Stunned family members gathered at the bedside of critically injured actress Natasha Richardson to keep vigil for the mother of two who suffered a traumatic head injury during a skiing accident Monday afternoon.

Natasha Richardson Suffers Traumatic Head Injury

Watch Video

The wife of Liam Neeson is in critical condition with a brain injury after falling on a ski slope while taking a lesson.

Richardson was surrounded by heartbroken family members —  including husband Liam Neeson and her two teenage sons — at Lenox Hill hospital in Manhattan today as word on her condition ranged from critical to near-death.

“There is no chance,” a source, described as a family friend, told People magazine. “It is a fact that her heart is beating but she is brain dead. …It’s not official yet,” the source said, “but they basically will detach her (from life support).”

The 45-year-old actress fell while taking a private ski lesson on a bunny slope in Canada yesterday but did not initially appear to be badly injured. An hour later, the Tony Award-winner was hospitalized in critical condition.

Richardson was airlifted from Canada to a hospital in New York yesterday afternoon.

Her mother, actress Vanessa Redgrave, appeared dazed and grim as she walked into the Manhattan hospital last night and Richardson’s sister fought back tears as she brought her teen nephews to see their mother, the New York Daily News reported.

There were conflicting reports about the extent of Richardson’s injuries but People magazine most recently quoted a family friend saying she had “leakage of blood between the brain and skull” and that she will not recover.

One source close to the family told the New York Daily News that the 45-year-old mother of two had “been on life support since this morning” and that she was “brain dead.” 

The New York Post also reported that the actress is brain dead.

Other reports said Richardson had brain swelling and was not brain dead but no official word has been released.

When news broke of Richardson’ injury, a red-eyed Neeson rushed to be by his wife’s side at fifth-floor intensive care unit the Sacre-Coeur hospital in Montreal yesterday.

As he prepared to make the tearful journey home to New York with his wife, he knelt in the back of the ambulance with his eyes fixed on her intensely — gazing at the woman he married 15 years earlier as she lay in a hospital bed wrapped in blankets with tubes covering her face, the Toronto Star reported.

Neeson sat in silence as he caressed her face and held her hand during the ambulance ride to the Manhattan hospital after their plane touched down in New Jersey. She was “unconscious,” pale, her pupils “non-reactive” and described by members of the ambulance team as “brain dead,” a source told TMZ reported

The News reported that the heartbroken family is now holding vigil at the hospital as they face the somber task of deciding how to take her off life support.

“The rule of thumb is: You have two neurological exams, 12 hours apart, to show that there is no evidence of higher brain activity,” Dr. Philip Stieg, chairman of New York-Presbyterian Hospital Weill Cornell’s department of neurological surgery told the Daily News.

“If that is so, the patient is brain-dead; they are clinically dead,” he said. 

The neurological department chair said the family of a brain-dead patient has two options: turning off the ventilator to make the individual’s heart stop beating or prolonging life.

Richardson apparently showed no signs of physical trauma after she initially fell and tumbled down a beginners trail during a private ski lesson at Mont Tremblant, reported

“She was laughing and joking” after the accident, a spokeswoman told People magazine.

The British-born actress was not wearing a helmet at the time of the fall but was “accompanied by an experienced ski instructor who immediately called ski patrol,” a spokeswoman said.

Richardson “did not show any visible sign of injury” was brought to the bottom of the mountain by the ski patrol, which insisted she see a doctor, the spokeswoman said. An hour later the actress was taken by ambulance to the hospital after she complained of severe headaches.

Liam Neeson, who was on a movie set in Toronto, rushed to his wife’s bedside upon hearing the news.

Doctors not involved in her case but experienced with head injuries told the AP that her reported symptoms are consistent with a blood clot in or around the brain, which can occur when a blow to the head or neck causes one or more blood vessels to rupture.

“There are at least two major conditions that can happen after a head injury,” said Dr. Charles Tator, a neurosurgeon at Toronto Western Hospital. “One is the development of a blood clot. And the blood clot could form inside the brain tissue itself or between the skull and the brain.”

Tator, stressing he cannot speak directly to Richardson’s case, said such falls can cause a blood vessel to tear and that in turn leads to a clot.

“It could be an extradural hematoma, which means it’s between the skull and the dura (the membrane that surrounds and protects the brain),” he said. “Or it could be a subdural hematoma, which is between the dura and the brain.”

It’s also possible for a blood vessel within the brain to rupture, which would cause what’s known as an intracerebral clot, Tator said.

“They’re probably of equal incidence, so it could be any one of those three.”

When a clot occurs inside the skull, pressure builds up and pushes the brain downward. Unless the aggregation of blood is removed and the pressure released through surgery, the brain stem can become compressed.

“And that’s when the serious, generally irreversible damage occurs,” Tator said. “So if there has been damage to the brain stem, those people generally don’t wake up. They either die or remain in a vegetative state.”

Richardson appears to have had a period of “lucidity” between her fall and the onset of symptoms. If she then lost consciousness, that interval would have raised a red flag for doctors about the potential progression of her condition.

“If they (patients) become comatose after this lucid interval, then you’re on a sliding scale of who’s going to wake up and who isn’t going to wake up from this type of injury,” Tator said.

In other words, time is of the essence, he said, noting that the relative closeness of Mount Tremblant to Montreal hospitals with experienced neurosurgeons could have been one factor in Richardson’s favor.

Still, those who survive a serious brain trauma may carry life-long scars from their injury.

“There can be terrible long-term effects,” said Tator, including varying degrees of mental dysfunction.

“Very major deficits can occur in survivors, no question about that.”

Richardson, the daughter of celebrated actress Vanessa Redgrave and the late producer Tony Richardson, married Neeson in 1994 after they both appeared in the film “Nell” and they have two sons, Michael 13, and Daniel 12.