Program returns rehab patients to active lifestyle

Disabled encouraged to ski, raft, race

As a teenager, Muffy Davis’ goal in life was to make the Olympics. She consistently was ranked one of the top skiers in the United States.

Fifteen years later, Davis retired from competitive skiing with a bronze medal from the 1998 Nagano (Japan) Games and three silvers from the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.

A success story, but with a twist: Davis medaled in the Paralympics, not the Olympics, and she did it sitting down as a monoskier.

That’s because a skiing accident at age 16 left Davis with T5-6 paraplegia. But the accident that broke her back did not break her spirit. "As soon as I was able, I was learning to ski, to water ski, to do all the things I had done before. I just had to do them a little differently," she explains. "I really needed to get out on that mountain."

Now Davis works as a development officer for a unique outreach program at the University of Utah Rehabilitation Center in Salt Lake City that strives to create adaptive recreational opportunities for people with disabilities.

The Rehabilitation Center teams up with community organizations to offer such activities as skiing, wheelchair racing, handcycling, river trips, horseback riding, camp-outs, and adaptive technology fairs.

"My rehab was very important, but it was from interacting with other people with disabilities that I really grew. That’s where I learned the tricks of the trade that I use in my everyday life. I learned that I was OK, that there’s nothing wrong with having a disability," Davis says. "Our hope is that people who are not out there recreating will get together and meet other people. We want them to get the benefits of recreation, of getting out there and continuing to live a full life."

The University of Utah has demonstrated a strong commitment to helping patients adapt after they leave the hospital, says Trish Jensen, MA, MTRS, development officer for the Rehabilitation Center.

"So much of recovery in rehabilitation, especially for people who are left with permanent disabling conditions, is not just helping them learn how to walk or use a wheelchair, it’s also something about their attitude, how they perceive themselves, what value they have to contribute to society," she says. "So much of rehab is about allowing someone to learn they have the capacity to contribute and go back to a meaningful lifestyle."

It’s easy to let recreation programs go when budget concerns loom, but the Rehabilitation Center presses on, Jensen says.

"In this age when budgets are being slashed and reimbursement is reduced, services that relate to wellness and wholeness are some of the first to go," she says. "We have tried to create a culture where everyone feels some degree of responsibility to think outside these walls, to think about what people need when they leave here."

The problem, Jensen says, is that patients usually are not ready to participate in these types of recreational activities until at least a year after injury. By that time, they may have little contact with the Rehabilitation Center. So Jensen, Davis, and the center’s recreation therapist work to keep in touch with patients and to promote activities.

"Here in Utah, we have some great programs like the National Ability Center in Park City that offers adaptive skiing, horseback riding, etc.," Jensen says. "We refer them there, but then we say, You can’t do this for a year.’ That’s great, but they’re still going through the adjustment process of recovering from their injury. A year later, when it’s OK, do you think they remember or will be inclined to go talk to somebody they’ve never met? No."

Jensen and Davis also work to secure funding for patients who can’t afford the activities. In the last three years, the center has been awarded about $8,000 in grants to pay for patients’ first entry experience in any given activity if money is a barrier.

"We link them to real, meaningful, fun activities. Some of the most powerful therapeutic tools are around the whole concept of fun, self-worth, enjoyment, and pleasure," Jensen says.

Examples of activities the Rehabilitation Center has promoted and sponsored include:

  • An annual overnight camp-out.

    "It’s pretty unique when you’ve got three people in power wheelchairs in a wilderness environment or somebody who’s had a head injury or a stroke and hasn’t gotten out, and who has assumed that those activities aren’t available to them anymore. It’s a huge thing," Jensen says.

  • Ski days with the National Ability Center.
  • Trips down the Colorado River with SPLORE, a local outdoor accessible adventures group.
  • Salt Lake City Marathon wheelchair racing and handcycling.
  • The local annual 5K Run and Roll.
  • Ice sledge hockey clinics.

"If you want to see the difference these activities make, come with us and watch the transformation of a person in the recovery process who all of a sudden is on a river trip and put next to a person with less function who is doing more independently," Jensen says. "That person realizes maybe he can do more. It’s very empowering."

The Rehabilitation Center also arranged for staff to volunteer for the Paralympic Games, which started two weeks after the Olympic Games in Salt Lake City in 2002.

The hospital loaned Jensen’s time for one year to the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the Paralympic Winter Games. She became the classification coordinator, responsible for the process by which athletes are put in classes for competition based on their ability levels.

"A person with a midchest injury who is paralyzed from there down has no trunk muscles; so when they’re in a sit-ski, their lean is not as controlled as an athlete paralyzed from the waist down. So they are put in different classes and considered in competition for medals differently. It’s similar to weight classes in wrestling," she points out.

The classification process went so smoothly in 2002 — there were no protests of classification levels during the Games — that Jensen was one of eight people in the world asked to serve on a new subcommittee for the International Paralympic Committee in Bonn, Germany. The subcommittee will develop policies on how classification is managed at future games.

Jensen is only too happy to participate in the international committee, because the Paralympics are the ultimate example of her passion for getting disabled people back into active lifestyles.

"The Paralympics are often confused with Special Olympics, but the difference is that Paralympic athletes compete not to inspire but to win," she says.

"These are elite athletes. The only difference between a Paralympic athlete and an Olympic athlete is that the Paralympic athlete might be skiing with only one leg or swimming with one arm. They compete to be recognized as the best in their sport in the world," Jensen adds.

Need More Information?

  • Trish Jensen, Development Officer, The University of Utah Rehabilitation Center, 50 N. Medical Drive, Salt Lake City, UT 84132. Phone: (801) 585-3798. E-mail: trish.jensen@hsc.utah.edu.