The first time Ted and Sarah Wade skied together as a couple, it was in Killington, Vermont. Ted, an Army sergeant, was coming off a deployment in Afghanistan, and in several messages to his wife, he couldn't contain his excitement about hitting the slopes. But in 2004, any thoughts of a second skiing trip -- or of a "happy ever after" for the couple -- came to an abrupt standstill.
On February 14 of that year, Ted was serving in the 82nd Airborne in Iraq when his humvee was hit by an improvised explosive device. The detonation threw Ted from the vehicle, his right arm completely severed above the elbow. He also sustained severe brain injuries, as well as several fractures and shrapnel and soft tissue wounds, all of which combined to put him in a coma for two and a half months.
His long, slow road to recovery continues to this day, but although the Wades lost a lot on that fateful day, they've gained strength, and a new surrogate family, through participation in the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, an annual event in Snowmass, Colorado organized by Disabled American Veterans (DAV) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
The Best Form of Therapy
The Wades aren't short on gumption; they have become an important voice for disabled veteran support, including testimony before Congress. Their story was among many which provided impetus for the passage of the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act in 2010, which expanded caregiver benefits and healthcare services for veterans. As you would expect from a caregiver who has supported her injured spouse for almost 15 years, Sarah is feisty, forthright, and pragmatic, with a much-needed sense of humor about the couple's situation. For her, skiing alongside her husband is an ideal form of therapy. "This is the fun part of rehabilitation," she says. "It's more fun than the usual session where he's inside and you're sitting in a waiting room or parking lot!" Due to his injuries, Ted speaks slowly and infrequently, but one senses his determination, as well as a wry, friendly personality, through his presence alone.
The Wades first heard about the Winter Sports Clinic when Ted was just coming out of his coma in 2004 at Walter Reed Hospital. Sarah recalls meeting Jim Mayer, a Vietnam veteran and amputee himself, while he was making rounds at the hospital on Easter weekend, meeting with all the patients. "He had just gotten back from the Winter Sports Clinic, and he told me about the event." Sarah says. "Ted literally wasn't even upright, he was still coming out of the coma, but the day Jim told me about the event...was the day I decided that [getting there] was our goal."
Of course, getting there wasn't as simple as all that. Ted's doctor recommended to the couple that he should wait at least two years in order to minimize the possibility of another dangerous head injury after his brain surgery. Even today, Ted must take seizure medication to avoid the danger of manic episodes, and the act of putting his foot into a ski boot requires assistance. Undaunted, the Wades participated in their first Winter Sports Clinic in 2006, sticking to their two-year plan, and they've been back virtually every year since then.
On the mountain today, the Wades are accompanied by an old friend: Andrea "AJ" Prudhomme, an adaptive ski instructor based in New Hampshire who has attended the clinic for 20 years now. AJ was the very first instructor the Wades had at their first clinic in 2006, and they've stuck together since then. The weather is sunny as the trio tackle the slopes, with AJ and Sarah taking turns as the lead skier. The conditions are a little slushy due to the warm temperatures -- a trial for even an experienced skier. Still, AJ and Ted have an almost telepathic bond, as they smoothly negotiate the turns. Whenever Ted falls, they recite their mantra together: "No fall, no fun."
Says AJ, "It's a second family. The instructors [here] are a second family, our students are a second family Every day is so rewarding. It fills our hearts."
When Ted is asked about what he enjoys most about the clinic, his answer is simple: "Just the groups getting together, celebrating the passage of time. Because that's pretty much what goes on here."
Sarah readily agrees that attending the clinic is like meeting up with extended family. "It's like a big reunion every year," she says. "At home right now we're having some issues getting Ted the care he needs, and it's really easy to feel embattled. Some days you feel like nobody cares. And then you come out here and you see the cream of the crop of VA employees, and all these instructors, team leaders, all these people who come and volunteer.
"It's this huge group of amazing people everywhere you turn. They care, and are appreciative, and it helps carry us through the rest of the year."
Not only do the Wades gain support from their friends at the clinic, but the event also supplies them with goals and milestones for progress. Sarah notes that after a brain injury, progress can be slow, and improvements over time don't always register. "It's really hard to see that change day to day," she says. "Without that gratficication it's hard for even me to stay motivated sometimes, and kick Ted in the tush to keep getting better. But one of the nice things about skiing is that year to year, you can see how much has changed that you can't see at home. It's our measuring stick."
In a particularly heart-warming moment, Sarah recalls a recent clinic in which Ted got to show his stuff in front of Chris Werhane, On Mountain Safety Director at the Winter Sports Clinic and an Adaptive Sports Lead for the non-profit organization Adaptive Adventures. Sarah serves on the Board of Directors of the latter organization, and Werhane is a frequent skiing buddy with Ted. "Ted went up to the race course with AJ, and Chris was wiping back tears as he was watching Ted go down the course," says Sarah. "Even for the instructors, it's a sense of accomplishment, making a difference for us."
Participating in the Winter Sports Clinic whetted the Wades' appetite for more adaptive sports. As Sarah puts it, saving a life is one thing, but having a quality life after a serious injury can be a much tougher proposition.
The Wades' work with Adaptive Adventures helps keep the flame alive the rest of the year. In addition to running a rock-climbing wall at the clinic, Adaptive Adventures, through grants from DAV and VA, is able to conduct other programs around the country throughout the year,including kayaking, rock-climbing, skiing, and even dragon boat racing, involving veterans from over 30 states.
Says Sarah, "It gives veterans opportunities outside of this clinic, at different points throughout the year. We couldn't do nearly as much without the DAV and the Department of Veterans Affairs helping us out with grant money."
AJ stresses the advantage of getting veterans out and about throughout the year. "[Ted] has progressed every year because he's getting mileage from the other places he goes to ski, which all links into it. Some of these veterans only ski this one week out of the year. The more mileage they get, the more accomplished they become."
More challenges lie ahead for the Wades -- even as they're out on the slopes, Sarah must answer messages and finagle arrangements for Ted's care -- but at least for this week, they can celebrate their friendships and the progress they've made. Above all, there's a sense that better things can happen in the future. "I've tried to get them to come to Maine to ski, but they haven't made it yet. Someday they will," chuckles AJ.
"As much as I wish I could change things, and Ted never having been injured, I also can't imagine not knowing all these people we've met because of it," says Sarah. "There's kind of an upside to it...if there's an upside to getting blown up," she concludes with a slight smile.