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A new outlook, behind goggles

Alisha Self, Of the Record staff

Last week, a special group of skiers tackled the slopes at Park City Mountain Resort. For first-timers, learning to traverse the mountain on their own two feet can be a challenge. For 12 visitors from the Children’s Cancer Hospital at The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, learning to ski with amputated and prosthetic limbs was both a trial and a triumph.

M.D. Anderson has hosted an annual Rehabilitation Ski Trip in Park City for the past 13 years. Each January, between 10 and 15 physically disabled pediatric cancer patients enjoy a weeklong vacation of snow, skiing and smiles with family members, fellow adult cancer survivors and doctor chaperones from the Children’s Cancer Hospital.

Dr. Norman Jaffe started the trip 28 years ago after treating Ted Kennedy for osteosarcoma in Boston. Kennedy was learning to ski at the time and Jaffe decided he wanted his other patients to have the same opportunities. He started the program in Winter Park, Colo., and later moved it to Park City.

The trip is designed for hemiplegics, amputees, deaf and blind patients who have undergone treatment at the Cancer Center in Houston. Many patients have had single- or double-limb amputations due to bone cancers. "Any child with a major disability is invited," said Jaffe. "I want to show children that they can do things they thought they couldn’t."

The program benefits not only the patients but also their families, Jaffe explained. Parents and siblings realize that although disabilities can be limiting, they are not the end of the world. "You can’t turn the clock back but you can improve things," Jaffe said.

M.D. Anderson funds the trip for patients and family members through the Children’s Art Project, which sells cards and gifts featuring the artwork of young cancer patients. Since its inception in 1993, the project has earned more than $26 million for programs that benefit cancer patients and their families.

The Cancer Center pays for the first two trips for each patient, but many choose to pay their own way so that they can return year after year.

The trip organizers partner with the National Ability Center (NAC) in Park City to provide ski instructors, volunteers and equipment. The patients also have the opportunity to experience activities such as indoor rock-climbing at the NAC’s Bronfman Recreation Center and Ranch.

Connor Olson, 17, of Tonganoxie, Kan., was one of this year’s first-time skiers on the hill. He used to play a lot of different sports, but since having his leg amputated he hasn’t tried a lot of new things. "I think it’s pretty awesome," he said. "You not only get to be active and prove you can do stuff, you get to meet other people in the same situation."

Texas native Emily Garcia, 18, learned to use a bi-ski during her first trip to Park City five years ago. "It seems to get easier," she said. "It’s kind of like riding a bike, you never forget how to do it."

Seventeen-year-old Mackenzie Derr, a double amputee from Birmingham, Ala., was making her second visit to Park City. "Before the trip, I thought I couldn’t really do much. It makes me realize that I can do anything I want," she said, adding that her whole family wants to continue to make the trip each year.

Olson, Garcia and Derr agreed that the reason they keep coming back is to meet other amputees their own age. "The friendships you make are forever," Derr said.

Although most of the patients are from different parts of the country and had never met each other before the trip, many left Park City with new friends, a strong support group, and plenty of people to add to their Facebook circles.

They also returned home with a sense of confidence that they can do anything they set their minds to. "Their whole attitude about life changes," said Jaffe, who has retired but continues to ski with the group each year. "That is exactly the objective and target of this enterprise."

For more information about M. D. Anderson Cancer Center and the Rehabilitation Ski Trip, visit http://www.mdanderson.org.


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