Coming full circle: Justin Pines

Posted by Reeve Staff in Daily Dose on November 02, 2017 # Fundraising, Team Reeve

On April 9, 2016, Justin Pines hit a tree while skiing down a ridgeline at Squaw Valley in Tahoe, California during whiteout conditions. The injury caused Pines to break his T4/T5 vertebra, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. After spinal surgery and a week in the ICU in Reno, he was flown to Craig Hospital in Denver where he began his recovery.

“My experiences at Craig hospital were very defining - the staff and the community there bring this force, this momentum to your recovery. The whole fabric of the places exudes a goal-oriented optimism. If someone is struggling, everyone comes around to help in a beautiful way,” Pines explained.

“After my first few weeks at Craig, my goals were already very different from when I was looking up at the ceiling in those early days in the ICU. Of course, you’re hoping, praying for return of function; for more movement, for more sensation to come back. From early on, I thought of it like straddling a fence: on the one side, I needed to know that - if this was to be my new body - I was going to learn how to succeed with it. And then, on the other side of the fence, I knew I needed to stay hopeful, to continue to have an expectation for more return.”

Thanks to the staff and rigorous therapy program at Craig Hospital, Pines has been able to charge back into a fullness of life, despite his paralysis. By July of the same year, he was back working full-time as a Product Manager at software company AppNexus, now working remotely from his apartment in Denver.

“Being able to get back to work was a pretty big piece of my transition back to a sense of normalcy after injury” Pines said. “Initially, when you get hurt, you’re in this fundamentally dependent state; in a hospital bed, unable to handle basic daily tasks. Coming back to work was an important way I was able to start to bridge back to my identity not as a patient, but as a professional, as an independent adult capable of handling responsibility. It was a major factor in bringing momentum back into my life.”

Equipped with the skills and knowledge he learned at Craig, Pines is not only living independently out in Colorado, he is thriving - pressing into new areas of life and continuing to expand his comfort zone and his understanding of what is possible. Since his injury last year, he has flown a plane, gone scuba diving, fly fished in the snow melt of the Rockies, surfed the waves of Santa Cruz and San Diego, downhill mountain biked the trails of Bend, Oregon, returned to his love of downhill skiing, travelled on over 20 domestic flights across the US, and - in short - found a whole world of possibility in life after injury.

Pines is now pushing his limits even further as he plans to race in the 2017 TCS New York City Marathon for Team Reeve, after learning about the opportunity through Vice Chairman Henry Stifel, whose family were home-town friends of his mom.

“When I was in the ICU, I took out my phone and started writing out the things I knew I was still going to do. The first thing I wrote down was: “finish a marathon”. I was a runner through all of college, and I ran the NYC marathon in 2015 (5 months before my injury). I feel like I am coming full circle by doing this now after my injury,” Pines said. “Henry has played an instrumental role for both me and my family in understanding my injury and getting on to the path to recovery. He was on the phone with my parents the day I was hurt and has been an invaluable source of guidance and insight ever since. I still remember our first conversation over a year ago about my goal to do the NYC Marathon again, and how through him and Reeve it so quickly went from an idea to a something that was actually going to happen.”

When Pines procured his own racing chair and began learning the new sport this summer, he found a new way to enjoy much of what he loved about distance running, as well as a whole set of challenging new skills to learn.

“It's so cool to be progressing in the steep part of the learning curve again. As an adult in your 30s, there are not many things you are getting better at quickly; it’s definitely humbling being a beginner again, but at the same time, it’s a blast to see the gains,” Pines said.

Recently he has participated in the Staten Island half marathon in preparation for November 5th, a race that presented a highly-concentrated dose of new “opportunities for growth”, as he says.

“When I was at the Staten Island half, I had quite the day. I had never pushed in the rain before or pushed hills as steep. I had mechanical issues, and I didn't have the glove resin needed to prevent my hands from slipping in the wet conditions. Oh, and my front tire was apparently rubbing against the frame of the chair the entire time! I felt like a total rookie out there, but it was great to get a tune-up race in and learn all of the different things I didn't know yet.”

Critical to success, Pines reiterates, is seeking out the perspective of those with more experience: “More than ever before in my life, this injury has underscored how important it is to learn from those who have come before. Jacob Heilveil and Kevin Mather - both seasoned pushrim athletes - have shown me countless new insights and ways to improve my effectiveness in the racing chair. At this point, I don’t think I would have had a realistic shot at completing the marathon with this little time to train without their mentorship.”

Excited for race day, Pines views the marathon as more than just a big individual challenge, but as part of a broader approach to life after injury that stresses the importance of getting out of comfort zone and stretching one’s understanding of what is possible.

“It's so important, especially early on, to get in the habit of spending time outside your comfort zone, to - as a life pattern - regularly stretch boundaries and figure out what more is possible. It's going to be hard at first, but it will pay huge dividends later. That’s a big reason why I am doing this marathon. Let’s go out there and see where that line of possibility really is, and see if we can’t nudge it out a little further.”

Team Reeve is proud of Justin for putting in the work and getting to that starting line. We will see Justin and the rest of Team Reeve at the Finish Line on November 5th, 2017. To learn more about Justin and his endeavors, visit Give.Reeve.org/JPines