Yesterday, March 31, was my son’s eighth “alive day”, or the anniversary of the day he nearly died in Iraq. He spent the day skiing the Rocky Mountains at the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic. But he wasn’t just skiing, he was thriving.
It wasn’t always this way. Alan was 22 years old when he was wounded in a firefight while serving in Iraq. He was a medic with the 82nd Airborne Division and was rendering aid to a wounded soldier when he was shot. He spent the next 2½ years in hospitals. During this time, he contracted meningitis and suffered a stroke, which left him paralyzed, unable to speak, eat, or breathe. I was there with him, wondering what the rest of his life would be like.
We were at the Audie Murphy VA hospital in San Antonio, Texas, when Alan’s recreation therapist recommended we try adaptive sports. We tried a few sports, but none seemed to fit Alan because of his brain injury. Then we learned about the winter sports clinic. We showed up at the clinic for the first time in 2006 full of questions. We left after that week knowing there wasn’t anything Alan couldn’t do. For the first time we focused on his abilities, not his disabilities. And for the first time Alan said he ‘felt normal’ at the clinic. We returned to Texas with a renewed sense of purpose and a new set of goals.
I knew I needed to build on what happened at the clinic and help Alan develop his abilities. I immediately set up home health for physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, and cognitive therapy. We set up a home gym in our garage that is wheelchair accessible so Alan can focus on upper body strength. We also started hand cycling and began entering rides in cities across the country.
Today, Alan has come farther than his doctors ever imagined. And the winter sports clinic is the first event on our calendar each year. As the date approaches, Alan begins training specifically for the event with a few exercises I developed at home. For one exercise, he uses two canes to tap sticky pads posted on the kitchen floor to mimic use of the outriggers when skiing. It’s perfect therapy for hand eye coordination. He also uses a broomstick to mimic rowing and work on his truck control. As a result of what he learns here at the clinic, Alan has become a skier, taking up to three ski trips a year.
As the clinic winds down this year, I know Alan will soon start training again for next year. And I know we will continue to see progress in his recovery. And when his “alive day” comes around next year, I know he will once again be thriving at the top of the mountain, and continuing to inspire his family and all those he meets.