In the fourth grade, Sam Bilotta was launched into the air by an ATV.
It was winter in Stacy, Minnesota, and the ground was icy. Bilotta was in no mood for sledding, but her younger cousin Joey was. Naturally, she settled into the orange plastic sled with Joey to keep him safe as the ATV drove down the long gravel driveway of her aunt’s farmhouse.
Unfortunately, both flew off the sled when the ATV turned sharply at the end of the driveway.
She held Joey in a tight grip and covered his head as they fell to the ground. Joey left the scene with only a bloody nose, but Bilotta, who landed on her wrist, returned to the house with throbbing pain and black and blue bruises on her hand.
A bag of frozen peas duct-taped to her wrist did little to alleviate the pain and bruising, so Bilotta’s parents drove her to a nearby hospital. Doctors told her nothing was broken, and that she had likely just bruised the bones in her hand.
As she got older, her wrist began to hurt more. Bilotta had played the violin since she was five-years-old, but playing the strings with her left hand became painful. She practiced less and eventually stopped playing altogether at the end of sixth grade. Bilotta’s mom thought she was just being lazy.
After Bilotta met with a specialist, however, her family learned what was really happening: half of the bones in Sam’s wrist had stopped growing and there was severe nerve damage. Bilotta was doomed to an arm brace for her remaining years in Arden Hills, Minnesota.
Bilotta’s family moved to Corvallis, Oregon for her final year of high school. Since the accident, Bilotta often had to avoid activities in school that involved excessive arm-hand movement. She still attended physical therapy and continued to wear an arm brace throughout high school, which she says wasn’t a good way to become popular in a new environment.
“Honesty, like I feel like all of my future stuff could have been prevented if they took me a little more seriously in the ER,” Bilotta said of the incident.
When she enrolled in an outdoor recreation class at her new high school, her interest in the outdoors spiked. She hiked, biked, and, for the first time, rock-climbed, enjoying the strategy of the latter sport. “It’s sort of a mind game,” Bilotta said.
While Bilotta enjoys the problem-solving aspect of climbing, she prefers belaying, which doesn’t aggravate her wrist. She likes being the person who anchors and guides the climber from the ground.
Bilotta, now 19 and a sophomore studying Journalism at the University of Oregon, says the natural landscape in Oregon is pretty similar to Minnesota, but the weather is so much nicer.
“The joke is there’s nine months of winter and then there’s three months of road construction. Those are the two seasons of Minnesota,” said Bilotta.
Last summer, Bilotta started working at the Corvallis Parks and Recreation department as a summer camp leader. She supervised a challenge camp, working with kids on a 30-foot-high rock-climbing wall, “That camp has been my favorite,” she said.
Bilotta plans to work at the camp again this summer. Her hand will never be 100 percent better, but she no longer needs to wear the brace all the time. Bilotta has a positive outlook on outdoor activity, despite the setbacks she’s had with her wrist.
“[Now] I feel like I’ve gotten a better connection with the outdoors,” said Bilotta.