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Man with shattered neck paints his body pain to teach others how to get back on their feet

Matt Crowe shattered his neck in a mountain biking accident this summer. Now he's using his body as a human canvas to show doctors his recovery process.

In June, Matt Crowe was riding down Aspen’s Government Trail, cross-training for the Triple Bypass road ride, when he hit a rock and flipped over his handlebars onto his head shattering his neck.

“I tried to get up and I couldn’t,” Crowe said. “I had a searing pain in my back and nothing else would move.”

After a Flight for Life to St. Anthony Trauma Center, the hospital’s on-call surgeons from Panorama Orthopedics said the splintered vertebrae was the worst they’d ever seen. The question wasn’t whether Crowe would ever walk again -- but whether he’d survive.

“He had a severe neck injury, had a neurological insult and the initial CAT scan showed a neck dislocation,” said Dr. Todd VanderHeiden, an orthopedic spine surgeon. “If you could see the injury CT scan, I think you would agree that the odds of having any neurological function would be very small.”

After his surgery, Crowe was transferred to Craig Hospital in Denver for rehabilitation but he still had numbness and dead zones from his spinal injuries.

“You know when your hands fall asleep and they wake up tingly, I have that consistently in my hands and in my feet for 24 hours a day,” Crowe said. “When I started talking to people, I really wanted them to know how I felt what it was like that they couldn’t see in what’s known as the ‘invisible injury’.”

So Matt and his wife Janelle started mapping his feeling with paint—on his body.

“White is where I feel normal," Crowe said. "Orange is one level below white, so it’s the next level below normal."

Their coloring scale uses other colors like blue and green—black being the color for completely numb.

“My background is in fine art,” said his wife Janelle Crowe. “But I never thought in a million years I would be using my background for what I’m doing today.”

“It’s been helpful for me in so far as I can track his recovery," VanderHeiden said. "I think we’re still headed in a positive direction.”

Four months after his accident, Matt Crowe said the solution of using his body as a human canvas is the best way he let others know how he’s doing on his road to recovery and hopes to compete in the Triple Bypass road ride next year.

"I hope that it really brings to light for all the other people that are out there that have it, that they can express themselves so people can begin to understand," he said.