Fun On One Leg And Three Skis

Joanne Ditmer


Reprinted with permission from EMPIRE, Sunday Magazine of The Denver Post (March 31, 1968). Copyright, 1968, The Denver Post, Inc., Denver, Colorado 80201. Photography by George Crouter.

Skiing is a demanding sport, even for the sound of limb. Yet, once mastered, it is an exhilarating experience, not unlike the swooping, skimming freedom of a bird in flight.

Could amputees learn to ski? And if they could, what would it do for the morale of individuals who had been resigned to the slow, awkward movements of cripples for the rest of their lives?

These questions came to the minds of two Denver area physicians about the same time, although in the beginning neither was aware of the other's thoughts.

Last April, Dr. William Stanek, chief of the amputee clinic at Children's Hospital, approached Willy Schaeffler, University of Denver ski coach, about the possibility of teaching some of his patients to ski. Schaeffler was enthusiastic, but the ski season ended before details-equipment, transportation, lift tickets and the like-could be worked out.

In the meantime, Col. Paul W. Brown, chief of orthopedics at Fitzsimons General Hospital, was wondering about skiing as therapy for men who had lost legs or arms in Vietnam.

At a medical meeting last November the two physicians discovered they were thinking about the same thing and joined forces to put their plan into operation.

Everywhere they turned, they met heartwarming response. Retailers, individuals and ski equipment manufacturers contributed clothing, boots, skis, poles and bindings. Two foundations and a department store made cash gifts to Children's Hospital to pay for transportation and other expenses. Larry Jump, president of the corporation that owns Arapahoe Basin, offered all facilities without charge even though the doctors had expected to pay.

Four instructors were assigned to the program-Dave Sanctuary, administrative director and head of the ski school; Ed Lucks, supervisor of instructors; Alf Tieze and Alex Meza. All refused to take pay. For two weeks the instructors practiced skiing on one leg, with the other held up in the air, to get an idea of the problems involved.

The first class was held on Wednesday, January 10. Seventeen boys from Children's Hospital, ranging in age from 8 to 17, and 13 men from Fitzsimons showed up in separate buses.

It was not a particularly enthusiastic group. Only one of the men had skied before. Most of the others viewed the skiing expedition as just a way to get out of the hospital. The boys were somewhat more excited. They had listened with envy to friends at school talking about the fun of skiing.

The amputees provided a variety of problems. Some had lost a leg below the knee. Others had had amputations above the knee. Some were wearing artificial legs. Two of the men and three of the boys were missing a hand or arm. Each had the help of the instructors, the physical therapists from each of the hospitals and a man from Fitzsimons' orthopedic appliance shop.

To help them retain their balance, the one-legged skiers were given regular metal hand braces that encircle the arm with a short ski on the end. These served as outriggers (Fig. 1 ). Those missing a hand were taught to hold a regulation ski pole with their hook prosthesis.

After learning the intricacies of fastening boot to ski, and then how to stand on skis, the amputees were taught like any group of beginners how to fall, and how to get up. At this point they discovered that the outrigger poles slipped away instead of providing firm support like an ordinary ski pole. Later, the Fitzsimons shop devised a spike that pops out from the bottom of the outrigger when the pole is held at an angle and springs back in for a smooth downhill glide (Fig. 2 ).

Four instructors had been assigned to the amputee class, but 17 showed up to help. They were amazed at the progress their students made. "We expected to get the amputees on skis and walk 'em around a bit to get used to the feel," Ed Lucks said later. "But they all started to ski. The first afternoon everyone was learning how to ride the Poma lift on the beginner slope." But it wasn't easy. More than once a one-legged skier needed help from an instructor running on one side, the lift operator on the other, to get set on the tow.

A friendly rivalry developed between the men and the boys and they cheered each other on. By the second session everyone was riding the chairlift to the halfway point up the mountain and making his way down (Fig. 3 ). After that, their progress came in spurts (Fig. 4 ). Some weeks were great. At other sessions some of the skiers seemed to have forgotten all they had learned. But the doctors noticed a steady improvement in the self-confidence of men and boys who, in the quiet of their rooms, may have wondered what the limits of their lives would be.

For some, there were unexpected complications. Several of the men, not yet fitted with artificial legs, took such tumbles that their stumps swelled or the wounds broke open, delaying the fitting of their prosthesis. There was only one real casualty. Array Spec. 4c Mike Tiernan, 21, of Waukegan, Ill, fractured his left leg below the knee at the same spot where it had been hit when he lost his right leg in a mine explosion. "And I was going skiing tomorrow on my own," he lamented.

But there were serio-comic incidents, too. Take Pat Kiernan, 17, from Children's Hospital, who learned to ski with an artificial leg. He did so well that Sanctuary moved him into a regular ski class and didn't think to tell the instructor Pat was an amputee.

"Bend your knees," the instructor told Pat. "Bend at the ankles, way over at the ankles."

"I can't," Pat said.

"Why not?" the instructor asked.

"Because it's wood," Pat explained apologetically.

Then there was the GI who collided with a pretty girl and fell. "Don't help us up too soon," he told would-be rescuers. "That's how I meet them."

Two of the men were so proud of their ability to make their way on the slopes that the weekend after their first class, they took girls who had never skied on a skiing date.

Colonel Brown, a beginning skier himself, practiced his snowplow on the slope in front of the amputees and took the predictable falls. "When the men see how clumsy I am with two legs," he said, "it'll encourage them to do better." He knew how enlisted men enjoy outdoing their officers.

Before long the instructors set up a slalom course and the more expert amputees raced down between the poles (Fig. 5 ). When Ed Lucks, skiing on one leg, missed a gate and slammed into the poles, the hooting of the GIs echoed across the mountain.

One of the regulars from the beginning was E-4 Terry Frazier, 20, of Littleton, Colo. He posed a special problem. He had lost both his legs in Vietnam, one below the knee, the other above. The instructors put Frazier on an inflated innertube and pulled him down the slope at the end of a long rope the first day, but that didn't have enough action. A sled on broad skis that he can guide himself has been much more fun, and a pretty girl instructor goes along to tug him uphill. Frazier managed to take some spectacular spills and enjoys himself immensely.

The last session of the joint Fitzsimons-Children's program was held Feb. 28. By then most of the skiers had developed not only skill but style, sinking and lifting, bashing down the hill in full control, turning beautifully. The men will continue with their weekly ski sessions so long as there is snow, but on the condition that the instructors accept payment.

"The enthusiasm of the instructors was contagious," Colonel Brown says. "The amputees learned to do something better than most people, something that takes a degree of skill. They have accomplished something special."

One unexpected side benefit of the program is the psychological lift experienced by other patients in both hospitals who saw fellow amputees going off to ski each week and come back glowing with satisfaction.

With skiing such a success, Fitzsimons is planning two other therapy projects for the amputees who continue to flow in from the battlefields of Vietnam- golf and horseback pack trips into the mountains.

In Ward 5 East there is a young man who has no left arm. The rest of him is encased in a cast from toes to throat. He wants to sign up if they ever get a water skiing program started. By summer, they might.