To many people, if you were to ask them, “Where do you see yourself at the age of 76?” The response probably wouldn’t be, “Re-learning to downhill ski.”
For Army Veteran Gayle Smith, that is exactly what she is doing.
Growing up in rural upstate New York, Gayle learned to ski at the age of 10 and was always an active person. Following high school, she pursued a career in nursing. In 1970 after graduating college with a bachelor's in nursing, she was 21 years old and horrified by what she was hearing on the news about the conflict in Vietnam. “I felt a calling to try and help them return home which is why I volunteered to join the Army Nurses Corps.” Gayle explains.
Immediately, Gayle was sent to basic training at Fort Sam Huston in San Antonio, Texas. After only 2 months in Texas, she was sent to Vietnam where she would serve in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) for 12 months.
“I provided care to servicemen with a wide variety of medical and surgical problems.” Gayle explains, “Some had Malaria, many had various fevers of unknown origin, but most had multiple gunshot wounds or multiple frag wounds.”
Gayle experienced the highs and lows of being a nurse in the Army, but she says she was extremely lucky as her MASH never took incoming enemy fire nor was it over run. She recalls, “My patients in Vietnam would do anything to help me and I would have given my life to help them survive.”
After a year in Vietnam, Gayle returned to the states and took a job as ski patrol nurse for the winter in Stowe, Vermont. When the season ended, she used her GI bill educational benefits to attend graduate school at Boston University and after 12 months, graduated with a master’s in nursing. Following graduation, she became a clinical nurse specialist at the White River Junction Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center where she helped train nurses.
While working at the White River Junction VA, she met Matt Freidman, MD, PhD who bonded with her over their passion in treating Veterans. They soon married, began a family and stuck it out through thick and thin. Gayle experienced a variety of symptoms from unknown origins that she would later find out were caused by Addison’s Disease.
“I was relieved that I finally found out why I was having all those symptoms.” Gayle explains, “Management of this disease is tricky at times. I need to judge how much medication I need to take given the circumstances I must deal with on a given day.”
Addison’s Disease isn’t the only complication Gayle has endured. She also experienced many orthopedic issues which are common with the physical duties of nursing. The one that really seemed to affect her the most was when she required lumbar spine surgery. This caused her to become sedentary and the most pain yet.
In 2022, her physician at White River Junction VA Healthcare System, Dr. Annice Mason recommended she talk to the White River Junction VA Recreation (rec) Therapist, Jen Stark. Dr. Mason encouraged Gayle to get back up and try again.
“Annice Mason at the VA told me that with rec therapy, I could get back to skiing.” Gayle explains, “I didn’t believe her, but I am willing to try almost anything.”
“When Gayle first met with me in 2022, she explained that her family was scared and didn’t agree with her trying to pick up skiing again.” Jen Stark recalls, “Her husband supported her because he knew what the benefits of recreation can have on a person’s life. Together they began ski lessons.”
Gayle worked both on and off the mountain to regain strength needed to be a skier again, “We've worked on various aches and pains over the years.” Dr. Baron Tang Sr., physical therapist at the White River Junction VA recalls, “The persistence and heart she possesses have always been admirable, as is the complete support of her husband, Matt. She comes back whenever she needs a tune-up, and we work together to get her back to the meaningful things in her life. It's been a joy of mine to see her get back to skiing as I know that was a major part of her pre-professional life. I'm grateful for our VA team's efforts coalescing to help her enjoy this part of her life again."
In 2023, Gayle participated in her first New England Winter Sports Clinic (NEWSC), the second largest adaptive winter sports clinic for Veterans in the nation. This clinic is held on Mount Sunapee in New Hampshire. She was nervous but as the week ended, her smile and pride were beyond measure!
This year she returned to Mount Sunapee with her husband who she says has been with her every step of the way. He has supported her both physically and emotionally as they both began skiing again after 30 years.
“Four years ago, I was using a walker or a wheelchair 100% of the time.” Gayle explains, “Now, I use my cane once in a while and am downhill skiing using outrigger ski poles. I am improving every run I take. Next year I hope to be using my regular ski poles and ski independently. That’s progress!”
Gayle and all the NEWSC Veteran participants from all around New England have the common goal of not letting the term ‘disability’ dictate their future. This adaptive sports clinic can be terrifying to try, but these clinics are made to meet each Veteran at their playing level and help them overcome obstacles with a very specific and customized plan of action for each individual.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that disability is a technical term.” Gayle explains, “Folks in the program may have a disability but they are achieving the same goals that non-disabled people have, they just do it differently.”
Gayle’s advice to anyone thinking of trying an adaptive sports clinic, but may be worried or scared is, “Do it! It’s safe, the volunteers and staff are supportive, and you have more courage than you think.”