January 13, 2006
Nearly six months ago, when I was still in the hospital
recovering from paralysis of my right arm and leg after brain surgery, I told
my physical therapist that I planned to go snowboarding again this winter. With
an air of bemusement at such an outlandish statement from a patient who was a
total cripple, she said, sympathetically, that there was a good ski program for
disabled skiers at Windham mountain in NY that I might be able to join in a
year or two.
I replied that I had no intention of ever being a disabled skier and asked for another dose of exercises. I refrained (both then and now) from ranting about the culture of low expectations that pervades many quarters of rehabilitative medicine.
Fast forward to 10:00 am this morning, at Park City, Utah. The sky was a clear blue, the sun was just rising over the mountain ridge, the temperature was a very refreshing 10 degrees Fahrenheit, and two of my sons and I had already completed four runs down the beginner, intermediate and expert trails. My performance wasn't quite up to the level of perfect, but I did manage to keep my balance throughout.. In a nutshell, it was a great day.
Interestingly, re-learning as vigorous an activity as snowboarding was easier than learning to walk: an activity I'm still trying to perfect. My right leg is still generally without sensation, so I couldn't really tell (without looking) if the boot binding was attached to the snowboard. Nor could I accurately gauge if my right knee was bending to the correct angle, to compensate for dips in the terrain and turns. But I soon realized that I could compensate for these deficiencies by extrapolating from the position of my left leg and keeping my hips centered over the middle of the board. This technique worked well on the intermediate and easy expert trails. However, I found that on the toughest slopes my brain couldn't process that conscious thought process fast enough (or maybe I was just plain intimidated), so under those conditions I had to restrict myself to moderate speed, wide turns rather than the more aggressive, fast straight line descent with tight turns that I would normally do.
Once again, its amazing to witness firsthand the recuperative powers of the brain. While it will be some time (maybe never) before I can regain the instinctive sense of balance that's required to walk or snowboard without conscious thought, clearly there is no impediment toward using the conscious aspects of the brain to provide an adequate substitute. Willpower is also a crucial element, and so is a recognition that the most difficult aspect in this sort of recovery is dealing with post-traumatic stress. That last item is an ever-diminishing factor, and I'm hopeful with time that it too shall pass into oblivion.