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Journey to the Mountain

National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic

Cory See tries out his new prosthesis with encouragement from Physical Therapist Raphael Hernandez.

Click for full-size image

By Larry Gilstad, Chief
Medical Media
Miami VA Healthcare System

Cory See began snowboarding around the same time he started learning his ABC’s.

"I think I was six when my mom gave me my first tiny snowboard for Christmas and
it became kind of a tradition. I’d get a new board every year, See said. "As I got older, I really started to get into it; going off jumps and just being a crazy teenager."

See and his friends would make a snowboarding pilgrimage to Vermont every winter.

"I was very competitive. I spent all my time snowboarding at the parks with rails and jumps and other fun things to get hurt on."

See took his competitive spirit to the Navy, where he worked hard as a boatswain’s mate until coming off active duty in 2008. During his time in the military, See still tried to snowboard as often as he could.

But a motorcycle accident in June of 2011 changed everything, leaving See to wonder if he would ever snowboard again.

"I don’t remember much of anything," he said. "I found out that a guy in a wheelchair, a homeless Veteran, flagged down the next car and had them call 911."

See awoke in a trauma center to a friend telling him what had happened. His left leg was amputated below the knee and half his kneecap had been crushed. At the same time, See’s wife Cristina was in Little Rock, Ark., attending the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) police academy. She was also a Veteran.

They met in the Navy while stationed in Norfolk, Va. Both See and his wife left active duty at the same time, though Cristina transferred to the navel reserves, a decision that would have a huge impact on both their lives.

"I volunteered to go to on active duty to Afghanistan so he can have full medical coverage through the VA," said Cristina. "I’ll be gone for a year."

Before her decision, See did not have medical coverage, and didn’t qualify for VA medical benefits on his own. Now, thanks to Cristina’s sacrifice, See’s medical requirements are covered under the Civilian Health and Medical Program (CHAMPVA).

"When I came to the Miami VA I was greeted with nothing but smiles," See said. "They would ask what happened to you, can I help you, do you need to go here, do you need to go there, I felt like I was a star! I believe everybody experiences that. The VA is a very friendly place."

See received a new prosthetic from the VA in December, 2011. He plans on attending the 26th Annual National Disabled Veteran’s Winter Sports Clinic in Aspen, Colorado in March along with 11 other Veterans from the Miami VA.

"A prosthesis will never replace your own leg but our Veterans deserve the best and here in Miami that’s what they get," Rafael Hernandez a Physical Therapist and Coordinator for the Miami VA Healthcare System Amputee Clinic said.

"He’s only 23-years-old and eager to get back on his feet, to function as normal as possible so I pushed him to the limit," Hernandez said.

"He (Hernandez) does push me. He wants the best for me so he does push me to overcome my limitations and I’ve overcome every one he’s given me," said See with a smile. "He found ways to make the exercises more difficult for me, to give me more of a challenge. If I couldn’t run, he’d make me jog."

The difference in treatment and especially the attitude of the staff was apparent from their first visit, said Cristina.

"Rafael didn’t let him give up, she said. But it wasn’t just one therapist, one doctor… it was the Amputee Team that first met with him and explained everything in detail. "It was amazing," Cristina added.

For Hernandez and his team, success is measured in small steps – in this case steps that look just like any other person with two functional legs.

"I’m able to give back to these Veterans the ability to function as a regular person. To come here in a wheelchair, not even making one step and then get out of the wheelchair, progress to the walker, then the cane, then nothing at all… that’s rewarding," Hernandez said.

See will be studying the physics of snowboarding with a prosthetic when he attends the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic. The idea of stepping onto a snowboard for the first time since his amputation has him a little nervous.

"The way you strap onto a snowboard with your boots, it’s kind of fixing your ankle to begin with. I was worried about ankle movement because that helps with carving and turning and stability," he said. "When I think about it, I really don’t see too much of an issue especially because I’m not ‘goofy’ (those who water ski or snowboard with their right foot forward). A lot of my turning and control is with my right (foot). So I think I’ll be comfortable," See explained.

He is also looking forward to trying some of the other activities available at the Clinic.

"Archery and shooting definitely, and hopefully snowmobiling that will be fun," See said. "My wife wants me to have a good time, but I’m pretty cautious now. Once you lose something; I can’t really afford to get hurt any more so I’m very cautious with everything that I do even crossing the street," See said with a laugh.

When See does make his way to the Winter Sports Clinic, and back to a sport that he’s loved his whole life he will see just how far his rehabilitation can really take him. For now, the sky is the limit.

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