Ski Day Helps Teen Get Back on the Slopes After Being Paralyzed

Jacob Skiing 2
Jacob skis with the assistance of adaptive ski poles, called outriggers.

On January 6, 2015, 13-year-old Jacob Wald woke up and headed to school. The day started out just like any other day.

This day, however, would turn out to be very different; this day would change his life forever.

“I was playing basketball that morning,” said Wald. “Everything happened so fast. Eight hours later I couldn’t walk.”

That morning during school Wald began to suffer from back pain. It progressively got worse so he left school early. Soon after, he couldn’t stand anymore.

“My legs turned to JELL-O,” said Wald.

He was taken immediately to an emergency room in Tacoma. He stayed inpatient there for two weeks until he was transported by ambulance to Seattle Children’s Hospital.

He was diagnosed with transverse myelitis, a rare neurological condition that can happen to anyone. The condition affects the spinal cord and has no known cause. He was paralyzed from the chest down.

Road to recovery

Wald stayed inpatient at Seattle Children’s for nearly three weeks. Every day the Rehabilitation Medicine care team, a national leader in rehabilitation for children, worked with him to regain feeling and strength in his legs. His focus was on recovery, one small step at a time. Just days before leaving the hospital, he took his first step.

After being discharged from the hospital, Wald and his family headed back to their home in Tacoma. Twice a week, Wald would travel to Seattle Children’s South Clinic located in Federal Way for rehabilitation and physical therapy.

“I would come up with things I wanted to achieve, and then we’d focus on the muscles it took to achieve those things,” said Wald. “I was in a wheelchair for seven months, but I worked down to only needing one crutch. I’m a really competitive kid. I liked working toward things.”

Wald was making huge strides in his recovery, but he was missing out on activities that used to bring him such joy. One activity in particular was skiing, something he didn’t know if he’d ever be able to do again, so he focused on working toward that.

Inspiring kids to get outdoors

IMG_2862Thanks to Cathy Graubert, physical therapy manager at Seattle Children’s, and Outdoors for All, an organization which provides adaptive and therapeutic recreation programs for children and adults with disabilities, Wald didn’t miss out on skiing for very long. Just a year after his diagnosis, he was back on the slopes.

One of Graubert’s passions is getting kids with physical disabilities out in the community, back to the fun, normal things they used to do with friends and family. Five years ago, Graubert started Ski Day for patients at Seattle Children’s, an opportunity for children and families to enjoy a day on the slopes free of charge. All transportation to Steven’s Pass, adaptive ski gear, individual instruction and ski passes are covered for the children. From stand-up skiing with the assistance of outriggers to sit skiing, Ski Day offers children with disabilities a chance to experience the thrill of skiing or snowboarding no matter their condition, either for the first time in their lives, or the first time after an injury.

“It’s been a great experience,” said Graubert. “My goal is for everyone to leave the mountain happy. It’s always so great to see the kids outside, accomplishing something they maybe didn’t think would be possible. We see them in therapy and in the halls of the hospital, but when we see them on the slopes it’s a whole different experience.”

For Wald, it was his first time on snow since he was diagnosed.

“My favorite part was being able to do something I did before I was injured,” said Wald. “It made me feel more normal. I was really nervous at first that I wasn’t going to have fun, and I didn’t know if I was able to do it, but it was a lot of fun.”

Kenley, 5, smiles with two instructors after a day on the slopes at Steven’s Pass.

Ski Day not only gives children with disabilities the chance to get outdoors, but also gives the community a chance to see what children with disabilities can do.

“Outdoors for All is proud to work with Seattle Children’s to help kids with disabilities get outside and enjoy the great outdoors,” said Thera Zylstra, development director, Outdoors for All Foundation. “Seeing their smiles after hitting the slopes and helping kids experience new things and realize new possibilities is an incredible honor.”

Outdoors for All partners with over 70 community organizations including schools, hospitals, and therapeutic centers to provide customized recreation opportunities for thousands of children and adults with disabilities each year.

Continuing to make strides

Wald is continuing to recover, making strides every day. In just a year he’s come so far.

“This experience has taught me a lot of lessons,” said Wald. “There are a lot of little things – like walking and running – that you never think about until you lose them. I think this has prepared me. You’re going to go through other struggles in life, but you can’t let those struggles stop you. You have to keep moving forward.”

And that’s exactly what Wald is doing.

“I’m still on the small slopes,” he said. “But next year I’m going to come back and see what else I can accomplish!”