Conquering the Mountain: Pediatric Patients Take to the Slopes
by Maureen Suhr
This week, a very special group of skiers has made its way from New York to the slopes of Colorado. I am here with a group of current and former patients from Hospital for Special Surgery and our Pediatric Rehabilitation Department. Our group, the “Big Apple Skiers” consists of four young adults, aged sixteen to twenty-three, and one 9 year old, all with cerebral palsy. We are here to ski the Rockies! It’s an important challenge because success on the slopes represents the culmination of years of work and determination in the hospital and in rehab. Our trip brings to mind a powerful saying:
“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”
I am sure that when he said the above, Sir Edmund Hillary was not thinking of a group of kids from New York City. But today as I look at these words inscribed above the doorway of the Adaptive Sports Center in Crested Butte, Colorado, I can’t imagine him meaning anything else.
My colleague Magda Oledzka and I were first introduced to the Adaptive Sports Center two years ago when a patient of Pediatric Orthopedic Surgeon Dr. David Scher’s told him about the program. We met some of the directors, staff, and participants at a fundraiser. Magda and I always comment on how fortunate we are to work with such engaged and enthusiastic colleagues in the Pediatric Rehabilitation Department. We immediately recognized the same culture in the Adaptive Sports Center and began dreaming of taking a group from Hospital for Special Surgery to Colorado.
It has taken a lot of planning, a lot of phone calls and meetings, and some very generous donations, but we are here. Early Sunday morning, five skiers and two physical therapists (Magda and me) left LaGuardia Airport. Sara, our youngest participant, is travelling with her mother and older sister. The rest of the participants said, “goodbye,” to their families for the week.
We boarded the plane with nervous excitement as we anticipated a week of skiing, camaraderie, self-discovery, and fun. For some, this would be the first time spending time away from our families. For most, this would be our first time skiing. We were all eager to feel the snap of Colorado cold on our faces, see the peaks of mountains pierce the sky, and we kept our fingers crossed that the snow would be soft under our bottoms when we fell!
We arrived at our residence late afternoon. It was a home donated to Adaptive Sports Center for our use for the week. The house is magnificent. None of us can believe we get to call this palace home for the week. The home is spacious and beautifully decorated but the highlight for us is the view. The floor to ceiling windows reveal majestic mountains and untouched snow on all sides. As Sara put it, “This is what sunrise in the mountains looks like. I can’t believe how beautiful it is.”
Monday was our first day on the slopes! As we arrived at Adaptive Sports Center our nerves loomed over us like the peak of Mount Crested Butte. The talk in the car became quieter as the conversation turned from the weather and the Super Bowl to, “Wow, those are steep mountains.” Our fears were soon allayed as the staff at Adaptive met us at the van. Their friendly faces and encouraging words put us all at ease.
Our morning was busy as the skiers got set up with equipment. Boots, ski pants, goggles, and helmets were just the beginning. The instructors talked to the skiers about their goals and helped choose equipment specifically tailored to their needs. For some, it meant placing a bar to hold the skis together and tethers to help guide the skiers. Other skiers needed more adaptations to their equipment. Sara, who uses a wheelchair for the majority of her mobility, used a sit ski and outriggers, which allowed her to ski in a seated position. Magda and I got to put our physical therapist skills to use as we helped to position Sara in her sit ski and fabricate insoles to improve skiers’ leg positions. After the morning, Daniel’s instructor reported that one of Dan’s legs was collapsing inward causing his ski to tilt. Magda and I were able to use an ace bandage and some tape to improve his leg alignment for his afternoon skiing.
The day on the mountain was full of thrills, the occasional spill, and all smiles. I had the pleasure of taking photographs and videos of the skiers as they took their first steps on the mountain. As the day wore on, the skiers continued to challenge themselves. They learned to trust the instructors and volunteers and pushed themselves both physically and mentally. By the end of the day, all skiers were off the “magic carpet” or learning area, and were riding the lift and skiing down Mount Crested Butte!
The car ride home had a very different tone than that of the morning. Everyone was excitedly chatting about the day’s events. Rosemary, 16, said, “I can’t believe it! I was skiing with only the tethers on!” Erin, 21, said, “The turning was hard but I really got some speed going!” Daniel, 17, said, “I never thought I would ski.” When asked what it felt like to ski, Sara said, “I felt like a new person! I love to ski!”
“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” Well said, Sir Edmund Hillary. The van ride home was that sentiment incarnate. Five kids, who throughout their lives have faced not only physical challenges, but the emotional and social sequelae of those challenges, sat beaming. They had conquered the mountain, but more importantly, they conquered themselves. On Tuesday I skied for the first time ever. Beforehand, I asked the kids for some advice. They told me, “Don’t set unrealistic expectations. Keep your head up and shift your weight to turn. And most importantly, have fun.”
Maureen Suhr is a doctor of physical therapy and board certified pediatric specialist, and is the assistant section manager at CA Technologies Rehabilitation Center at the Lerner Children’s Pavilion, Hospital for Special Surgery. She has volunteered with the Foundation for Orthopedics and Complex Spine and traveled to Ghana in November 2008 to assist in the rehabilitation of children and adults following joint replacement and spine surgery.
Magdalena Oledzka is a physical therapist and board certified pediatric specialist, and is the section manager at the CA Technologies Rehabilitation Center at the Lerner’s Children’s Pavilion, Hospital for Special Surgery. She is NDT trained in the management and treatment of children with cerebral palsy and other neuromotor disorders.