UC Berkeley alumnus makes great strides after paralyzing ski accident

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Kevin Cheung/Courtesy

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Seconds after hitting the snow head first, UC Berkeley alumnus Kevin Cheung knew it was unlike any fall he had experienced on the slopes. Unable to move any of his limbs, he lay frozen in immense pain as he waited for nearby ski patrollers to reach him.

Cheung, who graduated in 2013, was on a ski trip in March with a group of friends at Squaw Valley Ski Resort in Olympic Valley, California, when he attempted a risky front flip and over-rotated. Within 30 minutes, he was airlifted to a trauma center in Reno in preparation for surgery to stabilize and repair his fractured vertebrae.

Five months later, he is faced with both the physical and financial repercussions of the accident, which initially left him paralyzed from the neck down and now — after three surgeries — have resulted in intensive rehabilitation and uncertainty of whether his family can pay for his medical costs.

Cheung, who is currently undergoing treatment at Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colorado, spends five to six hours per day in physical and occupational therapy sessions to improve his mobility.

But his family is now faced with tremendous medical expenses, which his father, Simon Cheung, estimates at about $800,000 since the accident. Although the family hopes to negotiate for increased coverage from their insurance company, out-of-pocket expenses have been high, and Simon Cheung says he could be forced to file bankruptcy.

Along with his father and brother, Cheung created an online fundraiser Sunday after receiving the suggestion from several other patients at Craig Hospital, which exclusively treats people with spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries. As of Wednesday night, the campaign has raised more than $4,000 toward an ultimate goal of $50,000.

“I was blown away by how many people — even those he didn’t know — who contributed,” said former UC Berkeley classmate and close friend Tom Ugarte. “It’s pretty powerful that Kevin has taken it upon himself to start this and be vulnerable about everything his family has gone through recently.”

Prior to the accident, the Cheung family was already in the midst of coping with serious hardship. In May 2014, Cheung’s younger brother Keith Cheung was a victim in the mass shooting near the UC Santa Barbara campus that killed six UCSB students. Keith Cheung is still recovering from brain damage sustained from his injuries.

“I felt such a shock after Kevin’s accident,” Simon Cheung said. “I couldn’t believe in that moment that our family could undergo any more pain.”

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Kevin Cheung/Courtesy

Kevin Cheung, who majored in environmental economics and policy, was an active member of the College Ski and Snowboard Club at UC Berkeley. After graduating, he went on to work in the renewable energy industry in San Francisco but still attended ski trips with the club.

Campus junior Lauren Rehbein, current club president, remembers Cheung’s embrace of the club’s spirit and his risk-taking on the slopes. She said club members never thought something bad would happen to Cheung, despite his willingness to take chances. Since the accident, many have discussed the need for greater safety precautions when attempting potentially dangerous tricks.

Although even the most routine daily tasks still prove challenging, Cheung keeps himself motivated during recovery with a goal of returning to his normal life, prior to the injury.

“Besides the physical challenges, the hardest part is focusing on the present instead of what’s out of my control,” he said.

Using the example of his right hand, which still has very limited function, he explained that there’s “no use” in continuing to focus on its restricted mobility and potentially limiting his progress in other areas, such as walking.

His father attributes Cheung’s continued strides in rehabilitation — for example, his progression from relying on a motorized wheelchair to being able to walk short distances with just a crutch — to his positive attitude.

“This is a challenge for him, of course, and we don’t know what will happen in the future,” Simon Cheung said. “Sometimes you’re not ready for a challenge, but you take it in the most positive way you can.”

Contact Ariel Hayat at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ArielHayat.