Clovis grad Sara Fry fights brain trauma, melanoma to hike Continental Divide Trail

The Fresno BeeApril 30, 2014 

Sara Fry sees nothing as impossible, certainly not a 3,100-mile south-to-north trek across the country, especially after dealing with cancer and a traumatic brain injury.

Soreness and fatigue from the hike? She'll happily deal with that as she travels the Continental Divide Trail from New Mexico to Canada, a journey she began Wednesday.

She has learned to live with pain far worse, the kind that at age 15 made her lock herself in her room and sleep for up to 23 hours, to attempt suicide four times.

A straight-A student and promising water polo player at Clovis High before the brain injury, Fry finally found an adequate treatment and returned to graduate, only to then be diagnosed with melanoma.

And so now she hikes, often alone, a welcome release from the residual pain of her original injury and the specter of what cancerous cells might remain despite 11 surgeries.

"It's peace. It's joy. It's everything," Fry says. "When you're on the trail, it's just you and Mother Nature. You don't have people constantly worrying about how you're feeling or if you're OK. I'm able to be just another person."

The fallen star

Her parents recall a young girl interested in sports at an early age, eventually gravitating toward water polo.

In the first grade, Fry told her mother that she'd get a college scholarship in athletics. And it was shaping up that way when as a Clovis High freshman Fry lettered on the girls' varsity.

Then came summer 2005.

Playing in a club water polo tournament in Los Angeles, Fry took an elbow to the temple and was knocked unconscious.

Trainers and doctors diagnosed a mild concussion and prescribed rest.

But mom Michelle, a nurse at Kaiser Permanente, knew it was something more.

"I know my daughter. They didn't see the symptoms."

Fry, 15 at the time of the injury, would lock herself in her room nearly all day. She had trouble sleeping. She would lie there, trying her hardest to escape the pain.

A girl used to being active and outside now dreaded sunlight and any kind of physical activity.

"She was used to being physical and to lie there in pain, days on end, was horrendous," Michelle Fry recalls. "You could watch the pain in her face and hear her moaning from her room upstairs."

Sara tried to take her own life multiple times — seemingly the only way to escape the pain.

"That was the only reason," she says. "When you are laying there and it feels like somebody is jabbing an ice pick into your skull 24/7 and there's nothing the doctors can do about it and you've been to all the best TBI specialists in the state and there's still nothing they can do, that's why.

"The pain is all I can think about, and it was debilitating. I didn't want to be in physical pain anymore."

One afternoon, Fry emptied a bottle of sleeping pills into the palm of her hand and tossed them into her mouth.

Moments later, Toast, a Jack Russell terrier her mom had gotten her a month earlier as a 16th birthday present, bolted up the stairs and started licking Fry's face.

"I was sitting on the ground crying and this puppy runs up, licking my face and is so happy to see me. I can't leave this innocent dog here alone; I just got her.

"Right then I went to the bathroom and threw up everything. Toast saved my life."

Getting a grip

The family went back on the medical circuit, looking for a solution. Following an acupressure session in early 2007, Fry was referred to the Centre for Neuro Skills in Bakersfield.

She underwent a range of therapies — cognitive, physical, speech and visual.

There were days when Fry wanted to go back to bed and say forget it, says Dr. Ellen Katomski, Fry's case manager at the Bakersfield center. But together they stimulated and challenged Fry's brain once a week for the next two months, trying to help her relearn and reconnect what was lost because of the injury.

As medical experts explain it, the injury has left her brain vulnerable to being overloaded by her senses. In a "normal" brain, the important stuff is processed and the rest — from people moving about on the street to birds chirping in the trees and strangers' conversations in public settings — is filtered out to varying extents.

But that isn't the case for Fry. Her brain doesn't push anything aside. Everything is passed through.

And there is no cure. Not fully, anyway.

"It's a lifelong change," Katomski says, "and Sara's trying to make the most of it."

School no longer came easy and Fry fell behind as she struggled with her focus.

Algebra, which she once conquered with no trouble, was like a foreign language.

With the help of Elaine DeSilva, her home hospital teacher, and Rita Nitschke, her high school counselor, Fry tackled subjects one by one over the next three years.

She returned to campus for what was her senior year, taking classes there in addition to continuing her home schooling. She graduated with her Clovis High class of 2009.

"I was so far behind, but I knew I could do it. I wanted to go back to school and graduate with my friends. I was determined to not take no for an answer."

Another test

After graduation, Fry drove to San Diego to stay with older sister Andrea for a few weeks.

It turned into months, as San Diego suited Fry. She enrolled in community college and life was returning to near normalcy, despite dealing with the daily residual effects of her brain injury.

"They're all just a part of my regular life. There comes a point where you can't let this hinder you."

But in August 2009, Andrea was diagnosed with melanoma. Her doctor suspected it may be genetic, prompting the entire family to be tested. Among her mom, another sister and a brother, Fry was the only positive.

She had 11 surgeries over the next 13 months to remove cancerous cells.

"When Sara came down with that it was tough at first, but she did it her way. It's heart-wrenching to see your beautiful daughter turn into a patch quilt from the cutting and cutting," says her father, Michael.

Her brain injury made it all the worse. Fry didn't numb for any of her surgeries, feeling each prick and prod.

Finally, she decided she'd had enough — the 11th surgery would be her last, regardless of how the cancer was responding.

"I've never been afraid of death. I had already thought I was going to die because of the TBI. I was just extremely unhappy with it, so I decided that I would be done."

With that, Fry opened a new chapter on her life.

Moving on

At the start of 2012, sparked by an interest in backpacking and the outdoors, Fry announced to her family that she would hike the Pacific Crest Trail — alone.

She started in April at the California-Mexico border and finished the 2,660-mile trek to Canada in October.

"When you do something like that, it's a personal deal," Michael Fry says. "It's about how far you can go and what you can do. Did I expect her to go all the way? Probably not, but she did."

Fry masked her pain, using her trademark goofiness and smile to keep hikers she came across from noticing.

"The pain is still there. Sometimes it hits me hard on the trail, but being outside and enjoying life when I once couldn't is what drives me."

Fry kept hiking, first around San Diego and then in the summer of 2013 in Alaska. Back home for visits, she jumped on trails around Millerton Lake, eventually taking on the San Joaquin River Trail.

In November, Fry and friend John McKinney, whom she met while hiking the Pacific Crest, became the first to thru-hike the entire SJRT.

Michael Fry says his daughter's love of outdoors feeds her soul.

"Life deals you hands like that and only God knows why. The human soul is pretty resourceful to keep going and going like that. With all Sara's been through, this is just another challenge and another day."

Her next adventure

Symptoms from the brain injury remain constant. Even today, they are sometimes so painful she is forced to stay home.

Nausea and light-headedness are daily companions.

Her eyes go "completely bonkers."

"The entire world shakes and moves, no matter how much I rub my eyes. This isn't spinning; this is everything shaking and my eyes hurt really bad when this happens," Fry says.

She lives with a constant headache, putting it at a 6 on a scale of 1 to 10.

Sharp, stabbing pains make her ears feel like they're about to explode, the agony often forcing her to the ground. She at times suffers from "underwater" or muffled hearing, sometimes lasting all day. Her chest will tighten, making even breathing painful to the point where she has to take really short, quick breaths.

Her joints and muscles always hurt and extreme fatigue often overtakes her. Her immune system is weaker than average. She'll easily catch a bug and take longer than most individuals to heal.

Fry's body still doesn't numb. She feels everything, from a slight touch to a cut.

She still has regular checkups for melanoma.

But on Wednesday, off Fry went, embarking on her next adventure.

Annually, only about two dozen hikers complete the entire Continental Divide Trail.

Fry will traverse four states, starting at the Crazy Cook Monument in New Mexico, about 150 yards from the U.S.-Mexico border. From there, the hike will carry her through Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, all the way to the Canadian border.

She plans to cover 20 to 30 miles per day, taking a day to rest every five or six days. Twenty wilderness areas and three national parks — Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone and Glacier — are along the way.

The route moves up and down in elevation, zig-zagging rugged mountains with summits ranging from 4,600 to 14,600 feet. Such heights and the cold temperatures could interfere with some of her medications.

Fry self-injects neurosteroids into her thigh or abdomen every day as a result of the brain injury. Resupply boxes will be shipped to her at 30 stops along the trail, each carrying medication, food and other necessities.

It's all part of the new life she has made for herself.

"On the trail, I love every day of it and I wouldn't change a thing. … As painful and crazy as my life has been since the TBI, it all really has been a blessing in disguise."

The reporter can be reached at amoreno@fresnobee.com or @anhelllll on Twitter.

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