Our Stories

Falling Toward a New Life

Sara Brown '01 was negotiating a jump she had made many times before, but this time a gust of wind blew her off course and changed her life.

The veteran smokejumper parachuted out of a plane to fight a wildfire, collided with another jumper, dropped 100 feet, and shattered all of the bones in her right leg, along with many in her left leg and wrist. The fall also shattered her favorite pastime - running.

Brown grew up running, exploring the forest paths above Oakridge, Ore., a small logging community now making the transition to a recreational mecca. She came to Willamette on a scholarship and joined the track team, but was soon experiencing more of a rush in the classroom than on the track.

"I took Professor Karen Arabas' course on ‘Environmental Systems Under Stress' and it hit home," says Brown, whose father worked with the Forest Service and loggers. "The talk in my hometown centered on environmental issues - water, logging, fish, dams - because they affected everybody. And there was a connection for me between running and environmental science - running was about being outdoors."

Winters, Brown studied environmental science and policy, writing her senior thesis on the impact of wildfires near her hometown. Summers she spent in the forest fighting fires.

"Jumping out of planes into fires was attractive for all sorts of reasons," she says. "We parachuted into remote, beautiful places that no one sees, and you can be in California one day and Alaska the next."

Brown signed on for a last summer as a smokejumper before she started her PhD program in ecology, but her first jump of the season ended in tragedy. When an unexpected gust of wind tangled two jumpers, she began a freefall to Earth. She was airlifted to the hospital, without pain medication. "They thought I might fall asleep and not wake up," she says.

The former runner started back to school in a wheelchair, and started learning how to walk again. After eight unsuccessful surgeries to regain function, doctors amputated her leg and fit her with a prosthesis.

"It's kind of bizarre," Brown says. "I have a whole closetful of legs, one for running, one for hiking, one for biking and skiing and walking." She has been on crutches for two years, but can now run again - very slowly and with pain. She just entered a three-kilometer race, which wasn't really a race, but a "let's see if I can finish this" experience. She did.

"I've had some dark moments," Brown says. "I miss my leg, but this experience has brought me closer to people. I've had to ask for help, and have learned that people will accept me as I am. You just need to give people time and let them get used to things."

And it's a lesson in not taking things for granted. "Now I'm very appreciative of every little thing - being able to walk and being able to run, even if it's painful.

Brown is now walking around campus, going after her doctorate at the University of Wyoming. "I've grown up around ecological issues," she says, "and I've found the right path." She hopes to work as a fire ecologist, doing research and teaching.

"I had a wonderful experience at Willamette, studying with Karen Arabas and Joe Bowersox. It was a great combination of utilizing knowledge about both policy and environmental science. That program shaped what I am doing now."

Brown will continue to run - not walk - toward her professional and personal goals. "Sometimes you don't always get a choice," she says, "so you do what you can with what you've got."