Here it is, folks–my first official hashtag; I’ve been waiting for the right occasion, and I met her this weekend at Loon Mountain. Her name is Meredith Koch, and she is a brand new mono skier.
Meredith, Geoff and David
David and Meredith
At the top of her first chairlift ride
I had just finished up a lesson before lunch in a collaboration between Spaulding Ski Club, part of the Spaulding Adaptive Sports Center, an arm of the Spaulding Rehabilitation Center, and New England Disabled Sports of Loon Mountain. Geoff, my husband, is the Technical Director for Loon’s Snowsports School, but on this day, he was teaching a mono ski lesson, his first love (before me and the kids of course). He and the Spaulding Ski Club travel around to different mountains partnering with a variety of snowsports schools, while providing instructors and equipment. He was working with Meredith on the Magic Carpet (aka Sarsparilla) with an old friend David Blenkhorn, a veteran NEDS coach for at least 20 years, and Kathleen Salas, one of the therapists from Spaulding. One of Geoff’s absolute favorite moments in life is teaching a brand new mono skier, as learning to ski is what literally gave legs to Geoff’s career. He had been excited to work with Meredith as she was young, athletic, determined to learn despite only being eight months out from her accident.
When I came upon the scene, she had just linked three turns, no easy task. Mary Patstone, Director of Spaulding Adaptive Sports Centers, stood there next to me with her camera filming and documenting the look on Meredith’s face in that moment- part exhilaration, part tears, part happiness, and part- oh my god- I really can be a skier again! What I heard was David yelling dramatically as she turned the ski, “What have you done with Meredith?” And her yelling back, fighting the tears at this point, “I am Meredith, and I’m skiing!” Then I’m standing there watching, listening, absorbing the moment, because those are the most special–the very moment when we begin to realize all that is still possible, and I’m now crying. I’m crying for Meredith- for her parents- for her teachers- for what is still to come in her awesome life- and for what she has already lost. Bearing witness to finding a different kind of normal again for a person with a disability is sheer magic. I know nothing about her, other than her name is Meredith and she is skiing. In that moment, I know I need to know more.
Then Geoff tells me, she was injured only eight months ago when a piano somehow lands on her. She explained how she as part of a group of four were trying to move a piano out of the back of a pick up truck when it fell on her. Thus, the awesome hashtag #endpianoviolence. She shares, “It was a L1 (This is from the lumbar section of the spinal cord #1) burst fracture and mid-sternum fracture, which left me paralyzed from the waist down. After a 9 hour surgery which fused my T12-L2 using rods, screws, a steel cage, and human cadaver, I had some function in my quads. I spent a week at UVM Medical Center prior to being transported to Spaulding Rehab in Charlestown, where I spent a month as an inpatient. Recovery has been fast; my PTs at Spaulding had me walking in a harness 2 weeks after my injury occurred and, by the time I was discharged, I was using a walker comfortably. By September, my hamstrings had woken up, and I switched to forearm crutches. By November, most of my glutes were awake. Just this past month my hip muscles wanted to join the party. I can walk short distances without crutches but using my AFO braces. The majority of the time I use bilateral forearm crutches but can walk using only one if need be.”
So, the important part to remember about the devastating blow from her injury is that she was a crazy, athletic kid who loved skiing growing up. She was raised in Norwalk, CT and learned how to ski when she was 3 years old. “My dad taught me, and I quickly figured it out so that I could chase my older brother, David, down the slopes! Skiing has always been one of my favorite sports, and my family has taken trips out west almost every single March vacation since I was 5.”
But her recovery, despite being relatively quick thankfully, hasn’t been without challenges. Yet, even there, she is moving forward, asking questions, problem solving, and trying to figure out ways to adapt to the different circumstances. “One of my biggest challenges have been related to the lack of sensation or function of my pelvic floor aka bathroom muscles. Another challenge has been finding new outlets that challenge me and make me happy. Prior to my accident I had just run a half marathon and was dancing ballet about 6 hours a week. I also swam and skied. Spaulding’s Adaptive Sports Program and the aquatic therapy at Spaulding have helped me discover that being paralyzed doesn’t compromise my ability to be active and physically challenge myself. I have found immense comfort from swimming laps (freestyle) and recently started rock climbing with the Adaptive Climbing Group in Somerville, MA. Adaptive Cycling as an inpatient was the first moment I felt ‘normal’ after my accident. And skiing this weekend was another emotional epiphany that I can experience things I used to love, just in a new fashion. It was so wonderful to be back on the snow, even if there was quite a bit of falling that occurred. My team of Dave, Kathleen, and Geoff were incredible. They made me laugh to overcome my fear of falling. They encouraged me. They picked me back up when I fell. And most importantly, they helped me to rediscover my love of skiing. Despite the physical, emotional, and mental challenges from that first experience on the hill, I cannot wait to get back out with Geoff and Dave and try again to link those turns and to be less afraid of falling. With their instruction, support, and help, I will experience that feeling of freedom while monoskiing and being in one of the happiest places there is – on a ski mountain!”
Adaptive sports truly are an integral part of the healing process. Geoff experienced that 20 years ago this winter, about a year after his snowmobile accident, when he first sat in a mono ski with what was then known as White Mountain Adaptive Snow Sports on the same slope as Meredith. He had mentors who came before him like mono skier Craig Bautz, who showed Geoff many of the “wheelchair ropes” all those years ago, from skiing to negotiating inaccessible bars and restaurants, to the really important things like dating. Craig is the president of CAPEable Adventures, an adaptive sports program on Cape Cod, and also the activities director for Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital Cape Cod. Adaptive skiing has truly come full circle with those who’ve learned already showing the way for newly disabled individuals. Skiing brought back a kind of normal for so many families’ lives who have been enhanced through adaptive sports. Meredith truly has so much to look forward to. She is already signed up for lesson #2 with the Spaulding Ski Club at the end of the month.
Meredith is a Clinical Specialist in the Cardiac Rhythm and Heart Failure division for Medtronic, a medical device company. More specifically, she provides the clinical technical support for pacemakers and implantable defibrillators. She spends part of her time in clinics doing device follow-ups with patients and the other part of her time in hospitals when patients get their device first implanted. And in her “free” time, she will be finding all of those sports again she can share with friends and family. As much as she is appreciative of the work her coaches did with her this weekend, they are equally impressed by her. “It’s why we teach skiing,” David Blenkhorn shares, “those smiles through the tears — after falling repeatedly trying to figure out that balance point–and then watching it click for your student and link those turns–it’s worth every minute. She was so proud of herself, proving once again that anything is possible.”
Geoff sat with me at our kitchen table while I finished the blog article and kept nodding his head as he read Meredith’s words. He added, “For me, it’s personal. I’ve seen those who have struggled with the thought of ‘what’s going to happen now’ and then been present when they make that turn- when they realize what they can still do and how awesome life still can be despite disability. To be a part of that moment is why we do what we do.” Thank you, Meredith for sharing your story, Spaulding Adaptive Sports Centers, New England Disabled Sports, Geoff Krill, David Blenkhorn, and Kathleen Salas– and to the other athletes and coaches making turns and sliding on snow together. And let’s toast to this clever, amusing, and thoughtful hashtag… #endpianoviolence