Student Life Editor
When Mark Oosterman awoke from a three week coma in June 2011, he was sitting front row at TD Garden watching the Bruins defeat Vancouver for the Stanley Cup.
“I thought I was right there front row,” Oosterman recalled. “When I first woke up I was in this dream. I was trippin’, you know. My brain was playing tricks on me. But after awhile I realized I couldn’t see anything.” Three weeks prior, Oosterman nearly lost his life in a car accident on an early morning commute to work in the state of Oregon.
Before that, when Oosterman graduated high school he took the non-traditional approach and chased winters back and forth from New Zealand to New Hampshire, skiing every mountain he could. In between travelling he worked at Mount Snow, Crotched Mountain, and Mount Hood in Oregon. “I was definitely living the dream, it was an awesome lifestyle,” he recalled.
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On the early morning of June 4, 2011, Oosterman drove himself and a friend to work and veered off the road. Oosterman remembered, “I’m pretty sure I fell asleep. I just sent my car off the right side of the road and I ended up going through the windshield. I smashed my head on a tree and ended up in the river on the side of the road.”
Oosterman remained unconscious in the river for 15 minutes before being noticed. He suffered a broken ankle, broken wrist, and tore every ligament in his left knee. Finally, he cracked his head open over and around his right eye.
“I’m really lucky to be alive,” he said. “I was in a coma for three weeks and I woke up and they really didn’t think I was going to make it. I definitely beat the odds.” For Oosterman, beating such odds meant coming out alive, but without his eyesight.
“It’s just pitch black. It’s just black, always.”
Oosterman explained he suffered traumatic brain injury from lack of oxygen when he spent 15 minutes in the river. This damaged his optic nerves to the point of no return.
Just over a year later, a healthy Oosterman is a full-time student at Keene State College.
Now he’s an undecided freshman. Oosterman has spent the last month learning the ropes of the campus and KSC lifestyle like the rest of his peers—as well as furthering his education in Braille, relearning to use his iPhone, and learning VoiceOver software for his MacBook.
Oosterman said he felt he missed out on the college life before, though he regrets nothing. Oosterman’s mother, Dana Oosterman, said she has waited 26 years for her son to attend college and is delighted over his enrollment at KSC. She said, however, she is glad to have seen Mark follow his dreams before now.
Dana commented, “If he’d followed my plan and my path, then he wouldn’t have had the life experiences he’s had to carry with him.”
On the subject of classes, Oosterman said he struggles most with technology. “I’m still trying to figure out my computer and how to get on blackboard and emails and all that. That’s the thing that really kind of slows me down.” He continued and said he appreciates today’s advanced technology. Commenting on the VoiceOver software he uses, Oosterman joked, “Twenty years ago that wasn’t the case—if there’s any good time to be blind, it’s now!” Oosterman’s girlfriend, Erin Connors, commented on his efforts and said, “To learn from scratch is so hard, I don’t know how he does it so gracefully.”
Oosterman explained one of the reasons he chose KSC was for the “good reputation” the Office of Disability Services held. Today, Oosterman challenges himself to find his way though campus most of the time.
“I’m trying to practice getting where I need to go on my own,” Oosterman continued, “A lot of times I surprise myself and I get there, not problem. Other times I get lost. Everyone at Keene has been really nice. There are plenty of people around to ask for help.”
Senior Chris Gruner quickly fell into the above category, Oosterman explained, when the two met during fall orientation. Gruner, an orientation staff member, noticed Oosterman walking with his own orientation leader, senior Becca Lazinsk, and approached the two. “He just looked like a cool cat so I just went and introduced myself to him and that was it,” Gruner recalled. He explained he noticed first Oosterman’s cane, followed by his t-shirt which displayed some sort of reference to skiing. Gruner, an avid skier himself, said he thought he might as well introduce himself. Lazinsk commented on Gruner and Oosterman’s initial meeting and said the beginning of their friendship remains a sweet memory for her. “I’ll never forget I was walking with Mark and a lot of people saw us and just waved. But Chris just came right over and introduced himself and from that moment on he was always with him.” Lazinsk continued, “Chris is the one that really sticks out in my head as to making sure everything was okay, and being his friend no matter what his disability was.”
Lazinsk said watching Oosterman beginning this new chapter inspired her. “I think even I’ve been through things, but that, I honestly don’t know if I could do. I think that takes an incredible person,” Lazinsk continued, “I don’t know if I could do it, and I think that I’m tougher than the average. That’s why I just respect him so much as a person in general. It puts everything in perspective.” Oosterman said he remains somewhat aware of such an effect he leaves on people, though commented he does not try to be one way or the other. “Its good to know that I have a positive influence over people’s lives by just being myself and just doing what I do,” he said.
Oosterman’s mother, Dana Oosterman, commented on her son similarly and said, “I guess it’s every parents nightmare, definitely, but I believe in my heart there’s a reason he survived. He was meant to teach other people and be inspirational.”
Oosterman spent time this past summer at the Carroll Center for the Blind in Boston where, according to him, he relearned everything. “I basically had to relearn everything. It was kind of like being born again– it’s like you kind of feel like a newborn child in that way where I just have to relearn these basic things. Its hard, but at the same time, it’s a new adventure,” he said. It was at the Carroll Center where Oosterman met clinical researcher, and now girlfriend, Erin Connors. “She’s awesome,” Oosterman said. He explained he recently purchased a tandem bicycle, which the two ride together. “She’s like my captain for my bike. We have a lot of fun doing that,” he said. Connors also commented on the bike and joked, “That bike is a test of our relationship–it’s hilarious.” Staying active despite losing his sight is something that has kept Oosterman positive and eager for life. He explained he continues to ski, swim, and hike. “Obviously it’s not easy. It definitely sucks. I have my days where I’m feeling not so good or sad or angry.” On those days, Oosterman shared, he relies on his mother. He said, “She’s been truly amazing, I can’t say enough. She’s taken such good care of me. She’s always there when I need someone to talk to or to cry to.
Dana Oosterman commented on her son’s reliance on her and shared the struggles she faces when keeping a positive outlook on the turns of Mark’s life.
She said, “He’s very different with me than he is with anybody else, because he’s very honest with me. For everybody else, they say, ‘Oh Mark seems great,’ and he is—he’s an upbeat person and he’s very positive. But he and I spend an awful lot of time alone having very different conversations than what he has in public. Everybody’s perception of how well Mark is doing is very different from my perception of how well Mark is doing. Not everybody sees what I see,” she explained.
Dana continued and shared a story of a conversation she had with her son following the accident. Dana said one day he told her, “Well, you know what, if I’m going to be blind, I want to be the best at it.” When the going gets tough, Oosterman’s outlook and casually shared yet profound life lessons are ones to be remembered. In a final statement, he reminds students to remain positive and grateful for every given day. Oosterman said, “I’ve always just had kind of a positive attitude, so I just feel like I’m lucky to be alive. It could have been worse. I could have died. I consider myself lucky to have a second chance. You know, life goes on and I have a lot of fun. I still have a lot to live for.”
Julie Conlon can be contacted at