After a plane crash landed Chris in a wheelchair, his therapist at Palo Alto VA Medical Center encouraged him to go to the annual National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass, Colorado. This experience set Chris on a new path in life.
By the time we interviewed him, he had spent more than two decades on the US Paralympic team and had won two gold and two silver. He was back at the clinic where he made his debut, helping other disabled veterans find pleasure in adapted sports.
Where and when did you serve?
I served in the Coast Guard from ’79 to ’83. And it still would be if we hadn’t had a plane crash that put me in a wheelchair.
We were hitting a trail in bad weather on Attu Island, the last island in the Aleutian chain before it turned into Russia, and we hit a mountain.
What happened after the injury?
I went to the Palo Alto VA spinal cord unit. And these people were fantastic. They even talk to me still today because I wasn’t a happy camper let me tell you.
Those first two years of learning to be in a wheelchair… to understand the indignities of being in a wheelchair have been such a shock to my system. And being so sedentary and so limited in what I could do just, for me, it was absolutely devastating.
What motivated a change for you?
It was the first winter sports clinic for veterans and the recreational therapist asked me if I wanted to ski. And for a week, he had to keep harassing me to make me say yes.
But when I did, it was two turns – a right turn and a left turn – and I got my life back. It made me want to be healthy again. And it made me want to talk to people again and want to help people again.
How is it now, going to VA for health care?
For me, as a disabled veteran, I go to White River Junction VA in Vermont, and I know the people there. I have been going there for years. But even the very first day I went there and didn’t know them, I was going to my community. And for me, at the beginning, it was mostly about having the courage to ask. Say I have a problem and need a new cushion. I have an apartment and I need someone to teach me how to use this wheelchair. I need someone to talk to so I can let off steam and I don’t let off on the poor person trying to open a door for me.
Just have that courage and know that I can go to the VA hospital and I can talk to my doctor, I can talk to a therapist, or I can talk to the physiotherapy department or someone and they can solve the problems with it. me.
Not for me, but with me to create a plan to deal with what’s going on so that I can still maintain the kind of life I want to lead, not the kind of life that was reserved for me.
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