Actress Natasha Richardson’s Fatal Skiing Accident Shows the Dangers of Hidden Brain Injuries

Natasha Richardson was a popular English actress prior to her untimely skiing death in 2009.  Her tragic accident attracted heavy press coverage not only due to its victim’s fame, but also because Richardson appeared to make a full recovery before her health suddenly declined, eventually leading to her hospitalization and death.  Utah skiing accident lawyer Darwin Overson examines why Richardson initially seemed to recover, only to later succumb to an invisible injury which, sadly, proved fatal.

Celebrity Natasha Richardson Killed by Hidden Head Injury in Tragic Skiing Accident

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Also known for being the daughter of English actress Vanessa Redgrave and wife of Irish actor Liam Neeson, Natasha Richardson starred in films like Maid in Manhattan, The Parent Trap, and Nell.  She was also a prominent stage actress, even making several TV appearances in shows that included Tales from the Crypt, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and Top Chef.  Sadly, at the young age of 45, Richardson’s successful entertainment career was abruptly cut short by a skiing accident which claimed her life.

In March 2009, Richardson took a trip to Canada’s Mont Tremblant Resort, a popular resort tucked into Quebec’s impressive Laurentian Mountains.  The mountains rise to a peak height of about 3,800 feet, making them about one third the height of Utah’s Wasatch Range, where Mount Nebo rises to nearly 12,000 feet.

Richardson’s injury occurred when she fell and struck her head during a beginner skiing lesson.  We now know that, unfortunately, her injury was critical; but because Richardson was able to walk and talk normally immediately after the accident, no one had any reason to think that her life was in jeopardy.  In fact, Richardson’s condition appeared so stable that the paramedics who responded to the scene were actually told they could leave.

What no one knew then was that Richardson was experiencing something called a “lucid interval” (LI): a temporary state following a traumatic brain injury in which the patient appears to be functioning normally.  We’ve inserted a few commas for greater clarity, but a 2013 study published in the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology defined an LI as “the period of time between regaining consciousness, after a short period of unconsciousness resulting from a head injury, and deteriorating after the onset of neurologic signs and symptoms caused by that injury.”

Lucid intervals are a fairly common phenomenon in cases of severe head injury.  In the Forensic Medicine study cited above, “Of 47 abusive head trauma cases, eight were found to have an LI in the past”: nearly one in five of the patients.  As the study also noted, “LI occurs only in pure impact or blunt injuries,” such as the injury Richardson sustained.

What makes LIs so dangerous is that they mask the symptoms of a critical injury, especially to an untrained layperson’s eye, robbing the victim of awareness that medical intervention is urgently needed.  Approximately three hours elapsed between Richardson’s accident and the onset of any injury symptoms, which manifested as a headache.

At this point, Richardson was taken to a local hospital.  However, with her condition deteriorating, she was then transported by ambulance to the Hôpital du Sacré-Cœur de Montréal, one of the largest hospitals in Quebec.  By the time she was admitted to Sacré-Cœur, Richardson was in critical condition.  Seven hours had elapsed since her accident; four since she began to feel the effects of the injury.

Despite doctors’ efforts, Richardson’s condition continued to decline.  The day after her accident, Richardson was flown from Sacré-Cœur to New York City’s Lenox Hill Hospital, where she died at just 45 years old.

Richardson was buried in the same churchyard as several of her family members following a private funeral on March 22.  On the date of her death, Richardson’s family issued a statement that “Liam Neeson, his sons, and the entire family are shocked and devastated by the tragic death of their beloved Natasha.  They are profoundly grateful for the support, love, and prayers of everyone, and ask for privacy during this very difficult time.”

Lucid Intervals and Epidural Hematoma: A Deadly Injury for Skiers and Snowboarders

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Medical examiners determined the cause of Richardson’s death to be epidural hematoma, a condition in which blood accumulates between the skull and the dura mater, the outermost membrane covering the brain and spinal cord.  As more and more fluid builds up inside the limited space, the amount of pressure on the brain increases, which can compress or even move the brain from its normal position.

Because brain tissue is extremely delicate, this type of injury can cause profound, potentially fatal damage.  Epidural hematoma is deadly in up to 20% of cases – especially when a lucid interval causes delays in life-saving medical care.  To that point, the following quote is excerpted from the medical textbook Essentials of Clinical Neurology: Head Trauma:

“Some patients are initially rendered unconscious by a head injury, then slowly awaken to the point of being able to carry on a conversation (lucid interval) only to slip into a coma again.  A history of lucid interval such as this is crucial when present for it frequently indicates that the patient is rapidly developing a life-threatening epidural hematoma.  […]  Prompt surgical evaluation of the clot can be very rewarding if done early enough because 60% of the patients will not have other associated brain damage and recovery can be complete.”

Epidural hematoma is a major risk for skiers and snowboarders, because it can be caused by blunt trauma.  However, sports accidents aren’t the only way these critical injuries can occur.  For example, according to a 2013 study published in Surgical Neurology International, accidental falls were the leading cause of epidural hematoma brain injuries in children, accounting for half of the 24 injuries examined in the study.  Other common causes cited by the study included:

  • Auto accidents (37.5%)
  • Impact with blunt objects (8.3%)
  • Being struck on the head by heavy objects (4.6%)

Just over 70% of the child patients lost consciousness, while about half experienced vomiting – both classic warning signs of a serious head injury.  Other warning signs that you have suffered a severe head injury include:

  • Confusion or difficulty concentrating
  • Disturbances to normal mood, often manifesting as depression, irritability, and/or anxiety
  • Disturbances to normal sleep patterns, which may manifest as insomnia (sleeplessness) or chronic fatigue and exhaustion (sleeping more than normal)
  • Dizziness or difficulty balancing normally
  • Seizures
  • Short-term memory loss, struggling to retain new information

Did a Family Member Suffer a Brain Injury While Skiing or Snowboarding in Utah?

There are two lessons that can and must be learned from Richardson’s tragic death.  One is to always wear a helmet when you are skiing or snowboarding.  Richardson was not wearing a helmet at the time of her accident, and it’s possible that head protection may have been able to save her life.

The second lesson is to seek immediate medical care if you hit your head while skiing or snowboarding, especially if you experience any loss of consciousness, however brief.  Even if you feel perfectly normal after sustaining a head injury, you could be experiencing a lucid interval.

If you or someone you love suffered a brain injury, spinal cord injury, whiplash, or any other injury while skiing or snowboarding at a ski resort such as Alta Ski Area or Nordic Valley Ski Resort, compensation for your medical bills and other losses may be available with help from an experienced and aggressive personal injury lawyer.  To discuss a skiing accident claim or snowboarding accident claim in a free and confidential legal consultation, call the law offices of Overson & Sheen at (801) 618-3580.  Salt Lake City personal injury attorney Darwin Overson is committed to fighting for justice on behalf of victims who were injured or lost their lives in Utah winter sports accidents.

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