Pua Wong Walks Road to Recovery After Traumatic Mauna Kea Accident
After nearly dying on the slopes of Mauna Kea following a sledding accident, Big Island woman Pua Wong is slowly reclaiming her life.
Wong was discharged from REHAB Hospital of the Pacific on April 1, 2021, the fifth medical facility she frequented in the more than two months since colliding violently and at high speed with mountain rocks on January 29. It is an incident Wong can not remember, but a trauma she will never forget.
“I honestly don’t remember the accident, but I have looked at my phone and saw pictures of the day,” Wong told Big Island Now Thursday. “I do remember going up the mountain. I do remember who I was with. I don’t remember the events leading up to the accident.”
The first thing she does recall is waking up in a Kaiser Permanente hospital bed on O´ahu, having lost several days to a coma doctors induced for her own safety as she slowly recovered from the traumatic brain injury (TBI) she suffered to her left frontal lobe. The first faces she saw gave her comfort amid the confusion — those of her father, Wallace Wong; her mother, Malia Wong; her brother Keoni Wong; and her boyfriend, Kawika Roman.
“Obviously, I understood that I was in an accident,” Wong explained. “We looked at some photos in my phone, and I remembered the events leading up to that day — and how lucky I was to be with the people I was with.”
Several of Wong’s companions up the mountain, friends and family, are part of fire departments across three islands: Kaua´i, O´ahu and the Big Island.
“They are all first responders and equipped in emergency medicine,” Wong said.
The accident itself is something Wong is not likely to ever remember. Having endured enough hardship from the incident, those who accompanied her to Mauna Kea have not spoken much to the specific details of the day. Despite the gap in memory, Wong said she has been able to put the specifics together in her own head by way of previous experience.
“No one has told me that much about accident, but I can assume from growing up on the Big Island and having done this previously,” she explained. “They don’t allow us to go up for a few days after snow fall. By that time, the snow was melting and kind of icy. I was probably going too fast, was out of control and couldn’t (regain) control before I hit the rocks.”
Besides the brain trauma, Wong also suffered several broken bones that required multiple surgeries. She still has a cast on her left arm, with pins and plates inserted in various places as necessities of her recovery.
Since her discharge from the hospital, Wong has spent the last week with family on O´ahu, where she will remain for the foreseeable future. She is currently waiting to begin outpatient therapy. Her physician has also referred her to the Centre for Neuro Skills in California, which specializes in bringing people back to their former selves after enduring a TBI.
“It will allow me to pursue the goals I set for myself previously,” said Wong, who was studying for the MCAT with aspirations of medical school prior to the accident, while also working as a teacher at Laupahoehoe Community Public Charter School.
Wong said she aspires to drive again, jog again and generally get back to the active lifestyle she knew before she was so severely injured. It is all about motivation and positivity, she explained
“I do feel confident that I can (recover),” Wong continued. “Luckily, I’m young. Since the accident, my brain has woken up a lot, tremendously. The right side of my body is weaker from the head injury to my left frontal lobe. My body is not up to par. But it’s just muscle weakness.”
Wong added that the physical pain has not been terrible due to the induced coma, which was followed by a cocktail of pain medications. The hurt she does feel is welcome, because she recognizes it as her body working hard to heal.
The recovery of her brain is Wong’s greatest priority. When she first woke up, her family asked her simple questions about her life before, and she was unable to answer them.
“My mom asked if I remembered what kind of car I drove. I didn’t know at first,” Wong said. “Now, I remember a lot more, even past events. My memory has returned and I am slowly getting better, but there are a lot of cognitive exercises to continue.”
Doctors explained to Wong that the first six months following a TBI are crucial. After that point, recovery slows down and can plateau.
Though her road remains long, Wong is optimistic. More than that, she’s thankful.
“I’m really grateful to be here,” Wong said. “I know I have to thank Jesus and just thank the people I grew up with: my friends, family, people from California I played water polo with, the school I worked at (on the Big Island), all the doctors, nurses, first responders and the Hawai´i Fire Department especially. They allowed to get me to where I am now.”
“I’m really thankful for everyone’s support and prayers and love.”
A GoFundMe account was started to help Wong and her family manage the exorbitant medical bills that accompanied the accident, as well as the recovery that has come after it. To date, the fund has raised more than $196,000, with a goal of $300,000. Those who wish to donate may do so here.