Disabled veterans get ‘back on the horse’
January 23, 2009
Five years ago, Michael Olsem was serving in the U.S. Army when he sustained an injury and had to go into emergency surgery. When he woke up, he was paralyzed from the waist down not because of the injury, but because the doctor punctured his spinal cord with a scalpel during the procedure.
Today, Olsem suffers from Brown-Sequard Syndrome, a condition resulting from trauma to his spinal cord, and cannot move around without a wheelchair. He lives in Layton with his wife of 22 years and participates in rehabilitation and physical therapy programs at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VA) in Salt Lake City.
Last weekend, Olsem and four other veterans recovering from injuries sustained while serving in the U.S. Military had a unique opportunity. The vets and their families visited the National Ability Center (NAC) in Park City for three days of activities, adventures and bonding.
Sled hockey, snowshoeing, and horseback riding were just a few highlights of the weekend getaway. The National Ability Center’s adaptive equipment and facility enabled the veterans to participate in activities that they haven’t been able to do for years.
Recreation Therapist Emily Potter coordinated the retreat with patients at the Salt Lake City VA, which provides inpatient and outpatient care to veterans with physical or mental disabilities. Of the five veterans who attended the retreat, two suffer from spinal cord injuries, one has Parkinson’s disease, one is a homeless veteran, and one is seeking treatment for injuries from a lightning strike.
Potter says that it was important to bring the families together. "The veterans got a chance to do things they never thought they’d be able to do again, and I wanted them to have that experience with their loved ones," she says. She conducted family-unity ceremonies at the beginning and end of the retreat and encouraged parents and kids to talk about the anger and difficulties they are coping with.
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Olsem attended the retreat with his wife and his 21-year-old son. He says there are a lot of opportunities for single soldiers, but not many for the entire family. "The best part was how [the coordinators] worked to bring everyone together, especially the kids," he says. "We all had a great time."
Don Clausen, a Korean War veteran who lives in Wyoming, travels to the Salt Lake City VA for all of his medical treatment. He suffers from Parkinson’s disease and says the VA has made his condition more manageable. Clausen brought his friend and neighbor, Susanne Acker, to the retreat. "Everyone was happy," he says. "It was nice to be with people like that."
The veterans and their family members shared the sentiment that the weekend was a great success. Clausen says he "absolutely" had a good time, and Olsem notes that he hopes there are other family events scheduled in the near future.
This is the first year for the retreat in Park City, but NAC Adventure Learning Program Manager Kim Millikan says she hopes it won’t be the last. "It was a unique experience for the veterans to be with their own and other families," says Millikan. "They came to try things they didn’t know if they could do, and in the end, they realized they could do everything," she says. "It was truly amazing."
To see more photos from the veterans’ retreat, please see page B-5.