrating. I’ve been waiting for four years for a chance to play. I finally get to play with [Labonté] away and then I get run over by a truck,” said Smith. “And if I’ve torn any ligaments then the surgery will prevent me from graduating this year, and will stop me from working in the summer as a tree planter – so I’ll be pretty hard-pressed for money.”

Part of Smith’s frustration also stems from what she views as a lack of respect from drivers and police officers towards cyclists – a mistaken belief that bikers are ‘pests’ who ignore the rules of the road.

“The cop [investigating my accident] wasn’t very supportive,” said Smith. “He came to the hospital about two hours after I got hit and his attitude was that ‘this happens a lot, bikers in the city never follow the rules.'”

Since there were no witnesses to the crash, the truck driver wasn’t charged by the police. The driver has not contacted Smith to apologize.

“There are so many bikers in this city, and I really think that drivers need to have a better attitude towards them,” said Smith. “I did absolutely nothing wrong, I was following the traffic signals, and yet nothing is going to happen to the truck driver.”

According to family and friends, Smith has remained upbeat and relentlessly positive throughout the ordeal. She credits the perseverance and work ethic she learned during three years as the Martlets’ third-string goaltender – attending every practice but not dressing for games – with helping her through the accident.

“I feel like hockey has helped me deal with this accident a lot,” said Smith. “At the end of the day, I just have to be happy to be alive.”